What universities could learn from an Indigenous ‘way of knowing’

Melanie Goodchild’s research is informed by “Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin,” part of her First Nation’s knowledge system — she talks to TVO.org about complexity theory, two-eyed seeing, and fighting for change in academia
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jan 30, 2019
An Anishinaabe PhD candidate in the University of Waterloo’s social and ecological sustainability program, Melanie Goodchild researches social innovation, systems thinking, and complexity theory.



“Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin.” It’s an Anishinaabe concept that means “our knowledge and way of knowing.” It informs Anishinaabeg of their origins, way of life, and worldview and forms part of an Indigenous knowledge system that has been cultivated, sustained, and passed down through generations.

Such Indigenous knowledge systems have endured for millennia, but they’ve yet to be fully embraced by mainstream academia. Melanie Goodchild, an Anishinaabe PhD candidate in the University of Waterloo’s social and ecological sustainability program, is trying to change that by incorporating traditional Anishinaabe knowledge into her research: for example, she’s investigating whether data provided by NASA could be used to increase First Nations communities’ resilience to climate change.

Goodchild spoke to TVO.org about her research, Indigenous knowledge systems, and the challenge of integrating those systems with mainstream Western scholarship.

Your areas of research are social innovation, systems thinking, and complexity theory. Can you explain that?

My program specifically focuses on social and ecological environments. That’s basically when you bring nature together with humanity and all of the things that happen, like climate change, mass loss of biological diversity — all of the things that human beings do to Mother Earth. That’s a focus of social and ecological sustainability.

Within it are a whole bunch of things, like ecological economics. For example, looking at economic models: How do we save the planet? Big, complex problems like climate change don’t have simple solutions. And these types of what they call “wicked problems.” Not necessarily morally wicked — wicked because they’re a mess to figure out.

Systems thinking is essentially looking at the dynamics of a system, which can be defined as everything from the economy as a system to the human body as a system. It’s looking at the dynamics within all of those systems at different scales.

The reason it appeals to me is that I worked with our communities for so long. I’ve done a number of different things in my career, always looking at these really deep-rooted issues, and they’re deeply embedded in a history of colonialism and genocide. That’s a wicked problem that’s going to take multiple approaches. What systems thinking does is help you map those out. It helps you basically understand that working in silos and doing conventional thinking isn’t going to necessarily solve some of those wicked problems.

I’m trying to bring together systems thinking, and all that it has to offer, with my own culture and way of knowing, Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin.

What is Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin?

There isn’t a heavy focus in the program right now on Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin, which is Anishinaabe knowledge, ways of knowing, ways of learning, and sources of knowledge. So, as a PhD student, I’m trying to kind of bring my own way of knowing and learning to a program that doesn’t necessarily actively support it. So I have to kind of fight, as many Indigenous students do, to get my worldview in there together with social science, for example.

Our language encodes. So within Anishinaabemowin is encoded our teachings, the way we structure language. I’m not a fluent speaker. I, like others, have come to really mourn the loss of speaking fluently in my life, but I understand that that’s where knowledge resides. It resides in two really key places for Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin: on the land, revealed to us through experiences on the land, and in language, which also comes from the land.

And so when I study language structure, for example, I look at teachings and words in Anishinaabemowin. We don’t have certain words that they have in English. For instance, I was at a climate-change gathering in Banff, Alberta, and everybody kept talking about the environment. And I’m in a program that talks about social and ecological sustainability, and I would talk to knowledge keepers back home — specifically, up in Treaty 3 — and I would say, “Do we have a word for nature? Do we have a word for environment?” And they said, ‘“No, we would say Gidakiiminaan, which means ‘everything in creation.’” I learned from a knowledge keeper back home that that means how we relate to creation, that everything is interconnected, and that we’re a part of it. And you see how that encodes teaching of our knowledge, because we are not separate from nature.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced when it comes to getting Indigenous knowledge embraced in an academic setting?

It’s really only been since maybe the 1950s and ’60s that First Nations and Native Americans have had, I think, a place in the academy. So, for me, the challenges have been along the same lines that Indigenous scholars have always faced and continue to face, which is either an omission of our knowledge systems entirely from the program we’re in — or from the class we’re in, or the reading materials — or more of a token approach to that.

I’m teaching as much as I’m learning, and I think that happens for a lot of Indigenous students. You’re teaching your professors as much as you’re learning, because they’re schooled in Western theory, and you’re bringing in all kinds of new theory, and sometimes it can be exhausting.

I’m not seeking validation of that. I don’t need validation from a university that the way I see the world is valid, but I need to be able to get through the program.

How do you cope with those challenges?

I bring in the principle of two-eyed seeing — that really helps me. Two-eyed seeing is the principle from Mi’kmaq Elders, the late Murdena Marshall and her husband Albert Marshall. Two-eyed seeing is this principle of multiple perspectives: Albert calls it the gift of multiple perspectives. You can use it as a lens. So, from one eye, you can see and honour the strengths of the Western disciplines, and then with the other eye, you honour the teachings of Anishnaabe Gikendaasowin. So you use two-eyed seeing to help you manage what can feel like a very foreign way of looking at things in the university.

There’s a lot of emotional labour involved, because you do learn new things, and I do appreciate what I’ve learned in university through all these degrees — this will be my third. I appreciate what I’ve learned, because I’m a critical thinker. So I like new tools. But they’re not my main tools, and they’re not my only tools. The way I look at problem-solving and at the future is through what my ancestors gifted me.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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