Serving Indigenous Community-Oriented Scholars in the Ivory Tower

Brittany Luby

The academic landscape is changing. In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, many Canadian universities have committed to increasing the diversity of their faculty. They have also committed to improving Indigenous programming. Many universities have associated these action items with two goals: (1) combatting the perpetuation of colonial knowledges, and (2) attracting and retaining more Indigenous students. However, if we are to attract more Indigenous scholars, we need to adapt our teaching toolkit and better advise individuals pursuing community-oriented research. Given that Canada is a colonial state with federally-regulated processes for addressing grievances, Indigenous scholars may face unique pressure to conduct research that tracks and responds to historic traumas.

As an Anishinaabe community-oriented scholar, I am struck by advice columns that present higher learning as an individual pursuit. A common response to the question “Should I do a PhD?” is “Deepening your knowledge of a subject you love is an excellent one…. But seeing it as a fast track to a cushy academic job probably shouldn’t be one of them.” The Canadian Historical Association advises prospective graduate students to “select a topic with potential for publication.” This topic should also be “something that interests you, as it will dominate your thoughts for a long time.” Such advice focuses on the individual rather than the community. Advisors speak of self-growth more than community service when discussing the pros and cons of graduate studies.

This advice does not always serve Indigenous community-oriented historians. As Indigenous communities across Canada continue to fight for treaty recognition, enter into the specific claims process, file with the court system, and/or negotiate to settle claims, Indigenous research is a necessity. A promising Indigenous scholar may be asked to address a research question to serve their community and the next generation (rather than the self). For example, an Indigenous community-oriented scholar may be passionate about the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and writing about 21st century flooding at Lake St. Martin First Nation to better serve their home community.[1]Pursuing a passion project in a colonial state is a luxury when the needs for remedial work are high.  Traditional advice offered to graduate students assumes that the freedom of choice is universal, not a privilege.

Indeed, the pressure to choose community-oriented research projects can exacerbated by funding challenges. In Canada, each First Nation receives limited post-secondary funding from the federal government to support students.[2]Lenard Monkman explains that “the demand for funding far exceeds the money that bands receive for post-secondary education.” Pressure on limited finances may lead some communities to push applicants to fill perceived knowledge gaps. The logic is this: use limited resources to finance the accumulation of future resources. The focus, again, is on return, on growing as a community.

How can we better support Indigenous community-oriented students who are writing in service of others? We must recognize that like many of their peers, they will experience feelings of isolation. Advice to “check in with your network” and to “be social” remain essential. For non-Indigenous scholars, respite can spark the energy needed to continue research and writing. Hitting a research and writing stride – if it is in service of the self – can provide immediate relief and a sense of fulfillment. But, Indigenous community-oriented scholars may not experience these same benefits after “being social.”

While engaging with peers may help to combat loneliness, Indigenous community-oriented scholars may feel removed from home, from family, from culture.[3]Time with peers – although valuable – may not provide enough relief to move healthily through a degree. If your student does not express relief in response to writing (the act itself), encourage them to post pictures of their community or to post the names of potential beneficiaries somewhere visible. To feel connected to their research, know that some Indigenous community-oriented scholars may need to feel connected to their people. Prompt them to find that sense of connection. If photos and names do not feel right, explore alternate material or visual reminders.

It is also important for supervisors of Indigenous community-oriented scholars to know that uncovering histories of dispossession and cultural loss can be difficult. The work can be emotionally challenging. Learn to identify signs of secondary trauma, the physical and mental strain of holding difficult knowledges. Common symptoms include chronic fatigue and forgetfulness. Normalize help-seeking behaviour by speaking openly about research and related mental health issues, and strategies for working through mental health challenges. Develop preventative measures with your student. For example, before sending an Indigenous community-oriented scholar into the field, identify local support services. Where can your student receive professional support (if needed)? With whom is it safe to debrief? Establish check-in points with your student. Ask about more than data collection. Ask how they are processing, physically and emotionally, information gathered. Be prepared to remind your students of the local services you identified and assessed together.

As advisors, we have a responsibility to learn our students’ unique goals. If that goal is community service, we need to develop and share new tools for self-care – tools that frame individual health in a larger vision of community care. Why? Because Indigenous community-oriented scholars may have alternate uses for their graduate degrees. Our demographic is changing and so must our advice. We must learn how to prepare word warriors who are fighting for their people rather than their project.


Brittany Luby, Anishinaabe-kwe, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Guelph. 

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to correct an erroneous truncation that occurred during posting. Apologies for any inconvenience.  



[1]This is not a real-life example. It is an imagined example intended to showcase a contemporary environmental crisis and the need for more open consultations for which research may be required.

[2]It is important to note that in many of the numbered treaties, education is a treaty right. Supporting Indigenous education is thus a condition upon which settler access to certain territories was granted. Canada is still failing to uphold its promise and to pay fair rates for continued land use in these treaty regions.

[3]The need to travel to receive an education is not unique to post-secondary students. Indigenous children may be required to leave home to complete their secondary education as indicated here.

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