Honouring Traditional Knowledge

I recently attended a meeting of the Atlantic Aboriginal Economic Development Integrated Research Program (AAEDIRP). The gathering, held at Atlantic Policy Congress in Cole Harbour, NS, brought together AAEDIRP's steering committee and university partners from the Atlantic region to discuss the implementation of eight Elders' recommendations that emerged through the "Honouring Traditional Knowledge" project.

These recommendations range from recognizing the value of traditional knowledge and language, which are disappearing at an alarming rate, to actively seeking Elders' input on curriculum development at the post-secondary level. Everyone around the table was invited to take up the challenge of engaging with Elders and incorporating and honouring traditional knowledge wherever possible.

Many universities have already started down this path, by incorporating elements of traditional knowledge into the classroom (or at least engaging with issues surrounding its use) and establishing "Elder in Residence" programs. More and more, Elders are serving on advisory councils and ethics review boards, providing guidance for the development of Aboriginal initiatives on campuses and collaborative research projects in communities. It was emphasized at the meeting, however, that such "baby steps" move too slowly in relation to the rate at which communities are losing their Elders and with them cultural knowledge. Aging Elders fear they won't live long enough to see significant change — and so some call for an immediate cultural shift (which, as we all know, is easier said than done).

Still, we accept the challenge. And whether we continue with baby steps or decide to sprint to the end after lacing up our shoes, I think it might be productive to first hold a university-wide informal gathering with Elders in attendance to discuss how the entire university community — and not just the Department of Indigenous Studies, Unama'ki College, or the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies — can be part of this initiative. It would be an opportunity to discuss, for example, how professors in all disciplines could craft more culturally-relevant curriculum, while connecting so-motivated professors with researchers, cultural specialists, and Elders who can support their efforts.

Sure, it might not be the revolutionary action called for by some, but it could (re)light the fire…