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date: 06 February 2023

Gender and Indigenous Education and Practicefree

Gender and Indigenous Education and Practicefree

  • Edwina PioEdwina PioAuckland University of Technology


The unfolding of the term Indigenous is clustered within rich, powerful, diverse, decolonial, and hegemonic worldviews. Inhabiting more than 90 countries, the approximately 370 million Indigenous people on Planet Earth are wisdom carriers of traditional ancestral knowledge entwined with eco-spirituality. Powerful extractive institutional structures have ensured that Indigenous peoples have harvested historical legacies of domination, disruption, and disrespect. Indigenous women tend to live in the shadows, encountering invisibility, lack of voice, and stark inequality. International instruments such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as well as a range of voluntary, private, and government-funded organizations and Indigenous communities, serve as catalysts to augmenting impactful liaisons and interventions in and through evocative educational pedagogy and practice. Gender and Indigenous diversity in education and practice distills narratives of voice and praxis to provoke, nudge, and prompt collective change.


  • Education, Gender, and Sexualities


Indigenous peoples occupy a quarter of the world’s surface area and safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity (World Bank, 2019). There are more than 370 million Indigenous people spread across 70 countries. They are distinctive societies with unique languages, knowledge systems, and beliefs. Over hundreds of years, they have retained social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics that are generally distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. They are often characterized as the descendants of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived (United Nations [UN], 2019).

Indigenous peoples experience large gaps in economic and social development, remain on the margins politically, and struggle to retain their land, language, and worldviews. Invisible and erased in archives and historical records, and products of imperial governments who wished to categorize people based on difference, Indigenous peoples became primordial, were segregated from modern society, and were dispossessed and considered to be in need of being contained (Banerjee, 2016; Dasgupta, 2016). Although Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the global population, they account for about 15% of the extreme poor (World Bank, 2019). Hence, “indigeneity is historically and geographically located in the cross-hairs of imperial debris, the colonial present and the uneven powers of social differentiation” (Radcliffe, 2018, p. 437).

The Indigenous peoples on our planet include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Ainu, Amazigh, Arawak, Aymara, Bhil, Cherokee, Chickahominy, Chickasaw, Chorotega, Dusun, Guarani, Igorot, Ik, Inuit, Ixil, Kathkaris, Lakota, Māori, Mapuche, Monacan, Murut, Nansemond, Navajo, Ocanxiu, Ojibwe, Quechua, Rama, Sami, San, Sioux, Tikuna, Tuareg, Twa, Warli, Wayana, Xinka, Yukpa, and many more. It is pertinent to note that naming some of these Indigenous peoples may have political implications, however, writing about Indigenous peoples within a decolonial context itself has political implications. Hence, in the interests of the wider public who are non-Indigenous and who may be intensely interested in Indigenous research, practices, and their implications, I have named a few Indigenous peoples. Additionally, my poignant hope is that in presenting a broad overview, scholars and those working with Indigenous peoples will find it easier to navigate the broad terrain of gender and Indigenous education and practice. Hence, situated nuanced analysis may emerge from reading this article with the full knowledge that what is relevant and up to date on Turtle Island maybe very different in Aotearoa New Zealand or India, for example. The Asian region accounts for approximately 70% of the 370 million Indigenous peoples in the world (UN, 2017). In Asia, Indigenous peoples are referred to by dominant groups and governments as tribals, hill tribes, scheduled tribes, Adivasi, janjati, orang asli, masyarakat adat, ethnic minorities, or ethnic nationalities, with a connotation of primitiveness and backwardness (UN, 2017).

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is an expert body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) with the mandate to provide advice on Indigenous issues to the council and, through ECOSOC, to various UN agencies. The 2007 declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, specifically article 14, states that Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions and to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language (UN, 2017).

I am powerfully aware that Indigenous peoples are heterogeneous and unique in their ways of being and their mythologies, yet there are also similarities in how they experience life and living. Hence, I caution against essentialism. The seven tensions (education systems, human rights, identity, Indigenous knowledge, land, research, and well-being), presented in this article serve as provocations that exist on a continuum. Depending on one’s vantage point, Indigenous affiliation, and context, each of these seven tensions may be perceived diversely over time. I am a woman scholar of color who has worked and interacted with Indigenous peoples for more than two decades. I have lived with, listened to, and engaged with Indigenous peoples and individuals who have spent their entire lives working with them. In this context I eschew the charity model, while being intensely aware of how colonialism and its soft wares dominate many Indigenous lands and interventions. In my endeavor to be a compassionate disruptor, I choose to weave Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways to connect scholars and practitioners to reflect, collaborate, and appreciate each other’s knowledge and to further enhance life’s journeys.

