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The breath of life versus the embodiment of life: indigenous knowledge and western research

Authors:
1
The breath of life versus the embodiment of life: indigenous
knowledge and western research
Cindy Blackstock
Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada
cblackst@sympatico.ca
Introduction
The Peacemaker used as a symbol for our [Iroquois] Confederacy, not a flag but a tree, the
great white pine. The Tree of Peace. And at the base of that tree grow four white roots in the four
cardinal directions of the earth: north, south, east and west. And any nation that can embrace
the concepts of peace, power and righteousness, can follow back one of those roots to the tree of
peace and join there with us G. Peter Jemison, Faith Keeper, Cattaraugus Reservation, Seneca
Nation (Public Broadcasting System, n.d. P.2)
Aboriginal peoples have lived in the lands now known as North America for at least 20,000
years (Assembly of First Nations, 1993), and yet Aboriginal1 child caring knowledge struggles
for recognition alongside the relatively infantile western2 social work epistemologies3 (Royal
Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [RCAP], 1996; Smith, 1999; Kovach, 2005; Bennett &
Blackstock, 2006). Western based child welfare practice has been imposed on First Nations4
children for over 50 years and the outcomes have been far from impressive. There are more First
Nations children in state care today than at any time in history – including during the residential
school era (McDonald & Ladd, 2000; Blackstock, Prakash, Loxley & Wien, 2005). These poor
results have revitalized calls from First Nations for traditional knowledge, values and customs to
be placed at the center of the child welfare enterprise (Blackstock, Cross, Brown, George, &
Formsma, 2006; Blackstock, Bruyere, & Moreau, 2006). Many have assumed that Aboriginal
child welfare research approaches are needed to inform this process (RCAP, 1996, McDonald &
Ladd, 2000, Absolon & Willet, 2004, Kovach, 2006). I agree and argue that re-centering child
welfare on Aboriginal epistemologies is the first step in establishing any meaningful Aboriginal
research practices. Despite the diversity of Aboriginal cultures, there are several common
fundamental differences between Aboriginal and western epistemologies: 1) Aboriginal peoples
believe their ancestors were right on most things and western peoples believe their ancestors
were either mostly wrong or their ideas could be improved upon (Assembly of First Nations
1993; Auger 2001) 2) Aboriginal peoples believe they hold the land and life knowledge in a
sacred trust for the generations to follow whereas many western peoples believe they can own
land and knowledge and use it for individual benefit with little concern for future generations
(RCAP, 1996; Pinto, in press) and 3) Aboriginal knowledge is situated within more expansive
concepts of space and time (Auger, 2001). From these differences, flow very different concepts
1 Aboriginal is used to describe Métis, Inuit and First Nations peoples in Canada
2 western is used to describe those who have allegiance to European or Non Aboriginal North American systems of
thought and culture which are typified by a preference for individual rights and determinism
3 Epistemology is used to describe how knowledge is shaped and validated
4 First Nations describes people who self identify as Indians pursuant to the Constitution Act
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of life, morality that shape the role, construction, and processes of knowledge informing all
dimensions of experience, including child welfare.
After hundreds of generations of children, Aboriginal people feel that there is very little “new”
knowledge when it comes to kids and thus the gold standard of Indigenous5 social work research
involves re-searching the past in the literal sense paying particular attention to the content, values
and process of knowledge passed from one generation to another. In contrast, western social
work privileges contemporary knowledge about children and parenting and this is reflected in the
social work research methodologies which primarily test, or develop, more myopic phenomena.
This paper introduces the implications of placing Aboriginal epistemologies at the center of child
welfare social work by contrasting differences between Aboriginal and western knowledge
before exploring reconciliation as an epistemological approach to re-center Aboriginal
knowledge in child welfare.
