In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on Malawi24 and Africa Press.
Political scientist and writer Wonderful Mkhutche has written a book on humanism and politics in Malawi which he says will help people understand how issues of humanism affect politics.
Speaking in an interview, Mkhutche said the book, ‘Humanism and Politics Short Essays’, seeks to provide deep understanding on how politics affects humanism and in turn how the humanism affects politics so as for people to grow in religious beliefs and at the same time practicing politics well in the societies.
“Through this book, I want to do two things. First of all, help the readers understand how issues of humanism affect politics and vice versa. Secondly, to provide alternative ways on how best to grow in spiritual life as well as practice politics in a good manner,” said Mkhutche.
Mkhutche said the book is currently receiving positive feedbacks from readers who say it is a helpful book that will transform people’s lives politically and spiritually.
“It is quite interesting that people are now appreciating this book saying it is a very important book in life. To me this is an achievement and I feel myself to be a great of today and tomorrow. No matter how it gets to me, this is an achievement and the work of spreading knowledge and ideas is now on track”, he said.
The writer further said there were so many challenges that were chocking him in his journey of coming up with the book but he still never gave up. One challenge he mentioned was how to manage his other duties and at the same time concentrate on the book.
“Another challenge was about generating ideas on humanism topics since this is uncommon thing in Malawi and many people oppose them. You have to take time to present ideas that can persuade readers,”, he said.
Mkhutche then said government needs to promote reading culture by giving an opportunity to budding writers to have space in book promotions and publications saying this is an expensive task to be done by the writers alone.
Comment on the book, Edgar Kapiza Bayani said the book is a very important book if one wants to understand politics and humanism in Malawi. The ‘Humanism and Politics Short Essays’book will be launched this month at Mzuzu University in Mzuzu. Apart from ‘ Humanism and Politics in Malawi” book, Mkhutche has also written other several books including a biography of musician Lucius Banda
With the financial assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Writers’ Union of Canada, Humanist Ottawa hosts this afternoon selected readings from the works of Henry Beissel, award-winning poet, playwright, essayist, translator and editor. Henry is a past winner of the Ottawa Book Award for his book of poetry, “Footprints of Dark Energy”.
The title poem of this collection takes us on an epic journey across past and present historical events and through spaces defined by the natural sciences, as it explores the challenges of being human in these troubled times. It is accompanied by a gathering of shorter poems that confront the dark forces in our world as they struggle for the light at the end of the tunnel. In stark imagery, these poems turn words into music to celebrate the anguish and the glory of being alive.
Henry Beissel is author/editor of 44 published books. Among his 22 collections of poetry are his epic “Seasons of Blood” and the lyrical “Stones to Harvest” as well as his celebration of Canada in “Cantos North” and the 364 haiku in “What if Zen Gardens …”. He lives in Ottawa with his wife Arlette Francière, the artist and literary translator.
Critical thinking about the social impacts of technology is becoming urgent, particularly in a scenario of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and algorithmic automation. Global digitalisation continues to widen the inequality gap as well as the digital divide, as digitalisation is not happening equally all over the world.
The event aims to explore how to build a digital transition that does not leave anyone behind, protects and reinforces human rights in the digital age, and places both people and the planet at the centre of the technological deployment.
It will assemble top-leading thinkers and doers who will discuss, identify, and address the challenges our societies are facing from a human-centred technological perspective, through themes such as Digital Inclusion, Ethical Artificial Intelligence and Digital rights.
When Monday, November 15th 9:30 h – 18:30 h CET
Where Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Barcelona.
The event will take place in Barcelona on November 15th and it will also be streamed online. Please select below the registration option you prefer. Registration for the in person and online modalities is free.
All sessions will have simultaneous translation in Spanish, Catalan and English.
In case you have already registered and need to do a modification, please click on ‘View/Edit your registration’.
If you’ve spent more than a few minutes around humanism…or science fiction….or robots….you already know who Isaac Asimov is. We don’t need to tell you that.
We probably also don’t need to tell you much about the Foundation books. We do need to tell you that there’s a new TV series based on those books. The shows AppleTV website says the show is “Based on the award-winning novels by Isaac Asimov, Foundation chronicles a band of exiles on their monumental journey to save humanity and rebuild civilization amid the fall of the Galactic Empire.”
Oh…and also “Cerebral sci-fi drama has diversity and some violence.” What an interesting combination of traits that seemed necessary to advertise.
The show premiered on September 24, 2021 and appears to encompass ten episodes in the first season. How much of Asimov’s original vision and humanism will survive in this big-budget television film version? It’s very difficult to tell at this time. What we can say is the makers have an excellent (ahem) foundation to build upon.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was located on SAGE Open, an open-access publishing source. Dr. Robertson has kindly provided a brief opening paragraph for HumanistFreedoms.com. (Note that bold features are ours and may not coincide with any emphasis that Dr. Robertson might prefer.)
The Medicine Wheel Revisited: Reflections on Indigenization in Counseling and Education
Enlightenment humanism seeks universal values common to the human condition. For example, in humanism the dignity of the person is valued regardless of the race, creed, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity or geographic location of that person. Similarly, empirical scientific truth will apply to all individuals, irrespective of divinely given alternate “realities” that are subjectively held. In this article I argue that the methods of science and reason that makes such a naturalistic understanding possible are compatible with traditional aboriginal worldviews, but that each culture must ground the Enlightenment to its traditions for that culture to participate equally in the scientific revolution. I call this process of adapting new technologies to local cultures “indigenization.” I recommend a secular approach to indigenization relating modern conceptual thought to traditional cultures in a way that is consistent with traditional constructs. In this article, I use the ancient medicine wheels found on the Great Plains of North America to illustrate how this could be done.
This article is peer reviewed and was first published by SAGE Open as “open access.” It may be referenced: Robertson, LH. (2021) The Medicine Wheel Revisited: reflections on indigenization in counselling and education, Sage Open, 11(2) 1-11 DOI: 10.1177/21582440211015202
Indigenization involves relating traditional cultures to modern methods, concepts, and science to facilitate their use by those populations. Despite attempts to indigenize both the practice of counseling and the content of educational curricula, mental health and educational deficits in Amerindian communities have remained. This article suggests indigenization in the North American context is often based on a reified view of culture that discounts naturalistic and scientific approaches, and that this dynamic inhibits progressive cultural change at institutional and community levels. A secular approach to indigenization is proposed that relates modern conceptual thought to traditional cultures in a way that is consistent with traditional constructs. The medicine wheel, traditional to North American Great Plains cultures, is applied to counseling to illustrate how concepts found in aboriginal cultures could inform modern practice with wider applications to curriculum development. Related tensions involving interpretations of aboriginal spiritualities and modernity are discussed.
As Director of Lifeskills for the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina, Canada, during the 1980s, I would be asked, “Why do we (aboriginal people1) always have to become more like them (non-aboriginal people), why can’t they become more like us?” While modern North American cultures are constituted by the histories of their constituent peoples, including those aboriginal to the continent,2 these students were actually voicing alienation from a modern educational system that emphasizes mathematics, logical constancy, and chronological time delineated behavior—skills that were not indigenous to Canadian hunter-gathering societies. Attempts to rectify such alienation have included calls for the indigenization of curricula that are pictured as “western” or “European” (Barman et al., 1986; Louie et al., 2017).
Counseling is also pictured as Euro-American and unsupportive of aboriginal cultural traditions (McCormick, 1996; Poonwassie & Charter, 2001; Sojonky, 2010) with the result that some aboriginal students are unwilling to see nonnative counselors (Dolan, 1995). Indigenization in this context is a process whereby an imported psychology is transformed in ways that are appropriate to the local culture (Adair, 2006).3 Indigenization may be understood as the appropriation of technologies, practices, or systems of conceptual thought in ways that accord with the receiving culture.
