Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Monthly Archives: November 2013

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There is no such thing as ‘neutral’ research

To argue that a specific study is neutral or objective is to subscribe to an idea of the world where all knowledge is finite and our understanding of knowledge as a concept can be more or less wrong based on how well we manage to find the right lens to use when we analyse the world.

This in itself is preposterous as it not only fails to take into account e.g. the collective and cultural accountabilities at play in Indigenous research, but mainly because no matter how emancipatory a research claims to be – ranging from Marxist to feminist research – it most often finds itself rooted in different levels of privilege, where a white, Western and, feminism aside, patriarchal world view is taken for granted and thus declared to be ‘correct’.

As Indigenous researchers we cannot afford to let ourselves get trapped in a web of rigid research epistomologies which to this day continue to benefit the Western status quo, no matter how liberating and non-oppressive they claim to be. We can and should only talk about ourselves in this sense; we cannot talk with authority about anything but our own culture and our own lived experiences. Knowledge is not easily defined and thus seeking to break it down and authoritatively claim that it can be explained with research methodologies that have effectively kept Indigenous people outside academia for centuries is to do ourselves a great injustice.

Talking about ourselves, thereby challenging the status quo which has researched us without our permission to a point where there arguably should not be anything more to research, is highly political whether we want it to be so or not. It becomes a decolonial protest where we locate ourselves within our communities and first and foremost reclaim our own voices which have been stolen and corrupted by those who have researched us because of our ‘Otherness’ and nothing else.

As an Indigenous person, locating myself not just physically but spiritually, culturally and generationally is crucial in understanding not only myself but also in making sense of why I do any research at all. As Indigenous people we face a world where we constantly have to justify who we are, both to outsiders and members of our own communities. Our entire being becomes politicised so that even the mere act of coughing in ‘the wrong place’ during a lecture is interpreted as a huge political statement by the status quo. As Indigenous researchers we are not afforded a space where what we do is construed as neutral, so to work with methodologies that seek to discover neutral knowledge should be the last thing on our list of priorities.

Non-indigenous laws that have been used to eradicate us and control us still play huge roles in Indigenous peoples lives and thus it becomes vital to dispute any and all forms of research which claims to have the ultimate answer to any question relating to ourselves.

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The Indigene in Academia

I’ve noted two things over the past couple of years; firstly, being Indigenous and working on something that can be construed as stemming from one’s Indigeneity within the academic sphere one is never not political. It doesn’t matter what one does, as soon as one enters a room, be it physically or in a more metaphorical sense, i.e. through a paper, one’s every action is interpreted as being a political form of resistance or conformity against or with the status quo.

Secondly, Western academia is very keen to use Indigenous bodies as figure heads for new, innovative research projects which, when examined further, rather than challenging established research methodologies uses the Indigene as a smoke screen to keep on furthering the cause of the Ivory Tower. In these projects one becomes, to use the words of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘the indigenous researcher’ and not ‘an Indigenous researcher’.

This is complicated for a number of various reasons. On one hand Indigenous research cannot be approached in the same ways as Western research, mainly because there are crucial questions of cultural accountability at play that cannot be ignored by the researcher. We constantly have to ask ourselves if what we are doing is truly helping our communities; the credo being ‘for the community, by the community and with the community’. Adding to this complexity, the fundamental difference between Western academia’s and most Indigenous forms of knowledge transmission – i.e. a written system vs. several entirely different oral ones – makes Indigenous research far more complex than what it might seem on paper.

Indigenous research cannot simply be interpreted as ‘research done by a token Indigenous person’. Indigenous research is resistance, it is decolonisation in the very heart of Western society. And at the same time while being fiercely political, it is a deeply complex process of walking back and forth between different types of knowledge transmission that most often do not work in even remotely similar ways just in order to negotiate a place where two opposing methods of research can come together whilst benefitting the community of the Indigenous researcher first and foremost.

And adding to the list of things in the aforementioned metaphorical Pandora’s Box of Indigenous research, every language manages to conceptualise the world in slightly different ways, and if anything, the language of Western Academia is far from that of any Indigenous tradition of passing on wisdom.