Why the word “Indigenizing” makes us uncomfortable

By: Becca Shortt & Alicia Hibbert

It feels like the word Indigenize is surrounding us lately. It is used in workplaces, especially those adjacent to or within post-secondary. It is often used interchangeably with Indigeneity, decolonization, and reconciliation. And it’s a word that always felt uncomfortable to both of us, but we weren’t 100 percent sure why at first. Just that if you put literally any other culture or identity in the world before “-ize,” it sounds horrible. Go ahead, try it. 

So, we explored further.

Background

We asked on Instagram: “What do people think about the word Indigenize? And are you Indigenous or non-Indigenous?” The results reflected that people feel we need to decolonize colonial spaces before Indigenization is even an option, and that decolonization requires systemic change. We also need to think about whether Indigenization is the word Indigenous people use for bringing Indigenous knowledge into colonial organizations and structures.

Invisible-izing

To “-ize” something is to give it a quality or put it into a place. In this case, when you engage in Indigenizing you are “giving an Indigenous quality” to something or situating something in an Indigenous place. This raises the questions: Who is bestowing those qualities? Who is saying it has those qualities? Who can say when you’re “all done” adding those qualities. 

When non-Indigenous people and organizations embark on Indigenization, our sense is that they are still thinking in siloed, individual ways, and that they ultimately will decide when they have “done it.” Indigenization in reality seems to be something non-Indigenous people do to things (organizations, teams, policies). This is simply replicating colonial practices, not working by, with, and for Indigenous communities and individuals in a relational way.

Indigenizing before decolonizing

Indigenizing is not a box on a checklist, it is part of the much longer relational process of Indigenous engagement. Decolonizing your own perspective and daily actions are an important part of this journey. If you haven’t started the work of decolonizing yourself but are still trying to “Indigenize” your work, you will likely cause harm. When you jump past the decolonizing work, you are implementing colonial structures onto Indigenous practices, rather than critiquing the structures and your own actions to uphold them. 

For example, you might feel you are “Indigenizing” your work by inviting an Elder to speak, yet paying a very small honoraria that is not aligned with the knowledge they have or their community’s protocols. Often this budget is determined by an institution’s policy on paying guest speakers. Not only is a Social Insurance Number required (a problem to get into at another time), but the amount is predetermined and does not take into account gifts, ceremonial protocol, Elder’s helpers, and so on. These asks are often one-time events, based on the need of the organization, no relationship is built. This is an example of imposing colonial structures onto the relational practices of asking an Elder for teachings and engaging in appropriate protocol for that request. Appropriate relationship building is the very beginning of reciprocity.

All of the steps of learning to shift our perspectives and change the way we relate to one another are in and of themselves a journey, one where you need to have the cultural humility to know that you will not necessarily know when you’ve reached the end of one phase of learning and can move to the next. The entire process is iterative. Mistakes, and therefore learning, will happen along the way. This is the purpose and process of being alive.

The learning journey – as laid out by Ta7talíya Nahanee (May 24, 2020) – consists of acts of Indigenous engagement. We must do the self-work first, but that can be done in a relational way – who are you learning from as you understand yourself in this work? How are you acknowledging their efforts, knowledge, and labour? Having the humility to mention your teachers with gratitude, even when they aren’t formally your leaders, is decolonizing.

We recognize that this short article is not a comprehensive analysis of Indigenization. It is our own thoughts on the topic at this time. As Shawn Wilson (2008) notes, the “problem with writing down stories is that it makes it very difficult to change them as we gain new learnings and insights” (22). We expect our opinions may change over time as we gain new experiences and learnings. 

Let us know what you think below.

References

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing. 

Nahanee, T [@decolonizefirst]. (May 24, 2020). Posts [Instagram profile]. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from https://www.instagram.com/p/CAkvy-YBWEf/ 

Reference this article:

Shortt, B., & Hibbert, A. (2020, October 14). Why the word “Indigenizing” makes us uncomfortable. Retrieved September 16, 2020, from https://edifiedprojects.com/?p=1122

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