Swidler (1986) redefined culture as excluding change to technology and material artifacts while including “beliefs, ritual practices, art forms, and ceremonies, as well as informal cultural practices such as language, gossip, stories, and rituals of daily life” (p. 273). Although technologies and artifacts per se may not be part of culture, the ways that they are used and interpretive significance given them would be. In this article, cultures are held to be fluid concepts consisting of generally shared experiences or generic representations that may be called cultural schemas common to populations linked by tradition (Quinn, 2011). As counseling and education can effect change in the mental schemas held by clients and students, the acquisition of the knowledge, attitudes, and skills required by them to participate successfully in modern economies will inevitably lead to change in their family and community cultures. The alternate view that cultures are defined entities as opposed to fluid concepts leads to at least two important corollaries: (a) a person could have incompletely or inadequately learned a culture with which he or she identifies or is otherwise assigned making that person a less worthy representative; and (b) speakers from a defined culture may make knowledge claims that are at variance with those made by speakers from other cultures but are nonetheless of greater truth for the represented cultural group. Representative of this perspective on culture, a peer reviewer of an earlier version of this manuscript asked whether the author was aboriginal and writing from an indigenous perspective. Had I identified as a person with aboriginal ancestry, I could still have been accused, under this paradigm, of not taking an “aboriginal perspective.” Such a static and defined view of culture is similar to a religiously held dogma in that deviations from a prescribed belief system are proscribed.
The goal of this article is to suggest a paradigm of dynamic cultural change compatible with secular enlightenment that is rooted in cultures indigenous to North America. Using the concept of the medicine wheel as a metaphor for traditional cultural knowledge generally, it is argued that the practice of indigenization in counseling and curriculum development will contribute to progressive change. World views based on a static or essentialist view of culture, it will be argued, have impeded participation in the modern economy by aboriginal peoples.4 It is suggested that historical and interpretive factors used in advancing the essentialist view are in need of reexamination. We begin by establishing a case for such a reframe.
Stalled Education: Colonization and “Indian Control”
Education is an important value in human cultures. Goulet and Goulet (2014) identified three forms of the teaching-learning process conceptualized in the indigenous Cree language: “kiskinaumegahin (teaching another), kiskinaumasowin (teaching oneself), and kiskinaumatowin (teaching each other)” (p. 65). While teaching as a profession was necessitated by the increased complexities of modern civilization and falls within the rubric of “teaching another,” the introduction of such education to students aboriginal to Canada had disastrous consequences. The Canadian government contracted with five churches to provide education with the goal of assimilating indigenous students into the colonial economy5 with the churches responsible for operating costs. The churches planned to cover these costs by generating income through industrial production. For example, schools on the Canadian prairies typically taught farming and animal husbandry with students providing manual labor half days. When these “industrial schools” failed to generate sufficient revenues, many students suffered from malnutrition and dis- ease. Furthermore, examples of physical and sexual abuse Indian Residential Schools were widespread (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2006; Barman et al., 1986). While such experiences contributed to a negative view of education among many indigenous people, it is important to also consider that this view was not universally held. When the Canadian government attempted to end the residential school program in 1969,6 the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) successfully lobbied to keep the schools open in their province. Hired by FSIN as part of this process, educational consultants Robertson and Redman (1988) were told the Indian residential school system was to be maintained because (a) the quality of residential school education was considered superior to that offered by on-reserve day schools and (b) the schools effectively provided an alternative to the apprehension of children in dysfunctional families by child welfare agencies.7
Schools have also been viewed as a vehicle for cultural preservation. In a 1972 policy document, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) declared, “The present school system is culturally alien to native students . . . School curricula in federal and provincial/territorial schools should recognize Indian culture, values, customs, languages and the Indian contribution to Canadian development” (“Indian control of Indian education,” 1972, p. 9). Prototypically, the Plains Indians Cultural Survival School was established in Calgary, Canada, with 50% of its curriculum consisting of cultural components, including “bustle-making, hide-tanning, drumming, Indian dances, native languages, tepee-making and visits with native elders” (Friesen, 1983, p. 54). This model emphasizing indigenous cultural restoration coupled with local control at primary, secondary, technical and university levels has been replicated across Canada.
This level of indigenization did not result in improved academic achievement. Richards (2014) found that aboriginal students have a significantly higher incompletion rate in band-run reserve-based secondary schools (58%) than in provincial schools (30%). Those who do graduate may not have the literacy skills implied by their grade level. During my experience as an educational psychologist with a northern community college servicing a largely (80%) aboriginal population, I found that graduates of band-run schools often obtained scores 3 to 7 years below grade level on standardized tests of reading and mathematical achievement. A study of Grade 3, 6, and 9 Albertans found that 50% of aboriginal students were not achieving at grade level (Richards & Scott, 2009).
This educational achievement gap cannot be totally attributed to shortfalls in funding. In their comparative study, Richards and Scott (2009) found that federal funding for First Nations schools exceeded the average per student funding provided by provincial governments by more than $4,000 CAD.8 The achievement gap in education could be partly explained by conflicting expectations between educational authorities and local communities. At the university level, Robertson et al. (2015) documented examples of indigenous students whose educational success was considered secondary to the culturally sanctioned demands of their families. Students in counseling described themselves as “caught between two worlds” with the implication that their formal education was considered secondary in one of those worlds.
Another explanation for the education gap between aboriginal, particularly Amerindian, and non-aboriginal students is that the increase in aboriginal cultural content has brought with it a concomitant assumption that traditional “aboriginal ways of knowing” are equivalent to modern conceptual thought. But as Widdowson and Howard (2013) warned, “Because hunting and gathering/horticultural societies lack a culture of literacy, incorporating aboriginal traditions will not facilitate the values, skills, and attitudes that aboriginal people will need to obtain a scientific understanding of the world” (p. 303).9 As a considerable body of research emphasizes the necessity for cultural grounding in learning (Banks, 2001; Hutcheon, 1999; Petersson et al., 2007), a suggestion that cultural teaching may retard learning requires further examination.
Anyone bereft of culture would not have the constructs, the mental scaffolds, upon which to organize and understand experience. Indeed, such a person would not have the language to describe that experience. This is not how cultural loss is usually presented. A more essentialized view is that culture is a “thing” that exists independent of a body of people but can be possessed by them (Waldram, 2004). In such a view, modern science and mathematics may be presented as European, colonialist, or “western.” However, extending the definition used by Swidler (1986), modern conceptual thoughts, especially as found in science and advanced mathematics such as statistics, are not, in themselves, cultural, thus freeing each culture to appropriate scientific, mathematical, and concomitant critical thinking abilities in the course of their own evolution. The evolution of Euro-American cultures from their medieval roots included (a) scientific discoveries rendering old faith-based teachings obsolete and (b) cross-cultural contact contributing to a globalization of their (Euro-American) world view. As a result of this evolution, any school curriculum that taught a geocentric model of the universe or the inherent superiority of European races would not be tolerated. Nonetheless, a continuity of descent marks this education as “European” to students within the Euro- American tradition. The indigenization of curricula within Amerindian traditions requires a similar descent, and such a cultural descent has also been recommended in counseling (Chandler & Lalonde, 1998; Poonwassie & Charter, 2001).
The use of multisensory presentations, democratization of grading, and the use of oral storytelling has been commended as representing indigenization of methodologies in the Canadian context (Louie et al., 2017). All of these techniques had been previously commended by non-aboriginal educators in non-aboriginal settings (McCown et al., 1996; Nelson & Michaelis, 1980; Postman & Weingartner, 1969); therefore, the marker of aboriginality could not have been found in the method but in the content. The development of active listening and critical thinking skills may be enhanced by cross-cultural content grounded in the student’s own culture, but if the purpose of teaching cultural content is to inculcate the student in a particular belief system or worldview, then that would serve to thwart the development of such critical thinking abilities.
