The Knowing Center: Composing Identity in the Age of Reconciliation

I would like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territories of the Shawnee and Ohio Valley Tribes, all of whom except for the few who assimilated into white culture were forcibly removed from these lands to a reservation in Oklahoma where they now reside in three distinct communities. 14,000 Shawnee peoples survived in the face of this genocide and still live today. I would like to thank them for allowing us to meet on their land and acknowledge their careful stewardship of these natural resources.


In his work, Reality and Rhetoric, James Berlin asserts that composition courses help students define their sense of place in the world. He writes, “writing courses prepare students for citizenship in a democracy, for assuming their political responsibilities, whether as leaders or simply as active participants” (1987, 189).  But what does this approach to education, and particularly composition studies, look like when a portion of the students are a people systematically oppressed by the State? In short, how does education for citizenry impact Indigenous students pursuing education in Westernized Institutions?

In her book , Colonized Classroom: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education, Sheila Cote-Meek writes pointedly that “education has always been and continues to be part of the colonial regime – one wrought with violence, abuse and processes that continue to have devastating effects on Aboriginal peoples” (Cote-Meek, 2014, 85).  Cote-Meek’s description of Western education should make us ask some tough questions about how we use or misuse composition to educate students. For example: in as much as the teaching of writing asks students to consider their role in society, and to be active members of that society, which society are we training our students to be a part of? What citizenry of what state are we cultivating in them?


Where I Stand

Before I investigate these questions further, it’s important to situate myself in the research: I am a settler scholar. I study translingualism and Indigienous frameworks of knowledge from the perspective of a white woman whose ancestors transgressed the boundaries of the 1763 Royal Proclamation and moved into Indigenous territory, establishing their farms in what would later become Ohio, Indiana, and Virginia. I recognize also that the entirety of my approach to research, study, analysis, and theory is fundamentally rooted in and shaped by a Westernized approach to education and knowledge-making. I am a product of British and American schooling, and American and Canadian higher education. So, I must ask myself before I begin this paper: what place do I have in engaging this material?

I was grateful to run across the work of Indigenous scholar Scott Richard Lyons, who, I feel, has outlined a way forward for me as a settler-scholar to responsibly engage Indigenous studies in order to help de-colonize the composition classroom.

Lyons, an Ojibwe/Dakota scholar, writes that it is important for the work of sustainability to be shared between Indigenous and non-Indigneous communities. He identifies how non-Indigenous scholars can join the work of sustainability without appropriating Indigenous culture.  He writes, “Perhaps the crucial point here is to think in terms of form rather than content: to appropriate a cultural logic, not the culture itself” (212).  For Lyon, the work of sustainability and equity should not be isolated only to Indigenous communities. This is too great a burden to ask them to bear. Instead, it must become the work of the whole human race. Thus, his differentiation between cultural logic over culture itself provides a helpful distinction for non-Indigenous scholars interested in creating sustainable and equitable classrooms. So, it is from this starting position that I seek to identify the cultural logic of Indigenous knowledge construction and apply it to university writing programs to help create a decolonized and equitable classroom.


An Indigenous Framework for Education for Citizenship

In their book, Power and Place: Indian Education in America, Vine Deloria and Daniel Wildcat offer a different vision of education for citizenship, one that grows out of an Indigenous framework of knowledge.  This is the framework I’d like to offer you today. Wildcat and Deloria (2001) show us how Indigenous knowledge is deeply rooted in context, relationship, and identity. Deloria writes that knowledge must come from an understanding of power and place. His definition of these two terms is as follows: “Power being the living energy that inhabits and/or composes the universe and place being the relationship of things to each other” (2001, 22). Deloria explains that Indigenous knowledge begins at the intersection of these two concepts and grows from there. He puts these two basic ideas into an equation: “power and place produce personality” (2001, 23). And for Deloria the resonance of this equation means that “the universe is personal and, therefore, must be approached in a personal manner” (2001, 23). We might word it this way: knowledge is personal, and therefore, must be approached in a personal manner.

The weft and weave of Wildcat and Deloria’s tapestry of Indigenous knowledge consists of a deeply personal, lived approach to knowledge building. As they explain it, knowledge cannot be constructed outside of a deep understanding of self and others. They write, “it is experience that shapes indigenous education and necessitates the awareness of self as crucial in order for knowledge to be attained” (2001, 13). In other words, education cannot begin until the person has a sense of self and how that self is connected to the world around him or her.

By contrast, Wildcat points out that Western education begins from a place of de-contextualizing knowledge, reducing information to its component parts, labeling it, then elevating it the level of concrete fact. He writes, “science is reduced to essentially taking things apart – dissection, whether on a lab table or in a controlled experiment” (2001, 11). As a result, knowledge becomes about generalized principles that are abstracted from their context and elevated as concrete facts about the nature of reality (Wildcat, 2001).  Wildcat summarizes the two main tenets of Western knowledge like this: “Western faith in 1) abstract universal truths and 2) the European moral duty to remake the world (in accordance with these truths) in their own image” (2001, 37). The problem with this way of knowing is that it leaves out the learner who is acquiring this knowledge and the interconnectedness that has fundamentally shaped the learner.  In the context of the composition classroom, this kind of blind spot risks allowing settler faculty and students to continue to be oblivious about how our privilege and place in society perpetuates the violence and trauma against Indigenous students in the classroom.

