Ogimaakwe: Reframing Structures of Dominance in Higher Education

College campus in the spring
November 9, 2021

After weeks of research, the Indigenous Research team had developed an interview protocol, passed internal ethics review, and planned to contact five women in leadership on five Manitoba reservations to understand Indigenous concepts of matriarchal leadership long ignored or misunderstood by colonial researchers. Each member of the team had contacts within specific First Nations and started making their calls. After a week of making calls, the team had yet to secure a single female leader to interview across five First Nations reserves. Why?

First Steps

The team determined that the best approach would be to try to discover why Indigenous women were not willing to discuss leadership. Each team member selected an elder with whom they had a relationship to ask the simple question, “Why have we been unable to secure a single interview to learn about Indigenous leadership?” The collective response led the team to their first discovery in decolonizing leadership. The elders explained to the team that no Indigenous person wants to be a colonial leader. The examples of colonial leaders through an Indigenous lens include government, corporations, and military. All these exemplars employ colonial leadership tactics which are viewed as unethical by Indigenous peoples. These exemplars have all lied, murdered, raped, stolen, and manipulated Indigenous nations, so why would they want to emulate them?


The team consulted with Indigenous language speakers and found that there was no word for leadership. However, in Cree, Ojibwe, and Dakota, the word for stepping forward to be responsible is Ogima. Akwe is the word for female both plural and singular. The team began to call and ask for interviews examining Ogimaakwe, and the calendar filled with interviews. 

But this was only the beginning. This one illustrative event is not what this article is about. While this study revealed much about Ogimaakwe, there were findings more specific to higher education that have been long accepted by institutions but have produced perceptions of exclusion, racism, and forced systems of colonizing education. 

From this difficult start, the team found four key toxic dominance structures within higher education: 1) Student government, 2) Indigenous centres, 3) the European educational model, and 4) Tokenism.

Student governments have long been a part of higher education and, indeed, education in general. The early indoctrination of youth into colonial government structures is a common practice. The other reason student governments were created was to be the voice of students to the administration. As an experiential educational tool, student government attempts to involve students in the concerns and practices of education. The construct of an election process followed by highly structured Robert’s Rules meetings and top-down or privileged voice advocacy stands in stark contrast to Indigenous systems of inclusion and decision making. Many student governments serve as the long arm of the administration among the students rather providing the student voice to the administration. This construct closely mimics representational government, with privileged high-profile people elected that then serve as the exemplar of student experience. 

Indigenous models of government involve concentric circles of involvement that are directed by an elder. Circle is a common mode of discussion within Indigenous communities. Many educational venues have adopted the “talking stick” approach where the person with the talking stick is the only one allowed to speak. However, this is an elemental understanding of a community circle. Within a community circle, the elder begins the circle with a blessing and everyone engages in smudge, which is a ceremony of cleansing oneself with sacred smoke. Those within the circle understand that they must honor the seven sacred teachings of Indigenous cultures. Some nations have more sacred teachings, but all participants understand the constructs and expectations of the circle. Everyone can speak and everyone must listen compassionately. 

Indigenous systems of governance have long been investigated by external researchers. Community circles have been incorporated broadly. However, one specific construct has been missed as essential and that is the cultural understanding that underpins all functions. Student governments, no matter how diverse, they are by their nature, exclusionary. The values of the two constructs are diametrically opposed. 

A great many higher education institutions in North America have an Indigenous Centre on their campus. I’ve seen Muslim prayer centers, meditation centres, tiny chapels, and more. In every Indigenous centre I’ve visited or worked with, I’ve noticed some dangerous common themes not evident in other types of centers. 

