Indigenous scholar resists language hegemony

Just a quick update to share an example of a PhD student directly challenging the ways in which we evaluate thinking within the academy–enacting Indigenous pedagogy, language and legal orders in a tangible way within his discipline. Nisga’a architect Patrick Stewart recently submitted a dissertation for his PhD in architecture at the University of British Columbia without punctuation.

National Post story on Stewart’s dissertation explains that he originally submitted his dissertation in the Nisga’a language:

“He wrote his first draft in the Nisga’a language. That failed to impress at least one senior UBC professor, a powerful figure who would eventually have to sign off on the work, or all would be lost. Stewart was called on the professor’s carpet and told his work was not acceptable. He was asked to translate “every word” of his dissertation into English. “So I did that,” he recalls. “There was still no guarantee it would be approved.”

And approval was crucial, of course. Without it, Stewart couldn’t complete his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies, which he’d been pursuing since 2010. It was his second attempt at a PhD; Stewart says he “ran into similar problems” in the early 1990s at UBC, while working towards a doctorate. He gave up, and concentrated instead on his architectural practice.”

What is important to note is that Stewart’s ability to write his dissertation in his own language was prevented by Euro-Western academic conventions that reinforce English as one of the de facto languages of knowledge transmission in Canada (the other being French). However, not all Canadian universities are hostile to students working in their own Indigenous language. In 2009, PhD student Fred Metallic submitted his dissertation at York University in Toronto in Mi’kmaq.

How can we truly enact self-determination, pluralities, Indigenous legal orders within the academy if Indigenous languages, themselves an integral part of Indigenous laws and sovereignty, are deemed only worthy to study as objects or relics, not to employ for intellectual labour itself?

I, for one, am thrilled by Stewart’s choice to forego punctuation in response to the demands that he translate his dissertation to English.

Zoe Todd

Dr. Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches Indigenous feminist (Métis) perspectives on the anthropocene, extinction, human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

6 thoughts on “Indigenous scholar resists language hegemony

  1. Forgive me for offering a trivial anecdote on a serious topic, but your note reminded me of the story Louis Leakey told about his Cambridge years (in his autobiography White African), when he found that he had to pass examinations in two “major” languages. He asked what constituted a major language — apparently a question no one had bothered to ask before — and got the glib answer: any language spoken by more than a million people. OK, Leakey said, I’ll do French and Kikuyu, the latter a language he had grown up speaking in Kenya. Cambridge frowned, but ultimately had to allow it, via the mechanism of Leakey teaching sufficient Kikuyu to a linguist that the linguist was able to examine him on it. Plenty of lessons there for North Atlantic arrogance about what languages are “major” or important.

  2. Zoe, we agree on so much, it pains me to disagree. The point of writing a dissertation is a contribution to knowledge. Writing a dissertation in an indigenous language and, when forced to translate it into English omitting punctuation, is a dramatic gesture. It is, however, one that virtually ensures that no one not forced to read it ever will. No publisher will touch it. Even if it is put online and made Open Access, the number of those who will take the trouble required to read it will be vanishingly small.

  3. I deeply appreciate this, love the principle of it, have no expertise on the matter, and yet, I do, however, have a practical question or two. If one submits their dissertation in only one language, say English, French, or the Nisga’a language, are we then going to run into a similar practical and pedagogical set of problems. Can we find enough people who will meet university//academy standards to evaluate the dissertation and who represent a diverse enough breadth of expertise to do so? Are there enough academics (indigenous or not) fluent in the diversity of indigenous languages to allow them to comment or evaluate dissertations if they start being written in a greater diversity of languages? Are there enough places to learn the proper grammar, writing, etc so that a non-native speaker could serve on a committee or would committee’s become segregated? Or should the standards be changed? Is being able to read the dissertation important, both in terms of evaluation and in terms of sharing knowledge? To some extent, it seems as if the question is about how much of a dissertation is about self-determination versus how much is about sharing of knowledge. I can imagine that there are plenty of architects who might find this dissertation quite interesting. However, if they can’t read it, they won’t be able to interact with it. That would be equally true across indigenous groups and between an indigenous language writer and someone whose native language is English, or Spanish, or French, or Japanese, or … I am honestly curious how we build this. Maybe a starting point is bilingual publication of all dissertations? Author’s native language + common language of broader geographic area. So someone who was born speaking french but works with a Bora community in Peru, might publish in French, Bora, and Spanish?

    I hope your article leads to some discussion as to how we can open up the academy to these issues. If there are resources you would suggest I look into–please, share. Besides my personal interests, the university where I am about to begin a new job is teaching in multiple indigenous languages.

  4. Issues raised by this story are important and certainly worth discussing. The National Post story, however, turns out to be incorrect on some crucial details.

    The dissertation never was written in Nisga’a. Stewart writes, “It was never my intention to write the dissertation in Nisga’a, though it may have been interesting to have done so, not unlike Fred Metallic (2010), who wrote and defended his dissertation in his Mi’gmaw language” (vii).

    He also notes, “Though I cannot be considered in any way fluent in Nisga’a, I attempted to use the language in order to acknowledge my heritage and, more importantly, to strengthen the use of Nisga’a in the academy” (vi).

    The dissertation is written in English, with key Nisga’a terms included in the text and then glossed in square brackets. It generally omits capital letters and periods, and uses some stylized type-setting in places, but it is entirely legible to English readers (at least, I’ve had no great difficulty with the parts I’ve read).

    A PDF is available here:

  5. excellent–thanks for adding this clarification. And for adding the link to the dissertation itself. The National Post should know better…oh well.

  6. These are all really good questions, ones being tangled with in various Universities and departments across Canada. I have a colleague who is pursuing her PhD research in nehiyawewin (Plains Cree), which fills me with immense joy. It really will depend on how we are able and willing to shift the systems of evaluation within the Canadian academy (and beyond). There are robust Indigenous language programs here in my hometown at the University of Alberta, run by Dorothy Thunder. Many people are studying nehiyawewin as part of their University studies at the University of Alberta as a result of this. And the CILLDI program ( at the University of Alberta does immense amounts of work to revitalize Indigenous languages.

    I don’t have the answers, but I’m incredibly interested in how we address the myriad issues you have identified above, and which scholars like Patrick Stewart have provoked us to address through their own approach to the form and presentation of the dissertation itself.

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