Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Reading

116. Kathleen E. Absolon (Minogiizhigokwe), Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know


One of my colleagues here raves about Minogiizhigokwe’s (or Kathleen E. Absolon’s) Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know. So I thought I had better read it. In the book’s preface, Absolon notes that it’s a published version of her PhD thesis, which she completed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. However, she doesn’t seem completely happy with the notion of publishing her work. “The scary thing is that how we come to know is living and fluid, not concrete and fixed like typeset words,” Absolon writes. “I trust that this book is part of a larger process where Indigenous searchers are articulating the spaces where voices and knowing reside but were never allowed to be heard. Until exposure to knowledge occurs, you don’t know what you don’t know” (10). However, she notes that this book is important, “because colonizing knowledges have attempted to silence Indigenous ways of coming to know and have fabricated false notions that Indigenous methodologies do not exist,” ideas she contests in this book (10). Kaandossiwin, she continues, “is an Anishinaabe word that describes a process of how we come to know, a process of acquiring knowledge. . . . This book is about kaandossiwin and speaks to journeys of learning, being and doing” (10). 

The first chapter, “Preparing to Search,” begins by stating that Indigenous research “is often guided by the knowledge found within. Aboriginal epistemology (the ways of knowing our reality) honours our inner being as the place where Spirit lives, our dreams reside and our heart beats” (12). This idea is “a key Indigenous methodological principle” (12). Despite the attempts by colonization to make Indigenous realities invisible, Absolon writes, “I do not need to make comparisons with eurowestern methods of searching. There is no need to. There are many pathways to knowledge” (12). Her hope is that “this book will contribute to establishing the visibility and knowledge of Indigenous methodologies in the search for knowledge in the academy and elsewhere” (12). She suggests that Indigenous epistemologies are often presented metaphorically: “the harvest of this search is wholistically presented as a petal flower with roots (worldview), centre flower (self), leaves (journey), stem (analytical backbone) and petals (methods). Petal flowers are as varied as Indigenous re-search methodologies; thus the type of flower is undefined” (12). Kaandossiwin is the result of a review of “eleven selected theses by Indigenous graduate re-searchers in adult education, social work, Indigenous studies and sociology; conversations with Indigenous re-searchers in the academy; and a learning circle of Indigenous re-searchers” (13). The book is not exhaustive, but it does provide “a general sense of Indigenous re-search methodologies used by graduate Indigenous re-searchers,” and the acceptance of these methodologies within the academy “establishes precedence of the application and legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge and methodologies” (13).

Before going any further, Absolon locates herself autobiographically, “because positionality, storying and re-storying ourselves come first”: who her family is and where she grew up (13-15). “I want my words to reflect my way of thinking, being and doing, and it’s difficult at times to balance what I think I’m supposed to write with my sense of self, so I get knotted up inside,” Absolon writes. “I began to connect my aching back with my own history and the reasons why this book feels important. Yes, there are bunched up knots in my personal and political history, and I thought about the years of suppression of my cultural identity and traditions. The body ache is connected to other aches that are exposed through this book” (15). Those aches include her separation from her community after her mother lost her status through marriage (15). She notes that her Anishinaabe grandfather told her, in a dream, to tune into her “own journey with the Spirits” (16), and her sense that her grandfather holds her when she feels “lonely and uncertain in this world” (16). She grew up in the bush, and she writes, “[w]hen I need to find ways to balance the demands of contemporary stressors, like work and more complex lifestyles, I return to the land” (17). Her doctoral research, she continues, was a means “to join other Indigenous voices and carry our knowledge forward” (17). This degree was not the beginning of her desire for learning, however; as a child, she was “thirsty . . . to learn about what happened to our people” (18). “It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I began to meet other Anishinaabe people who were involved in our cultural ways,” she continues. “It was only then that I slowly started to see what it was that my grandparents would have wanted me to know” (18). She also notes that growing up in the bush “was a gift”: “because of that strong foundation I resisted being fenced into eurowestern ways of knowing, being and doing” (18). 

Absolon’s lived experiences led her in writing this book. “Like all the re-searchers recognized in this project,” she writes, “the politics of decolonization and indigenizing is a conscious and necessary part of the journey” (19). “What I mean is that colonization has attempted to eradicate every aspect of who we are,” she continues. “Colonizing knowledge dominates, ignorance prevails, and we internalize how and who the colonizers want us to be” (19). Recovering from that colonization, she writes, “has involved rediscovering and nurturing my Anishinaabe Spirit, healing my Anishinaabe heart, decolonizing my mind and creating a critical action plan in my own life,” a process which has included learning her language (19). “At a personal level decolonization means examining the inherent conflicts within myself: I am Anishinaabe and english,” she writes, and “decolonizing in a colonial education system” means seeking “to advance Indigenous knowledge systems in a mainstream education system,” a process that is “met with antagonism and resistance by the gatekeepers of colonizing forms of knowledge production,” since “Indigenous methodologies are often not perceived as valid forms of knowledge production,” something that needs to change (19-20). As a community-based researcher, Absolon has experienced the suspicion and fear Indigenous people have about research, although she has also “seen community-based researchers embrace research as a community development tool once they learned about and saw the value of research for themselves” (20). Her aim, she writes, is to explore Indigenous “knowledge, epistemologies, paradigms, philosophies, practices and methods,” and “articulate how they may be developed and honoured in mainstream academic contexts” (20).