  1. You must be Indigenous to work there or work with the people there. I understand that for many institutions, this is a clear case of justifiable exclusion in that an Indigenous centre can require a particular heritage. The problem is in how Indigeneity is defined. Who gets to define Indigeneity? Part of the colonial construct has been to determine who is Indigenous and who is not. In some areas, treaty cards are required; in others, perhaps blood quantum is used. Increasingly, Indigenous people don’t look like the stereotypical Indigenous person. Assessing someone based on their appearance is still prejudice. A nonindigenous administrator determining the eligibility of an Indigenous person based on an arbitrary definition is practicing colonial prejudice.
  2. The centre doesn’t need an academic or anyone with an advanced credential. This means that in most situations, the centres are ill-equipped to assist faculty or students in navigating the academy using an Indigenous lens. The administration devalues Indigenous ways of knowing of non-academics. The faculty only respect those with earned graduate credentials. Students learn quickly who can/can’t or will/won’t assist them. While the centres may have tutors or labs, what they lack is credibility within the academy. 
  3. The mandate of the centre is not clearly defined. Administrators try to justify a weak or nonexistent mandate by stating “We believe the participants should determine the function and mandate.” The problem is that the institution rarely gives the authority or support for such a decision to the centre. That means that even if the participants determined a function and mandate, there would likely not be any support from the institution itself and less likely would any resources be allocated to make that function or mandate work. The Indigenous Center becomes window dressing for the perception of diversity and inclusivity.  Access is strictly controlled and monitored. Every Indigenous centre I have visited had a security system, whether it was a card swipe system, cameras, monitoring, or locked doors. This shouts that the administration doesn’t trust anyone related to the centre. 

This isn’t a resource center. It’s a reservation. 

Eurocentric styles of education are a preindustrial age and industrial age system of mass production education that focuses on uniformity and control such as seats in rows, teacher-directed learning, textbook-dependent learning, and one-time assessment, with memorized correct answers. Students are evaluated based on their performance on these assessments. Many institutions also incorporate a bell curve for grading, meaning that each student is competing against other students for their grade. These tests can determine the future of a student. Schools have a clear hierarchy, and students who are struggling or acting up are sent to a person within the hierarchy for redress, often placing the student in a power structure situation that decreases their ability to appropriately advocate for themselves. What is probably more traumatic is that most Indigenous people know or are related to someone who was sent to residential school and was horribly abused within that Eurocentric system. This retraumatizes students on a nearly daily basis. 

Indigenous educational systems utilize a mentorship system. Students are valued for their own observations and understanding. Land- based teachings encourage youth to examine their surroundings and learn as much as they can. Indigenous people often observe more than scientists. Many disciplines are beginning to examine these teachings for clues on how to proceed with research. When an individual is allowed to learn about what interests them, within their environment, and learn what will be of value to others and their own future life, they continue to learn, grow, and excel. Young people may often have several mentors throughout their life. They seek out knowledge keepers, which leads to a knowledge quest of their own. There are no answers in the back of the textbook. 

Within Indigenous teachings, once you’ve learned it, you’ve earned it. It would be disrespectful to reference who told you the story or the teaching, as the teachings come from the Creator or Great Spirit. The idea that a person owns an idea or concept is completely alien and only an environment that monetizes idea creation would rely on citation. The cultural construct of owning an idea is seen as arrogant.  The common cultural practice of Potlatch ensures that no value is placed on belongings and that each and every person understands the dangers of hoarding or acquiring and the value of sharing and giving. 

Finally, too many actions within higher education are merely Tokenism. Many higher education institutions are trying to work toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. However, most of the efforts end up as token gestures that do not constitute real relationship building. Superficial gestures, such as asking an elder to open an event with a prayer or a teaching or offering a land acknowledgement statement, are easily accomplished and have become just one more box to check. Rarely are these actions an outward sign of the creation of a more meaningful and inclusive relationship. Moreover, without deeper understanding of Indigenous ways, these gestures can result in increased prejudice and more misunderstandings. 

Consider one Indigenous researcher’s experience: Crystal sat in her first interview after spending weeks in research and training. She began the interview as the institutional ethics review board had directed her by acknowledging they were on Treaty 2 territory. The very first interview of the project was halted with the interviewee putting a hand in the air to stop the interview and saying, “You’re not on treaty land anything, you are on DAKOTA land.” 

Canada began land acknowledgement statements after the incorporation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations and the 2010 Winter Olympics held in British Columbia. They announced at each event the venue’s treaty lands. This was ground-breaking at the time. However, progress stagnated after over a decade of copycat land acknowledgement statements. 