The next section of this organic gestalt focuses on foundational constructs followed by seven key tensions with illustrative examples and recommendations. The final section provides concluding comments.

Foundational Constructs

Foundational terms such as Indigenous, gender, and Indigenous education are fraught with debate and laden with historical and contemporary realities. My theoretical scaffolding is primarily decolonial inquiry (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008a, 2008b; Girei, 2017; Lugones, 2010; Mignolo, 2009; Smith, 1999; Swadener & Mutua, 2008; Tuck & McKenzie, 2015) interlaced with red pedagogy (Deloria, 2003; Grande, 2008). Through this framework, I seek to dislodge and disturb the exclusion of non-Western knowledge forms and silences. I recognize the colonial imprint in education, gender research, and praxis, and acknowledge the importance of being open-ended, and emergent, along with multilayered interpretations of phenomena (Girei, 2017; Swadener & Mutua, 2008). Through decolonial inquiry and red pedagogy, there is the possibility offered of collaboration, partnerships, advocacy, and activism. This possibility is in tandem with continual reflection and questioning to reduce marginality and hegemonic oppressive power structures and increase multivoiced knowledges of Indigenous peoples (Alfred, 1999; Kincheloe & Steinberg, 2008; Smith, 1999; Swadener & Mutua, 2008). Woven through the seven tensions are pedagogies of hope, compassion, kindness, and love, with a critical pedagogy for conversations centered in and with Indigenous communities (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008a, 2008b). There is the hope of disrupting and deconstructing praxis for more just and egalitarian communities and societies (Burm & Burleigh, 2017; Huaman & Abeita, 2018; Kincheloe & McLaren, 2005). As Grande (2008) writes: “knowledge of the oppressor and the oppressor’s language is essential to the processes of resistance, particularly in a context where the vast majority of Indigenous students are schooled in Whitestream institutions” (p. 249).

Indigenous refers to the original, local, or native peoples of a particular geographical territory and includes cultural identity politics undergirding who is identified as Indigenous (Jacob, Cheng, & Porter, 2015; Rao & Robinson-Pant, 2006). A broad definition of Indigenous peoples includes original inhabitants of lands who existed before the dominant societies entered their countries, have tried to resist integration into these dominant societies, and are struggling with total absorption and isolation in contemporary societies (“Indigenous Peoples,” 2018). Thus, the term Indigenous and related debates have a long history (Shah, 2010), yet for many if not all Indigenous peoples there is an entwining of the sacred and secular (Shah, 2010). Battiste (2008) notes that various skills and knowledges have enabled Indigenous peoples to sustain themselves and their land for centuries, while acknowledging the immense diversity of languages, cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs among Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous groups are culturally distinct societies and communities, often imbued with eco-spirituality. There is belief in spiritual connections between human beings, flora, fauna, and the whole earth, premised on a dynamic relational view of one’s inner and outer landscapes (Crew & Besthorn, 2016; Larkin, 2016). Eco-spirituality processes involve affirming, healing, and challenging within the framework of education, through and with Indigenous peoples (Pio, 2019). The land on which they live is generally held through customary ownership, and the natural resources on which they depend are inextricably linked to their identities, cultures, and livelihoods, as well as their physical and spiritual well-being (World Bank, 2019).

The notion of Indigenous peoples is seen today as not requiring a single universal definition for the recognition and protection of their rights due to the complexity and spectrum of their various circumstances globally (UN, 2017). Historically, central concepts in human rights instruments are often not defined. Moreover, historically speaking, Indigenous peoples have suffered from definitions imposed on them by others. For example, in the past the criterion for membership of an Indigenous population in certain countries was based on parentage or blood quotient. This is now deemed discriminatory as it denies the rights of Indigenous people to determine their own membership (UN, 1995). These rights include consideration of objective and subjective elements such as ancestry; cultural aspects including religion, tribal organization, community membership, dress, livelihood, and language; group consciousness; residence in certain parts of the country; and acceptance by the Indigenous community (UN, 1995).

Bennett, Dibley, and Kelly (2018) provide pointers regarding classifications and interpretations of Indigenous peoples through cultural heritage and associated practices, rather than the typical deficit discourse of dysfunction and disadvantage. Yet, “colonial-modern practices of exclusion and ontological interpenetration have resulted in overlapping, blurred and resisting interactions over who Indigenous subjects are, how indigeneity is expressed socially and inter-sectionally, and how it is co-constituted with nature and the environment” (Radcliffe, 2018, p. 443).

The World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) states that gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships, as well as those identities that do not fit into the binary male and female sex categories. Gender can determine who receives education and the quality of that education. Indigenous education has multiple pedagogies, which are embedded in Indigenous knowledges and heritage for the holistic nurturing of individuals who will be able to represent and voice needs and aspirations of their people to provide agency and influence (Burridge, Chodkiewicz, & Whalan, 2012; Jacob et al., 2015).