Absolon notes that she uses Anishinaabemowin because “this is my mother tongue” (21). “Sometimes I conjure up words and use english words in atypical ways,” she continues (21). For instance, she hyphenates the word research, for example, to give it a sense of “meaning to look again. To search again from our own location and to search again using our own ways as Anishinaabek is Indigenous re-search. It is the process of how we come to know” (21). Such research is “by nature related to Indigenous peoples’ contexts: historical, political, legal, economical, geographical, cultural, spiritual, environmental and experiential. Indigenist re-search promotes Indigenous knowledge and methods. As we re-search, we re-write and we re-story ourselves” (21). “Indigenous re-search methodologies,” she continues,

are those re-search methods, practices and approaches that are guided by Indigenous worldviews, beliefs, values, principles, processes and contexts. Indigenous methodologies are wholistic, relational, interrelational and interdependent with Indigenous philosophies, beliefs and ways of life. The methods are determined by understanding the nature of our existence, of how we come to know, of how knowledge is produced and of where knowledge comes from. Methods or ways of coming to know stem from understanding natural laws. Indigenous peoples still carry this knowledge close to the heart and Spirit. Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing are connected to the nature of our existence, just as eurowestern researchers are guided by colonialist beliefs and values, even though they claim, sometimes vehemently, that they are “value neutral”! (22)

I hope not all Settler researchers “are guided by colonialist beliefs and values,” although perhaps that hope is unfounded. Absolon states that this book “is not a formula or prescription for Indigenous methodologies,” nor does it attempt “a general representation of all Indigenous methodologies” (22). It does not address informal methodologies used outside the university. Rather, its aim “is to validate and make Indigenous methodologies a solid methodological choice” (22).

Absolon’s second chapter, “Indigenous Re-search,” begins by stating that “Indigenous peoples have always had means of seeking and accessing knowledge. “Yet, Indigenous searchers are usually caught in the context of colonial theories and methodologies” (23). For that reason, “[t]his book positions Indigenous knowledge up front and centre” (23). Traditionally, Indigenous research “has been conducted to seek, counsel and consult; to learn about medicines, plants and animals; to scout and scan the land; to educate and pass on knowledge; and to inquire into cosmology” (24).“Searching for knowledge was congruent with the principles, philosophies, customs, traditions, worldview and knowledge of a particular nation,” she continues. “Today, Indigenous researchers are committed to rediscovering that congruency between worldview and methodology” (24).

First, Absolon pays respect “to the oral traditions and knowledge that I was raised with and that guide Aboriginal methodologies of searching” (24). Beginning with one’s experiences “and cultural orientations,” she continues, “is seen as integral to the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge” (24). And so Absolon writes, “I return to the bush because that is where my first teachings about searching began. . . . Searching is so intrinsic to living in the bush that we can connect this tradition to our contemporary search for knowledge” (25). That search for knowledge is inherently ethical, she continues, because “we learned to give thanks and express our intentions, actions and feelings for what we needed and took from the earth” (25). In addition, “negotiating the bush requires an understanding of the laws of nature,” laws which “are non-negotiable, meaning we must be prepared” (25). Searching for spiritual knowledge also means following a process. “Searching the land, in sacred spaces or human spaces, is guided by the nature of how we exist,” she writes:

Preparation is essential to any search: bring semaa (tobacco), be of good heart and mind, think about your route, wear the proper clothing, father your tools, bring food and water and plan for the unexpected. Announce yourself and your intentions; share this with others. In our search for berries we started with our own knowledge. Know where to begin and how to find your path. Thus, in my search for principles of Indigenous methodologies, I begin with my own knowledge of searching in the bush. I was taught to attune to the land and what the animals were doing. Announcing my intentions to the land or warning the animals of my presence was a central philosophy that respected the animals and our relationship to Creation. I learned to offer a prayer with semaa to acknowledge the Spirits of the land. (25-26)

“Walking the land and negotiating the elements of the bush called for another principle: do not get lost,” Absolon continues. “Listening and walking carefully were other principles central to my search” (26). “In practicing these principles,” she writes, “I learnt about demonstrating respect for the land and its inhabitants” (26). In the bush, she also learned perseverance, gratitude, and “a sense of connection, understanding and knowing” (26).

“Indigenous cultural histories are rich and have been passed from one generation to the next since time immemorial,” Absolon writes. “Our lived experiences are records of these histories” (26). “Intertwined in histories were methodologies from which purpose and meaning were actualized,” she continues (26). “As Indigenous scholars, we are challenged to take back control and change the way research is is conducted within our communities, peoples, and cultures,” she writes, and acknowledging Indigenous research methods “is pivotal to this task. If we intend to theorize and research as Indigenous scholars, then we must identify what that means and how that happens” (27). This work also means acknowledging “the context of racism and colonialism” (27). “[M]easuring Aboriginal knowledges against western criteria,” she contends, “is academic racism and colonialism” (27). “The legacy of colonizing knowledge has created a disconnection of people from their traditional teachings, people, family, community, spiritual leaders, medicine people, land and so on,” she writes. “The oppressive silencing of Aboriginal knowledges has perpetrated oppression and threatens the ultimate extinction of cultures whose epistemologies, philosophies, worldviews and theories have sustained both the earth and its inhabitants for centuries” (27-28).

