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  • Alexis McGillivray

A Day in the Life of an Indigenous Academic

I would like to start this by prefacing that this is not about Simon Fraser University, but all of the institutions of academia worldwide as a whole. SFU is one of many colonial institutes which use a western standard that leaves Indigenous Peoples and knowledge behind. As well, this is all my personal account and I do not speak on behalf of any other person.

A social worker named Dr. Bindi Bennett created a blog in which she compared being Indigenous in academia to a contestant in the Hunger Games. I think this metaphor gives a good picture of the bloody fight Indigenous Peoples must face to obtain a position in academics. In reality, the Hunger Games portrayed more diversity than academia has ever. Being Indigenous in academia is scary. No matter if the class is a three-hundred-person lecture or twenty. It feels like I have a dangerous secret like Katniss Everdeen and must blend in with the rest of academia. It's ironic, considering Canada has spent centuries attempting to force Indigenous Peoples to blend in and assimilate their identity. That’s why sometimes, when I'm nervous or scared to tell people I'm Indigenous, a sense of shame comes with it. It feels as if the work that has been done for Indigenous rights over the last few decades is thrown out the window, all so that I can obtain my education. It does not feel fair; however, I have learned- and I hope you learn, that this shame is not Indigenous Peoples’ to bear. All those who benefit and live comfortably in colonialism should feel this shame.

There are individuals who are esteemed doctors with multiple degrees, yet they will, in all confidence, call me an Indian. Future cops and scientists do not believe cultural appropriation exists. When you try to educate them on the harm these thoughts carry, you are nothing more than an angry (and probably drunk) Indian. Indigenous Peoples cultivated and created Canadian lands, and Indigenous Peoples have shed genocidal blood into the rivers and streams that provide you with water. Yet, we are referred to as Native Americans. When we stand up and tell people that "hey, it is offensive to refer to Indigenous Peoples as Native American or Indian," all of a sudden we are condescending and asking too much. Such a concentrated group of supposedly successful and intelligent individuals, yet their ignorance around Indigenous issues lowers their IQ by at least one standard deviation.

I am a criminology major. What that means for an Indigenous Person is that I study all the microaggression and modernized versions of assimilation within our justice system. They tell you that Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately represented in the system, meaning that the already small portion of Indigenous Peoples within Canada make up most of the prison population. They do not tell you that it is theirs and Canada's fault for that. Colonizers took away Indigenous Peoples’ land, raped us, killed us, separated us from the rest of the population, let us die from curable diseases, and took away our children. Yet we are the criminals. All the history and centuries of abuse and genocide inflicted on Indigenous Peoples by the western abusers are bound to result in some future generational trauma.

However, academics don't care. A professor won't teach you that Indigenous Peoples are highly populated in the criminal justice system because the country has deprived them of any means to succeed in this society. Never mind the atrocities of our history; what about our clean drinking water? What about the continued abuse of our children through foster care systems? Academics do not care. They thrive off of colonialism. Colonizer privilege is waking up and not having to boil your water before drinking it. Colonizer privilege is not having to worry about being pulled over for speeding and ending up in handcuffs and bruises. Colonizer privilege is being able to speak of the God you believe in and your spiritual experiences without being laughed at. Colonizer privilege is the accessibility of education and academia, and all the doors swinging wide open.

It only took the discovery of over two hundred dead children for people to care. It confused me how no one knew about the horrors of Residential Schools. It seemed as if the colonized society had made it so that everyone became blind to what happened in those schools; like washing the blood of their ancestor's hands. They sit around the table as a family, cheers over their expensive wine and organic turkey, and celebrate the genocide of millions. This information was never unknown or lost; it was simply not a current issue. But, when two-hundred dead children lay right in your face, in your backyard, people decided it was finally time to care. People wore their orange shirts, chanted in the streets and demanded justice. It felt as if decolonization was on track—a time when it felt that academia might finally make some room for Indigenous issues.

Almost a year later, nothing has changed except the number of dead children discovered. Seven years later, only thirteen of the ninety-two calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee have been completed. If this is a so-called approach to decolonization or reconciliation, it sure is taking its time. I always thought those people marching in the streets, reposting infographics on their stories and wearing orange shirts were allies I had in the academic setting. But, when you mention a project related to their preached equity, diversity and inclusion, it gets shut down because it would be too hard to produce. It is also too hard for professors and students to include land acknowledgements in their presentations. When we ask for a safe space that uses inclusive language and implements Indigenous education into degree programs, now that is just pushing it.

