Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Decolonizing Methodologies

Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us of a critical point about history and research in the colonial context in the first chapter of her book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People:

"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 it is mostly about power."

Smith challenges several assumptions about academic research and Indigenous-Settler relations. She reminds us that, “…a thousand accounts of the ‘truth’ will not alter the ‘fact’ that indigenous peoples are still marginal and do not possess the power to transform history into justice.” We must never forget that Indigenous-Settler relations are first and foremost, characterized by an imbalance in power in favour of the colonizers. The reality of the Indigenous experience is that we are occupied and surrounded, physically, culturally, spiritually, and intellectually – including our experiences in academic institutions. It is a mistake to think that the issues of power and imperialism are exclusive to the political and economic realms. Additionally, Smith writes, "Imperialism still hurts, still destroys and is reforming itself constantly." For Indigenous peoples, imperialism is not a thing of the past - it is ongoing, whether it is called neocolonialism or neoliberalism, or progress and economic development. It still perpetuates the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and territories.

Smith argues that these elements of domination and Eurocentric bias are inherent in the Settler intellectual and academic traditions. These traditions are rooted in liberal thinking that emerged during The Enlightenment period and are manifest in “positivism and notions of objectivity and neutrality.” The experiences and knowledge of Indigenous people have been discounted in imperial institutions in favour of these liberal philosophies and methodologies, yet Smith believes that there is still a vital place for Indigenous academics and research. Despite the fact that the academic experience can be "alienating and destructive," Indigenous people are in a position to not only survive their experiences, but also reorient research agendas to serve Indigenous aims and aspirations. Smith quotes Kathie Irwin who states, "We don't need anyone else developing the tools which will help us to come to terms with who we are. We can and will do this work. Real power lies with those who design the tools - it always has. This power is ours."

In utilizing 'Indigenized' research, Smith offers a hopeful and dignified approach for Indigenous intellectuals who seek to revitalize their communities. In addition to highlighting ten ways in which Indigenous people continue to be subject to imperialist research from outsiders (and arguably, from a minority of insiders as well), she summarizes twenty-five important research projects about, by, and for Indigenous peoples. While I believe that they are all important, I wish to focus on three that particularly resonated with me. The first is "Negotiating," of which she writes,
"When one reads of the decisions made by various indigenous leaders to accept the terms and conditions of colonization, what emerges from those stories is the concern shown by leaders for the long-term survival chances of the collective, of their own people. That was the basis of their courage and, despite the outrage younger generations of indigenous people might feel about the deal which some leaders accepted, the broader picture across several indigenous contexts is one of dignity and acceptance of a specific reality. Their negotiations were undertaken quite literally with guns at their heads, with their people starving and with death around them."

In-depth Indigenous research conducted with this understanding may allow for the younger generations to greater appreciate the dire conditions experienced by our ancestors. This understanding is not only vital in terms of accuracy, but also in terms of how present generations deal with the shame and guilt that comes with being a colonized people. Further understanding of this kind can only enhance how we move forward into the future. Secondly, I wish to comment on the project of "Connecting." Smith writes that, "Connecting is related to issues of identity and place, to spiritual relationships and community wellbeing." Smith also states that connecting is about being "whole" and "establishing good relations." I'm reminded of a statement from the introduction of Ella Cara Deloria's novel, Waterlily: "To be a good Dakota is to be a good relative." Research in an Indigenous context is about re-establishing the healthy connections that were severed by the colonial experience, with each other and to the land. Finally, I want to focus on the importance of "Creating." Smith writes, "The project of creating is about transcending the basic survival dream new visions." I believe that while the current experience of colonialism is still devastating to Indigenous peoples - in very physical, mental, and spiritual ways - there are no longer as many guns to our heads. The work of prior generations has created some space for our communities to begin healing and begin creating again. I believe that Indigenous research can play a vital role in community revitalization. In discussing her own experiences with Indigenous research Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes of the people she worked with, "I saw their continuing belief in themselves, their positive outlook and optimism and their hope that maybe, one day, life would get better." Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies is a rich and powerful (in the Indigenous senses of the words) contribution to the revitalization of Indigenous communities, ways of life, and worldviews. As it pertains to us, here at the University of Victoria, Smith offers an insightful, critical and ultimately inspirational guide as we move forward as Indigenous "academics" that care about the health and wealth of our communities.


At 11:46 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Nice...this is one of the most important books to come along in the last few decades. It's application in the fields of community development, organization and leadership are just as important as its focus on academia. The arguments she makes are transferable everywhere. It makes great reading alongside Tswalk.

Great summary.

At 2:00 PM, OpenID visionary4humanity said...

Several comments.

You say:
We must never forget that Indigenous-Settler relations are first and foremost, characterized by an imbalance in power in favour of the colonizers.
i say that this is true only on some levels. On materialist kinds of levels. On psychological and psychospiritual levels, it is another story entirely. We settlers are generally in poverty on those levels. And we generally feel powerless to do anything but go along with the narrative put before us.

Thus, on these terms, things are not in "our" favor. And i think that's an important distinction to make. Because if one doesn't, it's easy to see the situation as monolithic, and to give up unless one is the most dedicated "radical."

It's not much different from 1960s/70s folks who saw "the radicals" trying to face down the seemingly monolithic institutions of the State and so on. They felt like they were "banging their heads against the wall"; so most gave up and found ways to supposedly "work from the inside." In some ways this has worked (I guess, to avoid "the worst"), and in other ways, it has not. They have been fooled, mostly (via "smoke and mirrors" as the saying goes) and out-flanked by a system they still do not truly understand.

And this leads me to say that critical thinkers ought to be pointing this out much more than we have been. Because we basically give away power when we acquiesce to the idea that power is in the "favor of" colonizers. Only on one, very superficial level it is; but without the psychospiritual meaning, such is a poor existence indeed.

You say:
The reality of the Indigenous experience is that we are occupied and surrounded, physically, culturally, spiritually, and intellectually – including our experiences in academic institutions.
The truth be known, so are we "rank and file" (and, i think many "elite") settlers. Except that we've undergone *psychological genocide* as well. Where you still have intact your tribal consciousness, we have been atomized and made to feel as though we are alone.

So what if we began approaching things in ways of critical commonality? Keep the consciousness (of course!) and yet follow ancient indigenous wisdom by avoiding the entrenched dualities. Not let the ignorant trample you, while letting the best within us settlers--that which we may still hold, privately--(our intuitive dissent) have room to become truly meaningfully.

Of course, we're probably going to start finding ourselves kicked out of and so on; but then we can see that as a gift to build truly meaningful internet spaces. Eh?

You say:
It is a mistake to think that the issues of power and imperialism are exclusive to the political and economic realms.
Very true. And of course, we settlers are firmly imbibed with just such ideas. Why? Because it is "the rules" which all political players have to play by if they want to continue to see their funding and other privilges; if they don't want to find themselves where "the radicals" found themselves.

Now, if they start to see that it's possible to go beyond those traps...


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