The Breath of Life versus the Embodiment of Life
In most Pacific cultures, there is a word for well being, a desirable state of existence for people
and the environment. My own research on Indigenous Fijian epistemology identifies SAUTU
(state of well being) as the ultimate stage of development. Sautu has equivalents in all indigenous
Pacific languages. Sautu is the condition and state of being wealthy, healthy and wise. Where
ones relationships with others in her clan and community is good and where ones achievement is
recognized in terms of wealth it brings but also in the ability of the person to distribute that
wealth for the welfare of her people. (Nabobo -Baba, 2006)
Time is timeless and knowledge priceless if you believe you are the breath of life versus the
embodiment of life. As Aboriginal peoples, we rely on those who came before us to be right on
most things –to have passed on to us the essential knowledge of what it is to be human and to be
a member of our group (RCAP, 1996, Auger, 2001; Pinto, in press). We believe in reliability
over millennia versus in one experimental trial and our test of rigor is whether children, who are
the generation to follow us, can understand our teaching of the essential knowledge of life
(Assembly of First Nations, 1993; Smith, 1999, Auger, 2001). We are trustees of knowledge not
the holders of knowledge, owners of knowledge or creators of knowledge just as we are the
trustees of the land that are bound up in our identity (Australian Government, 1996; RCAP,
1996; Carriere, 2005).
As knowledge trustees, whose job it is to understand and relay knowledge which has been passed
down by generations before us, we pay great attention to the detail of the knowledge and the
values and spirit embedded in it so that we can pass it on (Auger, 2001; Bennett & Blackstock,
2006). Because knowledge needs to echo across lifetimes and generations, multidimensional
standards of rigor are needed to ensure knowledge is understood within the four dimensions of
learning: spiritual, emotional, physical and cognitive and that each teaching is situated within an
interconnected knowledge web (RCAP, 1996; Auger, 2001).
Learning begins at birth when babies first hear the stories and teachings of their ancestors
(Auger, 2001; Abosolon & Willett, 2004). You will be “told” these stories through voice, dance,
music, and role modeling throughout your lifetime so that you can explore different dimensions
of the same concept across the life stages (Assembly of First Nations, 1993; RCAP, 1996). As
5 Indigenous is used to describe the universal experience of Aboriginal peoples
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Aboriginal peoples, our understanding of knowledge only reaches maturity at the end of life
when we fulfill the two most important functions of our lifetime – passing the knowledge to
children and mentoring the middle aged as they transition to be the next generation of Elder
teachers (Assembly of First Nations, 1993). For Aboriginal people the future is predictable, we
will survive to the extent that we believe we are the breath of life and thus hold the essential
knowledge of living in a sacred trust for those that follow. There are many Aboriginal legends
and teachings cautioning us against believing we are the embodiment of life. The stories vary but
the general theme is the same – a community member becomes arrogant and self satisfying
resulting in the subjugation of communal well being and survival across generations placing
future generations at risk (Pinto, in press).
From a western epistemology – the world looks much different. In western ideology
contemporary and futuristic knowledge are highly valued and ancestral knowledge is usually
only relevant as a starting line for creating better knowledge (Friedman, 2000; Wright, 2005;
Postman, 1993). They ask a lot of questions because they feel the past provides few answers –
but curiously they never answer one of the most important questions, at least from an Aboriginal
viewpoint, what questions should you ask but never answer?
The western bias towards individual rights also translates into an epistemological segmentation
of western knowledge into a series of different epistemologies that often do not have obvious
connections with one another with little tolerance for a plurality of perspectives (Lather, 2000).
For example, feminism, critical theory, positivism and modernity all explore reality using
different lenses but they exist like single flashlight beams in a dark room. Sometimes the beams
cross each other but little attention is paid to the intersections or unlit areas. Instead, the holder of
the flashlight tends to see only those things enlightened by their narrow epistemological beam of
choice. There are a few epistemological approaches in social work that acknowledge
epistemological interconnections such as the ecological model and structural theory but even
they bracket the time frames and dimensions from which they view reality. Figure 1
demonstrates how differences in time, value of ancestral knowledge, values and beliefs play out
when the ecological model is viewed from western and Aboriginal viewpoints.
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Under the western ecological approach,
The child is seen in a fixed moment in time within a larger context of family and world and
there are interconnections between these dimensions that shape the reality of the child. If an
Aboriginal epistemology is applied, the child, family, community and world are wholly affected
by four interconnected dimensions of knowledge -emotional, spiritual, cognitive and physical
informed by ancestral knowledge which is to be passed to future generations (Assembly of First
Nations, 1993; RCAP, 1996). Despite the differences evident in this example, too often social
workers negate the importance of ontology and epistemology in shaping our understanding of
theoretical approaches (Kovach, 2006). A recent teleconference I participated in provides a good
example of how differences in epistemology play out in real world child welfare research
situations. There were about six non Aboriginal experts on the call and two Aboriginal experts,
including me. We were grouping child welfare research questions under themes to inform a
redevelopment of child welfare services in a region where Aboriginal children represented the
largest portion of children in care. The non Aboriginal people had 23 themes grouped under four
broad headings based loosely on an ecological model– child, family, process and child rights.