Indigenous people’s right to education is affirmed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and the rights to education and culture are protected in a variety of international instruments including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and three conventions of the International Labour Organization: the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention (1957, No. 107), the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989, No. 169), and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (1958, No. 111). Indigenous peoples’ right to education is also increasingly recognized in national legislation (UN, 2017, p. 210).

Burns (2015) notes the importance of focusing on the whole self and ecological systems for Indigenous teachings. Corntassel and Hardbarger (2019) emphasize varied methodologies such as storytelling, ceremony, rituals, mentorship, and relationality for Indigenous pedagogy. Education of Indigenous people in and about each of these themes and in particular for girls and women may be the crucial deal maker in their survival as guardians of our precious earth. The multiplicity of languages, various distinct cultural traditions, priority and legitimacy to non-Indigenous forms of education and practices, mobility of Indigenous peoples both in space and time, and hierarchy within Indigenous groups create a complex web of nuanced and symbiotic relationships (Cashman et al., 2018; Champagne, 2015; Hogarth, 2018; Pio et al., 2013).

Key Tensions and Recommendations

This section presents seven key tensions to illuminate gender and Indigenous education and practice. The Indigenous peoples of Jharkhand in India believe that Sat-pat-raj, or seven strips of land, are part of creation, symbolizing the symbiotic relationship pertaining to the totality of land both above and below the soil (Ekka, 2012). Moreover, red pedagogy offers seven precepts in thinking and acting for decolonizing pedagogies. These include actively cultivating a praxis of collective agency with deepening political, cultural, spiritual, and intellectual engagement, to build transcultural and transnational solidarities (Grande, 2008). In keeping with the numeral seven, seven tensions with recommendations have been garnered from more than 1,000 scholarly articles and books and conversations with more than 100 Indigenous peoples globally and more than 50 people who work closely with Indigenous peoples. These extremely complex issues have been arranged alphabetically for ease of reading and reflections on praxis. These themes are intertwined, but each of them is crucial for mitigating understanding of gender and Indigenous education. Each tension consists of a stark question posed as a binary along with action-oriented recommendations. Here I have sought to present dichotomous tensions so that the reader may be jolted into situating research and practice on the binary continuum between these terms. My use of these seven tensions may be disputed, as there are manifold ways of considering gender and Indigenous education and practice. Hence, I request that my decisions be viewed in the light of implementing my own sovereignty in a respectful, dignified, and interwoven manner.

Education Systems: Inclusive–Hegemonic?

Education can be construed as imparting various types of knowledge, with alternative pedagogies that move beyond Western dominance in the education system and emphasize the compatibility and interface between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges and worldviews (Keiha & Pio, 2015; Mika & Stewart, 2018). Weaver (2015), a Lakota Native American woman, encourages educators to critically reflect on the educational system and “take the best of what the educational system has to offer, and still preserve the integrity of what it means to be a contemporary, educated, Native American” (p. 21). It is instructive to note that Harvard, Dartmouth, and William and Mary universities, which were started as colonial colleges, included the education of Native Americans in their original mission statements (McClelland, Fox, & Lowe, 2005). Geographic remoteness, nomadic schools, culturally and linguistically unresponsive curricula and delivery mechanisms, and unsafe environments add to the distancing of education for Indigenous peoples. To reduce the educational dropout rate, discursive marginalization, deficit discourses, invisibility, and low performance levels, responsiveness to community requires an ongoing partnership honoring centrality of place (Ukala & Agabi, 2017; Vinelove et al., 2018).

Giroux and Giroux (2008) stress the need to engage with a spirit of inquiry and critical dialogue in seeking to understand and interpret the past and the importance of active citizenry for contesting oppressions and inequalities in local and global spaces. Sabzalian (2019) encourages citizenship education to have a curriculum that recognizes political identities and Indigenous sovereignties and treaties to ensure that inclusion as a citizen does not erase Indigenous identities. A framework with six orientations is advocated, consisting of place, presence, perspectives, political nationhood, power, and partnerships. Whitlow et al. (2019) emphasize nation-specific learning with information about the history of lands, traditions, and ceremonies, which resonates both emotionally and intellectually, through a Haudenosaunee model for Onkwehon:we (Indigenous) education that includes the spirit world and ancestors. They also emphasize that programs should be designed, led, and delivered by Onkwehon:we educators.

