Pan-Indigenousism and Cultural Appropriation: A Practicum Student’s Observations in the Community


Candace Parsons, University of Calgary, Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, Calgary, Canada

Email: Candace Parsons


Using a critical analysis of my experience as a university student working within a community-based organization, I found that Pan-Indigeneity, cultural appropriation is typical within the movement to indigenize. Over the course of my practicum, I felt underprepared and uncomfortable when trying to confront the concerns of Indigenous clients regarding the use of generic Indigenous symbolism in programing. Employing a narrative lens, I lend a voice to the clients who felt marginalized by the organization’s efforts to indigenize its programing. By operating within a “deep learning” framework, I have learned that through an Indigenous Knowledge (IK) perspective, scholars can sensitively navigate the movement to Indigenize.

Keywords: Pan-Indigenousism, cultural appropriation, Indigenous Knowledge, community, practicum student, deep learning

Working as a practicum student in an Indigenous community has led me to believe that experiencing Pan-Indigenousism is a common lived reality for Indigenous people. Mirroring the education system, community agencies and organizations have made efforts to mobilize an Indigenous perspective. Through my work as a practicum student, I found myself using materials that perpetuated some symbolic stereotypes seen within Indigenous cultures. Based on my observations over the span of my practicum and my teachings within Indigenous culture and knowledge, I think that the diverse nature of Indigenous cultures is being lost in translation. Due to the continued oppression of Indigenous people within society, the rapid indigenization efforts are portraying Indigenous people and cultures in an over-generalized fashion. Using a critical and reflective lens, I will recount my experience of using culturally insensitive material. I will also point to Indigenous Scholars and researchers who have argued that Indigenization movements may be continuing to utilize a “generic Indian” stereotype. Lastly, I will discuss a theoretical approach involving “deep learning” to guide me in avoiding culturally insensitive materials.

Freire’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, urged that the education system was a member of a Eurocentric and colonized institution that has dehumanized the oppressed (Freire, 1970). Indigenous scholars such as Battiste (2013) have stated that the education system now seeks to decolonize its curriculum through indigenization efforts (Battiste,2013). Although decolonization efforts are needed to increase inclusion and breakdown false accounts of history, from my experience and teachings of IK, the current indigenization efforts may not be realistic. My observations within the community were echoed in the classroom by my IK Professor Les Jerome (2019). Jerome unapologetically raised concerns about what he called the rise of the culturally insensitive pan-Indigenous movement. In lecture, Jerome discussed what he called the “generic-Indian”. The generic-Indian refers to the Pan-Indigenous movement, not as a way to create a collective voice of Indigenous people, rather, as method to strip down vast cultural difference and place all Indigenous people into one generic category. Jerome explained that the popular indigenization movement uses a “fashionable” version of the generic-Indian in an effort to indigenize institutions. Moreover, Jerome expressed that scholars and organizations, such as universities, unintentionally utilize cultural appropriation tactics in their efforts to indigenize (Jerome, 2019).

In fact, Engle (2010) concluded that institutions seem to be using generalized versions of Indigenous culture rather than using realistic and culturally sensitive information to provide an accurate indigenization effort. Further, the indigenization movement could include nefarious methods to indigenize, such as, stealing or borrowing of a culture without using sensitivity and respect for the diversity within a culture which is known as cultural appropriation (Engle, 2010). Stemming from cultural appropriation is the issue of cultural misinformation. Described by King (2016), the appropriation struggle is a major challenge because it derives from stereotypes portrayed of Indigenous peoples. King expressed that cultural representations of Indigenous people are incorrect because multiple aspects have been lost in translation (King, 2016). My practicum took place in a community organization that made great efforts to indigenize their programs, especially the programs aimed at including Indigenous people living in the community. I suddenly found myself immersed in Indigenous-based community work; specifically, I was responsible for interviewing many Indigenous people for a research study. However, I struggled with feeling adequate in my role to support Indigenous people as a privileged Caucasian student who had little experience working with this population.

Many of the people that I interviewed for the study were vulnerable due to their previous incarceration experience, criminal history, living within a cycle of poverty, and intergenerational trauma. Additionally, I was placed in role to work as a research and evaluation specialist in an Indigenous-based program. The program focused on sensitive subject matter such as residential school experience, the 60’s ‘scoop’, and other concepts related to Indigenous intergenerational trauma. My main objective was to collect feedback from the attendees based on their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual experiences while attending the program. Again, I felt underprepared to support clients. Nonetheless, as my time in this role increased, so too did my confidence and understanding of Indigenous cultures. The self-assurance arising from the appreciation of Indigenous cultures helped me to feel that I could better support clients.