The chapter’s next section discusses Indigenous science and knowledge; I’m not sure whether Absolon means science as a particular or general term. She notes that “the waning of traditional science among Indigenous peoples” was the result of colonialism and its confiscation or destruction of “knowledge bundles and ceremonial objects” (28). “Traditional science was replaced with belief systems based on western scientific thought,” she writes, which explain truth within Eurocentric paradigms, as absolute truth (28-29). “[A]sserting that truth is a construction of those in positions of power over knowledge,” she continues, “makes a trail for Indigenous worldviews as another form of truth” (29). She cites Shawn Wilson’s suggestion that Indigenous research paradigms have developed in four stages—I really need to reread Wilson’s book—and notes that “Indigenous paradigms are increasingly receiving recognition and respect as Indigenous scholars re-search and teach from their distinct stance” and that “Indigenous critiques are vital to create space for Indigenous paradigms and methodologies in Indigenous searches to emerge (29). She notes the existence of allied methodologies—“emancipatory, liberatory, anticolonial and anti-racist” (29)—which “have introduced new and relevant theories and epistemologies of research to include socio-political and historically critical perspectives,” particularly “action-based research, participatory action research and community-based strategies” (29-30). She notes that using these forms of research isn’t the same as doing research “within an Indigenous worldview/paradigm,” but that “some qualitative research methodologies are compatible with Indigenous paradigms” (30). However, in order to reclaim Indigenous forms of knowledge production, she argues, “we need to look at our own understandings of existence and the nature of knowledge and ethics (ontology, epistemology, methodology and axiology) as a starting point,” because “Indigenous paradigms are fundamentally different”: they are based on the belief that knowledge is relational and shared with all of Creation (30). “The concept ‘we are all related’ informs the wholistic and relational nature of Indigenous methodologies,” Absolon writes. “Indigenous thought and knowledge guides how we search for knowledge—a search that considers reciprocity and interdependence” (30-31). Absolon stresses “the significance and extent of Indigenous knowledge within Indigenous re-searchers’ consciousness. Indigenous knowledge is knowledge that is wholistically derived from Spirit, heart, mind and body. Indigenous forms of knowledge production accept intuitive knowledge and metaphysical and unconscious realms as possible channels to knowing” (31). Indigenous knowledge “is cyclical and circular and follows the natural laws of Creation,” and it “occupies itself with the past, present and future” (31). “Thus, research that is derived from Indigenous knowledge certainly entails methodologies that demonstrate respect and reverence within these understandings. Indigenous re-search is about being human and calls all human beings to wake from the colonial trance and rejoin the web of life,” she writes (31).

Next, Absolon describes her own research methodology, which “involved a process of preparing, searching and making meaning” (32). Preparing, in this instance, meant identifying the purpose of her research: “to make what we know visible by identifying what Indigenous methodologies graduate Indigenous re-searchers are using and how they are employing those methodologies within the academy” (32). Her process for gathering material “was eclectic, flexible and organic”: it involved a literature review, individual conversations with Indigenous researchers, and “a group learning circle with Indigenous searchers” (32). Making meaning, or “the process of interpreting and finding meaning,” “known in its western form as data analysis,” involved reading the theses she had found, and “travelling over the land to meet people in spaces that we both agreed upon” (33). “Prayer and dreaming were sources of support, guidance and direction during the phase of analysis and making meaning of the conversations,” she continues (34). After a dream, she “fashioned a tapestry representation” of her research, which “removed me from cerebral analysis and brought me to another level, where I was able to wholistically conceptualize what I had gathered” (34). Then she proposed a learning circle for Indigenous researchers at a conference in Winnipeg (35). “At the time of the learning circle, I knew that my basket was full and that I did not need to gather anymore,” she writes. “Sharing what I was learning from my own search, as a way of giving back and reciprocating other searchers’ generosity, became my goal” (35). 

The third chapter, “Introducing the Re-Searchers and Their Searches,” summarizes the theses and dissertations Absolon read—a literature review, of a sort—and introduces the researchers she was able to meet with and talk to. (In some cases, she read the work of people she met.) 

Chapter 4, “Wholistic Worldviews and Methodologies,” begins with this statement: “We must stand on our merits and not countenance anything less than full acceptance in the academy. Compromising who we are, what we know and where we come from is unacceptable” (47). “We are not alternative,” Absolon continues. “Being othered or alternative depends on whose turf it is. If it’s not your turn then I guess you’re the other. We must own our own turf within Indigenous search agendas. If the methods are Indigenous, within an Indigenous context and for Indigenous purposes, then it is normal and the mainstay of knowledge collection” (47). “The sooner the academy recognizes the existence and validity of Indigenous methodologies, the closer the academy comes to creating a welcoming environment for Indigenous scholars, who can then focus their energy on all areas of Indigenous knowledge production,” she continues (47).

Her goal in this chapter “is to present the methodologies Indigenous graduate searchers employ and their experiences of conducting Indigenous re-search in the academy,” and she “presents the harvest” of her research “within the framework of a petal flower. Each element of the petal flower is connected and interrelated to the whole of the flower and ought not to be interpreted in absence of its wholistic context,” in the way that Indigenous worldviews and methodologies “are wholistic, relational and interdependent” (47-48). “The methodologies, ideas, concepts and issues that are discussed herein represent concrete, multi-layered, dynamic, multi-dimensional and wholistic ways of searching for knowledge,” she writes. “Many people are curious about Indigenous knowledge and ceremonies, but I am certain that it is Indigenous people that need to reclaim that pathway first” (48). She is writing for an Indigenous audience, “not to provide pathways to sacred knowledges, but to provide support and information from which Indigenous scholars will benefit” (48).