While the reification of culture may have the effect of closing minds to new knowledge, it is also possible to view education as a process of opening minds to new possibilities with debates about culture and multiculturalism at the heart of education as a meaningful project (Robertson et al., 2020). If we view all cultures as aggregates evolved from historical and contemporary appropriation, then each participant in the cultural project becomes an authorized speaker capable of investing in culture in creative ways with applications dependent on context and purpose. Under this paradigm, education has the potential to be transformative (Robertson & Conrad, 2016) with individual self-definition enhanced and expanded from a menu of possibilities of increasing size and scope.
Ethical Issues in Education and Counseling Associated With Cultural Reification
While it has been suggested that education and mental health gaps facing Amerindian peoples in Canada may be attributed to cultural insensitivity and even racism on the part of providers (Barman et al., 1986; Chandler & Lalonde, 1998; Louie et al., 2017), a lack of receptivity to services perceived as “western” or “Euro-Canadian” by indigenous students may also explain such deficiencies. It is argued here that the reification of a set of beliefs about aboriginal spirituality creates resistance to learning modern concepts and that such reification is counterproductive in a quest for cultural continuity. In this example, the Medicine Wheel, as a sacred and unvarying ontological dictum is unhelpful, but the medicine wheel concept as an epistemological understanding may serve as a bridge for connecting culture to technological and scientific development. The medicine wheel has been used in various forms to build identity (Mussel, 2005), adult lifeskills development (Lavalley & Wilson, 2006), and adult basic education (Clarke et al., 1998), and such usage suggests the compatibility of the medicine wheel concept with science and reason. Before building on this theme, we need to consider the process of reification.
The Cree elder advised, “If you have even a little (aboriginal ancestry) then you can choose to be either Indian or white, but you cannot be both.”10 Such a view conflates race with culture with the implication that culture is a quantifiable thing that is subject to choice only if one is of mixed ancestry, and even then only as a binary “either or” proposition. In such an essentialist view, cultural assimilation may be equated with genocide (Swidrovich, 2004; Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004). While effective teaching and counseling necessarily relates to the worldview of the student or client, the essentialist view holds that if the individual does not sufficiently know or identify with their ascribed culture, then he or she has lost some- thing and is judged to be unhealthy (Robertson, 2011b). “Loss of culture” by those who can trace at least part of their genetic ancestry to those aboriginal to North America has been blamed for a host of social problems with cultural restoration frequently framed as “healing” (Brave Heart, 2003; McCormick, 1996; Robertson, 2014a).
The process of cultural restoration is not always appreciated. Elders in one northern community said they recognized that their community had not always been Christian, but efforts to teach them Aboriginal Spirituality11 based on southern (plains buffalo culture) normative beliefs12 felt oppressive (Robertson, 2015). Such conflict between Aboriginal Spirituality and Christianity has not been uncommon (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2006). Swidler (1986) explained that during “unsettled times,” ideologies become highly articulated and directive “because they model patterns of action that do not ‘come naturally’” (p. 284).
Religious belief, as defined here, begins when a source is considered authoritatively omnipotent. For example, a Saulteaux elder expressed the concern that “white” schools teach his grandchildren Earth goes around the sun, but his elders taught him the reverse (Scott & Nippi, 2004). If the views of these long-deceased elders were taken as revealed truths not subject to material evidence, then these views were held religiously. Such religiously held views may conflict with scientific teachings in educational settings. For example, Ontario philosopher Christopher DiCarlo faced a university disciplinary hearing after two students complained his suggestion of a common human African ancestry was insensitive to an Amerindian teaching that aboriginal people were placed on the American continents by a “Creator” (Kaill, 2005). While notions of a geocentric universe and a creator-god are also indigenous to European cultures, cultural accommodations have been made, allowing teachers to reference science even in non-science courses. Teaching religiously held belief as fact (or an alternative factum) in education classes can be offensive to people with a scientific worldview. One participant in a workshop on Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition for staff at a northern community college commented, Our provincial Department of Higher Education and Manpower has no more business teaching Native Spirituality—with the intent of conversion—than it has teaching Tibetan Buddhism . . . Imagine what towering indignation would have been engendered had (the instructor) been a Catholic and she had asked us to burn incense, to partake in Holy Sacraments, to confess our sins, and tied problem-solving to the four points of the Cross. (Robertson, 2011a, pp. 99–100)
The “four points of the Cross” in this example is an allusion to the four parts of the Medicine Wheel reproduced in Figure 1. This medicine wheel has been capitalized, referenced in the singular, and described as a sacred part of Aboriginal Spirituality (Dyck, 1998; Sanderson, 2010).
The quadrants represent what are thought of as the four dimensions essential for life balance: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. This medicine wheel may be expanded to include four seasons, directions, races, and periods of life overlayed on the basic medicine wheel with each item in a set of four presented in separate quadrants. Holism is then defined as must be represented in the life of the individual for that person to be healthy.
Figure 1. The standard medicine wheel identified with Aboriginal Spirituality.
The division of the circle into four quadrants makes mathematical sense if it is used to represent two variables—one on each of the x- and y-axis, but the use of the number four in this medicine wheel is arbitrary. For example, the notion that there are four races – red, yellow, black, and white – does not conform to scientific understandings of the concept (Miele, 2002; Pinker, 2002; Templeton, 1998) and may have been appropriated from the Christian children’s song Jesus Loves Me. While it may be generally thought that there are four seasons, the traditional Woodland Cree had six. The representation of four life stages, including child, teenager, adult, and elder, must be a recent application to the medicine wheel because the concept of “teenager” is a modern European invention.
There is no direct translation for the English word mental in languages aboriginal to Canada. For example, the Cree word/phrase Kiskwew (literally, “s/he is crazy”) is used to represent the term in that language to the angst of practicing mental health workers. It can be inferred that whoever first added the word mental to the Medicine Wheel was probably thinking in a European language, and then sought to translate the concept into an aboriginal language. As the wheel was not indigenous to aboriginal North American cultures, the very term medicine wheel must be viewed as a cultural appropriation. Widdowson and Howard (2013) questioned whether the concept itself could be used to advance critical thinking, the dissemination of abstract ideas, or the organization of complex information into constituent parts:
While it appears that the Medicine Wheel . . . offers a more systematic pedagogical technique (as compared to concrete conceptualizations in hunter-gatherer societies), this turns out to be a mirage. The “constituent parts” that emerge from the “breaking down of complex situations” are arbitrarily constructed, the only basis for which is a spiritual belief about the significance of the number four. (p. 294)
The teaching of this Medicine Wheel along with other beliefs associated with Aboriginal Spirituality presents an ethical dilemma for professionals who believe education involves teaching analytic skills concomitant with opening young minds to multiple possibilities. Psychotherapists and counselors who assume the construction of an aboriginal self is based on Aboriginal Spirituality potentially do disservice to aboriginal clients whose worldviews are constructed differently. It will be argued that there is a much older concept of the medicine wheel that is amenable to both modern education and counseling that is client-centered.
