— Letitia Henville (@lertitia) November 14, 2019
Dr. Editor’s response:
As funding agencies increasingly prioritize Indigenous research capacity and reconciliation (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), Indigenous health research (Canadian Institutes of Health Research), and Indigenous students and trainees (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), Canadian researchers are increasingly integrating an Indigenous focus in their work. In my own work as a grant editor and review committee member, I’ve seen the numbers of Indigenous-focused requests for funding increase steadily since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action were published in 2015.
But working in the wake of genocide isn’t simple or straightforward, and universities are still, in many ways, colonial institutions. Well-intentioned work can end up reinforcing violent colonial systems and structures, if researchers don’t do the work of breaking down the non-Indigenous knowledge frameworks that, for many of us, were fundamental to our development as scholars – that is, if we don’t decolonize our methods and practices.
So, what if you want to advance reconciliation, or construct or mobilize knowledge in Indigenous contexts? How can you ensure that you aren’t bringing culturally inappropriate methods and practices into your research project? For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, these can be hard questions.
To answer the first question – what does a decolonized grant application look like? – I turned to educational consultant and artist Dr. Amie Wolf, who has provided the advice below.
Before I hand over the rest of this column to Dr. Wolf, I want to recommend that readers of this column keep their eyes on the Indigenous Editors’ Association Twitter feed, as that group has plans to develop a database of freelance Indigenous editors, with the support of a number of partners – but note, please, that they don’t provide a referral service.
Dr. Wolf’s answer:
For those of us who are new to the task, decolonizing our proposal writing is not a quick or simple job. Our writing reflects how we think. This means that decolonizing our proposal writing is ultimately an invitation to deconstruct our worldview – the mental picture we have of reality and our place in it.
To achieve this, we must steep ourselves in another way of seeing, until it becomes automatic when we express ourselves in words. This personal process of re-education takes time to practice and patience to evolve. Two books I recommend reading in the re-education process: The Fourth World, by George Manuel, and The Reconciliation Manifesto, by Arthur Manuel.
Understand what decolonization means
As an advisor on the Vancouver Foundation Systems Change grant applications, I read many proposals written by authors who do not understand what decolonization means. Starting with an understanding of the term is the beginning of decolonizing your proposal writing.
One of the best definitions I know is in the compilation, For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Drs. Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird state that “decolonization is the active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation.”
Indigenous peoples were, and still are, politically autonomous nations with the authority to make decisions independently. This autonomy means decolonization is about restructuring in order to restore the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship to one of equal power. Decolonization is not a struggle for equal rights, but for the equal right to sovereignty.
A social imaginary for Indigenous sovereignty
In order to write in a way that implicitly acknowledges Indigenous peoples’ right to freedom, we need to be able to imagine it. We must cultivate a mental picture of what our work might look like in a world in which Indigenous sovereignty is a reality.
In a recent article about the October 2019 passing of Bill 41 in British Columbia, Kate Gunn and Jess Donovan, associates at First Peoples Law in Vancouver, explain that the new bill will require provincial laws to uphold the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. “However,” the authors point out, “the declaration can only be fully realized if… non-Indigenous people residing in B.C. are willing to commit to reimagining a new future in which Indigenous peoples’ rights and decision-making authority are fully recognized and respected.”
Ms. Gunn’s and Mr. Donovan’s emphasis on reimaging a new future resonates with Charles Taylor’s book, Modern Social Imaginaries. A social imaginary, Dr. Taylor describes, is a broad understanding of the way a given people imagine their collective social life.
Perhaps the song “Imagine,” by John Lennon, provides one of the best examples of such a social imaginary. Lennon invites the listener to believe something is real by visualizing it, using simple language the listener can picture in their mind. Most of us know the lyric, “imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” because the social imaginary evoked is so effective. This is very powerful because we write our worldview.
When it comes to decolonizing your proposal writing, if you can imagine it, you can achieve it, and if you can dream it, you can become it. Indigenous liberation requires a social imaginary to be fully realized. As Noura Erakat points out in, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine:
“Law can serve the cause of freedom when it is mobilized in support of a political movement.”
Such a political movement starts with a social imaginary in which decolonized proposal writing is rooted.
The two-row wampum belt
Many researchers and grant writers do not go beyond the mental picture of multiculturalism because they can’t picture Indigenous liberation. People default to the paradigm of inclusion and the value of diversity – to what they know – even though decolonization is not about upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For example, hiring an Indigenous individual is not in and of itself decolonization work, although such a hire might support that work.
Learning about the meaning of the two-row wampum belt, one of the oldest treaties between First Peoples of North America and European settlers, is also fundamental to cultivating a social imaginary of Indigenous liberation. The belt consists of two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. Three rows of white beads symbolizing peace, friendship, and respect separate the two purple rows. The two purple rows represent two paths or vessels travelling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Haudenosaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs. As nations move together side by side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another.
This is an interior landscape
Decolonized proposal writing is an outcome of a mind that can picture and therefore think about this genuine division of power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations, unselfconsciously contextualizing itself in a social imaginary of actualized Indigenous rights.
At its best, decolonized proposal writing does not talk about decolonization or even use the word, because it is decolonization, in and of itself. As the late Leonard Cohen writes in “How to Speak Poetry”:
“The word butterfly is not a real butterfly… This is an interior landscape. It is inside.”
Achieving this level of mastery could be considered a personal, lifelong practice of unlearning in order to continually apprehend and express a truer understanding in our proposal writing. I wish you self-compassion on your journey.