The idea of a “petal flower” came from a dream. “All elements of the petal flower are essential to crafting a wholistic framework for Indigenous methodologies,” she writes:

Roots represent worldviews, the centre is the self, the leaves are the journey, the stem is the backbone and the petals represent the diverse methodologies I was learning about. . . . I realized that my framework was congruent with an earth-centred worldview, and the petal flower became the wholistic representation of Indigenous methodologies. (48)

By “petal flower,” Absolon seems to be referring to what botanists call composites; her examples are “wild daisies, roses, strawberries and sunflowers” (48). Indigenous methodologies are similar to these flowers “in that they call for the recognition and understanding of the natural and spiritual laws that govern their existence and survival. The flower is rooted in the earth, yet is moved by the wind and rain. It is an exquisite example of how something so concrete can be flexible and fluid at the same time” (49). Such flowers are beautiful and also used for medicinal or culinary purposes (49). She notes that Leroy Little Bear “uses the metaphor of four flower petals to symbolize strength, sharing, honesty and kindness in kinship relations” (49). “In summary, the petal flower is significant in a number of ways,” Absolon writes:

    • all its components are interrelated and interdependent;
    • it is earth centred and harmoniously exists in relationship with Creation;
    • it is cyclical and changes from season to season; 
    • the environment it lives in impacts its life; and
    • it has a Spirit and a life. (49)

“The petal flower framework acknowledges and validates Indigenous leadership and scholarship displayed within a climate that is often foreign, alienating and marginalizing,” she states (49).

In the dissertations and conversations, Absolon “identified some common tendencies,” which are integrated in the metaphor or image of the “petal flower” (50). First, “[t]he roots are the grounding for Indigenous methods. Although they are not visible, the life and presence of the flower depends on the strength of its roots” (50). Second, “[t]he centre of the flower represents self and self in relation to the re-search. Indigenous methodologies are just as much about who is doing the searching as the how of the search” (50). According to Absolon, “[s]ituating self in the search seemed essential to the purpose and nature of the search and appeared to be directly related to improving social, environmental, political and educational conditions for Indigenous peoples,” and “Indigenous re-searchers recalled memories, motives, personal responsibility and their need for congruency in the search process” (50). Third, “[t]he leaves enable photosynthesis of knowledge: transformative journeys,” and they “embody the journey of the self through the research process” (50). Fourth, “[t]he stem represents the methodological backbone and connector between all parts of the whole’ (50). That backbone “comprises a critique of colonialism, imperialism and eurowestern research on Aboriginal peoples” (50). It holds the research process together (50). Fifth, “[t]he petals represent the diversity of Indigenous re-search methodologies”; the ones “that are operationalized and manifested are those that have been grounded in the roots and journeyed through the self, the research process and the academy to a methodological research enactment” (51). “Indigenous language, culture and traditions and the personal challenges were inherent in relearning and integrating our ways into our research,” Absolon writes. Sixth, “[t]he environmental context of the petal flower influences the life of Indigenous methodologies in the academy and affects Indigenous re-searchers who are trying to advance their theories and methods” (51). That context “affects the degree to which Indigenous re-searchers feel able to remain congruent in their searches” (51). “All these aspects are interrelated and interdependent,” Absolon continues. “The roots, for example, are aspects of the self, are linked to the re-search journey and determine our role as a searcher” (52). Each of the aspects Absolon has listed “is connected to the whole petal flower, which represents the essential wholism of Indigenous worldview, knowledge and methodologies. The wholistic nature of Indigenous methodologies is what distinguishes them from non-Indigenous methodologies. The whole package is necessary to understand each of their parts and their distinctness” (52).

The fifth chapter focuses on the roots in the flower metaphor. “The roots establish the foundation and support the methodological process of searching and gathering,” Absolon writes. “Although not usually visible, they are essential and are manifested in actions, behaviours, ethics and methods. We cannot talk about Indigenous methodologies without acknowledging the worldviews they come from and the paradigms and principles they rest on” (53). According to Absolon, “[p]aradigms are frameworks, perspectives or models from which we see, interpret and understand the world,” and they are “influenced by culture, socialization and experiences,” the way we understand “the nature of our existence and our reality,” and our personal “morals and ethics” (53). Rather than using words like ontology and epistemology and methodology, Absolon would prefer simpler language. “I wonder what words in Anishinaabe would mean our understanding of our existence and how we come to know about our reality and existence?” she asks. “Paradigms are the understandings that ground us in the world, and our knowing, being and doing are guided by these” (53). These understandings influence “how we search for knowledge, on our research, methodology, data analysis, dissemination of results and so on” (53). “Indigenous paradigms/ways of understanding our existence, how we come to know about that existence and what we think about our existence are the roots of Indigenous methodologies in re-search,” she writes (54).

Absolon cites Shawn Wilson’s suggestion that it is necessary to begin researching from an Indigenous paradigm (qtd. 54), and suggests that this “means more than just adding perspective. It is a grounding stance, rooted within an Indigenous understanding of the nature of our existence, how we know and how this understanding affects our realities and searches for knowledge” (55). Indigenous paradigms “are liberatory, emancipatory and critical,” and they involve “a historical, colonial and power analysis” which give it “critical contours” (55). “The past, present and future intersect, and much of our research is about searching for truth, freedom, emancipation and ultimately finding our way home,” Absolon writes. “Finding our way home means searching to return to our own roots and to find the dignity and humanity intended by the Creator” (55). A search for knowledge is a search for power: “We are already aware of difference, being othered, and with this awareness we weave our stories and identities into the research process to reclaim our power and knowledge” (55). Moreover, Indigenous worldviews are strongly connected to territory, nation, and community; they are “rooted in . . . ancestral land” (56). 

