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Aboriginal World Views as Challenges and Possibilities in Social Work Education


Cyndy Baskin (Ph.D. candidate)
Assistant Professor
School of Social Work, Ryerson University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



As Aboriginal peoples gain more access to schools of social work, the academy needs to respond to their educational needs. This involves incorporating Aboriginal world views into social work education. This paper focuses on one definition of world views according to Aboriginal epistemology. It also critiques both the role of social work in the lives of Aboriginal peoples and the goals of social work education. It raises key components that need to be addressed in the academy and provides ways in which this can be achieved. In addition, the paper stresses the importance of this content being taught to all social work students.


As an Aboriginal social work practitioner and educator, I have a vested interest in how this profession has been involved with our families and communities for the past several decades. The profession of social work has not tended to be friendly towards Aboriginal peoples. Rather, it has often been intrusive, judgmental, controlling and harmful.

In recent years, Aboriginal peoples have moved into the area of social work, they are receiving social work degrees and gaining control of some of our services. We even have a handful of Aboriginal social work educators teaching in universities across North America.

As more and more schools of social work begin to incorporate anti-oppressive theories and practices into their curricula, it opens the door for such approaches to include work that is conducive to Aboriginal perspectives.

This paper asserts that Aboriginal worldviews must be incorporated throughout social work education. It does not include all components of such world views, but rather only those that I see as of first importance to the topic of social work education. The paper includes a literature review of social work education by Aboriginal scholars which will centre on what they believe needs to be taught in curricula. In addition, based on my analysis, I will identify where research in this area needs to head at this time.

Towards an Understanding of Aboriginal World Views

Eber Hampton (1995) published an article several years ago in the Canadian Journal of Native Education titled “Memory comes before knowledge”. For me, this magical, mysterious and completely sensible phrase captures the connections inherent in Aboriginal world views. It helps me to understand so many pieces of the circle that contribute to Aboriginal ways of knowing and seeing the world. It is inclusive of spirit, blood memory, respect, interconnectedness, storytelling, feelings, experiences and guidance. It also reminds me that I do not need to know or understand – in the sense of absolute certainty – everything. It reinforces the sense that it is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to believe that there is much that I am aware of, but that I cannot explain. I am aware, for example, that I carry teachings of my ancestors, that I do certain things according to the changes of the moon each month and that my brother who has passed into the spirit world is attending school over there. I am aware of these things, but I cannot offer explanations. I am also aware that this is the way it is supposed to be. I accept what cannot be known and recognize that this is part of my world view.

In keeping with this assertion, Willie Ermine (1995) states that “Aboriginal epistemology speaks of pondering great mysteries that lie no further than the self” (p. 108). Thus, in order to find meanings in the world around us, we must continuously explore our inner selves. Aboriginal world views incorporate ways of turning inward for the purpose of finding meanings through prayer, fasting, dream interpretation, ceremonies and silence. Our ancestors left us these methods through the generational teachings that are passed on by our Elders and via our blood memories.
There is an explicit acceptance that each individual has the inherent ability for introspection. Although there is great community guidance, this inward journey is
conducted alone and is unique for each of us. It provides us with our purpose and, therefore, what we have to offer the whole.

Knowledge, then, is based on experience. One’s experiences through her inward journeys provide both individual learning and teachings for the collective. The accumulation of each individual’s contribution becomes a community’s culture. Culture is kept alive and constantly changing because individuals continue their introspective journeys and contribute their learning to the community.

Even so, there is space and acceptance of all that cannot be explained. As Ermine (1995) writes, “Aboriginal epistemology is grounded in the self, the spirit, the unknown” (p. 108). We do not know, but we experience.

Collective cultural and spiritual experiences strongly indicate the notion of connection. Many Aboriginal writers (Battiste & Youngblood Henderson, 2000; Cajete, 1994; Couture, 1991; Fitznor, 1998; Shilling, 2002) emphasize interconnectedness as an important concept of our world views. As Paula Gunn Allen (1986) says, “all things are related and are of one family” (p. 60). Thus, I am connected to my family, community, Mi’kmaq Nation, everything on Mother Earth and the spirit world. To divide any of these realities into separate categories is a dishonour to Aboriginal ways of thinking.

This understanding of interrelatedness also applies to each individual. Carol Locust (1988), for example, writes: “as Native people, we cannot separate our spiritual teachings from our learning, nor can we separate our beliefs about who, and what we are from our values and our behaviours” (p. 328). Hence, all of the aspects of a person – physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual – are connected and cannot be viewed in isolation. Both Fitznor (1998) and Shilling (2002) emphasize the importance of this concept to the well being of each of us. Fitznor (1998) reminds us “that we are all related and all have a responsibility to each other’s healing and growth” (p.33). Much of this occurs in our sharing circles which also “reflect the traditional concept of interconnectedness” (Fitznor, 1998, p. 34). This, in turn, leads to a holistic approach of healing and learning whereby “all of the senses, coupled with openness to intuitive or spiritual insights, are required” (Brant Castellano, 2000, p. 29).