Colbourne, Moroz, Hall, Lendsay, and Anderson (2020) encourage two-eyed seeing informed by a two-row Wampun paradigm for interweaving Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems. Hence all forms of knowledge are accorded legitimacy with a focus on decolonizing stances for peaceful coexistence and mutual reciprocity. This integrative approach ensures that there is “a weaving back and forth between separate but parallel ways of knowing (knowledge systems), each of which is important and necessary to generating knowledge and knowing that leads to greater socio-economic well-being in the world” (Colbourne et al., 2020, p. 72). Begaye (2008) stresses the sense of community in order for healing and recognition to occur, for this inclusion must rest on “respect for everything considered alive among humans and nature.”

Biddle and Meehl (2018), in the context of Australian Indigenous peoples education, participation, and attainment, highlight the importance of policies and praxis that differentiate between the supports required by girls and boys. Their research highlighted that Indigenous females achieve higher tests scores and have better school persistence and attendance as compared to boys. While access to education has generally improved, Indigenous peoples, especially girls, fare worse than the national trends (UN, 2017). Linking education to the learner’s life through health and the natural environment, and utilizing and integrating formal and nonformal learning styles and teaching methods can give value to the oral wisdom of Indigenous peoples and recognize the importance of verbal communication in education (Spiller, Pio, Erakovic, & Henare, 2011; UN, 2017). Such linkages also strengthen teacher preparation in Indigenous communities and can impact non-Indigenous reconnections with place and community, shifting minds and hearts toward cultural responsiveness and inclusion (de France, Scully, & McIvor, 2018).

Formal school systems fail to take into account pastoralist communities, and therefore nomads, such as the Turkana people of Northwest Kenya, have low literacy rates (Ng’asike, 2019). The Turkana people generally perform poorly on national examinations due to a shortage of teachers, failure to use the Turkana language in early childhood education, and inappropriateness of materials used for instruction, which are incongruent with the daily reality of this group. Maharashtra Prabodhan Seva Mandal (MPSM), based in India, has been committed to rural and tribal awakening (prabodhan) for 50 years (MPSM, 2018). Local Indigenous women are recruited, provide input into training content, and are trained to be educators. These educators help children revise basics of language and math, and communicate health messages and general awareness through picture learning using large colored flex charts. More than 1,000 Indigenous children in rural primary schools have benefited from these programs (MPSM, 2018). Programs for nurturing eco-spirituality through traditional means serve as a bridge for entering the larger portals of Indian society. MPSM deploys qualified experts with degrees in sustainable agriculture technologies, especially organic farming, to accompany agricultural operations of Adivasi farmers. Films pertaining to Indigenous eco-spirituality have been developed and screened by MPSM. These include Akho Badli Gayo [Everything has changed], implying improvement due to organic farming practices, and Sage Soyare Gure Vasare [My farm animals are my family]. Inclusive policies that encompass eco-spirituality in thought and action can allay fears of assimilation, anti-Indigenous education, and recolonization and thus encourage attendance and increase enrollment and performance levels (G. d’Lima, personal communication, 5th April 2019).

MPSM has established hostel facilities with a library, study hall, computer-internet room, playground, and tree-filled surroundings for Indigenous youth from remote villages who need to access modern educational institutions. This invaluable space also enables students to access government jobs (MPSM, 2018). Another exemplar is Circuit International, which facilitates Indigenous communities in Myanmar, investigates at poverty issues, and encourages entrepreneurial ventures for sustainable solutions by enabling education (Circuit International, 2018).


Use of stories, rituals, dreams, and symbols to develop appropriate multilingual educational programs and to contextualize and affirm Indigenous peoples’ experiences. National curricula and materials must be checked for discriminatory notions and images of Indigenous peoples. Some history is so wounding that including it in educational material may cause trauma. Hence, program developers must be sensitive in choosing what should be included and at what point in the educational curricula it should be introduced.

Attention to appropriate curriculum content, long-term orientation, role models, mentorship by elders, cohort models, and legitimizing of time to attend traditional ceremonies.

Develop strategies to encourage and progress Indigenous peoples to top levels of academia for decision-making and policy roles.

Human Rights: Upheld–Trampled?

New spaces in the international fora now exist for Indigenous peoples through legal provisions and various international protocols and mechanisms. International instruments and mechanisms include UNDRIP, UNPFII, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (World Bank, 2019). Indigenous women’s involvement and influence in global decision-making spaces, such as the Commission on the Status of Women, is highly relevant in strategic terms because it has a direct impact on the individual and collective rights of 185 million Indigenous women throughout the world who belong to more than 5,000 different Indigenous groups (UN, 2017).

