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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Custer

"Journey into Knowledge: Exploring Ontology, Epistemology, and Axiology in Graduate Studies"

It’s a Wednesday night. I’ve got a class tomorrow and I was to read around 15 pages to prepare for class. I thought I could get in a quick read before bedtime but I was in for a surprise. I wasn’t quite a few pages in when I encountered words like ontology, epistemology and axiology among others. Now, it’s been a while since I’ve encountered these very academic’y’ words so, I had forgotten what they meant. It’s not in my everyday vocabulary...I don’t walk around life talking like "ontology this, epistemology that or axiology anima". To add to my confusion, the language is in english. I have to try and understand what is being said in my Cree brain so there are a few translations that have to happen in my brain. nīkān (first), I translate to the most simple definition or sentence of that vocab. then I try and process the words through my Cree language. It takes a long time but I finally begin to grasp what is being said. An article that should take me a half hour to read turns into three hours. To top it off, I had to read other articles from brilliant minds like Willie Ermine, Belinda Daniels and Shawn Wilson to help me understand the language. (kinanāskomitināwāw for doing this leg work for us folks.) It started to make sense as I turned inward and summarized what Willie, Belinda and Shawn were sharing with us. Here is what I found out.

Indigenous epistemology is how we understand our world. These are often deeply rooted in our traditional beliefs, practices, and worldviews. Examples of Indigenous epistemology include how:

1) We, as Indigenous people, believe that oral tradition and storytelling is a way that our knowledge is passed down. Our legends and stories are ways of passing on historical knowledge, practical knowledge but also passing on moral and spiritual teachings. For example, our wīsahkīcāhk stories. These stories are well-known and continue to be taught by some of our people including Solomon Ratt, my mentor and friend.

2) We, as Indigenous people, believe that we have a sacred relationship with nature. Sometimes this is evident in our languages. The lands, animals, plants, and waters are our relations who carry with them teachings and knowledge. It is because of this relationship that we, as Indigenous people, believe that we are the stewards of askiy. We give thanks and offer protocols in honour of these relationships. I remember Elder Stan Wilson’s teachings about the practical and the sacred aspects of Indigenous land-based education.

3) We, as Indigenous people, believe in a world that is holistic and interconnected. This is evident in our kinship system which extends beyond immediate families and humans. kāhkithaw niwahkomakanak refers to all our human relations, to the lands, waters, plants, and animal world and to the sky world. We make decisions based on the belief of this relationship.

4) We, as Indigenous people, believe in ceremonies. We practice ceremony to connect to the spirit world, to Creator, to our ancestors to seek guidance, support and to give thanks. Ceremonies can include vision quests, sweats, singing, shaking tents, dancing, drums, whistles, smudging etc.

5) We, as Indigenous people, believe in our oral history and our Elders are the libraries of these histories. They can carry knowledge about legends, histories, medicines, or are the genealogists of our communities.

6) We, as Indigenous people, believe in our dreams and visions quests. When we are in fasting or dreaming states, we can receive guidance.

7) We, as Indigenous people, believe in our medicines and have our own healing practices. Often, our ways of medicine are holistic e.g., mental health includes our physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional selves. We also understand that our plant and animal relations have medicines for our healing. I remember Leanne Simpson’s story about how there were treaties signed long ago for how these relations would care for us.

8) We, as Indigenous people, believe in knowledge rooted in our territories and homelands. We have intimate knowledge of our ancestral lands including seasonal patterns, wildlife behaviour, and sustainable resource management practices. This is also known land-based literacy. I am proud to say that I come from a family that has PhD level knowledge in this area. I would trust them with my life when out on the land!

9) We, as Indigenous people, believe that learning is shared through mentorship and community activities. This also fosters a sense of belonging and collective identity. Elders and youth/children would work together. I remember Elsie Sanderson's teachings about how Elders (who are gifted in different ways) would be able to see what gifts a child had to offer and they would mentor that child. For example, a child with good memory could be mentored to be a storyteller or genealogist.

10) We, as Indigenous people, believe in our ancestors. Their knowledge has been passed on through generations. There is a strong sense of responsibility to do the same for generations yet to come.

11) We, as Indigenous people, believe that our languages hold vast amounts of knowledge that has been passed down to us. They hold keys to how we understand our world. Willie uses the word "mamātāwasowin" in his article. I also believe that our languages hold our beliefs intact. I like to use the example of humility that is embedded into the "you and me" set of Cree. ki-sākih-itin --> you are loved by me. In this instance, "you" is in the prefix and the I is in the suffix in that sentence. This is quite the opposite to I love you - I is in the prefix and you is in the suffix. There are other instances of beliefs embedded into our language such as not taking life for granted in the future conditional suffix "-ki or yāni". If or when something happens in the future. mōtha kīhcināc (I can hear Sol’s voice) haha!

Ontology can be about how we believe this world came to be our where we came from. Traditionally, the Cree believe in Creator and how we came from the stars. Whereas, most religions believe that we come from God and that we were born from Adam and Eve.

Axiology is related to our values. Respect, wisdom, kinship, responsibility etc. these “shape our choices and perspectives…” these are subjective. They can change depending on the person.

I tried to make sense of all this so that I could be prepared for my life as an Indigenous scholar. kāhkithaw ōki kiskinawahamākīwina ī-pimohtāhan nitatoskīwinīhk - I carry these teachings into my life’s work.

I must acknowledge that and not be sī to tell people that this is who I am.


Daniels-Fiss, Belinda (2008) Learning to Be A Nêhiyaw (Cree) Through Language, Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education: Studies of Migration, Integration, Equity, and Cultural Survival, 2:3, 233-245

Ermine, W. (1995) “Aboriginal epistemology” In: Batiste, Marie and Jean Barman (eds.) First nations education in Canada: The circle unfolds. Vancouver, UBC Press.

Wilson, Shawn, (2008) Research Is Ceremony : Indigenous Research Methods. Black Point, Nova Scotia :Fernwood Publishing.

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