On a Dream and a Prayer: The Promise of World Indigenous Higher Education

Volume 26, No. 3 - Spring 2015
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dream-prayer-shreveThey came from across the Pacific Ocean, travelling to Diné Bikéyah at the edge of the Colorado Plateau in southwestern North America. There, on August 9, 2013, members of the Yui, Arabana, Bidjara, and Kabi Kabi nations sat on a hogan floor around a fire with Navajo medicine people. The gathering culminated in a graduation—the first of its kind held anywhere in the world, or at any time in history. On behalf of the World Indigenous Nations University (WINU), Dr. Elmer Guy—president of Navajo Technical University (NTU); Raymond Redhorse— a Navajo medicine man; and Carrie Billy—president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), conferred Ph.D. degrees on four Indigenous scholars from Australia.

This historical moment arrived with little fanfare. There were no major media outlets present to report on the event, no governors or mayors attended to welcome and applaud the graduates. But this ceremony, held at NTU in Crownpoint, New Mexico, signaled a new era in higher education. An era where Indigenous peoples assume control of their own curricula, develop their own institutions, and establish their own criteria for legitimacy. To be sure, WINU is a nascent institution with an uncertain future. It is not a traditional brick-and-mortar university, nor is it accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. It faces many obstacles, lacks funding, and has a plethora of logistics and structural issues to work out. But it exists on its own terms. WINU was established by Indigenous educational leaders from around the world to meet the needs of First Peoples who have been marginalized, excluded, and forcibly assimilated by Western institutions of higher learning. It is a bold new experiment and the culmination of many years of planning, meeting, networking, talking.

The story of just how WINU came into being stretches back into the latter decades of the 20th century and reveals much about world Indigenous higher education. This new movement is the product of globalization, new technologies in communication, and the emergence of a shared Indigenous consciousness among peoples the world over. And like AIHEC and the tribal colleges and universities of North America, it was founded on a prayer, with the knowledge of the elders and respect for the Earth at its core.


The development of a global Indigenous consciousness stems from the world’s Indigenous peoples’ common colonial experience. Beginning in the 15th century, European powers sliced and parceled up nearly every corner of the globe, resulting in unprecedented dispossession, death, and destruction for Indigenous peoples. James Anaya (Apache/Purépecha), a regents professor of human rights law and policy at the University of Arizona, traces the origins of international law to these formative years of the contact experience. Some parameters and guidelines for the treatment of Indigenous peoples became imperative, Anaya argues, as invading Europeans had established “genocidal patterns” that alarmed reformers and missionaries. For the most part, these initial guidelines remained inadequate at best, and completely ineffective at worst. It would take nearly 500 years before Indigenous peoples would gain any legal traction.


WINU’s first Ph.D. cohort received their degrees at NTU. Photo by Daniel Vandever

It was World War II that served as the impetus for modern international law. The global conflagration resulted in the annihilation of cities, the attempted systematic and industrial extermination of an ethnic minority, and over 50 million dead. Never before had humankind experienced war and its resulting horrors on such a scale. The experience proved so traumatic that world leaders took real, tangible steps to establish a forum for dialogue and a body of law to govern future international disputes. They penned the International Declaration on Human Rights, founded the United Nations (UN), and established the World Court.

While such institutions served the warring Western and Eastern powers, they initially offered little recourse for colonized Indigenous societies. This marginalization led many peoples in Africa and Southeast Asia to take up arms and forcibly oust colonial regimes. In other parts of the world, however, such tactics proved unfeasible or simply impossible. Many Indigenous peoples therefore used established legal channels and, in the case of federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, their unique political status to forge greater sovereignty and self-determination.

In the 1970s, some Indigenous groups from around the world began recognizing that they had similar problems and interests. They also knew that by acting in unison on the world stage they could more effectively bring about positive change for Indigenous peoples around the globe. They pressed the UN on issues of land dispossession, cultural assimilation, economic disparity, and the lack of educational opportunities. The UN responded with a 12-year study on the conditions of Indigenous peoples, concluding that new protections and legal safeguards were essential. The study also led to the creation of a subcommittee tasked with drafting a declaration of Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Years in the making, the UN passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. The document acknowledged the historic injustices inflicted on Indigenous peoples, recognized explicitly their human rights, called for an end to discrimination, affirmed their right to self-determination, and directed nation states to honor treaties. But the declaration went even further. It opened the door for restitution for past injustices and called for the repatriation of ceremonial and sacred objects, as well as human remains. In all, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples consists of 46 articles. It is article 14, however, that outlines the aspirations of world Indigenous educators. “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning,” part one states. It calls on nation states to work with Indigenous peoples, especially children, so that they “have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.”


The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples not only recognized the importance of culture and language in education, but it also acknowledged Indigenous ways of knowing. There remains tremendous diversity among the world’s Indigenous peoples, but at the same time there are common values and norms that connect them. Unlike Western or Eastern traditions, for example, Indigenous ways of knowing are intrinsically connected to the community, the elders, and the Earth. They are place-based and spiritually anchored.