Using the Lens of Diversity to Understand the Stone Medicine Wheels of the Plains
There have been tens of thousands of circular structures dotting the Great Plains of North America with most identified as “tipi rings”—stones used to hold the flaps of a tipi in place. Some rings do not fit this explanation. After restricting the definition to include only those circular stone structures too large to be a tipi ring having a central stone cairn, one or more concentric stone circles, and/or two or more stone lines radiating outward from the center, Brumley (1988) estimated that there were between 100 to 200 stone medicine wheels on the plains. Two medicine wheels (one near the Bow River in southern Alberta and another at Medicine Mountain, Wyoming) are divided into 28 pie- shaped parts (Grinnell, 1922). It has been suggested that medicine wheels in Wisconsin (Bender, 2008), Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Wyoming (Freeman, 2009) are aligned with astrological phenomena, but this suggestion remains controversial (Vogt, 2015). Restricting the definition to include only those structures divided into four (or multiples of the number four) would exclude these medicine wheels from the classification.
In estimating there to be more than 340 medicine wheels, Robertson (2014b) included circular structures too large to be tipi rings that are not divided at all, and those that are divided without reference to a central hub or spokes as with, for example, parallel lines. An example of such a medicine wheel can be found at the Tie Creek site in eastern Manitoba, Canada (Steinbring & Muller, 2012). This site includes a triangle centering a large circle of stones connected by a complex of lines to other petroforms, including a large winged bird. It would be curious to deny that this is a “medicine wheel” while conferring the title on other structures that have potentially less obvious interpretive and ceremonial significance. An equally important consideration is that the act of taking a modern definition of the term medicine wheel and applying it to ancient stone structures (albeit loosely to figures divided in ways that are not multiples of the number four) restricts the interpretive possibilities that may be attached to such structures, thereby potentially minimizing the traditional cultural wisdom contained therein. It is argued here that the traditional spirituality of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America employed flexible teachings having a pragmatic character.
Figure 2. The generic medicine wheel of Roberts et al. (1998).
This flexible and pragmatic interpretation of the medicine wheel concept may be applied to counseling.
Using the Medicine Wheel Concept in Counseling
Adlerians traditionally eschew the medical model in favor of a psychotherapy focussed on educating the client in new behaviors that better meet individual goals (Christensen & Marchant, 1993; Morris, 1993/2004). In comparing the holism of the aboriginal medicine wheel with that of Individual (Adlerian) Psychology, Roberts et al. (1998) acknowledged, “A wide variety of medicine wheels exist and no one claims a particular official symbol” (p. 137). Nonetheless, they produced what they called a “generic” medicine wheel reproduced in Figure 2. The reference to four directions in this figure suggests wholeness, but the attachment of the qualities of power, uniqueness, vision, and connectedness to specific directions appears to be arbitrary. The quality of individual uniqueness is not often attributed to collectivist cultures; however, the sense that we are unique individual beings is necessary to exercise personal decision-making and forward planning (Damon & Hart, 1988; Robertson, 2020).
I taught an undergraduate university class on contemporary native health issues in which students were invited to create their own personal medicine wheel. While many drew a wheel with four divisions, the number of spokes ranged from 0 to 18. One aboriginal person drew a series of concentric circles with herself surrounded by family, community, “helpers” (meaning outside agencies such as educators and counselors), and “white” society. Another student used spokes to divide a circle into categories representing vision, compassion, family, work, education, language (Cree), planning, doing, love, nature, and God. Although it might be possible to reduce such a self-characterization to four more general categories, doing so serves to constrain the individual’s meaning and relational experience.
If counseling were to be viewed as advice giving, then it would be expected that the advice so given would be informed by the cultural background of the counselor. Alternatively, the counselor could learn and reference a set of values appropriate for the individual based on his or her assigned cultural designation. Either stance is prescriptive with the direction of client-change determined by forces external to the client. Traditionally, professional counselors and psychotherapists use more client-centered approaches with advice giving minimized.
Counselors concerned with issues of identity within the field of psychology typically attempt to create a shared holistic understanding of the selves of their clients (Adler, 1927/1957; Dryden et al., 2001; Epstein, 1994) with client- directed self-change based on new information or alternative preferred narratives (Hermans, 2006; Robertson, 2016; Strong & Zeman, 2005). The role of the counselor is to assist in information gathering and the generation of alternative interpretations. While the use of a reified Medicine Wheel both constrains the presentation of the self and externalizes the direction of change, it is argued here that the use of the medicine wheel concept is both in keeping with aboriginal tradition and consistent with a nondirective view of counseling. Counselors may use the concept of the medicine wheel without teaching any one form as correct. Examples of different medicine wheels could be presented so as to capture the idea of diversity along with the common theme of holism. These unique medicine wheels would reflect individual values, behaviors, and world views, and the act of self-reflection may promote self-understanding with the decision to initiate change in keeping with the principle that the client is the expert on himself.
Both aboriginal and western counseling accepts client individuality within a social context and decision-making based on client choice. In a qualitative analysis of the writings of 17 schools of psychology and the transcripts of an equal number of interviewed Inuit elders, Korhonen (2002) found universal acceptance of such client-centeredness in problem definition, goal-setting, and choice of interventions. Positive psychologists (Dahlsgaard et al., 2005; Hart & Sasso, 2011; Seligman et al., 2005) have reported cross-cultural success by inviting clients to define for themselves terms like happiness and meaning and to cognitively plan, within their contexts, ways of meeting those objectives. While Christopher and Hickinbottom (2008) argued that using such an ethic privileges the individual to make decisions for the benefit of his or herself (thus giving apparent support to an individualist perspective), I replied (Robertson, 2017) that the capacity for individual volition implied in such tasks as forward planning is itself cross-cultural, and that the capacity for logical thought, including the assumption of an objective reality, flows from a cross-culturally informed cognitive self. This understanding of the self as a volitional, rational, and reflective entity both unites modern schools of psychotherapy and resonates with the self as found in collectivist societies (Robertson, 2020). If the client is viewed as self-actualizing, then he or she effectively becomes a culture of one and each counseling relationship becomes a cross-cultural exploration. In such a paradigm, aboriginal identity development can be supported without presuppositions as to what that identity will entail. While the Medicine Wheel pictured in Figure 1 makes such presuppositions as to how an aboriginal self should look, the medicine wheel in Figure 3 illustrates how the different schools of psychology gain an understanding of the self that is embedded in each “culture of one.”
Figure 3 was prepared by recognizing a continuum between physical and mental states of the individual on the x-axis and a continuum between active and passive states on the y-axis. The intersection of the two axes creates four quadrants labeled: cognitive, emotive, physiological, and behavioral. Various therapies were situated on those quad- rants based on their primary focus. Given a holistic perspective, it is anticipated that intervention directed at any one quadrant will necessarily create change in the other three. Thus, a client with attention deficit disorder could be given stimulant medication with the expected result that the medication will influence subsequent emotions, cognitions, and behavior. Similarly, a behavioral plan directed at the same condition would be expected to produce changes in the other three quadrants. Of course, some therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, may address two or more quadrants directly as part of their methodology. Counselors can use this medicine wheel to explain to clients the process and expected results of therapy while building a holistic picture of the client’s self (Robertson, 2020).
If we view traditional indigenous cultures as holistic (Poonwassie & Charter, 2001; Sanderson, 2010), then distinctions between modern constructs such as education and counseling may be seen as arbitrary. As we have seen, education in the modern era can be transformative of the self while counseling as practiced by many psychotherapists is often educational. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that practices and conceptualizations predating the modern era in any given culture would transcend modern categorical boundaries. It has been argued here that such transcendence is a potentiality of the ancient itineration of the medicine wheel. As culture does not include technology or artifacts (Swidler, 1986), modern scientific and mathematical laws also transcend culture. Thus, while the Age of Enlightenment leading to the modern explosion of knowledge began in Europe, thus rendering the term western science an accurate description of the locale of that knowledge explosion during one historical epoch, the corollary that there are other culturally bound “ways of knowing” that are equally efficacious serves to defeat both the educational objective (Robertson et al., 2020) and the psychotherapeutic objective of developing “mind” (Robertson, 2017). It
Figure 3. An application of the aboriginal concept of the medicine wheel to the practice of counseling psychology situating various therapies in quadrants defined by two axes: physical/mental and active/passive.
is the function of culture, then, to relate to science, technology, mathematics, and existing artifacts in some ways. The challenge then is not to replace “western science” with “cultural wisdom” but to link the knowledge therein to indigenous cultures. By facilitating a meaningful appropriation of the techniques by which new knowledge may be learned, aboriginal people will generate new knowledge. We are aided by the belief that aboriginal spirituality is not a religion but a variety of life stances that are open to change based on evidence and reason.