An Indigenous framework for education and knowledge, as opposed to Western knowledge, understands humans “to be one small part of an immense complex living system” (Deloria & Wildcat, 2001, 12). As such, there is no way to construct knowledge without understanding the personal, the relational. Wildcat writes that, Indigenous knowledge teaches us that understanding comes from our family, and the relationships upon which we depend to live. “It is through these relationships, physical and psychological, indeed spiritual, that human beings begin to understand who, why and even to some degree what we are” (Deloria & Wildcat, 2001, 33).

In his book, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Gregory Cajate (1994) lays out the Indigenous stages of developmental learning. He writes that in order to engage these stages of learning, the learner must first discover the roots of their knowing center. He writes, “Inherent in Indigenous education is the recognition that there is a Knowing Center in all human beings that reflects the knowing Center of the Earth and other living things” (1994, 209). We see in this quotation the imprints of Deloria’s power and place: a sense of self and interconnectedness necessary for knowledge construction.

Let me show you some of the key stages of Cajate’s Indigenous learning development:

Indigenous Stages of Learning

Stage Four: an innate respect for the uniqueness of each person created the understanding that each person was their own teacher in their process of individuation.

Stage Five: each learning situation is unique and innately tied to the creative capacity of the learner.

Stage Six: that teaching and learning are a collaborative contract between the teacher and learner.

Stage Ten: learning through reflection and sharing experience in community allows us to understand our learning in the context of greater wholes.


Cajate’s models of learning development figure the learner as the center of knowledge and the community and the interconnectedness of individuals as central to knowledge construction.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this kind of pedagogy is its ability to help students contextualize themselves – often for the first time. As Cajate points out, the great power of knowledge that is mutually constructed among teacher and learner and learner and learner is that, “in a group we come to understand that we can learn from another's experience and perspective. We also become aware of our own and other's bias and lack of understanding” (1994, 212).  I have witnessed firsthand the power of figuring the personal into knowledge construction as well as leveraging the power of mutually constructed meaning to helps all of us become aware of our biases.

One day in class, at Gettysburg College, we were discussing white privilege and a white student spoke up. “There is no racism on our campus. It doesn’t exist anymore. We have a black president.” Rather than laughing at him, or talking him down, my co-teacher who is an African-American tenured professor at the institution and I decided to situate knowledge construction in the context of the community of the classroom. So, we turned to the class and asked, “Have any of you seen or experienced racism on campus?” Kyra bravely raised her hand. She shared that whenever she shopped at the 7-eleven on campus she always made sure to visibly carry her wallet with her so that the owners knew she planned to buy something. Otherwise, she said they followed her around the store.

In instances like this, the experience of shared knowledge and lived experience in the learning space opened an opportunity for all of us to reflect on how we were constructing knowledge through the perspective of our fellow learners. We were able to do what Indigenous knowledge has told us was possible all along: root our learning in a knowing center and the community around us.

Another way in which composition instructors may work to root their curriculum within the knowing center is through the use of small group writing workshops. What if we decentralized the use of class time as primarily time dedicated to a single instructor leading the class through information? What if we cancelled regular class time for two weeks and during that time, the instructor leads one small group of 4-5 students each day in reading their paper out loud and giving and receiving feedback?

The time spent in small groups sessions with the class is invaluable for knowledge construction. With the guidance of the instructor, the groups learn how to listen carefully, think analytically about the writing, and give constructive feedback. Workshops become the site for mutual learning, a chance for the students to hear and read each other’s writing, and to form closer ties with a handful of classmates. These small groups become a cosmos within the larger classroom and allow for a different kind of collaboration than exists in the larger class discussions. In addition, the professor is able to more closely guide the students as they practice giving and receiving feedback, all the while strengthening their internal editor. Perhaps using class time this way isn’t the norm for a Euro-centric approach to teaching, but Indigenous logic asks us to view time differently, to use it in the service of relationships and experience as the true conduits of education.

This paradigm turns Berlin’s notion of education for citizenship on its head. Education and composition are not about grooming an obedient subject who takes his or her place in democracy to further reproduce the systems of power. Instead, education for citizenship is about finding our place in community, more immediately in the community of the learning environment.  I would argue that an Indigenous framework of knowledge teaches us that education for citizenship is about interconnectedness. It is about relationship with our knowing center and each other, not with a power system and hierarchy. As Deloria tells us, Indigenous notions of knowledge and understanding teach us that ultimately education is about understanding and wisdom (30).

Works Cited

Althusser, L. (1971). On the reproduction of the conditions of production. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press.


Baxter Magolda, M. (2009). Authoring Your Life: Developing an Internal Voice to Navigate Life’s Challenges. Sterling: Stylus.


Berlin, J. (1987). Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900—1985. Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.


Cajate, G. (1994). Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education. Durango: Kivaki Press.


Cote-Meek, S. (2014). Colonized Classrooms: Racism, Trauma and Resistance in Post-Secondary Education. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.


Deloria, V. Jr. & Wildcat, D.R. (2001). Power and Place: Indian Education in America. Golden: American Indian Graduate Center and Fulcrum Resources.

© 2016 by Christin Taylor. Proudly created with WIX.COM