Educators Jocelyn Robinson (Algonquin Timiskaming) and Susan Balfour note that distinguishing features of Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy include learning through enjoyment and experience. “Indigenous pedagogy accepts students’ cognitive search for learning processes they can internalize and Aboriginal teachers allow for a lag period of watching before doing,” they maintain. “It embraces both the circumstances people find themselves in and their beliefs about those circumstances.” Indigenous knowledge as a system is adaptive and dynamic by nature. Robinson and Balfour therefore caution educators who have a tendency to mystify Indigenous ways of knowing or over exaggerate their “sacredness.” This isn’t to say that “the sacred” isn’t essential. George J. Sefa Dei (Adomakwaa Hene [Ghana]), chair of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies at the University of Toronto, clarifies that Indigenous knowledge connects place, spirit, and body, and that it is based on “a cosmological understanding that the elements of the universe are interrelated and intertwined.” Indeed, according to Dei, “The spiritual becomes the axis on which Indigenous knowledge rests.”


NTU president Elmer Guy (Diné)
and WINHEC executive chair Trevor Moeke (Maori) hosted WINU’s first commencement ceremony in 2013.

Perhaps another way to illuminate the nature of Indigenous knowledge is to clarify what it is not. Duane Champagne (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), a professor of law and American Indian studies at UCLA, states that Indigenous pedagogies are not geared towards preparing students for the rat race, or “to live in a competitive, market-oriented, secular, and individualistic world.” Tongan scholars Linita Manu’atu and Mere Kepa build on this assumption by arguing that Western education is technocratic in nature and employs teaching methods with “an exaggerated emphasis on the management of time— clockwork time.”

Another distinguishing feature is the absence of elders in Western classrooms. Indigenous ways of knowing rest on the shoulders of elders; this is one of the key features that unites virtually all global Indigenous peoples. Elders are considered the knowledge holders and are responsible for passing down culture itself. Their wealth of experience and the generations of information they hold cannot be replicated in textbooks or reproduced by university-educated professors. The elder’s place in any educational setting, wherever or whatever that may be, is essential to Indigenous epistemology and pedagogy. ORGANIZING FOR CHANGE

As the UN conducted its study on the conditions of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous educators recognized that their distinct epistemological and pedagogical needs could be better met through collective action and discourse. In 1987, some 1,500 people from 17 countries gathered in Vancouver, Canada for the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WIPCE). For a week they shared new ideas, teaching philosophies, and their respective cultures. Unlike many mainstream conferences, elders played a pivotal role in conference workshops and panels. The meeting was reinvigorating for all who attended. One participant, Ac’arralek Lolly Sheppard Carpluk (Yup’ik), noted the sense of solidary that permeated the conference: “I had no clue that I would share similar struggles in education with like-minded Indigenous peoples. . . Little did I expect to network with Indigenous people who had developed models of education and a way of thinking. . . . Little did I expect to participate in celebrations of who we are as Indigenous peoples with dancing, singing, and most important of all, the sense of humor that pulls us through all of life and its challenges.”


At the Stoney Nakoda reserve in Alberta, Canada, WINHEC formally organized and established its first

WIPCE was such a success that it became a semiregular event. In subsequent years the conference’s popularity surged and by 1999, when WIPCE convened in Hilo, Hawai’i, some 5,000 people from nearly every place on Earth attended. At the meeting, some seven years before the UN’s declaration on Indigenous peoples, attendees adopted the Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Rights in Education. The document had actually been crafted six years prior at the WIPCE meeting in Coolangatta, Aotearoa (New Zealand), but went through various drafts before conference goers solidified the final version in Hilo. Its authors outlined the failure of non-Indigenous education systems and called for greater self-determination for Indigenous peoples to establish their own teaching methods and institutions. One of the most fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples, the statement proclaimed, is the right to be Indigenous. It went on to stress the physical and spiritual connection that Indigenous societies have to the Earth. The authors called for greater inclusion of elders in curriculum and underscored the need for language preservation and revitalization.

Since its inaugural meeting, WIPCE has proven to be an effective—not to mention popular—venue for Indigenous educators worldwide. The conference serves a vital role for bringing people together and advancing reform in Indigenous education. Some leaders, however, saw a need for an organization or network geared toward higher education. In 1996 and 1999, they met in break-out sessions at WIPCE to discuss the feasibility of establishing a separate body that would advance Indigenous institutions of higher education. In 2000, Ray Barnhardt from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Sonny Mikaere from Wanganui Polytechnic in Aotearoa began making hard plans to establish such a body. Ayear later, representatives from Te Wananga o Aotearoa and Te Wananga o Raukawa— two Maori institutions of higher education—attended AIHEC’s conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The following year, AIHEC representatives visited Aotearoa and resolved to realize their plans for a global Indigenous organization that focused on higher education.