In the beginning of my practicum, my Indigenous cultural knowledge was academically-based. I had little practical experience of working with vulnerable populations. Part of my role was to use “indigenized feedback tools” that gathered feedback from clients. The tools depicted generalized symbols found within some Indigenous cultures. For instance, the forms used the medicine wheel as a symbol which prompted clients to rate their experiences while attending certain Indigenous based programs. The issue with the use of the medicine wheel is that not all Indigenous cultures use the medicine wheel. In fact, an Anishinabek Plains Indigenous client approached me to complain about the use of the medicine wheel on the feedback form. The client explained that his people do not use the medicine wheel and that he found it “annoying” to see the wheel constantly used as a symbol to represent all Indigenous cultures. The forms also depicted a drawing of a turtle which was used as a visual representation of Turtle Island. Again, an Indigenous man from the Blackfoot Siksika Nation expressed his unrest regarding the turtle as he felt that it was a stereotype that generalized all Indigenous cultures and explained that his people do not believe in Turtle Island.

Although I believe it is key to gain an Indigenous world view in all aspects of learning, it is equally important to avoid cultural appropriation, misinformation and Pan-Indigenousism. Moving forward in my career I have a desire to work as an Occupational Therapist (OT) within the Indigenous community. As an OT, I have considered Haig-Brown’s (2010) theory of “deep learning”. In opposition to “shallow” learning which places well intentioned scholars at risk of violating cultural protocol and being insensitive, deep learning discusses ways in which to avoid cultural appropriation within scholarship. Haig-Brown, a Caucasian ethnographer who has worked within an Indigenous context for 30 years, argued that deep learning is a way in which non-Indigenous scholars can learn about indigenous discourse. Additionally, deep learning teaches appropriate cultural protocol which involves getting the permission of Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers in their work (Haig-Brown, 2010). I used deep learning as a tool to engage with IK in a non-generic way which authentically elevated Indigenous voices.

After aligning myself with the deep learning theory, I felt confident to approach my practicum supervisor and advocate for the Indigenous clients. I provided the feedback to the organization that was given to me and expressed client’s concerns regarding the stereotypical symbolism on the forms. The client’s concerns have motivated the organization to create non-generic feedback forms for their clients. Additionally, the experience I gained from working within a diverse community, allowed me to see cultural insensitivity as an issue that can be addressed though deep learning. Furthermore, my current view of indigenization and the implications on the community and society at large, has propelled me to raise awareness through academic scholarship. Engle (2010), King (2016) and Jerome (2019) discussed the issues surrounding indigenizing large institutions because of cultural misrepresentation. I concede that by respecting diversity and raising awareness, scholars can foster engagement to mitigate the risks of harmful appropriation and pan-indigenous movements.

In utilizing a deep learning approach, I was able to support clients in a culturally appropriate way, while reflecting on my own bias and inadequacy. Through my work with Indigenous people during my practicum and my teachings within IK, I found that Indigenous cultures were being portrayed in an over generalized light. Indigenous Scholars and researchers have argued that Indigenization movements may be continuing to utilize a “generic Indian” stereotype. In using a reflective tone, I amplified the voice of the Indigenous clients within the community and their concerns regarding generalized indigenization and culturally insensitive programing material. Indigenous scholarly material has shown rapid indigenization efforts continue to oppress Indigenous people by constructing Indigenous culture in a non-diversified and over-simplified way. The effort to Indigenize can be monstrous when cultural misinformation on those who have been oppressed, such as the Indigenous peoples of Canada, is allowed to infiltrate society.


Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing Limited.

Engle, K. (2010). The elusive promise of indigenous development: Rights, culture, strategy. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder and Herder.

Haig-Brown, Celia. (2010). Indigenous Thought, Appropriation, and Non-Aboriginal People. Canadian Journal of Education, 33(4), 925-950.

Jerome, L. (2019). University of Calgary: Class Lecture September 2019. Indigenous Knowledge 305.

King, L. (2016). Revisiting Winnetou: The Karl May Museum, Cultural Appropriation, and Indigenous Self-Representation. (2016). Studies in American Indian Literatures, 28(2), 25-55.


International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Student Perspectives 2019
ISSN 1703-3381