Several of the non Aboriginal people made the comment that they really liked this approach
because it was “child centered.” The Aboriginal people had five interconnected themes – self-
determination, holism, structural interventions, culture and language and non-discrimination
drawn in a circle enveloping the child, family, community and world. Interestingly, a couple of
the non-Aboriginal participants said the Aboriginal themes, although simpler, were “too
Aboriginal” but there was not a similar reflection that their 23 themes might be “too western.”
Child
Family
Community
Spiritual
family
Physical
Emotional
Spiritual
Cognitive
Child,
family
community
and world
Western Ecological Approach Ecological approach centered in
Aboriginal Epistemology
Figure 1: Contrasting epistemological
approaches in Ecological Theory
Passing on
Ancestral
Knowledge
Ancestral
Knowledge
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The non-Aboriginal people said well everything the Aboriginal people had come up with fits
under the 23 themes they identified so we should all agree to use their themes and move on. We,
the Aboriginal people on the call, didn’t and instead used this as an opportunity to show how the
epistemological differences in world view led us to organize these themes very differently.
I use this example because it shows how nuanced differences in epistemological differences
might first appear (in this case in different ways of organizing research questions) but how
critical it is to take the time needed to understand what drives these differences and how one way
of doing things can often roll over alternative, and perhaps even more appropriate, ways of
understanding.
Western science has arguably outstripped the western humanities when it comes to exploring the
interconnections between phenomena, time and knowledge. The most progressive
interdependent models of western thought are complexity theory (Zimmerman, Linberg & Plsek,
1988), the theory of everything and David Bohm’s concept of the implicate order of wholeness
in physics which emphasized the process of interconnection between explicate and implicate
orders of life (Pratt, 1993). All of these theories attempt to situate knowledge within complex
and interconnected systems but the time frames in which they situate knowledge are still
bracketed according to achieving certain criteria. For example in complexity theory, time and
knowledge are bracketed by phenomenon running the life cycle from birth (known in the model
as exploitation) to the reincarnation phase (known in the model as the creative destruction phase)
(Zimmerman, Linberg & Plsek, 1988). There is no conception of ancestral knowledge and the
model is usually localized within one aspect of society (i.e.: an organization or system) in a
bracketed period of time. Complexity theory does acknowledge that multiple life cycles within
organizations and societies are possible and the passage of some information likely but decision
making and knowledge building across life cycles are not anchored by any set of values or
principles to preserve integrity of phenomenal essence. Aboriginal peoples would view these
areas of under emphasis as critical oversights as they are fundamental to ensuring the
transmission of knowledge across generations.
Western thought places importance on individuals and the fulfillment of individual rights. Being
important legitimizes the journey from need to want and sets in play the whole industry of what
Thomas Berry (2000, P32) calls “outsmarting the planet” in order to satiate our wants. The
unfortunate side effect of outsmarting the planet without understanding the interconnections of
all things has often lead to a mass reproduction of problems as scientists, trying to solve one
problem, give birth to a plethora of unexpected consequences (Wright, 2005). Industries of want
rely on the scientific method to test rigor and entrusts researchers with owning new knowledge
as they produce papers based on it. But researchers must only deliver their papers to their peers
and be judged favorably by them to be seen as valid holders of good knowledge and when they
become old, they retire and are replaced by new people (Powell, 2000) with better ideas that
create a new improved and progress filled reality. For Aboriginal peoples, who draw a
correlation between being elderly and wisdom, setting aside the Elderly in favor of the less wise
young and middle aged would be unthinkable (RCAP, 1996).
The western cultural system results in a high standard of living for some and not so high
standards for most - just like those who were left behind by the “chosen ones” on Noah’s Ark
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(Provoost, 2004). There is really only fleeting pity for those who get left behind because the
pervasive western idea that if people try hard enough they will “succeed.” In the real world- it
was easier for Noah’s sons to get aboard the Ark than for others as even back then connections
and nepotism made a difference.
The differences between Western and Aboriginal worldviews are vast in dimension, scope and
value meaning that although they can be complimentary they can not be substituted for one
another.
