Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2016

Kirkness, V. J., & Barnhardt, R. (2016). First Nations and Higher Education: The Four R’s-- Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility. Journal of College & University Student Housing, 42(2), 94–109. Retrieved from


AMERICAN INDIAN/FIRST NATIONS/NATIVE PEOPLE have been historically under-represented in the ranks of college and university graduates in Canada and the United States. From an institutional perspective, the problem has been typically defined in terms of low achievement, high attrition, poor retention, weak persistence, etc., thus placing the onus for adjustment on the student. From the perspective of the Indian student, however, the problem is often cast in more human terms, with an emphasis on the need for a higher educational system that respects them for who they are, that is relevant to their view of the world, that offers reciprocity in their relationships with others, and that helps them exercise responsibility over their own lives. This paper examines the implications of these differences in perspective and identifies ways in which initiatives within and outside of existing institutions are transforming the landscape of higher education for First Nations/American Indian people in both Canada and the United States.


Indigenous research, Indigenous education, Indigenous knowledge

In this paper we will examine the extent to which similar head-in-the-sand, hand-in-the-coconut myopia is evident in the policies and practices of universities in Canada and the United States with regard to the educational opportunities for First Nations (Native/Indian/Indigenous/Aboriginal) students. While universities generally have adopted the political rhetoric of “equal educational opportunity for all,” many of the institutional efforts to convert such rhetoric into reality for First Nations people continue to fall short of expectations. Why is this so? If we are to address this perennial issue in a serious manner, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  • Why do universities continue to perpetuate policies and practices that historically have produced abysmal results for First Nations students, when we have ample research and documentary evidence to indicate the availability of more appropriate and effective alternatives?
  • Why are universities so impervious to the existence of de facto forms of institutionalized discrimination that they are unable to recognize the threat that some of their accustomed practices pose to their own existence?
  • What are some of the obstacles that must be overcome if universities are to improve the levels of participation and completion of First Nations students?

Coming to the university vs. going to the university

  • coming (institution's perspective of the student)
    • presumes uni is established with deeply-rooted policies, practices, programs, practices
    • students expected to adapt to uni
    • when particular students don't adapt and 'achieve success', the typical response is to focus on the aberrant student and intensify efforts to socialize them into the institution
    • lack of performance defined by uni as
      • low achievement
      • high attrition
      • poor retention
      • weak persistence
    • onus is on students to adapt and the uni is more entrenched as an institution
    • typical results of this 'blame-the-students' persepective
      • bridging programs
      • special advising centres
      • developmental programs
      • tutoring services
      • ...all intended to 'help problem students'
    • these efforts presume that Ss are willing to check their histories and predispositions at the campus door
    • effort do not result in full and equitable participation of FN students
    • programs are aimed at transitioning Ss from their home culture to the culture of uni
    • 5 implicit axioms
      1. Post-secondary institutions are ritualized situations that symbolize movement from one stage of life to another.
      2. The movement from one stage of life to another necessitates leaving a previous state and moving into another.
      3. Success in post-secondary education demands that the individual becomes successfully integrated into the new society’s mores.
      4. A post-secondary institution serves to synthesize, reproduce, and integrate its members toward similar goals.
      5. A post-secondary institution must develop effective and efficient policies to insure that the initiates will become academically and socially integrated.

I think White people think education is good, but Indian people often have a different view. I know what you’re going to say — that education provides jobs and skills. It’s true. That’s why I’m here. But a lot of these kids, their parents, they see education as something that draws students away from who they are. . . . I would like to tell them (at the university) that education shouldn’t try and make me into something I’m not. That’s what I learned when I wasn’t here — who I am. And when I learned that, then I could come back here. I sort of walked away for a while and then came back. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever had. But a lot of us just walk away.

In these comments, we see the university from a perspective in which what it has to offer is useful only to the extent that it respects and builds upon the cultural integrity of the student. The university must be able to present itself in ways that have instrumental value to First Nations students; that is, the programs and services that are offered must connect with the students’ own aspirations and cultural predispositions sufficiently to achieve a comfort level that will make the experience worth enduring.

  • job aspirations alone may or may not be sufficient to keep FN students interested

    • self-government
    • collective/tribal considerations
    • bringing FN perspectives to bear in professional and policy-making endeavours

    • going (student's perspective of the university)

      For First Nations communities and students, a university education can be seen as important for any of the following reasons:

    • It can be seen as a means of realizing equality and sharing in the opportunities of the larger society in which we live.
    • It can be seen as a means for collective social and economic mobility.
    • It can be seen as a means of overcoming dependency and “neo-colonialism.”
    • It can be seen as a means of engaging in research to advance the knowledge of First Nations.
    • It can be seen as a means of providing the expertise and leadership needed by First Nations communities.
    • It can be seen as a means to demystify mainstream culture and learn the politics and history of racial discrimination.
  • for students 'going' to uni, barriers aren't retention or attrition
  • they are related to desire for respect, reciprocity, relevance, and responsibility
  • also 'capacity-building' to advance self-determined culture
  • jobs are means to an end
  • urgent need for FN
    • teachers
    • lawyers
    • administrators
    • comptrollers
    • architects
    • historians

Having White lawyers running your band government is not First Nations self-government. ~Chief Simon Baker, Squamish Nation

Respect of First Nations cultural integrity

  • most compelling problem is lack of respect as a people
  • uni is impersonal, intimidating, hostile
  • cultural traditions, knowledge, core values are not recognized or respected
  • Ss expected to leave cultural traditions at the door

The physical and social environment of a typical university campus is intended to protect faculty and students from “the real world,” or put another way, it is a reality unto itself. It is a literate world in which only decontextualized literate knowledge counts, and that knowledge must be displayed in highly specialized literate forms. As an institution for perpetuating literate knowledge, the university has served us well. But there are other kinds of knowledge in the world and there are other ways of conveying knowledge than those embodied in the “Ivory Tower.”