All of the researchers Absolon talked to agree “that Indigenous worldviews provide a foundation for Indigenous methodologies” (56). A worldview, she continues, “is an intimate belief system that connects Indigenous people to identity, knowledge and practices,” and these worldviews “are rooted in ancestral and sacred knowledges passed through oral traditions from one generation to the next” (56-57). These worldviews are the ways Indigenous people see the world (57). “[C]onscious Indigenous researchers acknowledge their worldview as being pivotal to their search for knowledge,” Absolon states (57). Worldviews affect methodology by influencing the self as a researcher, and the self within the research process (57). There are variations in the worldviews between members of different Indigenous nations, but there are commonalities as well: “our worldviews are earth-centred philosophies, express strong ties to the land and hold reverence for Spirit and ancestors” (57). “We view our position in Creation with humility and practise reverence to those elements of Creation that gave us life, such as the earth, sun, water and air,” Absolon continues, noting that this awareness of a relationship with the natural world “is integrated into our methodologies as we locate and story ourselves into our search processes” (58). Indigenous thought, she writes, “is wholistic in terms of looking to our past to understand our present and to have regard for the future. We acknowledge our relationship to all that is above, beneath and with us” (58). (In passing, Absolon notes that her spelling of “wholistic” is intended to distinguish it from “hole or holy” [59]). Colonization has “dismembered individuals, families, communities and nations,” and “[w]holistic approaches are inherently inclusive, which fosters and facilitates healing searches and healing relationships” (59).

Tobacco, Absolon writes, “is a sacred medicine and is used to recognize Spirit” (60). Spirit is central to Indigenous knowledge, which is “‘spiritually derived’” (Leanne Betamosake Simpson, qtd. 60). “Spiritually derived knowledge infers that knowledge also comes from dreams, visions, ceremonies and prayer,” Absolon continues. “Spiritually guided paradigms call attention to an existing relationship with the Spirit realm, Creation and those ‘power-helpers’ or Spirit helpers who walk with us” (60). “Spirituality is inherent in Indigenous epistemology, which sees everything in relation to Creation and recognizes that all life has Spirit and is sacred,” she continues (61). An Indigenous worldview must be lived “wholistically,” Absolon argues; such a worldview “is comprised of Spirit, heart, mind and body, and you have to understand the circle, you have to understand what that means and how you do things and how you more or less walk” (62). “Our roots as Indigenous people create a unique position from where we search,” she continues. “Being an Indigenous person in a search for knowledge situates me in a place that non-Indigenous people can never occupy. We have inner cultural knowledge and common experiences of colonization and its subsequent impacts on our families, communities and other relations in Creation” (63).

Next, Absolon discusses principles: “Indigenous methods that are rooted in Indigenous worldviews and philosophies promote Indigenous-based ethics and principles in the research process,” and those principles and ethics “set us apart from western researchers” (63). “Essentially, the worldviews and principles of Indigenous re-search are embedded in the methodologies themselves,” and those worldviews “are also made up of Indigenous principles, such as respect, sharing, balance, harmony, love, bravery and wisdom” (63). “All the re-searchers pursued their search with a goal of acting in accordance with the teachings of minobimaadiziwin—to live a good life, in balance and with respect for all of Creation,” Absolon writes (65). Respect is a core principle in Indigenous research, “a wholistic value [that] can be enacted at all levels of re-search” and “is interwoven throughout this entire work” (65). The teachings of minobimaadiziwin need to be applied now “to rebuild and recover from colonial trauma” (65). “Respectful research implies a search process with a goal toward creating and living a ‘good life,’” Absolon states (65-66). Also, “[t]he significance of ancestors cannot be ignored. Indigenous people know the ancestors are watching and waiting to share their knowledge” through sacred ceremonies, dreams, visions, prayer, and rituals (66). “The map to get to the ancestors’ knowledge is in Aboriginal protocols and ethics and more specifically within Aboriginal epistemology,” she writes (66).

Chapter Six, “The Flower Centre: Self as Central,” argues that “the re-searchers’s location, memory, motive and search for congruency” are central to Indigenous research (67). “What we see revealed through Indigenous re-search is the re-searcher, the self,” Absolon writes. “Within the self exists millennia of Indigenous ancestral knowledge, teachings and Spirit” (67). Researchers must “accept responsibility for our intentions, understandings and knowledge by writing self into our research” (68). Researchers themselves “are at the centre of their methodological process,” and “Indigenous worldviews and principles are actualized by Indigenous searchers who are consciously connected to their roots and who have supportive channels to actualize their worldviews” (68). “In many cases, the Indigenous searchers utilized a self-referential and experiential approach to gathering knowledge,” Absolon notes, acknowledging that her own research “is grounded within an Anishinaabe perspective and by an Anishnaabe kwe who loves the land and is also bi-cultural” (68-69). “Our searches become a portal or a doorway to learning about self and self in relation with Creation,” she continues. “The use of self in Indigenous methodologies may open doors that we never thought possible. It connects us to family, community and nation” (69). It “cultivates a healing movement of being reconnected and remembered from the dismemberment and disconnections created by colonial policy,” she continues (69).