The European Parliament’s resolution on “violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples in the world, including land grabbing” seeks to uphold Indigenous peoples both within and outside the EU (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs [IWGIA], 2020). The Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group (IPMG) is a mechanism for the engagement of Indigenous peoples. The sustained engagement of the IPMG has led to significant advances in the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in global declarations and regional and national reports, although much is yet to be done to ensure the respect, recognition, and realization of the rights of Indigenous peoples, their contributions and aspirations and self-determined development (IPMG, 2019).

Indigenous rights defenders are often attacked and criminalized due to land titles and human rights violations, particularly when there are mining, hydroelectric projects involving the building of dams, pipeline expansion, and other development projects on a large scale and hazardous waste on their lands (Berger, 2019). Reconciliation Australia (2017) promotes and facilitates respect, trust, and positive relationships between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Anywaa Survival Organisation was established by Ethiopian and Sudanese in exile to add their voices against widespread human rights abuses and economic marginalization of Indigenous peoples in their two countries (Anywaa Survival Organisation, 2019). Founded in 1956, the Saami Council is a voluntary Saami organization (a nongovernmental organization) with satellite groups in Finland, Russia, Norway, and Sweden. The Saami Council has actively dealt with Saami policy tasks since its inception (Saami Council, 2019).


International organizations must work together with nations, Indigenous communities, and civil society organizations, including faith-based organizations.

Combined responsible, accountable, and inclusive policies can ensure human rights are not trampled.

Human rights abuses, especially against Indigenous women, must be dealt with quickly and severely.

Identity: Validated–Nullified?

Indigenous identity mirrors a shared history, spirituality, and culture imbued with stories linked to traditional territory and interconnections across generations and may involve context-dependent and dynamic experiences of oppression, ethnocide, and trauma (Francis, Torrez, & Krebs, 2018; Weaver, 2015). While an aspect of Indigenous identity is contentment with a relatively frugal life style, this may translate as the abdication of their land, forest, and water resources to commercial interests, without the realization that this can disinherit Indigenous peoples from access to their traditional lands and profit sharing.

Multiple forms of deprivation, negative stereotyping, and condescension have resulted in perceptions of Indigenous people as culturally inferior. Governments can condone and perpetuate abuses against Indigenous peoples through physical violence, arbitrary arrests and charges of creating unrest, and disrupting, demolishing, or desecrating identity symbols of Indigenous peoples (Berger, 2019). Even in Indigenous hierarchies, Indigenous peoples such as the Kathkari in India are a marginalized group and are regarded as the lowest of the low (Buckles, Khedkar, & Ghevde, 2015; Heredia & Srivastava, 1994). Additionally, it is instructive to reiterate that Indigenous peoples absorb both the positive and negative aspects of the surrounding peoples (G. d’Lima, personal communication, 5th April 2019). For example, casteist social habits such as considering those who eat beef as inferior among the Indigenous peoples of India or the rigid limits of intermarriage that follow general Hindu conservatism.

Indigenous peoples, especially girls, tend to have high dropout rates and struggle with higher education as the cultural values and delivery mechanisms in formal educational institutions tend to nullify rather than validate their identity (Pio, 2015; Pio, Spiller, Smith, & Sheehan, 2016).


Record the births of Indigenous children so that personal identification documents are available.

Due to the absence of respectful recognition and reference of their identities and knowledge, it is imperative to put emphasis on the first 1,000 days after a child is born, with appropriate care of the Indigenous child and mother.

Formal recognition of Indigenous peoples in various parts of the world by their respective nation-states.

Indigenous Knowledge: Respected–Underrecognized?

Identity, language, culture, and educational experiences are woven together as threads of Indigenous knowledge (Jacob, Cheng, & Porter, 2015; Smith, 1999; Weaver, 2015). Indigenous knowledge encompasses an interconnectedness with all of creation and embodies the woven universe within which individuals exist in a sacred ecology of relationships (Pio & Graham, 2018). It encompasses multiple narratives representing a way of life through relationships with land and sea spanning centuries (Manaaki Whenua, 2019; Tran & Kennett, 2017).

Indigenous or traditional knowledge historically is not held in databases or catalogued in written documents, rather it is orally transmitted through stories, prayers, rituals, songs, signs, and symbols, often through female elders, and in various practical day-to-day activities, which are not necessarily part of formal education systems (World Intellectual Property Organization [WIPO], 2019). Such traditional knowledge can be found in a wide variety of contexts, including agricultural, scientific, technical, ecological, and medicinal knowledge as well as biodiversity-related knowledge (WIPO, 2019). For example, matauranga Māori, or Māori knowledge, includes language, heritage, technology, , property, forms of expression, and other facets linked to Māori ways of knowing and the underlying body of knowledge (Durie, 2017; Huria, 2018).

