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This paper was delivered at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education held in 2005 in Aotearoa (New Zealand).  It describes a new undergraduate teaching program in Indigenous Liberal Studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Please note:  You are invited to visit the teaching website at or the course development website at For password access to teaching materials or for information about enrolling in courses for credit, write  The Native Eyes Project is currently being funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation.  Since its foundation in 1999, the project has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Packard Foundation, and NASA/AIHEC

    In the modern world we find a remarkable array of highly varied approaches to teaching and learning, and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that many of the most exciting of these approaches are found in indigenous educational contexts.  As indigenous educators most of us wish to honor the knowledge traditions to which we are bound, while also respecting the constraints of the academic disciplines in which we have been trained. This means that we are challenged, in ways that mainstream educators are not, to develop teaching content, protocols and techniques that can provide for this complex pattern of cross-cultural allegiances.

    Many papers at the WIPCE conference have made reference to the two main knowledge spaces within which indigenous educators must work: on the one hand, the techno-scientific paradigm and on the other hand, indigenous ways of knowing the world and of living in it. In addition to these two knowledge spaces, some have also suggested an interstitial third space in which multiple and diverse ontologies can interact without privileging one over another.

The Techno-science Knowledge Space
    In relation to this teaching space, we need say little in this paper. It is a place we all know well. Yet it is also a space in which indigenous knowledge has been at best neglected, at worst denied, over long centuries of cultural oppression.  It is the space in our societies in which a young person can become a doctor, lawyer or merchant, but not a chief.

It is a space where knowledge is declared to be objective, rational, and universal, yet most indigenous scholars know it as a highly political space in which the deadly forces of social, economic and cultural imperialism are at work.  At this conference many scholars have vividly shown us how dangerous, and how compromising to cultural integrity, it can be for an indigenous scholar to work in this space, and any indigenous curriculum that operates here must contend with, and attempt to controvert, the ethos of domination, exploitation and assimilation that has long been a cornerstone of Western Scientific knowledge.

    Western knowledge not only endangers culture but also can be a threat to life itself.  Yet to refuse to inhabit this space is to deny our young people leadership roles in government, in scholarship, in health, in technology, in science and the arts.  Furthermore, western knowledge in all its disciplinary configurations  (sciences, social sciences and humanities) needs the input of the great indigenous ways of knowing and being.  

    Should indigenous peoples turn away from this knowledge space, with all its contending forces and entangling alliances, we would turn our backs on the work of a generation of native scholars like the  late Vine Deloria Jr., who helped change American attitudes and who inspired native peoples to defend their traditions and their right of self-determination.

The Tribal Knowledge Space
    This teaching space is home to locally indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world.  Traditionally, this space was solely tribal, the responsibility of elders and those empowered with the transmission of knowledge across generations.  With regard to secret, sacred or ceremonial knowledge, such ethical restrictions remain in force; the authority mechanisms of control of such knowledge remain tribal. Notwithstanding these traditional restrictions, much indigenous knowledge is about sharing and open participation.

    "Indigenous peoples across the planet are presently engaged in various and vigorous projects of recovery: of language and land, of law and sovereignty, and of ways of knowing and ways of living. At the deepest level, this project of recovery demands restoring and protecting knowledge systems. And they are using many different approaches and every means available to do this. This story of resistance and recovery is essential to understanding not only the politics of indigenous knowledge systems, but their substance, and their vital role in the world." (Whitt, 2005)  

    In article after article, indigenous scholars and activists speak of 'an Indigenous renaissance', of how native peoples are 'taking control of their destiny', of the 'revitalization of aboriginal societies.' Evidence for this is plentiful and promising. It includes a range of initiatives to take control of education through the creation of tribally-controlled programs as well as through curricular development commonly found in Native American and Indigenous Studies programs.  

A Third Knowledge Space
    This broadly indigenous teaching space, which has been called a "theater of diversity" (Turnbull, 2004), constitutes a new sort of teaching venue in which, unlike Mao's Cultural Revolution, a hundred flowers DO bloom and a hundred schools of thought DO contend.  This is a space of multiplicity and connection, in which persons, knowledges, practices, objects, and places are linked by narratives of relationship.  In this space, incommensurable knowledge systems, world-views, languages and theoretical constructs come together as useful stories without the need for common vocabularies, singular methodologies, or the resolution of apparent difference.  This is a space in which knowledge accounts have distinct and heterogenious components that can be compared, shared, joined, inter-woven or torn asunder.

    This is a space in which the concept of knowledge itself is the subject of discussion and analysis.  Here, ways of knowling the world are brought together in assemblages but not embedded together into coherent, procrustean configurations.  To the extent that these systems of knowing are to be evaluated or appraised, it will not be in terms of how closely they measure up to the strictures of western science, rather the relevant criteria will be local, contingent, ethical, practical and always culture bound.  Indeed, in this knowledge space, techno-science will be judged by these same criteria.