When someone can live as a whole person, then she can connect to all around her and attend to her responsibilities. In Aboriginal world views, a focus on individual and collective responsibility for all members of one’s community is highlighted. Leroy Little Bear (2000) articulates this component beautifully:
Wholeness is like a flower with four petals. When it opens, one discovers strength, sharing, honesty, and kindness. Together these four petals create balance, harmony, and beauty. Wholeness works in the same interconnected way. The whole strength speaks to the idea of sustaining balance. If a person is whole and balanced, then he or she is in a position to fulfill his or her individual responsibilities to the whole. If a person is not balanced, then he or she is sick and weak – physically, mentally or both and cannot fulfill his or her individual responsibilities (p. 79).

Since I am particularly concerned about the idea of responsibility within Aboriginal world views, I emphasize it in discussions about oral tradition. Teaching and passing on information by Elders to younger generations is an inherent concept of our world views. I seem to always learn best by listening to the stories of my Elders’ and Traditional Teachers’ personal life experiences. These are people who know me and with whom I have gradually developed relationships over time. Whatever they choose to teach me at any particular moment is based on our relationships and always takes place in person.

Both the teacher and the student have a responsibility for the knowledge that is passed between them. According to Brant Castellano (2000), “Aboriginal people know that knowledge is power and that power can be used for good or for evil. In passing on knowledge the teacher has an obligation to consider whether the learner is ready to use knowledge responsibly” (p. 26).

This is the reasoning behind the resistance of many Elders and Traditional Teachers to having their teachings recorded in the written form. Brant Castellano (2000) points out the seriousness of this consideration when she states, “teachers who allow these things relinquish the possibility of adjusting their teaching to the maturity of the learner and thereby influencing the ethical use of knowledge” (p. 27).

For me, these selected concepts of Aboriginal world views – acceptance and a belief in the unknown, inner journeying, experience is knowledge, interconnectedness, responsibility and teaching through oral tradition – relate to how I view the practice of social work, which is healing, and the education of it, which is teaching from experience.

Aboriginal World Views in Social Work Education

The language of the social services…does not stem from or operate within the
consciousness of interconnected and interdependent planes of reality. The institutions isolate and treat the “problem” that, in a tribal view, is only a symptom of a more significant imbalance. Institutionalized words, “white words” cannot initiate the kind of healing achieved through tribal rituals… (Blaeser, 1996, p. 44).

Therein lies the reason why conventional social work has often failed and harmed Aboriginal peoples – it oppresses our ways of knowing and healing practices. What, then, do Aboriginal social work practitioners and educators see as the solutions to this failure? We survive. I propose that we look at survival, not as an end, but as a continuous process of resistance and healing. Blaeser (1996) writes about this in his critique of novelist Gerald Vizenor’s stories:
Survivors actively engage themselves in the ongoing process of discovering and creating their own lives. Those who survive are those who continuously evolve. If stasis characterizes the victims, vitality and adaptability characterize the survivors. Vizenor’s survivors adjust: they examine, question, shift, stretch, bend, change, grow, juggle, balance, and sometimes duck – for surviving doesn’t necessarily mean winning (p. 63).

Social work education is intended to socialize students into the norms and values of the profession which includes both perspectives on clients and beliefs about desirable behaviours. However, since it is infused with dominant world views, it is seen as oppressive by many Aboriginal peoples. According to the literature by Aboriginal social work scholars (Bruyere, 1998; Gair, Thomson, Miles & Harris, 2002: Hart, 2002; Hurdle, 2002; Lynn, 2001; Morrissette, McKenzie & Morrissette, 1993; Waller & Patterson, 2002; Weaver, 1998; Weaver, 1999; Weaver, 2000a; Weaver, 2000b), there are key components that must be addressed within social work education for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. These components are:inclusiveness of Aboriginal world views and ways of helping throughout social work curriculum; awareness of the history of colonization; insight into the assumptions, values and biases of the profession, educators and students; understanding of the client’s cultural context; and
an emphasis on decolonization.

First and foremost is an emphasis on inclusive social work education meaning that Aboriginal world views and ways of helping need to be a part of every course throughout the curriculum. This inclusiveness must also focus on a building of knowledges and practices from year one through year four of undergraduate social work programs. Although there is currently some Aboriginal content in many programs, this tends to be an add on, piecemeal approach (Gair, Thomson, Miles & Harris, 2002), presented as marginal to the profession (Lynn, 2001) and primarily through one course: an elective which students may or may not take (Weaver, 2000b). In addition, Aboriginal world views and cultures are often only seen as relevant for course topics such as “culturally sensitive practice”.