Māori, the Indigenous people or tangata whenua (people of the land) in New Zealand embody a spiritual and physical connection to the ecosystem. Whenua means land and also placenta. Traditionally, newborns’ whenua is buried in the land, physically and spiritually connecting the child to the land (Pio, Tipuna, Rasheed, & Parker, 2013). Related concepts pertaining to Indigenous knowledge include manaaki, which encompasses power, control, and influence through caring for others, reciprocity, honoring, and leading with moral purpose (Pio et al., 2013) Kaitiakitanga refers to guardianship or stewardship of planetary resources and the ecosystems through which life is created and nurtured, with spiritual and material well-being for future generations (Nicholson, Spiller, & Pio, 2017).

A Burundi cultural pattern, Ikibiri, is teamwork and a practice of unity guided by elders. This allows the community’s strengths to be harnessed to accomplish a task within a specific time frame (Muchiri, Murekasenge, & Nzisabira, 2019). Ikibiri functions to socially connect the community and is grounded in the ethic of Ubuntu, or humanity to others. Ibikorwa rusangi is a synonym of Ikibiri, particularly for public interest matters such as building schools or the cleaning of public spaces. The Cofán are among the oldest surviving Indigenous cultures in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Founded in 1999, the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán is an organization with Cofán leadership dedicated to the survival of the Cofán Indigenous culture and its Amazonian rainforest environment (Cofan Survival Fund, 2016).

Indigenous peoples have rights over their traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, and genetic resources, including associated intellectual property rights as recognized by UNDRIP article 31. However, because of their unique characteristics, the intellectual property rights of Indigenous peoples do not comfortably fit and are usually not protected by existing intellectual property laws. Inappropriate use of traditional knowledges is widespread and ongoing (UN, 2017), particularly because Indigenous peoples’ intangible cultural heritage is often treated as “public domain.”. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), is a UN agency with 191 member states that provides a forum for negotiating new international intellectual property law treaties. In 2000, amid growing concerns about biopiracy, and with other international fora already engaging with Indigenous peoples’ intellectual property-related issues, WIPO established the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IWGIA, 2020). Revitalization frameworks that bridge Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges and ideologies, or two-eyed seeing, can move beyond censorship pertaining to non-Indigenous peoples to privilege and enhance social justice and policy imperatives (Burm & Burleigh, 2017; Colbourne et al., 2020; Genova, 2015; Hogarth, 2018; Huaman & Abeita, 2018; Vinelove et al., 2018).


Indigenous peoples are the custodians of a diverse mix of cultures, languages, identities, and biodiversity. Thus, the redefinition of resources must include the wealth of traditional knowledge.

Build capacity to revitalize Indigenous knowledge through negotiating recognition.

Consult with tribal leaders, especially women, and learn from the past.

Land: Traditional–Evicted?

For an overwhelming majority of Indigenous communities, land has historically been both a place of living and a place of work. Interactions and relations with land are generally sacred and rooted in hundreds of years of tradition that have shaped distinctive cosmologies. It is from this perspective that historical constructions of shared territories and communal life are deeply entrenched in the psyches and identities, for land is not just a place of work, but a legacy one needs to keep safe (Bala, 2018; Paltasingh & Paliwal, 2014). However, from the Arctic to Aotearoa New Zealand, evidence and stories exist of Indigenous peoples being deprived, evicted, or prosecuted in what once were communal territories sustainably administered by the collective. Sadly, Indigenous peoples who defend their ancestral lands and heritage rights may be portrayed as enemies of the state and criminals who are antidevelopment and against progress (Berger, 2019).

Maina-Okori, Koushik, and Wilson (2018) discuss the importance of Indigenous interconnectivity, relationality, and land-based sovereignty, emphasizing the need for deconstructing, dismantling, and disrupting oppression to make a difference in each other’s lives.

As the UN (2017) notes,

During the period of treaty making with native peoples in the United States, tribes signed over 350 treaties with the United States, through which access, inter alia, to education was effectively negotiated and granted in exchange for one billion acres of land. (p. 150)

The relationships between tribes and their natural habitats has been extensively documented in sociological, anthropological, and policy-oriented articles, both journalistic and academic (e.g., Alvard, 1993; Rana & Bhatt, 2019). Sacred groves, waters, forests and animals have all been listed as examples not only of the magical and mystical but also of the safekeeping role Indigenous communities play in their preservation and protection (Thamizoli & Pisupati, 2015). However, rapid and often unplanned urban growth in countries has negatively affected the historical links between tribes and their ecosystems, radically changing not just the land but traditional notions of workplaces and labor relationships. Such multiple patterns of development have spawned inequities and conflicts over resource rights, sharing, and governance (Chakravarthi & Lakshminarayana, 2017; Dupont, 2007; Kumar, 2015). Reports of human rights violations, violence against Indigenous women, no restoration of alienated tribal land, and repression under forest laws continue to be significant concerns (IWGIA, 2020).