This article began with the suggestion that curricular indigenization to Amerindian cultures will necessarily involve the rooting of modern conceptual thought to earlier cultural constructs in a process of directed evolution. Figure 3 demonstrated how the medicine wheel can be used to illustrate modern conceptual thought in counseling and psychotherapy. Just as it is possible to use the concept of the medicine wheel without attempting to enforce a particular world view, other themes in aboriginal spirituality may be referenced without reifying a particular set of practices and beliefs. Berry (1999) found that a relationship with the land such as being able to hunt, trap, fish, and go berry picking was generally important to the spirits of Inuit, Amerindian, and Metis peoples. It is not necessary to script a particular way of interacting with the land. For example, Robertson (2015) reported on a successful community development program that included Christian indigenous elders taking youth out into the Precambrian Boreal Forest of northern Canada to learn survival skills. In the author’s private practice as a counseling psychologist, it is sometimes suggested that clients consider spending time on family “traplines,” an area traditionally used by a family for the purpose of trapping fur-bearing animals. What the clients do on their trapline that is therapeutic is individualized.
From a holistic perspective, both the student counseling services and curriculum offered by an educational institution are part of a common institutional culture. The indigenization of one cannot be successfully accomplished in isolation. While this article drew on an exemplar involving counseling practice, it is an exemplar with implications for curriculum development. Both involve opening minds to new possibilities. The individual agency implied by such education is not incompatible with cultural grounding:
A relativist position that all cultural tenets are of equal truth or value serves to nullify the cognitive revolution; however, the capacity to take an objective stance can be applied to the interpretive understanding of textual and oral tradition. We hold that it is possible to be inclusive of cultures even if their basic texts are contradictory, provided the process is of being challenged by tradition and working to adopt it in the manner appropriate to one’s own historical circumstance and in preparation for the pluralistic situation of living with other people. (Robertson et al., 2020, pp. 22–23)
The challenge discussed here involves the application of the medicine wheel concept to modern knowledge. As has been noted, the reified Medicine Wheel has already been used to illustrate the concept of race, but inaccurately. It is common in anthropology to note that genetic interchange through population movements over the last hundreds of thousands of years has ensured that there are no human sub- species or races (Lewontin, 2006; Livingstone, 1993; Templeton, 1998). The notion that there is only one race (the human race) could be illustrated by a wheel without divisions. Discussion of the more traditional view that there are three races, Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid (Nei & Roychoudhury, 1974; Rushton & Ankney, 1993), could be illustrated by dividing the wheel into three with major sub- divisions (e.g., most South Asians and Middle Eastern people are classified as Caucasoid in this system) noted within their respective places in the wheel. The more nuanced view that there are seven races (Edwards, 2003; Miele, 2002) could be similarly illustrated. Boundaries between racial categories could be made diffuse to indicate that racial demarcation is largely arbitrary with no one characteristic common to any race.
It has been customary to think of the medicine wheel as representing four directions, but in a three-dimensional world, there are six. The directions of “up” and “down” could be illustrated by adding a line, perpendicular to the two-dimensional directions, at the center of the wheel. The resultant “medicine sphere” could be used to illustrate numerous three-dimensional concepts in nature. The addition of movement to this sphere could be used to illustrate the fourth dimension of time and some of the effects of relativity. It is contended that linking such modern concepts with historical processes will aid in the internalization of both.
The ultimate objective of both counseling and education is the development of informed logical and critical thought allowing the individual to seek an objective stance relative to received tradition. Failure to ground such skills in indigenous cultures will make their transmission feel assimilationist and foreign. This article has explored the use of the concept of the medicine wheel as one bridge linking indigeneity with modernity. It is hoped that this exemplar will con- tribute to the development and use of other markers of aboriginality in education and counseling.
This article received support from Humanist Canada.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author- ship, and/or publication of this article.
In this article, the terms aboriginal and indigenous are used to reference people, things, and ideas that were commonly pres- ent prior to colonization or modernity. The terms are not capi- talized when used as adjectives but are capitalized when used as part of a proper noun. The reason for this convention will become apparent in the subsequent discussion distinguishing between Aboriginal Spirituality and the more generic “aborigi- nal spiritualities.”
Much that was indigenous to the Americas, such as foods (potatoes, corn, bison, beans, and turkeys), pharmaceuticals (aspirin, coca, peyote, and quinine), industrial products (rub- ber), clothing (moccasins), transportation (canoes, toboggans), and habit-forming substances (tobacco, chewing gum), have been appropriated into the general culture.
Adair (2006) was talking specifically about a need for a psy- chology indigenous to Canada and not a psychology indig- enous to people aboriginal to Canada.
Half a century ago, an indigenous Cree lawyer (Wuttunee, 1971) predicted policies of cultural reification pursued by Amerindian leaders of the day would result in impoverished communities dependent on increasing levels of govern- ment largess. That prediction has been realized (Helin, 2011; Richards & Scott, 2009).
This was actually the second European colonization of the North West with the first involving participation in the fur trade by its aboriginal inhabitants in a direct relationship with Britain. Canadian expansion involved the development of the North West as an agricultural and industrial hinterland (see Innis, 1930/1970; Ray, 1974; Robertson, 2015).
This was the second time the Canadian government attempted to end the Indian Residential Schools program. An earlier attempt to do so in 1907 was reversed subsequent to a successful lobby by western churches and Amerindian chiefs (Woods, 2012).
During the 1960s, the provincial authorities reluctantly took over responsibility for Indian child welfare, but they did not have sufficient foster or adoptive parents of indigenous ancestry to meet the child welfare need. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) viewed student place- ment at residential schools preferable to “adopting out” to non-aboriginal parents. A two-step process resulted in the transfer of authority for these schools to those Indian bands that contributed to the student population with Indian authori- ties first administering the physical plant. This development was not divorced from child welfare. As Director of the Health and Social Development Commission for FSIN, the author oversaw the development of a document titled “Indian Control of Indian Child Welfare” that paralleled the earlier docu- ment “Indian Control of Indian Education.” Indian Child and Family Service (ICFS) agencies were developed on each band replacing provincial child welfare services during the 1990s. While, officially, the last Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996, in 1999 the author completed psychologi- cal assessments of students at a facility offering a residential school program identical to its earlier mandate, but it was now called a “child welfare” facility. The ICFS agencies in northern Saskatchewan had given themselves each a quota of children to be sent to this institution that was still popularly known as the Prince Albert Residential School.
When provincial funding for school districts with fewer than 1,000 students was compared with federal per capita funding, the per capita advantage enjoyed by Amerindian educational authorities shrank to $2,547.