In August 2002, on the Stoney Nakoda reserve in Alberta, Canada, higher education leaders from Australia, Hawai’i, Alaska, the mainland United States, Canada, Aotearoa, and Saamiland in northern Norway founded the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC). They met in a series of working groups to address WINHEC’s goals and purposes. Unanimously, they placed spirituality front and center, distinguishing the new organization from its secular counterparts. They likewise recognized their shared commitment to community, believing that Indigenous institutions of higher learning are community colleges in the truest sense. In the end, they crafted the Declaration on Indigenous People’s Higher Education as their charter, stating, “We commit to building partnerships that restore and retain Indigenous spirituality, cultures and languages, homelands, social systems, economic systems, and self-determination.”

Eventually, WINHEC would incorporate relevant articles from the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into their charter, reaffirming their mission and solidarity. The organization also established its own academic, peer-reviewed journal to give Indigenous scholars a venue for publishing. And in 2003, WINHEC formally chartered its own accreditation authority, which devised a handbook that outlined review processes, eligibility requirements, self-study protocols, and program commitments and responsibilities. By assuming control over accreditation, WINHEC sought to validate programs offered at Indigenous colleges and universities. Ray Barnhardt, who played a central role in devising the handbook and forming the accreditation authority, explained that WINHEC sought to “insure that an Indigenous-serving postsecondary institution/program’s own goals are soundly conceived, that its educational and cultural programs have been intelligently devised and that its purposes are being accomplished in a manner that should continue to merit confidence by the Indigenous constituencies being served.”


Indigenous Australians have been some of the strongest supporters of WINHEC and WINU.

In creating its own accreditation authority, WINHEC has helped Indigenous peoples worldwide assume greater sovereignty over their own institutions of higher education. It is just one of the many achievements of this relatively new organization. As W.J. Jacob and his fellow researchers have found, WINHEC has helped promote Indigenous culture and language, it has established the importance of including elders in curricula, and has empowered Indigenous peoples to pursue their own educational strategies and institutions.

And it was WINHEC that also sanctioned the establishment of WINU in 2012 during its annual meeting in Taiwan. The organization drew up the university’s articles of incorporation, formed a governing council, and determined which programs would be accredited. WINHEC’s executive committee co-chair, Trevor Moeke (Maori), summed up WINU’s mission and goals, asserting that the new institution establishes “an education system that honors and respects Indigenous cultural knowledge and knowledge systems. [It] profiles the scholarship of Indigenous elders and knowledge holders who work in close collaboration with Indigenous academics to address the needs of Indigenous peoples at the local level.”

For all of its accomplishments, however, Jacob and colleagues have also found that WINHEC and WINU face some steep obstacles that present real challenges for their continued survival. One problem is budget constraints. Unlike AIHEC, which has a staff of 18, WINHEC is unable to afford any paid employees, as it has no reliable source of funding. Similarly, WINU employs faculty from other Indigenous institutions and programs and has no administrators or staff, save the governing council.

Another challenge is broadening its scope by bringing in constituents from nations in Africa, Asia, and South America. Currently membership is restricted to primarily English-speaking regions, most notably Aotearoa, Australia, Canada, and the United States. While Indigenous peoples from Saamiland and Taiwan have joined WINHEC’s ranks, English remains the one language that all participants understand. How can non-English speaking Indigenous peoples from Brazil, central Africa, or southern Asia participate with such a language barrier? The organization simply does not have the funds to pay for a cadre of translators, limiting WINHEC’s reach.

Despite such limitations, the sheer dedication and sense of purpose that WINHEC and WINU’s members possess has sustained these ventures. Some may call the movement for global Indigenous higher education an unproven experiment or merely a dream, while others may question its legitimacy. But if the resiliency of Indigenous peoples throughout history is any indication, the movement will persevere and, with a prayer, flourish for future generations.

Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal and author of Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism.


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Ambler, M. (2005). Embracing the World: Indigenous Educators Join Hands to Share Gifts. Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education 16 (4), 18–20.

Anaya, J.S. (1994). International Law and Indigenous Peoples: Historical Stands and Contemporary Developments. Cultural Survival Quarterly 18 (1). Retrieved at https://www.culturalsurvival. org/ourpublications/csq/article/international-lawand- indigenous-peoples-historical-stands-and-contempor

Barnhardt, R. (2009). The Implementation of a World Indigenous Accreditation Authority. WINHEC Journal, 63–74.

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Jacob, W.J., Lee, C.W., Wehrheim, N., Gokbel, V., Dumba, J.D.C., Lu, X., & Yin, S. (2013). An Organisational Analysis of the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium. Retrieved at http://www.academia.edu/6758149/An_Organisational_Ana lysis_of_the_World_Indigenous_Nations_Higher_Education_ Consortium

United Nations. (2008). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved at http://www.un.org/esa/ socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf

World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium. (2002). Declaration on Indigenous People’s Higher Education. Retrieved at http://www.win-hec.org/files/WINHEC%20charter.pdf World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. (1999). The Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Rights in Education. Journal of American Indian Education 39 (1). Retrieved at http://jaie.asu.edu/v39/V39I1A4.pdf

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