  • traditional knowledge
    • value and use are bound to cultural context
    • thoroughly integrated into everyday life
    • acquired through direct experience and participation in real-world activities
  • 4 aspects of "Native reality set"
    • tend to favor a lifestyle that exhibits a high respect for individual self-reliance,
    • non-intervention in other people’s affairs,
    • the integration of useful knowledge into a holistic and internally consistent world view,
    • and a disdain for complex organizational structures.

The holistic integration and internal consistency of the Native world view is not easily reconciled with the compartmentalized world of bureaucratic institutions.

  • for FN students coming to uni
    • survival requires adopting new worldview that displaces and devalues their own
    • if they withdrawn before completion, uni brands them as dropout, a failure
    • if they persevere, they are torn btwn two worlds

The problem of retention in an institution of higher education lies as much in the definition of the problem as in any other factor. Previous research has indicated that the problem of communication between modern bureaucratic institutions and members of non-Western cultural groups can be understood to a considerable extent as a problem in conflict of world view or reality set. More recent research has argued that this difference in reality set is associated with the predominant modes of communication, with the modern bureaucratic institutions showing a strong association with literacy. While the extent and power of Western bureaucratic institutions is well known, it is also well known that these institutions are highly unresponsive to their environments. Some researchers have referred to this unresponsiveness as an institutional incapacity to learn.

“The institution’s knowledge” characterizes the relationships between individual members or clients which are governed by institutional considerations. “Human knowledge” characterizes the relationships between members or clients which are governed by human interpersonal considerations. By framing the problem as a problem of “retention” the institution was incapable of perceiving the issue from the point of view of the affected population, Alaska Native students. It is recommended that what is required is not increasing the involvement of students in the institution, but on the contrary, increasing the domain of human knowledge of institutional members.

Relevance to First Nations perspectives and experience

If universities are to respect the cultural integrity of First Nations students and communities, they must adopt a posture that goes beyond the usual generation and conveyance of literate knowledge, to include the institutional legitimation of indigenous knowledge and skills, or as Goody (1982) has put it, to foster “a re-valuation of forms of knowledge that are not derived from books.”

The complexity of the task of incorporating a First Nations (oral) perspective in the everyday functioning of the (literate) university is exacerbated by “the inherent problem of speaking of two reality sets in the idiom of only one of them” (Scollon, 1981).

  • example of reconciling differences in ways of knowing is increased use of video and film

To the extent universities are able to reconstruct themselves to be more relevant to, and accepting of First Nations students’ perspectives and experiences, they will be that much more relevant and responsive to the needs of all students.

Reciprocal Relationships

  • frustration for FN students b/c of dichotomy between producers and consumers of knowledge
  • when faculty are the dispensers of knowledge and expertise, personalized 'human' relationships suffer

Our research leads us to believe that the only way that modern institutions such as the University of Alaska can become responsive to their environments is to acknowledge and exploit the institutional/human interface that each member negotiates in each institutional act. In the phrasing of the students, we must constantly “expose” ourselves to the human and non-institutional. In the phrasing of the faculty we must allow ourselves to become vulnerable. Institutional invulnerability is the mark of institutional unresponsiveness (1981).

the emphasis is on making teaching and learning two-way processes, in which the give-and-take between faculty and students opens up new levels of understanding for everyone. Such reciprocity is achieved when the faculty member makes an effort to understand and build upon the cultural background of the students, and the students are able to gain access to the inner workings of the culture (and the institution) to which they are being introduced.

Responsibility through participation

In the context of a First Nations perspective of the university, higher education is not a neutral enterprise. Gaining access to the university means more than gaining an education — it also means gaining access to power, authority, and an opportunity to exercise control over the affairs of everyday life, affairs that are usually taken for granted by most non-Native people.

Students must engage knowledge as a border-crosser, as a person moving in and out of borders constructed around coordinates of difference and power. These are not only physical borders, they are cultural borders historically constructed and socially organized within maps of rules and regulations that limit and enable particular identities, individual capacities, and social forms. In this case, students cross over into borders of meaning, maps of knowledge, social relations, and values that are increasingly being negotiated and rewritten as the codes and regulations which organize them become destabilized and reshaped.


It is the notion of empowerment that is at the heart of First Nations participation in higher education — not just empowerment as individuals, but empowerment as bands, as tribes, as nations, and as a people.

the very nature and purpose of higher education for First Nations people must be reconsidered, and when we do, we will find that the entire institution, as well as society as a whole, will be strengthened and everyone will benefit.