Some schools of social work state that they embrace “an Aboriginal perspective and analysis”. The implication of this is that the views of Aboriginal peoples are as integrated into the curriculum as wholly as other perspectives such as structural or feminist social work approaches. But what happens when one asks the question, “is an Aboriginal perspective mentioned in the classroom as often as anti-racist practice or feminist analysis or a structural approach?” (Bruyere, 1998, p. 174).

As a social work educator, I have many experiences of Aboriginal content being marginalized. The course I teach on Aboriginal social work issues is a one semester, elective, meaning that students take it if they want to; some of my colleagues question why there are two classes rather than one on colonization and racism towards Aboriginal peoples in the anti-oppression course; my pedagogy of circles and spirituality has come under view as to its appropriateness; and some colleagues openly resist including Aboriginal content into their courses.

It is not possible to understand any of the contemporary social issues affecting Aboriginal peoples without an examination of the history of colonization from Aboriginal perspectives. According to Morrissette, McKenzie and Morrissette (1993) colonization encompasses
…cultural dimensions which involve efforts to achieve normative control over a minority group or culture. These efforts included: displacement of traditional forms of governance with representative democracy and an authoritarian model of leadership; the devaluation of traditional spirituality, knowledge, and practices through the actions of missionaries, the residential school system, the health system, and the child welfare system; and the imposition of artificial legal distinctions among Aboriginal peoples. (p. 94)

The structured relationships of colonization must be seen through peoples’ experiences. So many of us have lost our identities and place in the world which is often expressed through substance abuse, violence, involvement with the child welfare system and criminalization of behaviours associated with internalized oppression and poverty. Social work practitioners and educators need to have knowledge about the incredible amount of loss that Aboriginal peoples have experienced and continue to experience on all levels as a direct result of colonization. Social work educator, Hilary Weaver (1999), argues that “social workers must understand the atrocities of the indigenous holocaust in country and the unresolved pain associated with it” (p. 221). Of course, this applies to Canada as well.

Social workers themselves are implicated in the colonization process as they have too often been an extension of it. Weaver (2000a) clearly and passionately provides a personal and political example to which many Aboriginals can relate:
I have frequently heard Native people share stories from their childhoods of social workers who came and took them away or took away their relatives, in the midst of tears, screams, and much bewilderment. I cannot recollect ever hearing a story of a social worker who came in during a time of need and used advocacy or activism skills to make a positive difference. (p. 14)

This leads to the importance of social work practitioners and educators examining their own values and biases while teaching students to do the same. While examining the literature on this topic, I learned that Aboriginal scholars emphasize that “faculty must become aware of their own biases, stereotypes, and cultural indifference before they are able to adequately address cultural issues in the classroom” (Weaver, 2000b, p. 416). This process is referred to as cultural competency in the literature (Hurdle, 2002; Weaver, 1998; Weaver, 2000b).

According to Hilary Weaver (1998), cultural competency can be summarized with three major principles:
the social worker needs to be knowledgeable about the group being worked with;
the social worker needs to be self-reflective and recognize biases within herself
and within the profession; and
the social worker needs to integrate this knowledge and reflection with practice

Clearly, the knowledge of the group being worked with must focus on the history of the colonization of Aboriginal peoples and how this continues to oppress us today. It must also include Aboriginal world views, diversity and cultural strengths. This involves ongoing learning from those we call “clients”.

However, self-reflection is inadequate as it merely suggests that a social worker needs to examine the practice that she has engaged in after the fact or “intervention”. Instead, social workers must practice reflexivity, the critical examination of how their own culture and biases impact on the people they are trying to assist. This process also needs to involve critiquing the profession of social work itself since all theories and models contain a value base.

Donna Hurdle (2002) writes that “culture influences how problems are defined, as well as the nature of problem resolution” (p. 186). If social workers do not consider this, they will never know what kind of assistance clients want that would fit with their cultural views on problem resolution. Hence, when it comes to practice, social workers must have diverse ways of acknowledging Aboriginal knowledges, values and problem solving capacities.

As an anti-racist and anti-colonial practitioner and educator, I tend to critique the cultural competency approach. This approach is framed within the context of multiculturalism which means that it avoids naming racism and other oppressions while racializing culture. I definitely do not support the emptiness of multiculturalism and I certainly do not advocate that if one learns something about someone else’s culture, all will be well. My dream, however, is that although I firmly support the naming of racism and other oppressions, I do not want to be constantly focusing on them in the teaching of social work. Rather, I want to move beyond this to a place of acceptance and inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing within the education and practice of the profession.

