CM: Cultural Literacy: Indigenous Protocol and Ways of Knowing

April 19, 2023

By Mackenzie Dachuk, ESPC Practicum Student  

As Canada becomes more diverse with multiculturalism, there is a need for cultural literacy among Canadian citizens and its newcomers. It is evident that Indigenous Peoples have and continue to experience cultural oppression and discrimination, which is why cultural literacy is so important for Canadian society. Not only is it important to be aware of and acknowledge oppression, it is also important to understand that “One of the main principals in partnering with First Nations is understanding their knowledge systems” (Sylliboy et al., 2021).  

What is Cultural Literacy? 

Culture is how a person or group of people live, which can include their language, art, science, beliefs, practices, and an understanding of their environment. Cultural literacy can be defined as having the means or ability to understand those traditions, activities, and histories of different groups of people (Literacy now Burnaby, 2022).  

With a country that values and promotes multiculturalism, our society needs to make strides to becoming more culturally literate. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination start taking place when there is a dependency on assumed knowledge. Racism, for example, takes place when there is a lack of understanding or valuing of the other person’s culture. This leads to stereotypes, discrimination, exclusion, and even violence (Western Sydney University, n.d.). When there is cultural literacy, there is acceptance and connection. It promotes empathy and respect among those who are different in culture. Most importantly, it can help us understand, relate, and interact with people from diverse backgrounds that may be different from our own (ABC Life Literacy Canada, 2023).  

Indigenous Peoples of Canada have their own unique cultural practices, beliefs, languages, and traditions. Despite Canada’s efforts to assimilate, oppress, and erase Indigenous Peoples’ culture and way of life, they have remained persistent in fighting for their culture and knowledge to be recognized and celebrated. Protocol is an aspect within Indigenous culture that Canadian society seems to be illiterate in, and Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, and cultural teachers experience the repercussions of this lack of understanding.  

What are Indigenous Protocols?  

Protocol refers to ways of interacting with Indigenous Peoples in a manner that respects traditional ways of being and are a representation of a culture’s deeply held ethical system (University of Windsor, n.d.). Protocol can be many things, it is important that one familiarizes themselves with the various guidelines and ways of knowing within Indigenous cultures. Like any family unit, culture, or organization, rules and guidelines are put in place to ensure that things are done properly and respectfully. Not only is protocol done for the purpose of respect, Indigenous Peoples and communities have also developed processes to protect their sovereign and inherent rights that involve their way of life (Sylliboy et al., 2021). Land acknowledgements are one process that can be used to recognize Indigenous Peoples who are the stewards of the lands on which we now live (Native Knowledge 360, n.d.). When traditional lands are recognized, Indigenous Peoples protect their sovereignty and power as a nation.  

It is also important to know that protocol can be different from one Indigenous culture or community to another and can be highly complex and multilayered (University of Windsor, n.d.). Some examples of protocol include gift giving, offering of tobacco, honorariums, land acknowledgments, and ceremonial cloth. Asking the Elder, knowledge keeper or cultural teacher what they require or expect for protocol is encouraged.  

Protocol: A lack of cultural literacy. 

For centuries, Canadian society has been rooted in colonial practices and Eurocentrism, creating negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples (Antoine et al., 2018). In addition to these negative impacts, assimilation practices have prevented Indigenous Peoples from sustaining their culture. As a result, many people in Canada lack cultural literacy towards Indigenous culture and do not know what protocol is or what it looks like. 

Understanding protocol is an example of cultural literacy, however many people lack this cultural literacy when engaging with Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, and cultural teachers. It’s important to ask oneself why there is a lack of literacy of Indigenous culture and what can be done to avoid these misconceptions. Non-Indigenous citizens must be willing to listen and educate themselves with Indigenous cultural practices, especially when looking to utilize those practices. The barriers to understanding protocol will minimize when the public is more open and willing to engage in the work required. It is important to note that Indigenous Peoples are separate and unique nations, rather than a single group of people (Antoine et al., 2018). This is a common misconception, though knowing this may help when needing to offering protocol to a specific nation.  

