Applying Indigenous Cultural Knowledge to Human Rights Studies
February 9, 2022
As they sat together in a circle in the classroom, Indigenous Elder Bruce Elijah challenged King’s Human Rights Studies students to question what they can do to create positive change.
“You may not be able to change the world, but you can change what’s within you. What do you want to see? What do you want to hear? What do you want to be a part of?” he asked them.
A traditional teacher, healer and respected advocate for Indigenous practices, Elijah is from the Oneida of the Thames First Nation (Onyota’a:ka) and a member of the Wolf Clan. Students in HRS 2800: Introduction to Human Rights, taught by Dr. Karolina Werner, had the opportunity to listen and learn from his knowledge and wisdom during an in-person lecture on February 8, 2022. King's University College is situated on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak, and Chonnonton peoples. The First Nations communities of our local area include Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames, and Munsee Delaware Nation.
Elijah explained the importance of the Two Row Wampum Belt, a historical agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch government made in the early 17th century. This significant symbol of Indigenous sovereignty also symbolizes respect, honour and trust between the two nations: two boats flowing down the same river, moving forward alongside one another but not interfering with one another. He explained that if there was a better understanding of the meaning and significance of the Two Row Wampum Belt, Canada wouldn’t have the problems and conflict of today, including the great divide between the have and have nots.
“In the history of our people, we were never poor. We have always been rich with culture,” said Elijah.
Elijah is fluent in the Oneida language and has participated in traditional ceremonies his whole life. By sharing creation stories, cultural wisdom, and personal experiences (including seeking the protection of Indigenous rights and freedoms at the United Nations in the 1970s), Elijah helped the students begin to understand the connection between the environment and natural world and its significant impact on the rights and survival of Indigenous peoples.
Several students expressed interest in hearing more traditional stories and further learning of cultural knowledge from the Elder, as this was a new experience for many of them. Elijah smiled and jokingly asked the students if they had a few years. Jokes aside, Elijah stressed the importance of slowing down, and encouraged the students to take the time to travel, meet new people and deeply listen and learn from others.
“Some things we can’t see, but we can feel them and we need to take the time to figure that out,” he said.
Human Rights Studies at King’s is a new collaborative degree program that integrates approaches from across the disciplines to provide students with critical understanding of, and experience in, the growing field of human rights. Topics include women’s rights; the rights of minorities; refugees and displaced persons; Indigenous rights; and remedies for human rights violations in domestic and international law.