Indigenous Research Methodologies

​A number of past posts presented books on decolonization - Fanon on struggles, Ngugi on language, and Smith on methodologies. How might a grounding in decolonization shape research? Margaret Kovach addresses this question in "Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts" (2009). 

In seeking to understand how Indigenous methodologies have been utilized in research, Kovach presents reflections of Indigenous scholars. Their "stories, interwoven with my own reflections, explore how Indigenous researchers have integrated Indigenous cultural knowledges into their research frameworks and the challenges of doing so within academia" (p. 14). Foundational to what makes Indigenous approaches different is a grounding in decolonization: "introducing Indigenous knowledges into any form of academic discourse (research or otherwise) must ethically include the influence of the colonial relationships, thereby introducing a decolonizing perspective into a critical paradigm" (p. 30). This is key because knowledge is "neither acultural nor apolitical" (p. 30).

The author outlines how what constitutes knowledge is a key question, and one that creates challenges in integrating Indigenous methodologies into academia. "Ancient knowledge is still alive in Cree communities. The most sacred form comes through dreams, fasts, sweats, vision quests, and during sacred ceremonies" (p. 66, see also p. 140). But, "Sacred knowledge is not really accepted in Western research, other than in a peripheral, anthropological, exotic kind of way. This can create a difficulty for the Indigenous researcher, for if one chooses to embrace Plains Cree knowledges one must honour all that they are" (p. 67). This includes committing "to its values and demands" (p. 133).

Kovach's books is one step into the direction of broadening what is considered acceptable and accepted within academia. "Creating methodological choice for Indigenous researchers is but one element of decolonizing research, a process that requires depth, breadth, and attention to various aspects of research" (p. 175). "There are also political motivations. Given the assimilative tendency of Western culture, highlighting the tribal-knowledge basis of an Indigenous research framework rather than identifying it as a more generic relational, holistic epistemology, lessens the risk of a qualitative research community assimilating it" (p. 177).

One of the traits Kovach highlights is the relational nature of research and the need for reflexivity. The book does not simply describe these as traits, but exemplifies these traits throughout, as the author explores her own situatedness and journey with Indigenous methodologies. This book is unique - in its style and content - and it is well worth reading.

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Violence, Justice and Decolonization

If you are looking for a tour de force of colonialism, anti-colonization struggle and decolonization, Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961) should be high on the list. Fanon is a unique voice; in style, content and argument. This work has influenced revolutionaries from Palestine to Sri Lanka and South Africa, as well as the United States. In his day – and undoubted in our times – Fanon was a radical. Fanon is probably most well known for his promotion of the use of violence, which comes out clearly in the first chapter of this book. He begins: "decolonization is always a violent event" (p. 1).

Will people will power – who use that power to entrench severe inequalities and enrich themselves – easily give up that power? Would they do so voluntarily? Fanon suggests not. "In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists. This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up (too quickly, say some) the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence" (p. 3).

Violence is not a means that is sought for its own sake, according to the author. For Fanon, violence is an expression of equality: "If, in fact, my life is worth as much as the colonist's, his look can no longer strike fear into me or nail me to the spot and his voice can no longer petrify me. I am no longer uneasy in his presence. In reality, to hell with him. Not only does his presence no longer bother me, but I am preparing to waylay him in such a way that soon he will have no other solution but to flee" (p. 10). The colonized person "is dominated but not domesticated. He is made to feel inferior, but by no means convinced of his inferiority" (p. 16). "Over the years I have had the opportunity to verify the fundamental fact that honor, dignity and integrity are only truly evident in the context of national and international unity. As soon as you and your fellow men are cut down like dogs there is no other solution but to use every means available to reestablish your weight as a human being. You must therefore weigh as heavily as possible on your torturer's body so that his wits, which have wandered off somewhere, can at least be restored to their human dimension" (p. 221).

There have been tens of books, and hundreds of academic articles, published on the importance of strict non-violence in mass action, citizen movements. For the last decade, efforts have been made to show that violence does not work, and that only strict non-violence should be used. Fanon might suggest that this trend is not, in fact, novel: "At the critical, deciding moment the colonialist bourgeoisie, which had remained silent up till then, enters the fray. They introduce a new notion, in actual fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence. In its raw state this nonviolence conveys to the colonized intellectual and business elite that their interests are identical to those of the colonialist bourgeoisie and it is therefore indispensable, a matter of urgency, to reach an agreement for the common good" (p. 23). However, the author argues that "the underprivileged and starving peasant is the exploited who very soon discovers that only violence pays. For him there is no compromise, no possibility of concession" (p. 23). Furthermore, the control and exploitation need not be direct to be subject to violence, economic domination does also (p. 27). Fanon foresaw the real issue of the day being inequality: "What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a distribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be" (p. 55).

For all his original contributions, however, I found some aspects of Fanon's writing challenging – even self-contradicting. In many ways Fanon speaks for the people – for example: "what the colonized people want…" (p. 13); "the youth of Africa should not be…" (p. 137). This is a disempowering narrative for the people. Rather than advocate for the people to have their voices heard, and for their ability to create their own forms of governance, Fanon speaks on their behalf. Undoubtedly, Fanon argues in favor of governance by the people (e.g. p. 130), but his writing does not always reflect this (e.g. "the government must serve as filter and stabilizer" (p. 137)).