Exploitation of Indigenous Knowledge. 

Cultural appropriation and cultural exploitation are some current issues faced by Indigenous Peoples. Their traditions, ceremonies, and way of life have and continue to be mocked and exploited, often for the benefit of the dominant Western culture. Regardless, Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, and cultural teachers continue to share their culture and knowledge with the public. “Elders and cultural teachers are held in high regard, by Indigenous communities, as they carry rights and responsibilities to hold, protect and share Indigenous ways of knowing” (Indigenous Initiatives, n.d.).  

Western ideology is known to give value and merit to a person based on their title or position within society, as long as this position fits within the Western knowledge system. The services that Elders and Knowledge keepers provide are often expected to be given for free, whereas non-Indigenous speakers are financially compensated for their services. Elders or knowledge keepers are often exploited for their knowledge and experience by Western society, yet those non-Indigenous persons with a doctorate or Ph.D. receive full compensation or recognition for their knowledge and experience.  

Redefining who is an expert is important to understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion because traditionally, experts have been seen only as people with academic rigor, reputation, or credentials, however this expertise can also be reflected in peoples’ lived experience (Gibson, 2018). Indigenous Peoples are continually experiencing oppression from the dominant ideology, one that holds power and privilege which is reflected through these knowledge systems. When society can begin to value both the traditional and Western knowledge systems and practices, cultural literacy will continue to grow and strengthen. There is much to celebrate about Indigenous culture. Their languages, art, land teachings, traditional music and dancing, food, and ceremony are beautiful aspects within Indigenous culture and are some ways we can celebrate alongside Indigenous Peoples. 

Call to Action:  

Going forward, what can the public do to become culturally literate on Indigenous protocols and ways of knowing? It starts by learning the history of Indigenous culture and getting to know what it means to work with knowledge keepers and Elders. It means stepping away from Western knowledge systems and begin learning through and with Indigenous Peoples themselves. Attending cultural events, advocating for Indigenous sovereignty, allyship and connecting with local Indigenous communities are a few ways to learn about Indigenous culture. Getting to know Indigenous communities at this grassroots level will help in ending the stigmas and stereotypes that the colonial frameworks established, while also expanding and developing a culturally literate society. 

Indigenous Learning Resources:  

There are several learning resources available to the public for expanding your cultural literacy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are two great starting resources to guide people in the right direction.  

Elders, Indigenous Knowledge keepers, and cultural teachers are there to share their teachings, and by understanding protocol, you can have deeper access to Indigenous cultural literacy. Alberta Native Friendship centers are great resources for accessing a variety of cultural programming. Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society is also a great resource for expanding cultural literacy as they support many partners in elevating their capacity to serve the Indigenous community in a culturally relevant, authentic, and sincere way 


Note: This is an excerpt from our March 2023 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here

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Mackenzie Dachuk is currently in her third year of the Bachelor of Social Work program at MacEwan University and is completing her practicum with the Edmonton Social Planning Council. She has a passion for helping others and empowering them in achieving their goals. Mackenzie plays hockey for the MacEwan women’s team and enjoys sports, travel, and connecting with the community.  



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Gibson, C. (2018). Deciding together shifting power and resources through participatory grantmaking. GrantCraft. Retrieved from 

Indigenous Initiatives Guidelines for Working with Indigenous Community Members. (n.d.). Retrieved from  

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Native Knowledge 360. (n.d.) Smithsonian: National museum of the American Indian. Retrieved from 

Sylliboy, J., Latimer, M., Marshall, A., & MacLeod, E. (2021). Communities take the lead: Exploring Indigenous health research practices through Two-Eyed Seeing & Kinship. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 80(1). 

University of Windsor. (n.d.). What are Indigenous Protocols? Retrieved from 

Western Sydney University. (2019). What is the assumed knowledge of a culture? Retrieved from 


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