    Turnbull's paper, "Emergent Mapping: Assemblage and Movement, Multiplicity and Connection: Complex Adaptive Systems as Models for Emergent Data-basing" argues that the requirement (in such projects as Native Eyes) of working with multiple ontologies between knowledge traditions necessitates the production of a space in which the spatial and temporal narratives of differing knowledge traditions are held in tension with each other. Such a co-produced space would constitute "an interstitial 'third space', a trading zone in which differing traditions are narrated and performed together and in which actors can move, make connections, produce new spaces and trails in necessarily messy, contingent assemblages." (Turnbull, 2004)

    Turnbull makes much of the "inherent irony of the  narratological dimension" of this third space, the story telling codes which he describes as "partial, incomplete and capable of being other". He refers to the almost universal indigenous trickster figure that so readily captures this narrative irony reminding us of the ways in which indigenous knowledge systems are fully practiced in dealing with diversity.

    His paper concludes by suggesting that the performative possibility of emergent mappings in a database are dependent on emergent protocols and strategies of connection. Importantly, these strategies and protocols could constitute the political architecture and practical ecology of a cultural commons.  These issues bear directly and immediately on developing Native Eyes course structures, as discussed below.
    Working within the web of prescription and proscription which guides the process of indigenous knowing requires attention to the meta level of understanding.  Teaching in this fashion, and from this third knowledge space, is utterly essential if we are to provide a workable framework for indigenous students who have professional aspirations but who do not wish to forsake their cultural heritage. I think I can safely say that all indigenous knowledge workers who work outside the traditional setting, that is, those who work in universities or courts of law, or hospitals, or tourism and hospitality, must constantly negotiate and renogotiate the boundaries between, the pathways through, and the connections among, different ways of knowing and being.  Teaching/learning experience in the third space is a vital dimension of properly training native students to live and work in the larger world.

    In summary, and from the point of view of the Native Eyes Project, we acknowledge an obligation to teach from all three of the knowledge spaces:  the first space in which professional and disciplinary training can occur, honoring the best academic traditions;  the second space in which indigenous ways of knowing are given prominence and respect both for their past glories and for their present and future significance; and the  "third space," for bringing disparate knowledge systems and cultures together in dynamic tension to relate together in new and productive ways. We have put together a more explicit, if also tentative, set of protocals for enabling this third space, ideally incorporating the following six characteristics.

Native Eyes teaching spaces, then, would ideally:
1)    enable the comparative study and analysis of images and texts representing multiple, and often incommensurable, knowledge systems, both "traditional" and "modern," in ways that do not privilege one system, or set of understandings, over another;
2)    allow the direct juxtaposition and comparison of images, film and audio clips, texts (historical and/or interpretive), stories (oral or text based), dance, landscapes, architecture, etc.;
3)    allow for the inclusion of the above array of images and texts from multiple online databases, such as is found on many museum and native websites;
4)    encourage the making of new and unexpected cognitive and cultural connections as has occurred with the remarkable development of the online Wikipedia;
5)    strengthen the ability to make comparative judgements, ethical, aesthetic, practical or intellectual, based on a variety of criteria specified and brought to bear by the user of the knowledge base; and
6)    facilitate interactive learning exercises, utilizing all the above capabilities, in reference to specific student needs and interests: professional or scholarly, practical or theoretical, critical or interpretive.

    It goes without saying that ultimately achieving such a "third space" might well take a generation of collaborative work by scholars, technicians, elders, teachers and students.  Nevertheless, we believe that clearly stating these objectives will ensure a more viable conserving/teaching/learning enterprise in both the short and the long run.  We believe the third space provides a means of globalizing, without westernizing, indigenous knowledge.

The Native Eyes Project

    The Native Eyes Project (NEP) at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) was founded in the year 2000 with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities Educational Devlopment grant. The aim was, and is, to construct an innovative major principally in the Humanities, which is taught both on campus and off campus utilising interactive online teaching materials. This undergraduate curriculum will explore critical issues of knowledge and power, culture and society, from an interdisciplinary, multi-tribal, and liberal arts point of view, addressing a range of social, cultural, ethical and political issues important to Native Americans and to indigenous people around the globe.

    While the interdisciplinary framework will incorporate traditional humanities perspectives from disciplines such as history, philosophy, fine arts, cultural studies, literature, law and anthropology; the program will also offer another critical dimension to teaching the Humanities: each individual course will integrate a strong Native American perspective, drawing upon significant input from Tribal elders, Tribal leaders, and prominent indigenous writers and scholars from around the world.

    The primary aims for the development of this curriculum are:
1. The integration of indigenous and mainstream perspectives and contributions;
2. Encouragement of constant interplay of theory and practice;
3. Significant interactive inculcation of visual and aural materials into the textual learning framework; and
4. The investigation of the relationship of abstract concepts, social life, and embodied knowledge texts with the objects of material culture.