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Decolonizing the Mind

Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote "Decolonizing methodologies" (1999). Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote "Decolonizing the Mind" (1986). This is essential reading and the insights are numerous – from curricula design and literary critique to social transformation and liberation. In this post I focus on one of Ngugi's central and influential arguments about the power of language.

The author outlines how colonial and neo-colonial language policies and practices entrenched power and dominance, while simultaneously marginalizing and excluding the majority. Ngugi writes: "Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle" (p. 9). The legacy was more long lasting, more transformational, because "language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and the soul of the prisoner" (p. 9). Furthermore, language is "central to people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe" (p. 4). At the end, Ngugi concludes that while the book is about the politics of language, it is in fact about "national, democratic and human liberation" (p. 108).

The 'gentle' manifestation of colonialism and imperialism Ngugi calls the 'cultural bomb', which acts to "annihilate a people's belief in their names, their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples' languages rather than their own." (p. 3)

  • "African children who encountered literature in colonial schools and universities were thus experiencing the world as defined and reflected in the European experience of history. Their entire way of looking at the world, even the world of the immediate environment, was Eurocentric. Europe was the centre of the universe. The earth moved around the European intellectual scholarly axis. The images children encountered in literature were reinforced by their study of geography and history, and science and technology where Europe was, once again, the centre. This in turn fitted well with the cultural imperatives of British imperialism. In this book I have in fact tried to show how the economic control of the African people was effected through politics and culture." (p. 93)
  • "I believe that my writing in Gikuyu language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples. In schools and universities our Kenyan languages – that is the languages of the many nationalities which make up Kenya – were associated with negative qualities of backwardness, underdevelopment, humiliation and punishment. We who went through that school system were meant to graduate with a hatred of the people and the culture and the values of the languages of our daily humiliation and punishment. I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation." (p. 28)

What makes Ngugi a influential person is not just his words, but also his actions – this included engaging in community theatre to move beyond the bounds of academia as well as working to re-centre African languages and African literature in curricula. For his actions, he was imprisoned, barred from employment in Kenyan universities, experienced an attempted assassination, and had to live in exile for more than twenty years. It is also his self-critical approach to the question of language:

  • "The question is this: we as African writers have always complained about the neo-colonial economic and political relationship to Euro-America. Right. But by our continuing to write in foreign languages, paying homage to them, are we not on the cultural level of continuing that neo-colonial slavish and cringing spirit? What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages?" (p. 26).

For scholars and practitioners of international development, Ngugi presents a challenge well beyond educational policy and curriculum. His work should also challenge us to reflect upon the ways in which we replicate the enshrinement of foreign languages – languages not spoken by the people for who, or with whom, it is claimed that we work. As a bare minimum, we might ask, how many of our papers and reports are available in local languages? Ought not community members be given the opportunity to know what we have outlined in our proposals and reports, what we have found in the baseline and endline evaluations? Is neglecting to work in local languages disenfranchising the people we claim to be working to empower? In so doing, is it not the same paternalistic attitude of the self-determined 'experts' know best while community members are excluded? This does not even begin to grapple with the question of who ought to have the right to participate and who ought to decide what is done, where, for whom and why. Yet, even these bare minimum questions should be cause for serious reflection.

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Decolonizing Methodologies

What are the ways in which research approaches and methodologies replicate colonial attitudes and processes? In "Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples" (1999), Linda Tuhiwai Smith makes these ways clear, while also presenting new pathways for research – not simply a decolonization of research, but a reformation of research that is embedded within a broader struggle about reclaiming control over knowledge and ways of knowing. Despite being written nearly two decades ago, the book remains highly relevant, particularly for graduate students and researchers.

The book starts out powerfully: "the term 'research' is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, 'research', is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary. When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful. It is so powerful that indigenous people even write poetry about research. The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world's colonized peoples." (p. 1). The first half of the book continues to advance a critique of research. The second half presents research projects that were emerging at the time of writing, and a list of twenty five 'projects' indigenous people are engaged in. Due to the more context specific nature of the second half, this post focuses on the critical examination of research.

The problem with research is not historical, or the past experience of poor practice. Smith explains that research "within the late-modern and late-colonial conditions continues relentlessly and brings with it a new wave of exploration, discovery, exploitation and appropriation. Researchers enter communities armed with goodwill in their front pockets and patents in their back pockets, they bring medicine into villages and extract blood for genetic analysis. No matter how appalling their behaviors, how insensitive and offensive their personal actions may be, their acts and intentions are always justified as being for the 'good of mankind'. Research of this nature on indigenous peoples is still justified by the ends rather than the means, particularly if the indigenous people concerned can still be positioned as ignorant and undeveloped (savages)" (p. 24-25). Furthermore, even when exploitation is not explicit, there is also "a cultural orientation, a set of values, a different conceptualization of such things as time, space and subjectivity, different and competing theories of knowledge, highly specialized forms of language, and structures of power" (p. 42), which act to reinforce the dominance of one way of knowing over another.

Not only are the means problematic, but also the assumptions about what knowledge and evidence lead to. "For many people who are presently engaged in research on indigenous land claims the answer would appear to be self-evident. We assume that when 'the truth comes out' it will prove that what happened was wrong or illegal and that therefore the system (tribunals, the courts, the government) will set things right. We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and 'Othered' (p. 34).

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Logan Cochrane

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