Non-Indigenous scholars and Indigenous issues

At the original ‘Culture and the Canada-US Border’ conference held at the University of Kent in June 2009, Kelly Hewson (Mt. Royal University) and I had a conversation about the challenges faced by non-Indigenous scholars interested in Indigenous issues. Such conversations tend to turn on the tension between well-intentioned awareness-raising on the one hand and advocacy ‘on behalf’ of minority groups on the other, with all the attendant dangers of representation, objectification, and even commoditization that implies. How does one go about engaging such issues without speaking for others—potentially (inadvertently?) silencing them in the process? How far can an outsider venture into the political, legal, and cultural battles that First Peoples have faced, and continue to face, before risking the damaging perpetuation of critical colonialism? Such questions are at the heart of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous concerns. They have been addressed in different ways by thinkers and activists such as Linda Tuhiwai-Smith (Decolonising Methodologies), Devon A. Mihesuah (So you want to write about American Indians?), Vine Deloria, Jr. (Indians and Anthropologists), and many others. Following that conversation with Kelly, I asked her to participate in the first CCUSB workshop; when we realised she could not attend, I asked her instead to put her thoughts on paper. The below was circulated prior to that workshop, and discussed informally between papers and over lunch/dinner. We publish it here in the hope that those conversations can continue, and perhaps become a little more formal. With many thanks to Kelly for sharing her thoughts on this fraught, crucial set of questions.

David Stirrup

At one of those wonderfully catered tea breaks at the 2009 ‘Culture and the Canada-US Border’ conference at the University of Kent, David Stirrup and I began a conversation about the ethical challenges of non-indigenous scholars undertaking research on indigenous issues.  When this September’s launch was announced and I couldn’t attend, David suggested I contribute a discussion piece to the network blog.

I enter this discussion with something I believe is responsible, respectful and necessary – an outlining of my subject position—but something I often find cringe-worthy when I hear, read or write it.

Since 1992, I have been a member of the English Department at Mount Royal University (which transitioned from a community college to an undergraduate, teaching-focused, baccalaureate degree- granting institution in 2010) in Calgary, Alberta.

In 1984, I entered the critical fray of what was then in the process of becoming postcolonial literary studies. I quickly realised my naivete and its dangers. My outsider/settler status was not irrelevant, my undergraduate training was infected by a strain of English Studies that veiled the damages done by colonialist regimes of knowledge, and if I were to be a critical ally to those marginalised communities I was hoping to teach, speak and write about then I’d better make a dedicated commitment to getting the research right and making it meaningful. For me, that not only meant plenty of book work but spending more than tourist time in South Africa, India and several Caribbean islands, trying to engage with, listen to and learn from the places and people.  More recently, as I’ve moved into exploring film representations of indigenity and non-indigenous students’ responses to them,  I recognise that any research I undertake involving indigenous communities needs to be validated by and accountable to those communities

Ok.  But why the cringe?

When a paper is prefaced with such an elaborate outlining of one’s subject position that it takes precedence over what follows;

when the positioning is so imbued with the apologetic that the critic’s authority is undermined,

or constrained by so many self-proclaimed limitations that one wonders what possibly could be offered to the critical field after such a beginning…

It is obviously of utmost importance for non-indigenous scholars not to replicate the misrepresentations, misappropriations, voyeurism, exploitation, racism, so-called objectivity and detachment characteristic of Western modes of extractive research about indigenous peoples some of our predecessors and peers are responsible for. And while some would endorse retreating into silence or moving into a “safer” area of study as options, I would not.  The problems I’ve noticed with positioning aside, what are some strategies for those of us who see ourselves as non-indigenous scholarly allies for embarking responsibly on research in indigenous studies?

As a starting point, I’ve compiled the far-from-comprehensive list of strategies that follows from the readings I’ve been doing on indigenising research and decolonising methodologies and from conversations I’ve had with colleagues. [i]