Deprived from their traditional notions of land—and the work associated with it—many Indigenous peoples have abandoned their original communities while those who remain struggle to find their feet around alien conceptions and arrangements of land tenure. Those who migrate face the challenging task of selling their labor in unfamiliar marketplaces, often providing cheap and expendable forms of work to keep industries growing (Curthoys & Moore, 1995). It is in this context that tensions between original peoples and governments have been historically relevant, with governments recognizing only a fraction of the original inhabitant’s land (IWGIA, 2020). For those who remain, quality of life is adversely affected due to scarcity of food, basic sanitary provisions, medical care, and education. Indigenous populations constantly report lower levels of child and maternal health as compared with non-Indigenous populations (Babu, 2017). The vicious cycle of malnutrition, migration, high birth rate, child mortality, illiteracy, and exploitation force Indigenous peoples to live in chronic poverty.

In India, sustainable environment and agricultural development organizations reach out to hundreds of poor farmers and Adivasi women, facilitating their efforts to grow fruit trees, practice organic farming technologies, plant kitchen gardens, and form farmers’ clubs and other innovative agricultural activities (MPSM, 2018).


Recognition of traditional lands and protection of biodiversity through Indigenous eco-spirituality and a sharing economy.

National and international laws and civil society–tempered activism for preventing eviction.

Development of compassionate disruptors through education to ensure traditional land is protected for future generations.

Research: Reflexive–Extractive?

Research into issues of importance to Indigenous peoples as well as their interactions with majority communities in the contemporary world are crucial for building research communities. Educating the general public through disseminating Indigenous research and establishing Indigenous research organizations can serve as powerful tools for knowledge, imagination, identities, and a vast array of art forms (UN, 2017). Holistic frameworks of analysis for understanding and action, disaggregated data, and sensitization of initiatives that may have political fallout can be enabled through multiple sources of corroboration (Pio, 2019; UN, 2017).

There is space for the involvement of non-Indigenous researchers on Indigenous issues when there is a deep motivation to support Indigenous peoples as meaningful partners in research (Smith, 1999). Olsen (2018) discusses the challenge, privilege, and decentering of studying Indigenous issues as a non-Indigenous scholar, and emphasizes positions such as Indigenous/non-Indigenous, insider/outsider, and privilege/oppression, which are not binary but complex nondichotomous layers. Huaman (2019) advocates for comparative Indigenous education research to raise issues of Indigenous concern and articulate research priorities that cross geographic territories and national borders

A number of organizations perform research with Indigenous peoples: IWGIA a global human rights organization dedicated to promoting, protecting, and defending Indigenous peoples’ rights (IWGIA, 2020); Te Ara Poutama based at the Auckland University of Technology (2019) in New Zealand; University of Auckland’s (2019) Aotearoa New Zealand Centre for Indigenous Peoples and the Law; and Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga (2019), which focuses on Māori leading New Zealand into the future and providing solutions to major challenges facing humanity in local and global settings. Indigenous research at the University of British Columbia (2019), Vancouver, occurs in many schools across the university. At the University of Helsinki, Indigenous Studies focuses on research methods, ethics, epistemological plurality, biocultural diversity, Indigenous peoples’ rights, and their history, languages, and arts (University of Helsinki, 2019).

MPSM (2018) has a team of educators working to research and develop suitable teaching material for Indigenous children, youth, farmers, and women’s groups. These include animated videos for learning English and the local language as well as contextualized charts for topics in math, health, social themes, organic farming, watershed management, and farm animal care.


Research with Indigenous peoples on issues of significance to them.

Sensitive dissemination at local, national, and global levels.

Various media and forums to reach a wide-ranging audience.

Well-Being: Nurturing–Violent?

Well-being or mauriora (a New Zealand Māori Indigenous term) encompasses the realization and manifestation of one’s full potential in relationships and is consciously created (Pio & Graham, 2018). Rapid expansion of buildings, factories, dams, and oil exploration has prompted radical change in the economy of Indigenous territories. Traditional farming activities that once represented the majority of work have shifted to industrial labor activities and services creating new, alien, and unfair workplaces where Indigenous peoples are regularly exploited. For instance, the development of illegal, unregulated brick kilns constitutes an important source of income for Indigenous groups in India (Madhusudan, 1988). Although these kilns provide seasonal employment opportunities, working conditions leave much to be desired (Buckles, Khedkar, & Ghevde, 2015).