Epistemology: Something you put on or who you are?
It is not enough to be conscious of the problems of the world, how we involve ourselves in their
solution is the most important thing. Rhigoberta Menchu Tum, Indigenous Rights Advocate and
Nobel Laureate
An Elder once advised Rene Dussault, Commissioner for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal
Peoples, that “eloquence is when words are backed by commitment” (Dussuault, 2005, P.7).
Many of the western epistemological approaches impressed me with the complexity of thinking
about knowledge, time and reality but in all this complexity discussions of commitment to the
values underpinning the epistemological approach were absent, assumed, or bracketed as being
important only to the professional role. Occam’s razor6 does not prevail as a gold standard in
western epistemology but Occam would look favorably on Aboriginal epistemologies which
usually manifest as a series of interconnected principles usually numbering no more than seven
(Black Elk, 1984) embedded in a process of thought. The complexity of language used in
western epistemology is evident in this passage in an academic journal where author Marilyn
Ray (1994) has to translate the taxonomy for the reader “Within the transcendental (descriptive)
and hermeneutic (interpretive) traditions the consequences of both descriptive and interpretive
approaches to phenomenology are clarified” P. 117. Western academics might argue that more
complex words are sometimes needed to describe complex thoughts but in this case Ray was
able to identify adequate and more accessible language to describe what she was saying - so why
not use it? An Aboriginal person would argue that if epistemology is so critical to the shaping of
research that is done for the benefit of the public then the language of epistemology must be
accessible to the public.
By contrast, Aboriginal epistemologies might seem simple such as in the case of the seven
Ojibwe grandfather teachings: respect, wisdom, love, honesty, humility, truth and bravery (Maar,
Sutherland & McGregor, 2005). They are simple – by design to ensure commitment and
accountability (Auger, 2001). The whole community in which we exist as Aboriginal peoples
know the seven principles we must live and do research by. We only get to use this type of
Aboriginal epistemology when we have earned it – not necessarily through university degrees or
through self- proclamation but by demonstrating these values in all aspects of our life (Assembly
of First Nations, 1993; Auger, 2001; Kovach, 2006). Straying from ethics is not limited to
consequences for one person – we are ambassadors of our house and family and thus they too are
held accountable for mistakes of members of their group (Auger, 2001). Accountability means
public accountability and we are only forgiven once we demonstrate learning and take actions to
redress our wrong (Blackstock & Bennett, 2006).
6 Occam’s razor is often paraphrased as “All things being equal the simplest solution tends to be the best one”
(Wikopedia, 2007)
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In western research you need only demonstrate consistency in your research or within your
profession– there is no requirement that you live it. Because western epistemology is something
that “resembles who you are” - more than “is who you are” Allen (2005) poses important
questions as to how much, or how little, pressure needs to be exerted before western researchers
disrobe their epistemological stance exposing what Allen (2005) calls ”research docility.” So
what does it mean when epistemology is role related instead of identity related – can knowledge
created in this way ever be “eloquent?” An Aboriginal epistemologist would say no, but how do
epistemological and moral differences such as this one get recognized and examined?
Indigenous Knowledge: Measuring Legitimacy by whose ruler?
Our songs, our spirits, our identities are written on this land, and the future of our peoples id
tied to it. It is not a possession or commodity for us- it is the hert of our nations. In our tradition,
it is our Mother. We are passionate about this land, and we want you to understand that passion
is not about power and individual wealth. It is reflective of the strong spiritual teachings which
our nations share, or respect for Mother Earth and all Creation. It is our life. (Assembly of First
Nations, 1993, P. 1)
In some ways it is not surprising that when the first Europeans arrived in North America they
could not comprehend the knowledge of Aboriginal peoples given the vast differences in
epistemologies and the colonial track record of disregarding other forms of knowledge (RCAP,
1996). What is surprising is that despite westerners proclaiming a higher civility and intellect
(RCAP, 1996; Kovach, 2006) they lacked the confidence in their own systems of knowledge to
make space for a plurality of ways of knowing (Lather, 2006). Instead they defaulted to the
“power over” assimilation approach of the colonial office in Britain - take over the lands, using
force if necessary, and take over the knowledge at any cost (RCAP, 1996). They had, and
continue to have, almost no concept of what knowledge they denied themselves when they
forcibly imposed their own systems of knowledge relegating other ways of knowing to the
sidelines of what became known as Canada (RCAP, 2006; Blackstock, 2003). Social work
follows in the footsteps of its colonial forefathers as evidenced by its unearned arrogance - it
feels that after one hundred years it’s child safety solution outstrips those practiced by Aboriginal
peoples for millennia (Blackstock, 2003; Blackstock & Bennett, 2006). Western social work
struggles to understand Aboriginal ways of caring for children - because it has not in most cases
even acknowledged that Aboriginal peoples have well-developed knowledge on the subject let
alone invested any time learning about it (Cross & Blackstock, 2005). By assuming vacancy of
knowledge in Aboriginal cultures - western based social work proceeds status quo - applying its
distorting concepts on Aboriginal peoples and wondering why they are not working - must be,
they think, because Aboriginal people are failing to take advantage of the good help offered
(Blackstock & Bennett, 2006).