Working from a critical postmodernist perspective, Strong (2002) declared science to be a “white, male way of knowing” and that “truth” is something arrived at through the “discourse of knowledgeable people” (p. 3). In advocating the use of the reified Medicine Wheel, Dyck (1998) declared that “western science” was devoid of spirituality and creativity, and that people recognized as knowledgeable in presenting traditional teachings should be recognized as authoritative . In contrast, science is a process of learning about an independent reality by reducing subjective bias by using hypothesis testing (Bhaskar, 1975; Bloom & Weisberg, 2007), or as Wilson (1999) said, “Science . . . is the organized, systematic enterprise that gath- ers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles” (p. 58). The idea that there is an objective reality that may be discerned through careful observation predates Europe’s “scientific revolution” by about 2 millennia and is cross cultural (Robertson, 2020). Therefore, the idea that people from so-called collectivist cultures cannot be objective is suspect.
This is from personal communication with Cree elder Ernest Tootoosis, Poundmaker Indian Reserve, 1971. This advice has since been repeated to me by several aboriginal elders and is aligned with the Iroquoian “Two Row Wampum” teaching that the “Redman” and the “Whiteman” will paddle in separate (but parallel) canoes and that if someone tries to have a foot in both canoes, “there will be a high wind and the boats will separate and the person that has his feet in each of the boats shall fall between the boats . . .” (Onkehonweh as cited in Widdowson, 2013, p. 341). Other elders may have different understandings.
In this article, “Aboriginal Spirituality” (upper case) is a proper noun referencing a faith-based belief system (see Robertson, 2014b). The term aboriginal spirituality when lowercased ref- erences older beliefs that included supernatural attribution, but was nonetheless evidence based and thus open to change.
During the early 19th century, many Cree bands, in alli- ance with a Siouxian people called the Assiniboine, invaded the northern plains of North America. These “Plains Cree” adopted many Siouxian “buffalo culture” practices such as powwows, sun dances, and horse dances. The Cree remaining in the woodlands did not adopt these practices but, as Poliandri (2011) and Waldram (2014) have noted, Great Plains cultural practices have become increasingly identified with Aboriginal Spirituality across North America.
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A consortium of humanist individuals and organizations has begun to work collaboratively and cooperatively to express concern to the Canadian government regarding what they view as a discriminatory oversight (we prefer the term omission) of certain categories of people from the Canadian response to political change in Afghanistan. Particularly, the consortium has expressed concern for Canada’s failure to specifically include atheists, agnostics, humanists and other apostates from its list(s) of categories of those who are vulnerable and may qualify for Canadian assistance. Following is a statement by the consortium.
Statement to Address Discriminatory Oversight in Canadian Special Humanitarian Assistance Program for Afghan Nationals
October 4th, 2021
The tenuous and dangerous living circumstances in Afghanistan following the nation’s fall to the Taliban are dire for many of its citizens, especially atheists and other apostates. Humanist, atheist, and agnostic organizations in Canada represent a diverse group of people who believe that each of us has the responsibility to give meaning to our own life. Those citizens finding meaning in rethinking and rejecting the idea of supernatural entities, including gods, must be as respected as religious believers. In the spirit of the universalism of secular humanism, a consortium of Canada’s many humanist, atheist and agnostic organizations have come together to urgently call upon the government to ameliorate a grave error in the Special Humanitarian Assistance Program for Afghan Nationals.
you don’t have a durable solution in a third country
This group will include people such as
human rights advocates
journalists and people who assisted Canadian journalists
persecuted religious minorities
immediate family members of one of the above
You may be eligible for this program if you’re an extended family member of someone who helped the Government of Canada and has already been resettled to Canada.”
The language used in this policy that exclusively designates eligibility based on membership in a persecuted religious minority group explicitly discriminates against those persecuted on the basis of their non-belief and atheism.
Atheists and apostates from Islam in Afghanistan face extreme danger and this serious risk should be neither overlooked nor dismissed. It is well established that the classical punishment for apostasy in Islamic jurisprudence is death. Senior Taliban officials have recently announced their intention to impose strict traditional Sharia (Islamic law) punishments, including execution and the amputation of hands. Thus, the safety of all apostates and non-believers is of the utmost concern.
This policy’s highly restrictive current language fails to meet Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines the observance and promotion of “freedom of religion or belief.” The government of Canada is also failing to fulfill its responsibility as a party to the United Nations 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which describes refugees as those who are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Our collaborative endeavour urgently calls upon the government of Canada to immediately issue a clarification of its Special Humanitarian Assistance Program for Afghan Nationals, to explicitly include non-religious Afghan atheists, humanists, and agnostics.
The above statement is supported by the following organizations and individuals:
Abdullah Sameer, YouTuber & Blogger, Friendly Ex-Muslim, & Previous Founder, Light Upon Light and Verse By Verse Quran
Ali A. Rizvi, M.D., Author, “The Atheist Muslim”, & Co-Host, Secular Jihadists for a Muslim Enlightenment podcast
Andy Blair, Founder & Chair, Ubuntu Canada Refugee
Armin Navabi, Founder, Atheist Republic, Author, “Why There Is No God: Simple Responses to 20 Common Arguments for the Existence of God”, & Co-Host, Secular Jihadists for a Muslim Enlightenment podcast
Prof. Arthur Schafer, Founding Director, Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, University of Manitoba
Christine Ball, Co-President, Ontario Humanist Society
Christopher DiCarlo, Ph.D., Philosopher, Founder, Critical Thinking Solutions, & author of multiple titles including, “So You Think You Can Think? Tools for Having Intelligent Conversations and Getting Along”
David Rand, President, Libres penseurs athées — Atheist Freethinkers
Diane Bruce, Director, Centre for Inquiry Canada, & Branch Manager, Centre for Inquiry Canada — Ottawa
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find organizations and activities that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The “New Enlightenment Project” caught our eye (particularly the blog section of the organization’s website which features a growing library of articles and discussion) and we asked this new organization’s President, Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson to tell us more. (Note that bold features are ours and may not coincide with any emphasis that Dr. Robertson might prefer.)
1) What is the New Enlightenment Project and why did you (the organizers) create it?
The New Enlightenment Project was established with three objectives. First, we aim to provide education on the enduring qualities of reason and compassion which define humanism. Second, we affirm that the application of humanist values that flow from a stance firmly rooted in reason and compassion will necessarily change over time. One forum for accomplishing this, for example, is provided by Humanists International and their initiative to amend the Amsterdam Declaration of 2002. This process of updating is part of the “new” in the “New Enlightenment.” Third, since there is no deity that can give us the final word, we must depend on each other honing our knowledge through open discussion and free debate. We provide that forum.
2) How will NEP be different from other humanist-branded organizations? What will NEP do that others aren’t already doing?
The NEP is inclusive. We recognize that there is a wide range of opinion within humanism and that humanists often have differences in focus. But we also believe that we need a venue where humanists can have difficult conversations about controversial topics. Humanist Canada had such an open discussion group which they shut down last year. They then engaged in discussions with the Centre for Inquiry – Canada about creating a joint open discussion forum, but they have been unable to create such a forum. In the meantime, NEP has created two such forums, one on our website and one on Facebook, and these forums are open to everyone. To our knowledge, we are the only humanist organization in Canada providing this opportunity, and we invite all humanist organizations to embrace this initiative.
3) What does NEP see as the top priorities for humanism and humanists now and in the coming years? Within Canada? Globally?
There are many contemporary issues of concern. One of our top priorities is to come to terms with indigeneity in a postcolonial world. There are those who consider themselves to be allies of the descendants of the colonized who call science and reason “Western” and who promote “other ways of knowing.” When you think about it, this position is quite racist. It is saying that science and reason belong to Europeans and their decedents. Further, it is patronizing to suggest that faith based “other ways of knowing” is somehow equivalent to the enlightenment afforded by empirically verified research. Humanists need to come to terms with how these fundamental values can relate to traditional indigenous cultures. To help accomplish this the NEP participates in an Aboriginal Circle aimed at combining aborigineity and humanism.
