Daniel Coleman – “Toward an Indigenist Ecology of Knowledges for Canadian Literary Studies.”

Citation: Coleman, Daniel. “Toward an Indigenous Ecology of Knowledges for Canadian Literary Studies.” SCL / ÉLC 37.2 (2012): 5-31.


Canadian literary studies needs to be pursued with consideration for Indigenous knowledges and the particularities of locale. In other words, Western literary studies can reverse and disrupt its own hegemonic roots by allowing for an “ecology of knowledges” to guide and influence its thinking, rather than doing what it used to do, which is exclude and marginalize other worldviews.

Scope/Organization/Main Points:  

Coleman begins by discussing how colonization utilizes “colonial epistemicide” to “dispatch Indigenous knowledge” (6). Hence, along with Santos, Nunes, and Meneses, global social justice needs “global cognitive justice” (7). Of course, simply putting down colonial epistemologies is not so easy, given “that we inhabit epistemes like fish inhabit water” (7). Nevertheless, “it is important for those of us who work on the various literatures written in Canada to reconsider the intellectual underpinnings of the knowledge systems on which our work is based” (8).

Quoting from Lee Maracle, “The spiritual objective of study is to transform the way we see, to broaden the field of vision” (8). This is the spiritual and magical work of literary analysis, and perhaps being in general (if we want to consider rejecting the boundaries of discipline). One problem exists in the persistence of colonial institutions, even within departments interested in radically reformulating traditional scholarly perspectives: “the institutions that produce and disseminate knowledge remain tightly bound to the old diffusionist model” (8) wherein Western worldviews are supposed to be destined to infuse the world, as most peoples are not artful or sufficiently creative.  

Coleman gives 3 reasons why Canadian literature is ideal for an ecological approach: land is a constant feature; Canada prides itself on its diversity of peoples and viewpoints; and the current rise in Canadian ecocriticism that exists alongside Indigenous scholarly work (9). He goes on to define ecology as both a metaphor and literal: “a way of thinking about the interactions within a system of distinct and diverse epistemologies” and “referring to the natural environment and the interdependence of its life forms” (9).  Coleman gives credence to Lorraine Code and Donna Haraway’s works, with their references to “ecological thinking” and “situated knowledges,” noting how they privilege “the specificities of location” (10): “while thinking ecologically can help us attend to the specificities of place, it can do so without assuming and re-emphasizing political categories such as the ‘nation’ or ‘colonialism’ as the primary or sole categories within which to consider the relationships between living beings and cultures” (10-11).

Thinking ecologically can also help us make connections between the global and the local, and challenge other “stubborn binaries” that are often brought to bear on discussions of settler colonialism in Canada.

Coleman recalls that he 1980s and 1990s were a time of cultural resurgence, in terms, at least, of a boom in Indigenous cultural production. (This, of course, was also a time of increased recognition politics, following Coulthard’s argument.) Coleman notes that “we live in a time when the chance to reverse the exclusion of Indigenous through from the ‘economy of credibility’ and to learn from Indigenous thinkers and cultural producers is unprecedented” (12). He extends this to encapsulate increased awareness to environmental catastrophes, a factor is implicitly tied to Indigenous resurgence, but is not without its problems. Indeed, “Indigenous ecological thinking derives from a very different intellectual genealogy than the scientistic-technological diffusionism that has produced the ecological crises of our times” (12), a thought that relates to Nadasdy’s discussion of TEK, by way of disciplines and inclusion.

Indigenous emphasis on kinship can undo some of the problems with science and discipline, especially as objectivism “flies in the face of Indigenous conceptions of the interdependent kinship of all beings, not just human ones” (14).  “[E]cology as law” is another principle that can disrupt Western thought systems, and one that is especially important for ideas of cultural evolution and personal responsibility, given that “ecology of law,” according to Battiste and Henderson, is “the cumulative result of a large number of historical contracts” (15). The principle of responsibility is at the forefront of this thinking.  Of course truly investing in an Indigenous approach to ecology and knowledge is disruptive and runs counter to many of Canada’s supposed founding principles, and has been for centuries. “The notion of ecology as sentient, as having spirit and knowledge of its own, as being kin but not subservient to humans, not only flew in the face of Christian and scientific dogma of the time, but also posed a threat to the very notion of European law and civilization” (16). This actually suggests that Indigeneity is a real problem for any academic discipline, even (especially) the humanities, with its humanist tradition.

Next, Coleman discusses Willie Ermine’s essay and makes an argument for the importance of “difference.” Discussions of the “two solitudes” can sound essentializing. “The key here, then, and it is a challenge, is to attend to difference, even to elaborate differences within a living, mobile ecology of knowledges, without freezing them either in a pre-contact Aboriginal past or in a fixed, unchanging, and impossible authentic purity” (18 my emphasis). What Coleman is pointing out is how responsibility and respect can become more important than differences in identity: people with different worldviews nonetheless have a responsibility to the ecologies in which they exist, regardless of their perspectives. Indeed, the relationship between us is actually the thing that allows us to be here (somewhat codified in the constitution, cf. Macklem; Barrows; Justice “Go Away Water!”). Hence, Coleman cites Sarah Ahmed and her insistence that we focus on “not the other, but the mode of encounter in which I am faced with the other” (19).

Coleman recommends “keeping a living tension and balance between the recognition of Indigenous thought as having emerged from very different epistemological roots as compared to Euro-Enlightenment thinking, and not freezing Indigeneity in a pre-contact, racially essentialized past” (20). This is the way for a “healthy dialogue, not frozen essentialism” (20). Objectification and essentializing – often enacted on the basis of what Renée Hulan calls the “ethnographic impulse” – are real obstacles for determining how to engage Indigenous knowledges without appropriating them (20).

One approach is for us to position ourselves as the ones being transformed: “If non-Indigenous settlers are the targets of this campaign, far from being marginal to Indigenous-to-Indigenous dialogue between autonomous communities, they need to be imagined, at some point, as its intended pupils” (22), without always imagining that Indigenous and settler peoples are coming together for the first time, reenacting that oldest of tropes: contact.  In closing, we need a better language for talking about spirituality – a “spiritually animated ecology” (24). Indeed, this call might pose the biggest challenge to colonial disciplinarity.

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • Miranda Fricker’s term, “the economy of credibility” (8)
  • He makes somewhat of a strong stance about the central role that Indigenous knowledge must play in any cultural production: “in order to develop a functional ecology of knowledges in Canada, Indigenous knowledges must play a crucial, guiding role” (11). Here he is not just saying that we must always include Indigenous people or refer to Indigenous knowledge, but use Indigenous knowledges as a guiding principle for establishing epistemological relationships and practices on this land.

Questions Raised:·   Is the answer to “colonial epistemicide” simply more knowledge? Better understanding?


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