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Why an Indigenous Research Methodology Anyway?

Recently, my draft research proposal was peer-reviewed by two students in class. These students were white, female students who are in the same department, although a different degree program (master’s in environmental and energy policy). Both students are working on projects themselves that they consider to be ‘environmental justice’ or ‘sustainability’ projects, which involves working with vulnerable communities and addressing our current methods of energy production and how they are not equitable. They sound like they would be great choices for a peer-review, right? Wrong.

You see, part of the problem of having these kinds of academics (future or current) review the kind of work I am doing is that they simply don’t get it. They can’t. They refuse to. Every single comment and suggestion they had was rooted in the Western framed textbooks we had been assigned in class, which completely exclude the style and approach I am using in my work. They are focused on validity and reliability, two things that are less than helpful or important in Indigenous communities. So, why do we need an Indigenous research methodology anyway?

The Legacy of Research in Indigenous Communities

If you want to get a great sense for why research is a ‘dirty word’ among the Indigenous peoples of the world, grab Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s “Decolonizing Methodologies” (second edition, 2012) and give it a spin. Smith doesn’t cut corners as she directly connects the legacies of colonialism and imperialism to the legacy of research. Unfortunately for those attempting to undertake ‘good’ research, this legacy has left a stain on the lives of every single Indigenous person I know, myself included. The first Westerners to visit places like Hawai’i, New Zealand, The Caribbean, Africa, Australia, and many more, were in search of ‘stuff’. How else do you learn about stuff unless you research it? These trips may have started out as biological expeditions, or even considered ‘naturalist adventures’, but there was more than ‘stuff’ in these new lands: there were people who used that stuff. What better way to learn about stuff than to see how these strange new people were already using it? The shift turned to writing about the lives of these people, their languages, their appearances, their practices. When colonizing powers like the British, French, and Spanish decided that if they wanted to get lots of the ‘stuff’, they would have to control the places where it came from, they began using the observations these ‘explorers’ used to justify armed conquests and start the subjugation of those who survived through religious conversion, disease transmission, and assimilation/acculturation policies implemented through mandatory education.

These observations were extremely inaccurate for the most part, as they were written through the lens of White, Christian men who projected their beliefs onto the cultures they interacted with. However, these accounts are considered by many to be the most accurate depictions of these groups because they represent the groups as they were prior to contact. One of the most frustrating things as an Indigenous person is to have your actions or those of your community judged against these original ‘ethnographies’ and be told that you aren’t being traditional, that you’ve strayed too far from your origins to still be considered part of that original group (and if you’re thinking no, that doesn’t happen, this is a tactic that is employed by many governments in claims trials to dispute territory).

Later treks and interactions with these groups were about ‘salvage’: saving as much information as possible before it was lost because of death and modernization. These trips were often government or university-sponsored, in the name of science and history. These took place primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many premised their findings on the earlier writings of those 16th and 17th century explorers’ accounts. During this time period, observations went beyond simple descriptions of dress, kinship patterns, and language, and began making physical observations related to skin color, skull size, and other physical features that could be used to distinguish differences between Natives and other races. These physical descriptions took on a new sinister character when they began to be used to explain the ‘plight of the Indian’: our brains are simply too small, our throats didn’t allow us to speak a more evolved language, our diets prevented us from advancing our technologies. Suddenly, we were pitiable: we weren’t truly a threat to the colonizers, because we were physically inferior to them. Clearly, rather than force, we needed guidance.

Removal, Reservations, and Re-Education

The mid-19th century was a major turning point in the relationship between colonizing powers and the Indigenous peoples of the world, as forced removals were kicked up a notch, reservations were established, shrunken, allotted, and erased, and children were forcibly taken from families and ‘placed’ in residential schools that were often religious-based.

The death toll on forced removals may never be accurate; but in the stories of those who live today are still tragic tales from the forced removal known as the Trail of Tears, the removal of the Dakota from Minnesota, and similar stories. Removed from their traditional lands, unfamiliar with the plants, medicines, and foodstuffs around them, the journey wasn’t what killed them: it was the inability to use traditional knowledge in a place they had never been before, it was living in much different and harsher environment than they were used to, it was grief at having left behind the lands from which they had sprung.