There are other injustices that are worth fighting against. For example, with the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan we are witnessing the re-imposition of Medieval practices that include beheadings and the use of amputation to enforce religiously based authoritarian laws. We are part of a coalition of humanist groups raising public awareness and lobbying for government recognition and support of humanists, atheists and apostates as refugees. While this hearkens back to the original Enlightenment that concerned itself with replacing feudal structures, we must contend with modern economic forces that can also bring injustice.
I think humanists also need to also celebrate the achievements our movement has helped produce. Secularism is on the rise. We have achieved fantastic gains in combating racism and sexism. We need to continue to fight injustice while being wary of beliefs that are anti-scientific and discourage open inquiry. Compassion, which is an essential part of humanism, must be extended to all.
4) What does NEP see as the greatest threats to humanism and humanists now and in the coming years? Within Canada? Globally?
Humanism is under attack. It was always thus. We recognize the primacy of human reason in generating knowledge about knowledge about reality. Religionists have maintained that human reason is faulty and we need guidance from a deity. Totalitarians like Martin Heidegger have argued that science and reason are faulty and we need guidance from a great leader or Fuehrer as to ultimate “truths.”
In Canada we have become quite effective in fending off the attacks of religious fundamentalists. Globally, however, we have to deal with religiously infused authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Muslim world, who harass, jail and even execute atheists. Our defence of these humanists and apostates is hampered by the attitude of some North Americans who should be our secular allies but who provide deference to Muslim authoritarianism under the notion that these authoritarians represent victims of oppression.
In Canada, humanists are facing attacks from these people who identify themselves as secularists as well as from religious fundamentalists. In an article that was published earlier by Humanist Freedoms I identified these secularists as the Woke. These Woke operate from the premise that objective knowledge is impossible and that even science and reason are “white, male ways of knowing.” We have been slow to recognize and respond to their challenge. The NEP aims to take up their challenge.
5) HumanistFreedoms.com attempts to present a portrait of contemporary humanism and humanists in its articles; how does New Enlightenment Project, an organization whose name seems to be focused on the past, relate to contemporary issues and reflect a contemporary humanism?
The Age of Reason never really ended and is responsible for the scientific explosion we still see today, but there are attempts to make it seem old, passe. But without the grounding provided by the Enlightenment, humanism ceases to be humanism. Respecting the dignity of the individual is impossible if the individual is denied. If there is no individual who can reason, then all knowledge must be granted by a deity or some analogous ideological structure. If there is no objective reality, then science, empiricism and reason are empty culturally sanctioned performances. Put succinctly, humanism is grounded on the idea that there is a reality that exists outside of ourselves and we can come to know that reality through careful observation.
The Enlightenment affirmed a capacity that was already present in the individual. In my book The Evolved Self, I trace the modern structure of the self that balances both individualism and collectivism back 3,000 years. Steven Pinker, in his new book Rationality states that the capacity to reason is much, much older than that, and while this is certainly correct, the self that did the reasoning and put meaning to the process has evolved. A new self that was volitional, continuous and uniquely felt evolved from the old, but it was almost immediately constrained by organized religions. The Enlightenment released those bonds for increasing numbers of mankind, and we have been living the Enlightenment ever since.
But social, political and cultural contexts continually change. We have problems such as global warming, overpopulation and globalization that were not present 400 years ago. While the original Enlightenment was concerned with replacing feudalism, the New Enlightenment must concern itself with recent global capitalism in the digital age and the rise of a new Woke educated aristocracy. The New Enlightenment uses the capacities that are already inherent in the self to amend and update humanism making it very contemporary. Those who would deny those capacities would return us to the Dark Ages.
A fable is a story that imbues animals and imaginary creatures, along with any manner of natural or supernatural forces, with human-like traits to convey any part of its plot, meaning or narrative. It seems that fables have been a staple of human storytelling for as long as humans have had stories to tell. Even the oldest documented story currently know, The Epic of Gilgamesh, contains elements of fable carved into tablets.
Given this fundamental position of fable in human culture, it should be no surprise, that fable retains a key role in contemporary story-telling. Human connection, whether individual or collective, to the natural world is too vital for fable to ever be completely banished. Fable may be considered as humanism over-lain on the natural world.
We do tend to used fable where it seems to have proven highly effective: story-telling to convey a moralistic message. Often that means children’s stories, but fable is certainly not exclusively for children.
The Council of Animals, by Nick McDonell was published early in 2021 and is a contemporary fable. The storytelling is not particularly innovative nor is the story itself novel and compelling. At the beginning of the story, a council of animals is gathering to decide the fate of humanity – will the animals decide to exterminate the last of humanity or leave them to live out their lives in peace?
In reading the story, other fables readily come to mind and it seems only marginally necessary to state their titles. Pick the first five fables that come to mind and you’ve probably stitched together much of the plot and much of the narrative style. Mentioning McDonell’s willingness as an author to mug for the camera via animal-themed puns and set-pieces and that might be the end of it. It’s almost unworthy of a book review.
Except that the book feels as though its original intent, a story where Kingdom Animalia renders judgment on humanity, had been leant a new direction when the global pandemic came to town. Over the course of the story, it is revealed that some unspecified pandemic had struck down humanity’s population and provided animals (and some mythological creatures) the opportunity to finally gather their collective strength and dominance to be able to decide what to do with the stragglers that had survived.
The efficacy of fables is not their reality. The efficacy is in their ability to convey a moralistic meaning. McDonell’s novel expresses existential concern regarding humanity’s relationship to nature and existential panic in the face of pandemic. Whether that should be considered to be moralized fear-mongering, naive hand-wringing or something else entirely may be up to the reader.
Whether the book is viewed as any of these things should not preclude recognizing that the matter of the book’s panic (a human-created pandemic that threatens to end humanity) is the smaller consideration compared to the book’s concern ( humanity’s relationship to nature).
The book does not seem to be a book of humanism, however it is a book which offers a reminder that contemporary humanists, or perhaps more accurately, contemporary human societies whether they’re humanist or not, currently have the significant challenge to set aside human-centered existential crises in order to address the larger and more significant concern of this planet’s capacity to support life in any form at all. We need a new and vigorous Biophilic Humanism – a humanism, and a humanity, that places its interest in itself within the sustaining interests of the natural world we inhabit.
The moral of the story, when it comes to reading The Council of Animals, is that the time for fables, this over-laying of human priorities and characteristics onto nature, seems to be reaching its limits. Now is the time for laying of nature’s needs and priorities over human character.
According to their website, The Harvard Chaplains “are a professional community of more than thirty chaplains, representing many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, who share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the students, faculty, and staff of Harvard University. “
In August of 2021, it was reported that this organization elected a Humanist as their ‘Chief Chaplain’. As one may expect, such a generated media attention and is seen by some as a kind of controversy.
Greg Epstein, the subject of that controversy is one of the organization’s chaplains. Again, according to the organization’s website: Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, as well as the president of the Harvard Chaplains, Harvard University’s corps of over forty chaplains from more than 20 different religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions. Greg also serves the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as humanist chaplain and as Convener for Ethical Life at the MIT Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. For nearly two decades, he has built a unique career as one of the world’s most prominent humanist chaplains — professionally trained members of the clergy who support the ethical and communal lives of nonreligious people.
Described as a “godfather to the [humanist] movement” by The New York Times Magazine, Epstein was also named “one of the top faith and moral leaders in the United States” by Faithful Internet, a project coordinated by the United Church of Christ with assistance from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, for his efforts to bring together atheists, agnostics, and allies, as part of an ancient and ever-evolving ethical tradition that can be called humanism. As Greg believes deeply: in a changing world where faith in humankind has become more difficult to maintain, it is more important than ever to fight for our common humanity, and for each other.