Well-being in Indigenous territories has been impacted by pockets of poverty, malnutrition, abuse (common in boarding schools), conflict, and militarization. Both collective and individual rights of Indigenous peoples are violated in private and public spaces. These violations include sexual violence and trafficking, killing or branding women as witches, militarization or state violence, and development-induced displacement. Security forces also target tribal women for sexual violence (UN, 2017; Waghmore & Jojo, 2014). Missing and murdered Indigenous women are part of the daily reality for Indigenous communities. Unfortunately, violence against Indigenous women is often committed by political individuals and those in power, resulting in stigma, humiliation, and fear and impunity of the perpetrators (Berger, 2019).

For Indigenous girls, domestic work, early marriage, rape, teenage pregnancy, and other forms of physical violence are significant issues impacting their education. Kuokkanen (2008) underscores the necessity of intersectionality when theorizing violence against Indigenous women in order to more clearly understand the links between marginalization, race, whiteness, patriarchy, and capitalism. Indigenous women, who are often the poorest segment of society, experience extensive violence and oppression that often result in tragic deaths (Kuokkanen, 2015; Weaver, 2009). Yet, many Indigenous women have survived and thrived in the face of this adversity (Burnette & Figley, 2017; Richards, 2005; Williams, 2012).

Teen mothers seem to be more highly represented in Indigenous populations (G. d’Lima, personal communication, 5th April 2019; Pio & Graham, 2018). However, Indigenous knowledge with its explicit focus on interconnectedness can serve as a unique perspective on ensuring the well-being of teen mothers through strong involvement of family members and peers (Pio & Graham, 2018). Children of mixed heritage may be geographically distant from their linguistic and cultural environment and hence may not return to their Indigenous homelands (UN, 2017). But sometimes such children may choose to identify more with one community than another, and in the process may strengthen their Indigenous linkages (Pio, 2011).

Building bridges and establishing pathways for those who follow are important for lowering the “black glass ceiling” (Fredericks & White, 2018, p. 252). This can be done by “being visible, acting and being in a position to initiate and influence change” (Fredericks & White, 2018, p. 244), along with diversity and inclusion policies and international instruments and mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is one of the 56 “special procedures” of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz from the Philippines was appointed as the third Special Rapporteur and was the first woman and first person from the Asian region in this position.

In the absence of violence and discrimination, women and girls can avail of education and have the strength to display agency and decision-making regarding their own bodies, sexual health, environment, livelihood, and general health (Poelker & Gibbons, 2018). Many Indigenous communities give priority to education for boys, and where there is a bride price, the girls are married off early (UN, 2017). Self-help groups of women in Indigenous villages can help members connect with government agencies, encourage awareness of Indigenous health traditions, develop income generation activities, and enable savings and solidarity among the women (MPSM, 2018). A girl’s boarding school run by MPSM enables 150 Indigenous girls in primary and middle school to access quality education in a remote village in India. Besides formal learning, the girls are offered growth opportunities such as computer learning, arts and crafts workshops, cultural sessions with yoga, dance and street play performances, and leadership training. MPSM’s team of Adivasi health practitioners planted an herbal nursery and hold workshops on the processing of herbs to provide relief from ailments including coughs, colds, sprains, hair depletion, stomach upset, and arthritic conditions.


Critical examination of power relations and their impact on pedagogy, educational structures, decision making, curricula, policy, and scholarships.

Universal primary education.

Protection systems to prevent violence and abuse of Indigenous girls and the depoliticization of violence.

Concluding Comments

For Indigenous populations, issues are not simple and straightforward but are intricate and layered, with multiple forms of exclusion interweaving and seriously impacting Indigenous people’s well-being in the broadest possible sense (Brougham, Haar, & Roche, 2015; Hunter, 2014; Lahn, 2018; Pio & Singh, 2017). Yet, despite tremendous environmental, social, and economic pressures, Indigenous peoples seek to retain their traditional legacies and worldviews while also being part of contemporary society. Through eco-spirituality, these groups believe that individuals are in a relational world where kinship is respected and honored. Each individual is endowed with obligations and empowered to be a guardian of this planet in their thinking and behavior (Pio & Graham, 2018). Decolonial inquiry, red pedagogy, and two-eyed seeing are important frameworks in this arena. Being present with Indigenous communities, not only to implement programs for development but to closely following the life journeys of these communities to enhance their own options and decisions for development (G. d’Lima, personal communication, 5th April 2019), is essential to the path forward, as we mesh our lives with our fellow humans and our diverse fragile planet.

It is pertinent to emphasize that: The solution is Education. The solution is Awareness. The solution is Livelihood Skills. The solution is International Vigilance with and on behalf of Indigenous peoples.


In memory of Alison Norman, my Māori colleague and dear friend, and Errol D’Lima s.j. for his wise theology. My gratitude to Indigenous peoples and those working with them and to my son Isaac Pio for his laughter.


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