Given the graphic evidence that western child welfare approaches have, and are, failing
Aboriginal children (RCAP, 1996; McDonald & Ladd, 2000; Trocme, Knoke & Blackstock,
2004; Absolon and Willett, 2004; Blackstock, Prakash, Loxley & Wien, 2006) but continue to be
imposed by the western based child welfare profession, how do Aboriginal epistemological
approaches get re-centered in child welfare? It begins by challenging assumptions that Lather
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(2006) typifies in her description of non western epistemologies as “born of the interstices of
dominant discourses (P.45). There are two problematic assumptions here: 1) that “undiscovered”
epistemological approaches are “new” instead of “newly recognized” by Western dominated
knowledge and knowledge institutions and 2) that these “new” or “newly recognized” only fill in
the gaps of Western knowledge versus setting out a whole new process of knowledge, or
emphasis on a dimension of knowledge, that Western epistemology has not considered. This
type of epistemological bracketing would admonish Aboriginal epistemologies to filling in the
gaps in social work knowledge. The significance in differences between Aboriginal and western
epistemologies suggest differences in the dimensional scale not at the shorelines and by
confining what she terms “new” epistemologies Lather misses an opportunity to explore multiple
epistemological positions that go beyond the shorelines of western thought. Fawcett and Hearn
(2004) also try to describe the challenges of researching the other but they do not necessarily
introduce a strategy for understanding the epistemologies of the other on their own terms rather
they introduce western based critical theory as a framework for building this understanding. In
effect, they advocate using an outsider epistemological framework to understand the insider.
Something they discuss in other parts of their article as being problematic as it distorts
understanding.
To her credit, Lather (2006) acknowledges that western society and institutions have not created
much space for the recognition of other epistemological approaches – including in academia.
Paul Houston (2006) of the American Association of School Superintendents says that education
expands difference and training creates sameness. If Houston is right, then how do Canadian
universities, and by extension schools of social work, measure up on the education front in terms
of welcoming non western ways of knowing?
Canadian universities generally hold that they value academic freedom and encourage originality
of thought. The problem is that much of the educational content of universities is confined to
western knowledge and the academic systems. Universities talk about the need to diversify
knowledge and explore alternative epistemologies but there is no process in place to actively
recruit new epistemologies and establish them on equal footing in academia. Alternative
epistemologies get recognized despite the university system not because of the system. Take for
example the standard in academic writing suggesting that the more an author cites peer reviewed
literature the more reliable the arguments of the paper (Banton, 2005). It is unthinkable to write
a paper for academic review without including references - but what if you truly are introducing
alternative epistemologies or knowledge into academia which have not previously been explored
in peer reviewed literature - who do you cite? (Banton, 2005; Kovach, 2006). In practical terms
this can pose a real problem for Aboriginal students or researchers who want to work or study
within non western paradigms.
The predominance of western research methods also limits the recognition of Aboriginal
knowledge. As outlined earlier –western thought, and thus research method, is preoccupied with
exploring single or bracketed phenomena in a moment of time whereas Aboriginal thought
emphasizes exploring interconnected phenomena over generations. These epistemological
differences suggest that distinct research methods are required – the reality is that given the lack
of recognition of Aboriginal research methods such as storytelling and oral history in academia,
Aboriginal students in social work and other disciplines wanting to achieve academic recognition
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must draw from the western method tool chest even when studying Aboriginal peoples (Kovach,
2006).