As an author, Greg’s New York Times bestselling book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” continues to be influential years after its initial publication helped popularize the notion that the rapidly growing population of secular people can live lives of deep purpose, compassion, and connection. More recently,Greg’s 2018 move to join MIT, in addition to his work at Harvard, inspired an 18-month residency at the leading Silicon Valley publication TechCrunch, in which he published nearly 40 in-depth pieces exploring the ethics of technologies and companies that are shifting our definition of what it means to be human, often in troubling ways. Greg is currently writing a book on technology, religion, and humanism, based in part on this initial research. His writing on topics such as humanism, ethics, technology, and politics, has also appeared in The Boston Globe, CNN.com, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, Critical Inquiry, and The Humanist.
In 2005, Greg received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He holds a B.A. (Religion and Chinese) and an M.A. (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School, and he completed a year-long graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
That Epstein’s appointment is a controversy is not really any great surprise. Whenever religion and organization politics (regardless of that organization’s nature) combine, controversy seems to be an automatic outcome. The real question here, is whether the controversy is about the right questions(s). In 2021, there are still a great many people who seem to feel it is perfectly acceptable to deride a person’s election to some form of public office based on whether they personally believe in a God.
The Harvard Chaplains unanimously elected Epstein. To those who are interested to object and cause snide, disrespectful and deriding headlines and commentary, is seems reasonable to ask two questions.
The first question is, “Since he was unanimously elected by his peaers, What’s the problem?” That question can easily be turned-into a two-or- even-three-parter, with a variety of follow-ups. But let’s leave that one as it is.
The second, and the more considerable question is, “Why do you think it’s OK to discriminate against someone who is merely living the best life that they can within their freedom not to believe what you happen to?”
It certainly seems that a world which continues to move toward allowing religious freedom and the freedom of belief must still be encouraged to recognize that these freedoms include, most fundamentally, the freedom not to believe. There’s the real controversy.
In our search for interesting, challenging and critical perspectives on contemporary humanism, we occasionally find articles published via other venues that we think humanistfreedoms.com readers may enjoy. The following article was found on Pressenza on August 16, 2021.
Pressenza is a space open to the expression of the social base. We endorse a universalist humanist perspective…(more about Pressenza at the bottom of this article).
A Filipina from Manila, Philippines. A longtime Humanist. A Creative Director and Advertising Communications professional for many years, she has been active in the Community for Human Development, facilitating workshops for personal and social change to help build a culture of peace, nondiscrimination and nonviolence. She is currently a freelance writer and a volunteer editor-writer for Pressenza in Asia.
August 15, 2021. The World Humanist Forum- Asia was officially launched with the participation of over 105 individuals, many representing humanist organisms and other NGOs/groups, all sharing the same vision of a non-violent and non-discriminatory humane world, and working in their different fields towards that vision—humanizing the earth. The Forum connected and linked participants coming from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Japan, Australia, also from Africa, Europe, North and South America.
Sudhir Gandhotra facilitated so that the participants could discuss, interchange and be inspired by each other to continue with their actions and to reach more people in the region, to address crucial issues of violence and discrimination that all face in their personal and social lives.
To start the forum, he defined that the humanist is someone or anyone who believes in non-violence and is against discrimination and violent action. He quoted from Silo, founder of New Humanism and the Humanist Movement:
“Namer of a thousand names, maker of meanings, transformer of the world, your parents and the parents of your parents continue in you. You are not a fallen star but a brilliant arrow flying toward the heavens. You are the meaning of the world, and when you clarify your meaning you illuminate the earth. When you lose your meaning, the earth becomes darkened and the abyss opens.
I will tell you the meaning of your life here: It is to humanize the earth. And what does it mean to humanize the earth? It is to surpass pain and suffering; it is to learn without limits; it is to love the reality you build.
I cannot ask you to go further, but neither should it offend if I declare, “Love the reality you build, and not even death will halt your flight!”
You will not fulfill your mission if you do not apply your energies to vanquishing pain and suffering in those around you. And if through your action they, in turn, take up the task of humanizing the world, you will have opened their destiny toward a new life.”
The opening remarks given by Antonio Carvallo set the tone further:
Dear Dr. Mathai, dear Mr. Rajagopal, dear Ms. Sudha Soni, dear Sudhir, dear Ajeet. Dear friends representing the organisms of the Humanist Movement and Silo’s Message, dear friends who accompany this occasion.
I am delighted to be celebrating the launching of the Asian Humanist Forum, with all of you. Our aim is to communicate to the world Silo’s message of Humanization with the goal to construct a Universal Human Nation. What better a day than today, the anniversary of Indian independence so strongly associated with the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and his universal call for non-violence.
The Forum aspires to send a renewed and powerful appeal to overcome suffering, capable of sounding meaningful and providing direction to every individual.
That message is a message of faith, of compassion, of recognition and trust in our own inner force, capable of guiding us through the most difficult circumstances. A message that persuades us to treat others as we like to be treated.
A message that helps everyone to connect with themselves, to access the profound and sacred that lies in our hearts and minds.
In times of big instability and confusion, like the present one, when even nature appears unpredictable and threatening, we need to hold together and find support in our center of gravity.
We think that the world is changing for the better and that we are at a turning point in our civilization, in the process of transforming into a universal human nation. This is new and unprecedented; we are facing the need for a profound change both socially and individually. The human being must be the central value in this change. We must learn to eradicate violence from our minds and our societies, since both are inextricably intertwined. This task needs to be undertaken now by every one of us.
This is in summary the message the Humanist Forum should aspire to deliver everywhere and to everyone. Because it is good, because it is just and because it is urgent.
To make it possible we all need to work together.”
After this, a tapestry of missions and visions, of actions and campaigns strung together with the thread that humanizes, commenced. Participants heard from Ghandians about their peace and non-violence programs, from grassroots NGOs addressing the different needs of the communities and sectors of society they work in, be they Muslims or young women who need education, about foot marches across India being planned from September 21, Day of Peace to October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, which is the International Day of Non-violence. And more…
Representatives from the five organisms of the Humanist Movement talked about what they do and stand for. The Community for Human Development works in the social field, helping “to raise the level of consciousness”. The Humanist Party is in the political field which greatly affects everyone, aiming to restore real power to the people and not resting on the interests of a handful. The Convergence of Cultures organism espouses the need for all the cultures to coordinate, coexist and learn from each other, acknowledging and respecting cultural diversity. Aspiring towards no borders, World without Wars and Violence, the organization that launched the Global March in all continents in 2009 calling for an end of nuclear arms and disarmament, is launching another World March. Now, it is expanding its scope from war and armaments to all forms of violence and aiming to educate the youth, the next generation, on the principles of peace. The World Center of Humanist Studies analyzing the crucial issues affecting the world today, looking for proposals and solutions. And, as all human beings have a spiritual part within, the messengers inspired by the book, The Message of Silo, works to carry peace within themselves to others.
The forum was spirited and lively, even going beyond the foreseen time as everyone shared and started connecting with each other. After an Asking to strengthen the resolve to carry on with the Forum’s mission, closing remarks pointed out that the internet was and is able to create and forge links. Thanks to this, it is helping to connect like-minded people within the environment of the World Humanist Forum which was just officially launched and will help it to go forward into the envisioned future. The website can play a big role to connect people across countries as organizations and individuals can join the Forum, inform, get in touch and collaborate with others. (https://www.whfasia.org/)
Everyone left, greatly inspired to expand this Humanist Work even to other Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. As a participant, Pradeepan Madathil, commented, “ This is the voice of the times. The unity of non-violent peoples around the world, the togetherness of the volunteers, and the current global community waiting for such unity”
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