Posted by & filed under General Psychology, Human Development, Indigenous Psychology, Social Psychology.

Description: I am going to spend some time over the next little while writing about and posting links to articles and other media about the need to indigenize Psychology. (Note: in what follows I will be referring to features and aspects of the Canadian historical and current experience, however, indigenization and all that it involves certainly has implications globally as well). If you do not know what that is or what it might involve you are not alone. It is a big, broad and foundational issue which cannot be summarized in a single post. To understand what could be involved in indigenizing Psychology and to understand why it is something that needs to be undertaken requires that you gather and stich together your own understanding of an array of facts, theories, histories, and perspectives. You will need to consider what you know or what you can find out about the historical treatment of aboriginal and Metis people in Canada from broad issues of colonization to historical events and practices such as residential schools and the jump in the number (proportion) of aboriginal children and youth in foster care or adopted into non-aboriginal families known as the “60’s scoop.” You will need to reflect on your own assumptions, and beliefs about the impacts of those and other historical events on aboriginal and Metis people and about how they are viewed and treated within society not just historically but today. You will need to consider the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which worked towards the following goals:

“There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.” ( )

You should also look at the work going on in colleges and universities, partly in response to a number of recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, to indigenize post-secondary institutions, programs and courses. The core of those recommendations involve the view that universities are both the generators and the purveyors of knowledge and that they have been engaging in those activities largely from within a perspective or world-view grounded in a experiences and interests of  the colonizers or settlers with little or no acknowledgement of or understanding of the perspectives or world-views of aboriginal, Metis, First Nations, Inuit — gathered under the heading of indigenous people, indigenous communities or indigenous cultures and with no understanding of the impact such a lack of understanding has contributed to the standing and experiences of indigenous people.

Finally, all of these have implications for how we might understand what it could mean to indigenize Psychology. Psychology is one of the disciplines found on most, perhaps all, University campuses and as such it will be involved in whatever initiatives are untaken to indigenize the universities in which it resides. But, it is potentially useful to step back a bit, to consider the various historical, socio-political, and University operational and governance matters noted above as background or context for a direct examination of the foundational assumptions of the discipline of Western Psychology. So, is Psychology and all that it studies simply and universally true about and for human beings? If not, then are there assumptions about the basic nature of human beings and their psychological functioning, development, adaptation and wellbeing underlying Psychological theory and research that are linked to and reflective of the mainstream (majority, settler) population and consequently either ignorant of or, worse, damaging to the assumptions about the basic nature of human beings and their psychological functioning, development, healing and wellbeing held by indigenous persons, communities and cultures. This question regarding the universality of Psychological concepts and theories is going to be central to my efforts to help you investigate, reflect upon, and understand what it might mean to indigenize Psychology.

Where to start? Well, when I teach Human Development (infancy through adolescence) I try to find opportunities to discuss the role of culture, history and community in shaping what it means to be an infant, a child, a teenager, an adult, a parent, and a citizen, I start by having students consider what they believe to be the appropriate response to questions like: What are infants like—what is their basic nature? Most responses to these questions involve talking about movement from the dependency of infancy towards the autonomy of adolescent and the responsibilities of parenthood and citizenship. I ask students to consider how universal this general developmental pathway is. I point out that most Western developmental Psychology textbooks run about 16 chapters in length and in most of them the first 12 to 14 chapters are typically devoted to coverage of human development including discussions of physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. The chapters towards the end of these textbooks are sometimes grouped into a section called “Contexts of Development” and focus upon the social and family contexts within which individual children grow and development they also talk about the institutional and geographic contexts such as schools, urban versus rural counties, and cultural and geographic reginal variation in developmental contexts. The impression is that humans develop and some of the flavors of individual or community or cultural covariation are surface-added by the contexts in which otherwise universal human development proceeds. What is less obvious but still directly tied to this approach to human development is perhaps the central assumption of Western Psychology, that being that the unit of analysis or focus within Psychology is and ought to be the individual.

Individuals grow, development, learn, make plans, move out into the world, take up responsibility and, eventually, become adults. Contexts, such as friends, family, schools, communities, and historical timeframes all influence individual developmental trajectories, but the key focus remains the development of individuals. Now this may seem so obvious to you that the very idea that there might be other ways to think about developing persons is simply unthinkable. An indigenous Psychology begins with a position that viewing persons entirely as autonomous individuals is only one of a number of possible assumptions or starting places and not seeing the possibilities of other sorts of assumptions about peoples’ basic natures can amount to a version of racism that is grounded not in fear or hatred directed towards indigenous others (though such racism is a very serous problem), but rather, a racism grounded in indifference, ignorance, or unawareness. Think of it this way (by way of analogy); we can think of fish as living within an aquatic culture. The fish, however, despite being surrounded by water, are essentially unaware of it and do not appreciate its essential role in their existence (unless, of course, they are suddenly without it). Members of the mainstream, settler/colonizer population are essentially unaware of their own culture and often have a great deal of difficulty understanding that the ongoing struggles of second and third generation children of Residential School attendees are not a reflection of their individually flawed natures but are consequences of issues of transgenerational trauma and of their ongoing struggles with cultural contexts that are not their own and within which they are not fully welcomed. This can apply to refugees and immigrants as well. It can also apply to anyone who, by virtue of difference, diversity or disability, is outside of the normative, outside of the mainstream.

All right, OK, yes, I know, perhaps us “fish” DO know a little bit about the water in which we swim or about the cultures and their assumptions in which we grow and develop. However, given the nature and extent of the harm that can be done when we may be defining people, groups, and communities using inappropriate assumptions, isn’t it worth putting some effort into understanding the nature of those assumptions and ways in which our understanding of human psychology and human development may be incomplete, flawed, underinformed or perhaps even a bit racist?

Let’s start by bouncing around a bit in the various domains I mentioned above and, where opportunities arise, dig in a bit into what it might mean to indigenize Psychology. Let’s start by looking at an article the provides a general overview of efforts by Canadian universities to indigenize themselves. While this article does not mention Psychology directly keep the idea of variability in assumptions about the nature of persons in mind as you read through the article.

Source: Indigenizing the Academy, Moira MacDonald, University Affairs

Date: April 6, 2016

Photo Credit: Julie Flett

Article Links:


In the posts that will follow this one we will further explore the various domains described above and lay the foundation for the development of an understanding of Psychology that does not, purposely or out of ignorance create conditions that could damage aboriginal or Metis culture and which would not apply concepts of healing or challenge that are culturally foreign to aboriginal people. .

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is meant by the word indigenization in relation to universities?
  2. What is potentially gained by indigenizing universities?
  3. What might it mean to indigenize Psychology?

References (Read Further):

Website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Kim, U., Yang, K. S., & Hwang, K. K. (2006). Contributions to indigenous and cultural psychology. In Indigenous and Cultural Psychology (pp. 3-25). Springer US.

Pickren, W. E. (2009). Indigenization and the history of psychology. Psychological Studies, 54(2), 87-95.