When there is Indigenous education, students use discussion boards and groups to talk about Indigenous issues and to use their critical and unique white person perspective. To white people, redskins, chiefs, and stolen Indigenous imagery in sports is not a big deal - I mean, we should just get over it. And when we stand up for ourselves - when we call out racism - all those who wore their orange shirts and reposted their infographics are silent. And there's nothing academia can do - free speech, right? But do not worry. Everyone still got full marks on their discussion post. It is easy to label yourself an Indigenous ally; it becomes much harder when an Indigenous Person asks you to actually act on the title in any way.

Nothing is surprising about academia's response to racism - they're the ones who have been experimenting on us for years. When you learn of white men from the 20s-60s who discovered breakthrough scientific information, know that they did so at the cost of Indigenous Peoples. They used us as rats in the lab, seeing how different experimental drugs work. Seeing how long they can starve us and how we would react—using our inferior alcoholic brains to compare to the pristine white population. In past academia, Indigenous Peoples were the experimental rats. In modern academia, Indigenous Peoples no longer exist.

This Grimm setting I have described in academia does not represent all of academia, maybe just ninety-nine percent. Every once in a while, you do find someone who cares. You see a professor who speaks of the colonial harm to Indigenous Peoples. Who teaches you that it is not us, Indigenous Peoples, who are flawed - it is the Canadian systems which have worked against us. You find fellow classmates who ask you what nation you are from and do not call you Native American. There are Indigenous Centres that understand and care and try to make the institution a little bit larger for Indigenous students to fit.

It is also not only Indigenous Peoples who are the victim of academia. If you are not a white cis man, you are most likely oppressed by the academic institution. Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, Sigmund Freud, and B.F. Skinner - now those are the men you learn of who have been claimed to have made a "real" difference. The funny thing is, they are not even a quarter of the white men you learn in the social sciences to be geniuses (and subsequently, racists as well). Dr. Lillian Eva Dyck, Aimée Craft, Janet Smylie, and Dr. Stanley Vollant are all brilliant scientists and theorists you have probably never heard of (neither have I before recently). Now, these are some brilliant minds. These are true geniuses and connaisseurs who not only made strides in history but did so while in a war. A war against the colonialist approach. They fought harder, worked harder, and were probably paid less. They are behind the scenes that made white men like Sigmund Freud famous. They carry the weight of academia and oppression on their backs. However, in this next course, we will only be learning about the id, ego, and superego.

Don't get me wrong, I love being Indigenous. I love my culture, my history and my family. I am proud to be Indigenous, and I am proud of all my ancestors who fought tooth and nail for me to be here in academia. Sometimes, however, it is tiring. It is exhausting being carded more on my Indigenous identity than when I go to a bar. It is tiring having to explain to people that "yeah, I know you probably learned that in class, but Indigenous men do not have a gene that makes them more violent. That is just racism." It is tiring having to be the hub of Indigenous knowledge for all the academics around me: "No, I do not know what that says. It has 4 Ks, and I do not speak Algonquian". It is tiring living with the ignorance of Western academia.

And believe it or not, I also love academia. I love learning and obtaining knowledge, and I love to see how it can be expanded and changed. However, it is tiring knowing that I am less likely to obtain higher degrees than my white peers. It is tiring not having the resources to learn about Indigenous heritage and Indigenous scholars. It is tiring defending myself in every class and putting up with bigotry and hate. It is tiring reading papers that misrepresent Indigenous Peoples and make us look inferior. But I would not change a single thing. Indigenous Peoples have fought colonizers for equality for centuries, and it will not stop here.

I will fight the Western world, and I will be equal, if not more, than my white peers. Academia needs to be better. It needs to work hard to bridge the gap and achieve true decolonization. Allies also need to do better. They need to stand up for their Indigenous friends and they need to educate not only themselves, but others around them. Standing up to bigotted people is scary (I know, trust me), but to be a true Indigenous ally, you must be brave. It is not me or Indigenous Peoples who need to change, but instead, everyone and everything else. It is time academia put in an effort. It is time for academia to be brave.

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