“Many of our research processes are described as a personal process, and because of our situated-ness, as Indigenous people, our findings come from within,” Absolon writes (69). “[M]any searchers focus on their personal lessons and teachings about the world and their learning experiences,” she continues. “The self is woven throughout the process, linking self to methods” (70). For that reason, “[a] goal of Indigenous learning and searching is ultimately to learn more about our Indigenous self, history, worldview, culture and so on” (70). “With confidence, I assert that conscious Indigenous re-searchers are doing re-search with other Indigenous peoples, communities, cultures and lands and on issues important to Indigenous people,” she writes. “We want to make a contribution for the collective good of the community” (71).

“All of the re-searchers located themselves, which included things like identifying their nation, name, clan, family, territory and where they receive their teachings,” Absolon writes. “[S]earching for knowledge promotes an identification of location, which I think is distinctly Indigenous and goes directly against the positivist eurowestern research presumption that there is only one truth, that neutrality and objectivity are possible and that to safeguard against researcher bias, the researcher’s location doesn’t (and must not) matter” (71). That’s true, and it explains the use of passive voice in writing lab reports: it shouldn’t matter who conducted the experiment, because the results ought to be reproducible no matter who is involved. In contrast, “[i]n Indigenous contexts location does matter. People want to know who you are, what you are doing and why” (71). “Describing location, in Indigenous contexts, is part of ethical re-search,” she continues. “Because of the biased and obscured history of research on and about Indigenous peoples, visibly locating allows readers to make their own judgements about the research, knowing that there is no such thing as neutrality” (72). Location “reveals who we are in relation to the world, the earth, our nations, our clans, and so much more. Our location reveals a worldview and cultural orientation, which is central to what and how we search” (72). I’m certain that’s true of the kinds of research Absolon is discussing, but what about, say, cancer research? Would location matter in that case? 

“Location varies from person to person, depending on our context,” Absolon continues. “As we grow, change, learn and transform, how we locate changes” (73). “Location addresses issues of accountability, validity and reliability, meaning that when we say who we are, the readers can form their own judgements about our credibility and authority to search and write,” she contends (73). Absolon does not believe in objective research: 

Taking ourself out of the picture presents a misrepresentation that the author does not matter and that the researcher’s gender, race, class, sex, age or identity has no impact on the research. In reality it is people doing the research and people interpreting and making meaning; who they are does impact the interpretation and meaning and who they are does matter. Personally locating oneself, as an Indigenous principle and methodology, counters false notions of neutrality and objectivity. (73-74)

“Given the reciprocal nature of Indigenous communities, Indigenous re-searchers naturally identify their relations within a community and offer linkages between themselves and the research process,” Absolon continues, suggesting that this identification is part of the relationality “woven throughout Indigenous scholarship” and that “conveys an understanding that we are beings in relationship with all of Creation” (74). “The methodology is must as much about the person doing the searching as it is about the search,” Absolon writes (74). Personal connections to research are important, and all of the researchers she talked to agreed “that when we do re-search we are ultimately doing re-search about ourselves, families, communities, nations, histories, experiences, stories and cultures” (74). Because Indigenous researchers are subjective, they want their communities to benefit from their research (74). “[S]ituating self in Indigenous re-search is different from eurowestern research in that we acknowledge and include the relationships between self, Spirit, responsibility, knowledge and truth,” Absolon continues. “Situating self in Indigenous searches positions location, political climate, environment, history and cultural knowledge up front and centre” (76).

Absolon states that in her own work, “memory comes before motive” (76). She returns to her childhood in the bush and what she learned then (76-77). But memory is even more fundamental: “Indigenous scholars, through their research, reconnect to their ancestors, land, culture, traditions, language, history and knowledge,” and their research “becomes a catalyst to remembering who we are and what we know and to bringing those truths forward” (77). She acknowledges that she has used “remembering” in two different ways: one to refer to memories, and the other “related to reconnecting our ancestors” (77). But remembering also means “we bring our truth forward and tell the stories that we need to tell,” and that “we reconnect with our communities,” which have been “dismembered” through Canada’s colonial policies towards First Nations (77). “Remembering creates cultural mirrors that validate our life and experiences and those of other Indigenous peoples too,” Absolon writes. “The gift of our searches ends up being in the remembering of ancestral ties, their legacies and knowledge. . . . Remembering is giving back and contributing to the continuance of Indigenous peoples’ way of life and existence” (78).

In all of the discussions with Indigenous researchers, the importance of knowing the motives for the research was emphasized. Some motivations were related to family or community; others were more general. “One of our motives as Indigenous researchers must be to show that, despite the ignorance of the western world, our theories and methodologies are concrete and real,” Absolon writes. “They have governed our survival for millennia and will continue to do so for generations into the future” (78). Indigenous research, she continues, is “distinct because our methodologies contain an awareness of and integration of the ancestors and our families. It’s about survival” (78). Her own research “is about making sure that those methodological pathways survive,” but her research is intended to benefit Indigenous peoples rather than the academy (79). “It’s for the other students who are also searching for congruency,” she writes. “And it’s for our ancestors” (79). “Knowing our motives for our searches requires an awareness of our location and consciously situating ourself within our research context,” she continues (79). She lists motives articulated by Indigenous researchers:

    • to re-enact respectful research in our searches with our own people;
    • to empower and emancipate ourselves in order to regain our humanity, restore balance with Creation and ultimately live a good life;
    • to advance, support, strengthen, revitalize and restore Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing, which create Indigenous methodology choices for Indigenous re-searchers as viable in all re-search contexts; and
    • to fulfill family and community obligations when specific requests are presented; the search then becomes a way of giving back and making concrete contributions. (80)

All of the researchers said their motives are “connected to our personal stories and experiences” (80). “There are myriad possibilities for Indigenous peoples’ searches, but they are most often rooted in our Indigeneity,” she states (81).

