Back to All Topics

Decolonial Indigenous Approaches to Seminary Education 

By Randy S. Woodley
Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture at Portland Seminary and Director of Intercultural/Indigenous Studies

November 21, 2022


By Randy S. Woodley
Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture at Portland Seminary and Director of Intercultural/Indigenous Studies


The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Alvin Toffler

The dangers of constructing an Indigenous pedagogy in a Western-based educational system are innumerable. The adage, “more is caught than taught,” is no truer than in Indigenous education. Western-based education is primarily focused on content exchange from a model where the teacher is subject, and the student is object. It is linearly taught and the formal education level is primary. Whereas, Indigenous education is pedagogically subject-to-subject, circular, and experience-based. Attempting to teach an Indigenous pedagogy in the current Western seminary approach, content differences aside, is the proverbial attempt to fit a square peg in to a round hole. There are some things that Western educators can be made aware of to help with the fit, but it will never substitute ground-level Indigenous education via decolonized and Indigenized Indigenous mentors.  

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire declares the Western role of the teacher and student as a “banking” concept of education. As the process goes, the teacher makes deposits and withdrawals; the student is passive. Freire suggests that oppression is unavoidably embedded in Western Pedagogy. I agree. Though oppression may be unintentional, it occurs regardless.  

Oppressive or Liberating Pedagogies 

As an Indigenous teacher and learner, I have always considered pedagogy to be at least as important as content. In other words, what is caught is actually more impacting than what is taught. Freire’s use of teacher and student, referenced below from Pedagogy of the Oppressed (53), are helpful in examining the heart of the epistemological assumptions common in most Western teaching endeavors.  

  • “The teacher teaches and the students are taught;  
  • The teacher knows everything, and the students know nothing;  
  • The teacher thinks and the students are thought about;  
  • The teacher talks and the students listen—meekly;  
  • The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;  
  • The teacher chooses and enforces his choice and the students comply;  
  • The teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;  
  • The teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who are not consulted) adapt to it;  
  • The teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students 
  • The teacher is the subject of the learning process, while the students are mere objects.” 

The conclusion to the Freire paradigm is that the teacher is an agent of oppression to the student.  

Decolonized and Indigenized Mentors 

To begin the deconstruction and decolonial process requires a facilitator/mentor who has been through the process. Namely: someone needs an Indigenous person who has sorted through the muck and mire of colonialism, exposed the myths/lies of the colonial empire, and who has walked aways down the path of Indigenizing their personal life and structural realities. Anything else is inauthentic. A superficial or imitational relationship to these truths is contrary to basic Indigenous approaches to life and learning. 

Relational Community 

Another value necessary in the educational process is community. Taking the Indigenous person out of their community for them to gain a degree is often labeled as disloyal. It is unhealthy for an Indigenous individual and has proven to be unsuccessful. In 2018, Dr. Michelle Jacob, University of Oregon Professor of Indigenous Studies and enrolled member of the Yakama Nation, noted that only 55% of Indigenous people in America graduate on time from secondary institutions and majority of education systems act as extensions of colonization. How, then, besides the stunted Zoom-types of substitutes, does an Indigenous person learn and stay loyal to their community? How does the co-learner gain support without bonding with others from a similar context? Immersive experiences and cohorts seem to address many of the problematic accounts. The support needed for the Indigenous co-learner is to build dynamic communal relationships while not detaching them from their former communities, in short, experiential, immersive, cohort-based initiatives. 


In an Indigenous learning circle, the facilitator or mentor is the gatekeeper for the process but not content. They must ensure that all voices are heard and respected, regardless of content. Authenticity, or as we say, “speaking from our hearts,” is paramount to the process. The Indigenous value of vulnerable spirituality makes the process, and everything that happens within the circle, sacred. Each learning event is a sacred time that will never be repeated. The facilitator or mentor must intimately understand Indigenous values, having lived them, in order to insert the wisdom necessary to direct (not control) the process. 

Story, Social Location, and Place  

The four main literary styles in Scripture are organized thought, poetry and story. Oral story or narrative that has been recorded comprises up to ninety percent of these stories. The recorders had a particular worldview that was not located in a Western, Enlightenment-bound framework, but rather in a worldview much closer to Indigenous, non-Western people. The West does not understand the story in the way it was meant to be understood. The Western worldview asks first, is it fact? Did it happen? Can it be proven or dis-proven? Indigenous worldviews first ask, what truths can I gather from the story? An inadequate understanding of story creates an inadequate theology. 

Narratives naturally compel us to define our place and social location within the story. A Western, non-local, fact-based, and abstract theology make it easier to ignore social location and place. Ignoring place allows a particular place to become any place via the universalizing tendencies of colonialism. All places are not equal. All people are not equal. The universalizing tendencies of colonial myths are transmitted by ignoring the crucial understanding of place and social location. 

I am not unaware of the irony present in writing about Indigenous learning in a Western academic format. While there are many other discussion points needed for an article such as this one, they are best discussed in a more Indigenous pedagogical format. I leave more, for later. 

Dr. Woodley has provided this article following a co-sponsored event by the Center for Ecological Regeneration and the Stead Center for Ethics and Values in support of Garrett’s Indigenous Study Committee. The full video of this event can be viewed here. Garrett-Evangelical sits on the traditional homelands of the people of the Council of Three Fires -the Ojibwe, Potawatomie, and Odawa- as well as of the Menominee, Miami, and Ho-Chunk nations.

This article was edited by Samantha Eyster, Digital Assistant to Stead Center for Ethics and Values, using skills gained from the tutelage and mentorship of Dr. Jill Hodges, member of the Ojibwe nation, current Secretary for the Board of Regents at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College, Former Assistant Director of the Michigan Tech Writing Center and Director for Institutional Equity at Michigan Technological University.

Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, PhD has been referred to as farmer, author, activist, scholar, distinguished speaker/teacher, and wisdom keeper. His expertise has been sought in national venues such as Time Magazine, The Huffington Post and Christianity Today. He addresses a variety of issues concerning American culture, our relationship with the earth, and our spirituality. Dr. Woodley currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture at Portland Seminary and Director of Intercultural/Indigenous Studies. Randy was raised near Detroit, Michigan and is a Cherokee descendant recognized by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. He has many publications