    The teaching program gains its focus from a common set of six core dialectical themes that provide continuity over the entire curriculum:  1) tradition and change, 2) nature and culture, 3) the local and the global, 4) self and community, 5) perception and representation, and 6) knowledge and power.  Over the past generation, these themes have all been significant sites of conjecture and discussion in the humanities and social sciences.  Furthermore, these themes are also on the cutting edge of debates within indigenous educational communities.  
    The online format, which is seen as integral to the success of the project as a whole, is being designed to:
"¢    ensure that Native American students gain experience in the new technologies;
"¢    capitalize on the unique capacity of electronic media in transmission of oral cultures;
"¢    expedite access for off-campus students, particularly those in rural or remote sites;
"¢    take advantage of electronic media's capacity to integrate modular materials to suit the needs of individual students;
"¢    employ the resource of existing web sites designed and managed by indigenous peoples around the world; and
"¢    facilitate information exchange and social interaction among people of diverse tribal affiliations.

    The curriculum is intended primarily as a general education degree for Native Americans enrolled in tertiary courses at IAIA, but, through its placement online, it will also be made available to non-Natives and to indigenous people in other parts of the world.  Accepting the broad range of educational background and objectives of this proposed target audience, the Native Eyes Project hopes in some measure to individualize and personalize the instruction through specially designed tutorials, learning exercises, modular instructional materials, and writing assignments which may be chosen to relate to the students' own particular ancestral background.  The principal objectives are to provide students with respect for the Native American cultural heritage, and for indigenous cultures everywhere, while also developing the students' capacity to understand and utilize the principles and skills of Western-oriented curricula and professional training.  Finally, the course is designed to enable students to better cope with, indeed to capitalize on, the multi-cultural environments that characterize the modern world

    Any educational program in the humanities needs to deal with how 'culture' operates in the new technological environment and in the new global society.  This issue is even more acute for Native Americans, who are just emerging from centuries of systematic assimilation and deculturalization.  Native Eyes courses will broaden the range of the standard Humanities curriculum.  Its program of studies draws on and seeks to strengthen the integrity of Native American cultures within the mainstream social and political environment and to prepare American Indian students to function effectively in modern society without loss of cultural identity.

     Native Eyes courses may further contribute to the Humanities because it directly confronts issues relating to education in a multi-cultural and pluralistic society.  A significant number of students in American schools and universities share with Native Americans a profound sense of cultural disorientation — the modern American university is made up of students from many cultural backgrounds who also face continuous waves of social transformation and cultural disruption wrought by technological change and globalization.  Teaching such students involves the difficult task of integrating disparate knowledge systems in ways that are intellectually productive and helpful to students.

    In following these approaches, the purpose is not to set up a false dichotomy between academic and indigenous points of view, but rather to make sure that the voice of the American Indian is heard, and integrated, within discussion of basic humanities concepts.  The purpose also is to relate these ideas to students' own lives and identities, communities and nations.  The indigenous knowledge systems approach is an emerging and powerful mode of inquiry.

    "Objectivist" teaching methodologies, which assume that there is only one correct way of understanding the world, often fail at this task.  In our experience, "relational" teaching methodologies, in which ways of knowing are related to social context and need, are more effective.  Indigenous students who are taught to recognize the intellectual stature, cultural validity and continuing social utility of traditional modes of thought actually become more, not less, able to integrate 'Western' or 'modern' ways of seeing and understanding into their world views.  In other words, such students no longer feel required to choose between 'expert knowledge' and the 'wisdom of the elders'.

    From the beginning, an important aim of the Native Eyes Project has been to build on the strengths and achievements of IAIA in the visual arts. In the intervening years IAIA has begun discussions with a number of museums to negotiate use of their databases of images and objects for teaching purposes that relate not so much to the ethnological dimension traditionally the focus of museum collections as to the third knowledge space considerations formulated above.  In addition to their use in the study guides and for research purposes, a selection of these images will also be used in a series of online virtual exhibits accessible to students.  A recent educational grant from the Keck Foundation will enable images, video and audio materials to be introduced into this multimedia learning framework.

    These exhibits will utilize a range of learning techniques especially designed to promote visual thinking:  problematic image juxtaposition; visual/verbal dialog; visual narrative with verbal enhancement; verbal narrative with visual enhancement; non-linear, multiple station-point narrative structure; and viewer interaction with exhibits.

    While some might say that Native Eyes courses provide a 'liberal studies' rather than 'professional' orientation, the aim is to do both things, i.e. to produce a new generation of indigenous young people, proud of their culture and at the same time able to wield traditional disciplinary skills and tools in the interests of both the individual and the community.  Completing this degree, or parts of it, should well serve students intending careers in health, business and administration, law, policing, politics, teaching, art, creative writing, journalism, museums, social welfare, or indeed any career path in the modern world.