“Searching for theories and methodologies that are congruent with Indigenous worldviews and philosophies preoccupies many Indigenous researchers,” Absolon writes, and “[h]ere the relationship between roots, self and methods becomes apparent” (81). Indigenous researchers are concerned with “methodological harmony” (81). That harmony, or congruency, between researchers’ methods and their Indigeneity “was instrumental,” Absolon continues:

Indigenous congruency, I believe, is essential to the research principles, methodology and ultimately the outcome. Because all of the research topics are explicitly focused on Indigenous experiences, realities, needs and histories, the researchers’ search for methodological congruency includes a consideration of factors such as cultural traditions, community, people, relationships, Spirit, ownership, oppression, empowerment, protocols and decolonizing. These factors became as much a part of the search as was the gathering of data. (82)

Earlier I asked a question about cancer research. It seems that kind of research is outside of Absolon’s consideration, since it wouldn’t be “explicitly focused on Indigenous experiences, realities, needs and histories.” Nevertheless, Absolon suggests that “[t]he search for congruency is about transcending contexts” (83). For her, research is like being on the land, looking for berries or hunting or gathering. That is the metaphor she uses to explain her research. “When I think about this search as a search for berries,” she writes, “I can find my way and feel myself as a researcher, knowing that I continue to do what my ancestors have done. Gather, hunt and search” (83). “Collecting the knowledge and experiences of Indigenous searchers and gatherers illustrates a powerful need to search for congruency,” she continues. “Indigenous methodological mirrors reinforce and validate a way of knowing, being and doing that makes sense when doing Indigenous re-search in an Indigenous way” (84). “The flower centre (the self) is acknowledged as integral to Indigenous methodologies in search for knowledge,” she writes. “Self as a methodological re-search tool inevitably implies a journey articulated in the leaves” (84).

Not surprisingly, the next chapter is entitled “The Leaves: The Methodological Journey.” A flower’s leaves, of course, produce energy for the plant through photosynthesis. For Absolon, “[t]he leaves of our flower represent the transformative and healing process and journey inherent within Indigenous methodologies” (85). Indigenous research is transformative (like photosynthesis). The essence of the methodologies she discussed with other researchers “is their process,” Absolon writes, and “[b]y process I mean their experiences, journey and transformation” (85). “Process involves a progression, a development, a series of steps toward achieving goals,” she continues. “Process can be either a planned or unplanned series of actions. It can be clearly defined and determined ahead of time or nebulous and emergent. Indigenous re-search methodologies cultivate organic processes, which are unplanned and unpredictable” (85). Indigenous research processes are open ended and indeterminate, requiring trust and faith for Indigenous researchers to “honour their process” (85). Community-driven research in particular requires that researchers “relinquish some power and control,” and Absolon believes “it calls for a degree of humility” (86). “Our worldview, including belief in Spirit and ancestors, is revealed in our ability to trust process,” she states (86). “Oral traditions are process oriented, and Indigenous searchers manifest orality in several ways,” she continues (87). Methodologies emerge organically “as we attune ourself to our search process,” Absolon contends. “When we listen to our inner knowing, our dreams, the signs around us and our intuition, we become attuned to possibilities that enable an organic process to emerge” (87). “[T]he process of attuning to protocols, ethics, and principles guide[s] the methodology,” she states (88).

“Process inevitably involves travelling,” Absolon states, although that travel seems to be metaphorical, given the way she describes what travels. Indeed, she is talking about the journey as a metaphor: “Indigenous methodologies include stories of who is doing the searching and their journey along the learning path” (89). However, she states that “Indigenous languages are descriptive and action or process oriented,” and “[t]he awareness of Indigenous languages and oral traditions causes a conscious searcher to attend to oral process” (90). Circular processes

can take a person on a transformative journey where engagement, involvement and presence are requisites. Humility in process reflects an inward journey and attunement to that journey within the collective circle. Consistently, Indigenous re-searchers strive to honour their journey by applying their own cultural protocols, such as offering tobacco, gift giving and, where comfortable, integrating ceremony. (90)

“Our journeys are also rich with cultural knowledge, people, sharing, learning and experiencing active processes,” Absolon writes. “We take many journeys: the journey of the thesis; the personal journey; the writing journey; the making meaning journey; the gathering journey of meeting people and having conversations; and the journey with our families along the way. . . . The motives, process, learning and meaning in the journey makes it worthwhile” (90).

“Undoubtedly, Indigenous processes are transformative and transforming,” Absolon continues. “The research journey was described by Indigenous re-searchers as transformative for people, and this transformation began within self. Indigenous-based knowledge quests can be life altering and unforgettable. When the Spirit is invited into the search, the essence of the search moves to another level of faith, trust and process” (91). The reference to Spirit is important, because “[i]n Indigenous cultural contexts, we are taught to search for knowledge in the Spirit realm. The process of learning how to do this requires personal commitment, sacrifice and a will to engage beyond the physical” (91). “This deep spiritual involvement and transformation is especially important and contradicts the logic and reason in hegemonic eurocentric academies,” she writes. It requires “resistance to being silenced and rendered invisible, insignificant, uncivilized, inhuman, non-existent and inconsequential” (91). “Not only do we transform ourselves through our research, we participate in transforming the academy” (91).

