Indigenous Law Bulletin
Marie Battiste and James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson
Purich Publishing, 2000, 336 p, index & bibliography, paperback
RRP US$27.50 + 7% GST + postage & handling
Reviewed by Nerida Blair
Indigenous peoples have experienced the migratory predators of the world in the process of European colonization and have been forced to change. We have experienced the colonization of our creation, our ecologies, our minds, and our spirits. Yet, even with horrendous losses, we have resisted and endured. Tragically, the struggle has left Indigenous peoples’ order, knowledge, and languages vulnerable and endangered. Indigenous knowledge disappears when Indigenous peoples are stripped of their lands, their languages, and their lives. Although many of the processes of old-style colonization have waned in the new millennium, a new threatening transformation has emerged. ‘Globalization’ with its cognitive and linguistic imperialism is the modern force that is taking out heritages, knowledge, and creativity...Without effective protection of the special interests that Indigenous peoples have in their ways of knowing and heritage, Indigenous cultures are threatened and endangered. Our heritage and teachings are open to pillage in the same way and by the same peoples who have been taking our lands and resources for more than five hundred years.
Marie Battiste and James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson are two of the powerful contemporary Indigenous voices crafting innovative and transformative dialogue, setting the parameters and indeed setting the standard for discussion about the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and Eurocentric thought.
Dr. Marie Battiste is a Mi’kmaw educator and professor with a research background in Mi’kmaw literacy and education. Dr. Battiste has written in the fields of cognitive imperialism, linguistic and cultural integrity and the decolonization of Aboriginal education. She is currently a professor in the Indian and Northern Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Sa’ke’j Youngblood Henderson is a Chicksaw, born to the Bear Clan of the Chicksaw Nation and Cheyenne Tribe in Oklahoma. Sa’ke’j is one of the leading tribal philosophers, advocates and strategists for North American Indians having been the first constitutional advisor for the Assembly of First Nations and the Mi’kmaw Nation. He is a noted human rights lawyer and the senior administrator and research director of the Native Law Centre, University of Saskatchewan. Sa’ke’j is widely published in law journals.
These authors present a unique blend of expertise and skill, centering and grounding their discussion on their experiences as ‘Eurocentric-trained scholars, one trained in education and the other in law, and on linguistic, cultural, and ecological awareness drawn from our Mi’kmaw and Chickasaw heritages’. Throughout the book, they ‘manifest the teachings of both worlds through our Indigenous consciousness’, writing in a way that reflects their dialogue; they embody the principles they espouse.
Battiste and Youngblood Henderson take the reader on an:
intellectual journey [which] is as difficult as it is urgent. It is an intercultural and interdisciplinary journey in to the conflicted heart of Eurocentric and Indigenous thought. It is a challenging journey through unquestioned acquiescence to Eurocentric thought and law, a journey in to humanity, and a journey into the uncharted options of a postcolonial world.
The journey begins with an overview of Indigenous peoples’ engagement with the United Nations as a site of the struggle for Indigenous rights. This part of the journey is a classic illustration of the need for a better understanding of the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and Eurocentric thought.
The authors discuss definitions of Indigenous knowledges, explore the question of ‘who can use Indigenous knowledges’ and the ways Indigenous knowledges are transmitted. Cognitive imperialism is exercised when Eurocentric thinkers automatically assume the superiority of their world view and attempt to impose it on others, extending their definitions to encompass the whole world. The world and the laws have emanated from one worldview - a Eurocentric worldview. Our current understanding of Indigenous peoples comes to us through the lenses and filters of Eurocentric thinkers.
Using this notion of ‘cognitive imperialism’ the authors explore the underpinnings of the structures of law, the instruments and practices of law and the impact of this on Indigenous peoples. They assess Eurocentric definitions and understandings of what constitutes cultural and intellectual property; specifically, the impact of religious laws, philosophies and practices in the formulation of such views. Anthropologist’s and ethnographer’s roles in producing an ‘orthodox’ view of what constitutes specifically Indigenous cultural and intellectual property is an instance of cognitive imperialism at its most arrogant.
Indigenous peoples’ decolonisation of these definitions is ‘one of the tasks of this book is to attempt to replace the anthropologists’ canon with a more realistic assessment of Indigenous knowledge’. Eurocentric science and the continued role this plays in shaping Eurocentric views is also significant. The ‘predatory mentality of Eurocentric thought’ is identified and deconstructed ensuring that the reader is fully equipped to at least open their eyes to an alternate world view; a world view that is Indigenous.
The strength of the interdisciplinary nature of the study is apparent in empirical illustrations of the tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous world-views. Drawing on Batiste’s linguistic training, a central theme emerging throughout the book is the importance of preserving Indigenous languages. The authors see language as central to culture. English language (and other related languages) are noun-based, Indigenous languages (such as Mi’kmaq) are verb-based languages focusing on the processes, cycles and interrelationships of all things.
The final parts of the book assess the effectiveness and impact of current legal regimes and schemes on the protection of Indigenous knowledges and cultural heritage. The authors use their experiences in Canada as well as those of Indigenous peoples within the United Nations system generally to illustrate the sites of conflict and diversity. For instance:
The rush on Indigenous knowledge systems, teachings, and heritage by outsiders .... Lack of economic benefits flowing to Indigenous peoples for the use of their knowledge and their resources. At the intersection of these trends are the issue of the legal status of Indigenous groups and their control over specific and widely useful knowledge.
In many languages and styles, we sought to initiate a creative, transformative vision of human rights to a compliant world order..... It was not sufficient for the Working Group to have visions and talks. If we wanted a better life in an improving world, we had to have the courage to envision the impossible and translate it in to text.
After recognising and deconstructing the cognitive imperialism of Eurocentric thought, they outline a transformative vision for...the respecting of Indigenous heritages and perspectives:
New attempts must be made to create intercultural venues for dialogue and cooperation, to empower intercultural diplomacy, and to prevent ethnic warfare, separatism and apartheid. Our shared future can be a proud one. Together the international and national communities and institutions, and legal systems can open the greatest era of cooperation, understanding and respect among diverse peoples of the earth and forge a renaissance. Only a global effort can ensure that respecting Indigenous heritages and perspectives is an integral part of all that we do. In this process, everyone has a powerful and indispensable role. And when we meet these challenges, the judgment of history will be that each intellectual tradition met and respected the other’s heritage and knowledge. Together this honor and respect will lift our cultures and heritage into a fair global order and into a new and higher level of civilization the world needs. We cannot afford not to do it.
Besides their interdisciplinary scholarship, Battiste and Youngblood Henderson illustrate how dynamic Indigenous consciousness is. This book is highly recommended and is a must for all who consider themselves thinkers in the contemporary world.
Nerida Blair is an Associate Professor at Umulliko Indigenous Higher Education Research Centre, University of Newcastle.