Like the Emancipation Proclamation, all progress begins with an acknowledgement that a standard practice or view is flawed. But then the real work of addressing systemic racism and injustice begins. Consider this more pedestrian and personal example:  Do you have a mortgage? When people come to visit, do you welcome them to your (insert bank name here) home? No. You welcome them to your home. Even though you don’t own the home, you have the veiled belief that you do. The government does not own the land, but they ask that you remember the treaty which gave that land over to the government. Treaties are broken promises and the documentation of centuries of oppression and abuse. Every time a land acknowledgement statement is given, we are reindoctrinated into colonialism. 

Instead, learn whose traditional lands you are on. Acknowledge that treaties were broken, and that land was stolen, families broken, and peoples traumatized and murdered. The path beyond prejudice begins with acknowledging harms. 

What is the Path Forward?

The need to reinvent higher education is pressing. Higher education has remained largely unchanged for over a century. While there are online courses and more complicated science elements presented, the Eurocentric underpinnings of the educational system have not changed. Millions of potential students are turned away because they don’t match profile of a successful student in a system that was created two centuries ago. Administrations have fought change, trying to fit new systems into old ones at tremendous expense rather than seeing the tremendous economic potential that transformation holds. Colonial thinking must be abandoned. 

  1. Indigenous Student Association. Consider that while not all nations within the United Nations utilize the same system of government, each nation is heard and collaborates on projects of international concern. Rather than maintaining a unilateral student government, perhaps modeling the more diverse and inclusive UN would allow disciplines and distinct segments to operate in a manner most appropriate and productive for them, and then to come together to form a broader and more mature implementation of governance. 
  2. Empowered and well-considered Indigenous Centre AND programming. When a new academic program is formed, the administration seeks expert guidance and leadership. Then the program is created and validated through a validation process.  There are currently several councils being formed for the purposes of accrediting Indigenous programs. While an Indigenous centre need not be paired with an academic program, the process of validation lends credibility. Concentric circles of care that include academics and non-academics are essential. While some programming may be set by the institution, such as a graduation Pow-wow, other programming could be unique to each centre, depending on the elders and academics involved. A prestigious “Indigenous Centre Fellowship” might include reduced workload to allow Fellows to engage in research with the centre and the relevant communities. There are many ways to research, create, and support Indigenous centres, but the key is to include them in the overall function of the institution.
  3. Learning and learning recognition systems. Indigenous systems of learning, such as independent learning and learning recognition systems, are successful across the continent. The best potential example of a non-Eurocentric educational model in academic andragogy would be a flipped classroom held in a community circle. There has been great success with cohorts utilizing this system. Beginning each week with a simple elder-guided community circle, asking a) “What did you do last week?” b) “What will you do this week?” and c) “What do you need help with?” creates a caring community of collaboration.  Curriculum becomes collaborative, and each student teaches other students under the guidance of an instructor and an elder. Land-based education has experienced huge success even in urban settings. A version of experiential learning, land-based education allows the student to identify the issue, learn about the issue, connect with the community, and build experiential educational elements themselves with guidance from the instructor and an elder.
  4. Meaningful reconciliation and partnerships with local Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation requires that first, harms must be acknowledged. Open and respectful communication is key. The two parties must grow together. Consider adding an elder to your board of governors. Consider having more than one elder in residence. It is essential for the higher education community to become directly involved in the rebuilding of Indigenous constructs, community, projects, and validation.  

Higher education has long been a leader on the front lines of social change. Perhaps the social change higher education needs to lead now is an evolutionary change in higher education itself.



La Royce Batchelor

LA ROYCE BATCHELOR is an award-winning professor, best-selling author, and serial entrepreneur whose 30 years in higher education has spanned four countries and five institutions. Finding inequity and imbalance, Batchelor retired and founded Clever Crow, which provides Ph.D. communication and business research and writing services to assist in the deconstruction of inequitable and outdated power structures. Never fitting neatly into any one box, Batchelor refounded and coached a national level forensics team; earned a Sandan in Shotokan Karate, won three national titles, and taught karate; and launched seven entrepreneurial ventures.