  • As the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP, 1996) makes clear and Jessica Ball and Pauline Janyst (2008) make even clearer, “nothing about us without us” is the premise upon which ethical considerations of research involving indigenous issues is based.  Ideally, research projects should be bicultural, with either the involvement of an indigenous co-researcher or with a definitive aim that, with the knowledge received through collaboration, there is an attendant obligation to reciprocate. Ball and Janyst , working specifically with indigenous fathers and parenting strategies, model this framework as do Heather Castleden , Theresa Farvin and Huu-ay-aht First Nation.[ii]
  • However, what about those of us who are not in the social sciences, who approach indigenous issues through our analyses and interpretations of literary and historical texts? How do we attend to the principles of inclusion and collaboration?
  • If we haven’t done so already, we can begin to attend to them by thinking about our work and audiences beyond the academic context.  I’ve found  many of the tenets of Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Feminist Action Research (FAR)  particularly helpful for those of us formulating research projects on indigenous texts.[iii]  Some of the early research questions I ask myself and the answers I give them are influenced by these frameworks:  Among them?  For whom does this research matter?  Is it going to limit the risks and potentially enhance the benefits to the community of study? Whom do I consult to answer the previous question? How and where am I going to disseminate the findings? Why?
  • Most of us have been trained in research methodologies that are scriptocentric.  It behooves us to recognise that the print and cognitive biases of western regimes of knowledge may blind us to perceiving more embodied forms of knowledge. Despite what many of us have been taught, all the world is not a text.[iv]
  • Avoid what Adam Gaudry calls dividing practices, in particular, employing research as translation. Gaudry refers to the common practice of non-indigenous scholars validating indigenous knowledges by demonstrating parallels to western branches of knowledge. (And I would add the obverse:  non-indigenous scholars invalidating aboriginal knowledges by demonstrating their ‘lack’ when positioned against western knowledges).  In both cases, the ‘proof’ for or against is measured against an outsider paradigm.[v]
  • Gayatri Spivak has urged those of us in postcolonial studies to learn at least one of the languages of the places we are studying. (To my shame, I have not followed through on this). Sam McKegney advises his graduate students of indigenous studies to do the same.  This is not only a respectful, significant way for outside scholars to breach the distance between themselves and their communities of study, it is also an act of expansion.  As Wittgenstein reminds us, “the limits of [our] language are the limits of [our] universe”.
  • My universe is limited. I vividly remembered getting slammed, when, as a recently minted ABD, I participated in a panel defending the writer’s freedom to produce a literary satire featuring the prophet Mohammed and his human flaws (Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses).  A member of the audience chided me for mispronouncing “Rushdie” and “Muslim” and declared that if I couldn’t get those right, how was anything I was saying to register with the offended community to whom I was speaking?   Object lesson:  Learn how to pronounce names that aren’t familiar to your ear. Don’t assume the pronunciations you hear in media are accurate.  And do not employ the device of a prefatory apology for not knowing how to pronounce names or terms correctly. ( I relay this personal incident as a cautionary tale to students pre- their presentations).
  • While outsiders cannot be expected to get access to all the knowledges of insiders, it doesn’t have to follow that outsiders’ contributions are rendered irrelevant or contaminated, particularly if we make sincere efforts at community involvement and relationship-building.  While I did teach several cohorts of students in my institution’s aboriginal education project for a number of years, I didn’t make much significant contact with the project’s staff.  An admonition by bell hooks– what do you do to let diversity into your life?—pushed me to do so.  I began accepting the invitations to potluck lunches, circle dances, drum circles, sweat lodges, the yearly graduation pow wows and native awareness month events. I then encouraged non-indigenous students to attend said events and the indigenous students to get out of the Iniskim Centre and into the broader university community.  While I did not quantify the results of, or make mandatory my suggestions for, cross cultural exchange, I do know that many of the students chose to focus on the value of these experiences in their final response projects.
  • And to end, rather abruptly, I realise:  I came across a quotation of Michel de Certeau’s–“What the map cuts up, the story cuts across”– and  wonder if this provocative aphorism might serve as a prompt for future discussions about culture and the border?

Kelly Hewson

[i] Among the books I’ve found particularly helpful are the following: Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books, 1999; Sam McKegney’s Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential Schools, University of Manitoba Press, 2007; Shawn Wilson’s Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Fernwood Publishing, 2009; Lynn Davis’s Alliances: Re/Envisioning Indigenous-non-Indigenous Relationships, University of Toronto Press, 2010

[ii] See “Enacting Research Ethics in Partnerships with Indigenous Communities in Canada: ‘Do it in a Good Way’,” Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics: An International Journal (June 2008), 33-51 and “Modifying Photovoice for Community-based Participatory Indigenous Research,” Social Science and Medicine, 1393-1405

[iii] Colleen Reid offers a clear history of the development of action research as well as a framework for feminist action research at

[iv] For a rich sense of the radical possibilities of performance theory for indigenous studies, see Helen Gilbert’s transnational, interdisciplinary initiative at

[v] For further discussion of other dividing practices, see Adam Gaudry’s “Insurgent Research,” Wicazo Sa Review (Spring 2011), 113-36


2 thoughts on “Non-Indigenous scholars and Indigenous issues

  1. So, I’m going to start with an obvious point – or one that seems obvious to me, anyway, though it never seems to come up in these discussions. Imaginative literature is not reality. Decolonising methodologies developed for healthcare interventions, anthropological research and so forth cannot simply be taken wholesale into the critique of imaginative literature.

    A First Nations poet or novelist writing in English has chosen to adopt and adapt a form with a long pre-history of its own, an investment in imaginative engagement with others in the wider English-speaking world and in (acknowledged and unacknowledged) intertexual discussion with texts outside their own First Nations community. The researcher who engages with those poems, those novels – even those plays – has the responsibility to explicate some of the effects of this act of imaginative engagement. If they choose to do so via sacred or hermetic community knowledge to which they are not heirs (“all the knowledge of insiders”), I’d question why they felt that was the best route in. If, as Kelly seems to suggest here, personal stance and experience is something that should be taken into account, then surely it would be better to encourage literary interpreters to show how the text plays in other contexts, with other contexts, drawing on a heterogeneous set of traditions that include but are certainly not limited to previous Indigenous writings?

    A duty that does seem to me to fall on the outsider critic is to ensure they are making full use of the work of “insider” critics, with some care over the varying levels of “insiderness.” But to go out like good little anthropologists in that very 1960’s emic fashion, to try to get enoug knowledge and cultural legitimacy to explain another culture to itself or to ourselves in its own terms, seems to me to go beyond this into, actually appropriating the right to “speak for.”

  2. Reblogged this on Diana Brydon and commented:
    Kelly Hewson “As a starting point, I’ve compiled the far-from-comprehensive list of strategies that follows from the readings I’ve been doing on indigenising research and decolonising methodologies and from conversations I’ve had with colleagues.”

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