Reservations brought together anyone the government had placed into a tribal category, without understanding how bands and clans created affiliations. Suddenly, people who spoke slightly different dialects were trying to communicate with each other daily, people who might have been enemies lived next to each other, and new kinship relationships had to be developed. In these close quarters, traditional practices were closely monitored and often forbidden: imaging living your entire life in a mobile structure like a tipi and then being forced to build a log cabin. Disease spread through reservations as fast as it had when first contact was made, simply because people could not escape it. Malnutrition and starvation was common, as hunting parties were prohibited from leaving the reservation and tribes struggled to grow European crops in areas that had poor soil and short growing seasons.

And then they took the children. In most cases, children were forcibly removed from families who did not wish to let them go; there are instances, however, where families recognized the possibility that learning the ways of the White man could benefit their children in this new world they were living in. Children were taken hundreds of miles away to residential schools; siblings were torn apart so they could not rely on each other for support. They were bathed in harsh soaps, their clothes were burned, their possessions taken, and their hair cut. If they spoke in their Native tongue, they were beaten. Minor offenses were dealt with by withholding food, and more beating. Major offenses were dealt with by isolation, and more beating. It is still unclear how many children died in these places as the result of beatings, disease, and despair. (For a good, modern look at what these places were like, I recommend watching “Indian Horse”). Many are of the belief that the boarding school era ended before WWII; in reality, the last boarding school closed in 1997.

Knowledge Theft and Denial

Centuries of outsiders coming into our communities and taking our knowledge away in the form of objects was parallel by centuries of these same outsiders taking our knowledge away in the form of our words. Nearly every ethnographer, historian, anthropologist spoke to someone in the community to gain much of the information they later used to fill the pages of scholarly articles and text books; these informants are almost never recognized in those pages. Margaret Bruchac wrote a book that speaks to this very issue in the last few years; “Savage Kin” (2018) delves into the notes of these ‘researchers’ to see who they used as sources of information, and brings to light the truth of where that knowledge came from: not the minds of White researchers (or even those of mixed ancestry) but from community members who possess privileged information as a result of having been raised there (and often these informants were women, adding a gendered layer of exclusion!). In this way, imperialism took on a new form through cognitive imperialism.

If you haven’t already caught on, research as it has been until very recently has been an extremely exclusive, inaccurate, and harmful thing for Indigenous communities. As Smith indicates, a shift in how research has been done didn’t start to occur until the 1990s, and it was highly influenced by the writings and work that came out of the work of Black feminists and communities. Modern research fails to meet the needs of Indigenous communities by not asking what their concerns are, by not identifying how the work will benefit the community, by privileging researchers over participants, and by interpreting findings through an obtusely Western lens and scientific approach.

We need Indigenous research methodologies because we are Indigenous.

Indigenous research methodologies provide a space for us to speak to how ceremony is incorporated in our work. It provides a a framework to acknowledge that our knowledge isn’t always corporeal, but can come from spirit, from dreams, from visions. It lets us position ourselves as present and active in the work rather than attempting to somehow remove ourselves in an attempt to be ‘objective’. It guides us in how to write about work that is not ‘valid and reliable’ but rather, authentic and credible, by privileging community members words and thoughts in our work rather than attempting to synthesize them into our own words. It empowers communities to speak up about their goals for research, and empowers researchers who are Indigenous by laying a foundation that makes it possible to work in research without compromising on your beliefs and values as an Indigenous person. It legitimizes the work that we have been doing for millennia in our communities, in a way that is relevant to us (even if it is seen in the academy as ‘less than’).

I need Indigenous research methodologies because I cannot be an Indigenous researcher, working with an Indigenous community, and employ Western methods without feeling as though I have compromised on my own beliefs.


Published by Larissa Harris

I am a PhD student at Michigan Technological University in the Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program (social sciences department). I have a background in anthropology with an archaeology emphasis (BA, Minnesota State University Moorhead, MA, University of Manitoba). I have been working as an interpreter in industrial heritage for 4 years, and more broad naturalist interpretation for 4 years prior to that. I also have experience working in formal and informal education in Minnesota, primarily working with Indigenous communities.

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