What I refer to here is an acknowledgement of Aboriginal cultures as sites of helping, empowerment and liberation. This is desperately needed because of the large numbers of culturally alienated individuals who do not follow traditional ways and are not successfully coping within either dominant society or an Aboriginal community.

These individuals may experience periodic or constant states of crises and exhibit internalized symptoms of colonization such as depression, self-destructive behaviours, or violence towards other Aboriginal peoples (Morrissette, McKenzie & Morrissette, 1993). These are precisely our people who come to the attention of social workers. A cultural context, then, means “an emphasis on historical reconstruction based on an understanding of colonialism to alter the stereotypes and false beliefs given to Aboriginal people, and on culture and traditions as restorative to an individual’s identity and self-esteem” (Morrissette, McKenzie & Morrissette, 1993, p. 98). I would add here that a cultural context for Aboriginal peoples does not only focus on individuals, but also includes families and communities, and that spiritual healing must be included because our spirits have suffered the most due to cultural colonization.

Another significant area that I strongly believe social workers need to be familiar with is the helping relationship within Aboriginal cultures. According to Robyn Lynn (2001), helping styles of Indigenous peoples “bring with them a different epistemology, understandings and practices which stand as a site of resistance to the established discourse of social work – a powerful critique and a rejection of the rationality of science and arrogant professionalism” (p. 909). What stands out in the relationship is a “sense of reciprocity between helpers and recipients” (Waller & Patterson, 2002, p. 80). Thus, the relationship is about sharing – the sharing of stories, food, spirituality, friendship, humour and self-disclosure.

The mention of resistance above is significant. Aboriginal peoples have always resisted. Today, however, our resistance is resulting in a decolonization process which includes areas such as social work. While this paper certainly relates to decolonization, it is more specifically about reclaiming Aboriginal helping practices and being supported by non-Aboriginal peoples through activism. We, as Aboriginal peoples, must be our own leaders in this process. Non-Aboriginal peoples must not be allowed to direct us in how to decolonize. Rather, as Michael Hart (2002) writes, “they must learn how to work in a new relationship with Aboriginal people, where Aboriginal people maintain the freedom to determine our own lives, including our own helping theories, approaches and practices” (p. 36).

This needs to be taught in schools of social work with an emphasis that all efforts be supportive of Aboriginal sovereignty and self-determination. Students can be assisted in learning how to be activists in changing the colonial activities of the educational institution, their placement agencies and governmental structures that define social policies. Students can be encouraged to actively support, for example, Aboriginal social services organizations, changes in social policies regarding child welfare and those groups involved in pursuing land claims and the right to fish. Important, too, is that all students gain the confidence to take stands on issues that specifically impact in negative ways upon Aboriginal peoples. As Hilary Weaver (2000b) asserts,
Since Native [peoples] are often perceived to be a very small group with no political clout, they are often ignored and their issues marginalized. Once politicians realize that many people, Native…and non-Natives alike, are concerned with “Indian issues” they will no longer be able to ignore or marginalize these concerns. (p. 17)

Where to From Here

Through this review of the literature by Aboriginal social work educators in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, I have learned that we know what the problems are in social work education and we know what we want to do to eradicate them. The literature on this topic ends here. Now what? Do we implement any or all of the five components that Aboriginal social work scholars advocate for in the education of students? If so, how do we operationalize these components into curricula? This is where further research is needed. Using Aboriginal research methodologies, it is the research that I believe Aboriginal social work practitioners and academics need to pursue.

Another major concern that should be taken into consideration as a part of this work has to do with responsibility and appropriation. I have the responsibility to teach Aboriginal ways of knowing and helping within the context of social work and I am accountable to students, communities and the Creator for how this is done. I also have the responsibility to safeguard against the appropriation of Aboriginal knowledges by students, colleagues and the academy. Dei et al. (2000) says this best:
As we seek to integrate these knowledges into the conventional school systems, we must guard against appropriation and misappropriation. This is a contemporary challenge for educators. The process of validating Indigenous knowledges must not lead to Indigenous peoples losing control and ownership of knowledge. In other words, it must be recognized that these knowledges are valid in their own right and that the process of bringing them into the academy should not itself constitute the measure of validation. (p. 47)


I am only able to write this article because so much has been shared by Aboriginal scholars and educators on our world views and suggested components for social work education. I (and others I am sure) can receive the torch that is being passed on to me feeling confident that the foundation has been laid and I know how to proceed. I want to close this paper by honouring and thanking those who have come before me – I recognize your sacrifices and the good work that you have contributed and, be assured, because of you, some of us are continuing the resistance.


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The author can be reached by phone at 416-979-5000 ext. 6217, by fax at 416-979-5214, or by email at:


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