The cultural mismatch between epistemology and method is fraught with problems (Smith,
1999). For example, when the “gold standard” of western research, the randomized control trial,
is applied to Aboriginal knowledge- it fails. At best, randomized control trials describe a
phenomenon in relation to a bracketed number of variables and in a bracketed period of time.
Even when replicated, the control trial is usually limited to exploring relationships between
variables identified in the source research study and thus may miss the influence of unexplored
variables or changes of context over time. Qualitative measures offer some more similarity but
they too are imbued with western concepts of limited time and scope of interconnection.
Similarly, Aboriginal methods of storytelling would not necessarily be the best approach for
understanding truly new phenomena for which no prior history or knowledge can be drawn.
It is important that we avoid putting western and Aboriginal epistemologies on a hierarchy –
better they be explored on equal footing, understanding that they reflect very different world
views and contexts. Currently, Aboriginal epistemologies and research methods are either not
covered or are covered only in elective courses in most Canadian schools of social work. Even
when Aboriginal epistemologies are presented in social work academia and research they are too
often bracketed as only being relevant to Aboriginal peoples. The Royal Commission on
Aboriginal Peoples (1996) argued that reconciliation was a prerequisite to remove Aboriginal
knowledge out from the colonial cloud to be acknowledged on equal footing, appraised on its
own merits, and studied in accordance with its own methods, and used as a preferred approach
for matters affecting Aboriginal peoples.
Reconciliation: Piloting our Own Canoe
In our canoe is our way of life, our language, our law, our customs and traditions. And in the
boat likewise are the European language, customs, traditions and law. We have said please do
not get out of your boat and try to steer our canoe. And we will not get our of our canoe and try
to steer your boat. We are going to accept each other as sovereign - we are going to travel down
this road of life together - side by side. (G. Peter Jemison, Faith Keeper, Cattaraugus
Reservation, Seneca Nation Public Broadcasting System n.d. P.1)
The problem is that western thought still tries to steer the Aboriginal canoe - reconciliation is
about putting non Aboriginal people back in their own boat but creating space for us to travel
down the river learning together from our differences. Seems simple, but it is not. My own
experience suggests that many Canadians feel a need to steer the Aboriginal canoe – maybe they
are afraid we will crash or worse - crash into them if left to our own devices.
When it comes to child welfare social work, non Aboriginal researcher Andrew Armitage (1996)
optimistically proclaimed that Aboriginal peoples were in the post colonial period - many others
disagree (RCAP, 1996: McDonald & Ladd, 2000; Blackstock, 2003; Milloy, 2005; Kovach,
2006). It is still a western captain steering the Aboriginal child protection canoe in social work
epistemology, education, law and practice.
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What has been surprising is how intransigent western colonial social work knowledge is even
when it faces overwhelming evidence of failure when it is applied to Aboriginal peoples. As I
have systematically reviewed the literature to explore why western social work holds so tightly
to its epistemological framework in terms of its work with Aboriginal peoples, a number of
things became clear 1) western epistemological child welfare approaches have substantially
failed to benefit Aboriginal children over five decades even when measured by western standards
(Armitage, 1996; RCAP, 1996; Trocme, Knoke, & Blackstock, 2004; Milloy, 2005) 2) there is
increasing evidence suggesting that western child welfare approaches themselves pose a risk to
Aboriginal families by negating the effects of structural risks that lie outside of what families
alone can influence (Bamblett, 2005; Cross & Blackstock,2005; Milloy, 2005; Blackstock &
Trocme, 2005) and 3) there is increasing evidence that the most promising interventions in child
welfare are designed and implemented by Aboriginal peoples (Cornell & Kalt, 1992; Chandler &
Lalonde, 1998; McDonald & Ladd, 2000; Blackstock, 2005; Blackstock, Prakash, Loxley &
Wien, 2005; Carriere, 2005). So why does western social work hold so tightly to is imposition of
knowledge on Aboriginal peoples? This is a complex issue embedded in concepts of colonialism,
racism, power, oppression, economic gain, fear, and also, I believe, a bracketed sense of reality
that creates a white noise barrier that limits westerners from seeing and valuing knowledge
different from their own.
