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Taking responsibility for decolonization: Lessons from Dr. Ryan Koelwyn

By Josie Simon, December 4 2023—

As conversations surrounding decolonization in education and research continue to gain traction, it is critical to highlight the voices of those actively working toward progress and change. Dr. Ryan Koelwyn, a contract faculty member at the University of Calgary, is one such voice.  

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Koelwyn discussed her unique role on campus and her background as a non-Indigenous person in Indigenous education.. Koelwyn’s approach emphasizes relationships and community building in teaching through a team-taught mandatory course, EDUC 530: Indigenous Education.  

Through her work, Koelwyn is committed to using her position to disrupt the Western education system and promote a decolonized approach to research methodologies. However, as a non-Indigenous person, Koelwyn is also constantly working to take responsibility for her identity and the inherent privilege and displacement that came with her European ancestry.  

“I am continually working to reclaim what it means to take responsibility for who I am as a non-Indigenous person […] over distancing myself from the parts that I am ashamed of as a non-Indigenous person.” 

In a charged environment where Indigenous knowledge is often at odds with the colonial education system, Koelwyn’s experience and insights highlight the importance of allyship, understanding, and decolonization in education and academia. 

Koelwyn suggests that focusing on four important questions can help guide the process of decolonization. By asking where we come from, where we are going, why we are here and who we are, Koelwyn demands that we look inward and reflect on our place in the world.  

“If you can address these four questions, then you will have a better sense of how you’re entering through this work [and] potentially avoid some of those pitfalls and traps of the performative action.” 

These questions are not easy to answer and they require us to confront our own biases, privileges and prejudices. But by grappling with them, Koelwyn argues that we can achieve a better understanding of our own identity and how we fit into the broader project of decolonization. 

Further, the work of decolonization is not just about political or social change; it is also about personal transformation. By starting with these four questions, non-Indigenous people can begin to build respectful and authentic relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities. 

One of the most debated topics in education and the social sciences is the utility of land acknowledgments — many question whether they are performative gestures or meaningful actions toward reconciliation. Koelwyn approaches the topic with nuance and care. 

“I don’t know if they do anything just on their own as they are, but there is a lot of rich discussion that can come from talking about a land acknowledgement.”

Referencing Wanda Nanibush, Koelwyn emphasizes the importance of personalized and diverse land acknowledgments that recognize the Indigenous peoples’ principal kinship to the land. 

“Land acknowledgments are, in particular, one way that non-Indigenous peoples can honour indigenous presence and land rights, which are continuously ignored and dishonoured by our systems of colonialism.”

By recognizing Indigenous peoples’ ties to the land, we are not just giving lip service to a political imperative but actively valuing and situating Indigenous knowledge within our everyday lives.  

Koelwyn’s message is clear: to achieve true reconciliation, we must overcome the colonialism that has permeated our education systems and ways of thinking. Our colonial education systems have conditioned us to believe that there is only one perception of knowledge, limiting our understanding of Indigenous issues. 

Nevertheless, Koelwyn warns against homogenizing Indigenous methods. 

“When we talk about decolonizing research methods or Indigenous research methods, it is important to note the plurality because they’re so diverse and there are so many kinds of methods.”

This work requires us to engage honestly and empathetically with Indigenous peoples and communities, to listen and learn from their experiences, and to recenter their perspectives and approaches to knowledge. By doing so, researchers can move beyond surface-level actions and performative activism and encourage Indigenous resurgence.  

“Indigenous resurgence [is] an active recentering of diverse and enduring indigenous presence, and also the reclamation of Indigenous peoples as authorities on their own lived experiences, according to their own political concepts and ideas of governance.” 

She notes that there is no endpoint to this process, as it requires a continual commitment by researchers. 

As a starting place for undergraduates,  Koelwyn encourages students to learn and use the proper names of Indigenous communities in their traditional languages whenever possible. This allows for a deeper understanding of history and current context. 

Koelwyn also highlights the significance of Indigenous resurgence in environmental sustainability. Many Indigenous governance models focus on taking care of the land and land restoration, which are crucial components for sustainable living. Indigenous peoples have always known how to care for the land, and this knowledge is readily available to us.  

Further, she urges non-Indigenous peoples to peoples to take responsibility and actively support the reconciliation efforts. 

“We all have a role to play, and Indigenous peoples have been carrying the burden of decolonization, of reconciliation, [and] of truth-telling for far too long.” 

Koelwyn’s approach to decolonization recognizes that political and social change alone is insufficient; it requires personal growth and a willingness to dismantle colonial structures. To achieve true reconciliation, we must prioritize the voices and experiences of Indigenous peoples. 

Despite the challenges ahead, Koelwyn’s unwavering optimism and hope remind us that collaboration and the prioritization of Indigenous perspectives are necessary steps on the path toward reconciliation. 

“There’s nothing but hope in my eyes,” she stated, a powerful reminder that a better future is within our reach. 

This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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