What is needed to center Aboriginal knowledge in social work? In 2005, over 200 experts in
Aboriginal child welfare came together to set in place a new set of principles to guide a process
of reconciliation in child welfare which would center Aboriginal ways of knowing and being
(Blackstock, Cross, Brown, George & Formsma, 2005). Consistent with Aboriginal
epistemological approaches - five principles (called touchstones) were identified:
Self Determination - Indigenous peoples are in the best position to make decisions for
Indigenous children
Culture and Language - there is no culturally neutral social work practice or practitioner
and when working with Aboriginal children - Aboriginal ways of knowing and being
need to be driving the approach.
Holism - addressing the needs of the child within his/her interconnected reality with due
consideration to the generations to follow
Structural Interventions - addressing structural risks - including those sourced in social
work itself
Non Discrimination- ensuring Aboriginal children have equal opportunities and placing
Aboriginal child welfare knowledge on an equal footing with Euro-western social work
(Blackstock, Cross, Brown, George & Formsma, 2005).
The touchstone principles are constitutional in nature similar to the seven grandfather teachings,
in that they are intended to be interpreted within local culture, context and time thus respecting
diversity and difference. These principles are intended to affect all aspects of social work
including the epistemological approaches that frame it and the universities which serve to
legitimize and propagate knowledge in Canadian society. The implementation of the touchstones
is in the very initial stages and thus the long term success of this reconciliation model remains
unclear. Nonetheless, it is encouraging that the touchstones have created a sustained space for
Aboriginal and Non Aboriginal social workers to explore cultural and epistemological
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differences with the hope of developing a system of child welfare that improves the outcomes for
Aboriginal children.
Conclusion
Contrasting Aboriginal and western knowledge should not be mistaken for a rank ordering of
different ways of knowing. I argue that the differences between western and Aboriginal
epistemologies, research and methods are so significant that they likely represent entirely
different dimensions of knowledge and thus can not be compared to one another. Rather the great
unexplored opportunity lies in understanding how Aboriginal and western social work
epistemologies can coexist respectfully along side other ways of knowing. Co-exist in a way that
respects our differences instead of trying to overcome them – to view epistemological
differences as a chance to enlighten our individual and collective cultural ways of knowing.
Before this type of potential can be fully explored, there is a need for the type of reconciliation
that RCAP (1996) called for: 1) telling the truth as experienced from multiple perspectives of
Canada’s colonial history with Aboriginal peoples, 2) acknowledging and learning from that
history and then 3) rebuilding a relationship based on mutual respect and recognition.
The truth telling phase of reconciliation makes visible the forces that continue to subjugate
Aboriginal peoples and Aboriginal knowledge – in Canadian society and in social work as well.
In making these forces visible we have an opportunity to rout out colonial residue in social work
and create safeguards against its future recurrence. It also recognizes that non Aboriginal peoples
are in the best position to make decisions affecting them – just as Aboriginal peoples are in the
best position to make decisions affecting them. Once we are back in steering our own canoes –
Aboriginal and non Aboriginal peoples can bring the richness of their different approaches to
benefit all children, youth and families. Reconciliation is not a panacea – it will not resolve all
the problems in social work or in Aboriginal and Non Aboriginal communities and it is not an
easy or perfect process for establishing respectful relationships- but we must move forward
anyway. The record numbers of First Nations children in child welfare care and the failure of
western approaches to protect Aboriginal children – demands that we do all that we can.
REFERENCES
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... Indigenous pedagogies value story and storytelling (Blackstock, 2007;Thomas, 2015), but settler museums have told stories about Indigenous people, stories that have constructed Indigenous peoples as frozen in the past and obscured the dark injustices of colonial past and present. However, as they seek out a role within reconciliation, and a decolonization of their practices, Canadian museums are inviting Indigenous artists and curators to critically intervene in their spaces. ...
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... He suggests that love is an act of courage and commitment to others, and a generative act of freedom. His allusion to love is echoed both in discussions of love and care as political acts in ECEC (Cooper, 2009;Georgeson et al., 2014;Langford et al., 2017;Osgood, 2010), as well as in indigenous epistemologies that don't separate emotions from intellect, or humans from animals and from the earth, the land, water, and air (Bartlett, Marshall & Marshall, 2012;Blackstock, 2007;Wilson, Breen & Dupré, 2019). Aslanian (2015) explores historical discourses of love, care and maternalism in ECEC from the 17 th Century to contemporary times, arguing that love and care were once a core element of ECEC discourse. ...
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