Some researchers argue that speaking an Indigenous language is essential, since the meaning of Indigenous concepts is lost when they are translated into English (91). “However, I believe that we must work with what we have and do the best we can without perpetuating guilt or shame for the loss of language among our peoples,” she continues (91-92). One way is by “[b]reaking the rules of language and creating a new language,” which “forges another level of resistance to colonialism” (92). (Absolon’s idiosyncratic English usages are examples of this process.) “Indigenous methodologies raise Indigenous voices out of suppression,” she states, and in that way, “the peoples’ stories are heard” (92). 

Some of the researchers Absolon talked to described their research journeys as healing. “I believe that healing is also implied through methodological concepts of reconnection, remembering, learning, recovering and reclaiming,” she states. “In a sense, healing is woven throughout the re-search process. Indigenous re-search becomes a healing journey when what we gather helps us to recover and heal a part of our self, life, family, community, knowledge, culture, language, and so on. Indigenous searching is healing as it invokes restoration, repatriation, reclaiming, recovering and relearning” (93). Indigenous research “is about healing wounded Spirits, hearts, minds and bodies,” and “Indigenous methodologies facilitate healing individuals, families, communities and nations” (93). “Indigenous knowledges and methodologies hold the key to our healing,” she continues, “particularly in spiritually based methodologies such as ceremony, prayer, healing lodges and sweats” (93). Indigenous research journeys are not only about knowledge; they are also “journeys home, to our communities, to our ancestors, to our territories, to other territories and to our families,” a return that can be healing (94). “Most re-searchers referred to their search as a journey or learning path, but mainly a journey that was challenging at the personal, emotional, spiritual and mental levels of being,” she writes. “These journeys evidence tenacity and backbone within Indigenous searchers” (95).

Chapter Eight, “The Stem: Backbone and Supports,” begins with Absolon’s realization “that the stems of plants are their backbone or spine. Strength resides in the stem, which supports the flower and provides the channel for the flow of nutrients to and from the roots, leaves, and flower centre and petals; it holds everything together” (96). According to Absolon, “[c]onscious Indigenous re-searchers enter the academy with a strong backbone,” which she considers “the critical and bi-cultural consciousness necessary to preserve and succeed in using Indigenous methodologies in the academy” (96). “The strengths Indigenous searchers draw on to develop this backbone include a critical consciousness, internal resources and community supports,” she writes. “These, I believe, are what enable Indigenous re-searchers to employ Indigenous methodologies in an academic context” (96). All of the researchers Absolon interviewed displayed a critical consciousness. “The academic and educational context plays a vigilant role in acculturating, assimilating and annihilating Indigenous culture, identity, traditions and wisdoms,” she writes. “Indigenous knowledge sets are perceived and received with antagonism” (96). The research projects she learned about “critique the failure of western methodologies to reflect the strengths of the community, culture and traditions of Indigenous peoples,” and all of them “insisted on the need to critically address eurowestern research theory, methodology and ethics” (97). “We need to ensure that our re-search methodologies include critical analysis of the histories of Indigenous-White relations, the construction of knowledge and power, and socio-historic truth,” Absolon continues. “A critical understanding unveils the oppressive nature and intent of research on Aboriginal peoples and critiques the old order of scientific empiricism, which squashed methodologies of acquiring knowledge through the senses, by experience and observation” (97). I wonder if that’s entirely true; isn’t empiricism about observation and experience? In any case, Absolon’s point is that Indigenous researchers are engaged in a critique of colonialism in the academy. “We can’t dismantle colonized forms of knowledge production using colonial methodologies; we need to both develop a critique and then turn our gaze toward Indigenous tools and knowledge,” she writes. “Critiques of colonialism in research, historically and currently, are paramount in contextualizing Indigenous re-search today. . . . How dare the academy force colonial methods on our searches” (98).

At the same time, Absolon acknowledges, “[b]y virtue of researching in academic corridors, we explicitly navigate two knowledge sets” (100). This leads to tensions. “Indigenizing your search is to move beyond the critiques and centre your search form who you are as an Indigenous person,” she continues. “Context is understanding the intertwining of being both cultural and colonial. Contextualization requires an integration of the critique of colonialism and the domination of our traditional research in the process of conceptualizing and mapping our our own research methodologies” (101). “As Indigenous searchers navigate dual agendas, the channels become narrower and more difficult to steer through,” she writes. “We not only have the responsibility to present our findings and knowledge in the most respectful and authentic manner possible, but we also have to establish our context, argue for our methodology, expect cynicism on its validity and then present it to both the academic and Indigenous audiences” (101). It’s important to note that Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on research differ on methodology and the purpose of research. “The efforts to create a discourse on the articulation of Indigenous methodologies challenge myths that Indigenous  methods are unsystematic and not concrete,” Absolon argues (102). “[W]hen we are searching within our own cultural paradigms, we need to follow our own cultural guidelines and experiences in our own social world,” she writes (102). That seems to answer my question about cancer research. 

And yet, Absolon suggests that “[c]onscious Indigenous re-searchers and re-search have a profound impact on the academy and are contributing to changes in curriculum, research methodology, programming, scholarship and faculty” (103). How so? She suggests that Indigenous scholars are accountable for their relationships 

with all of creation and to follow our original instructions as they were orally passed on. Today we are challenged to continually relearn ceremonies and languages and to regenerate mutual relationships by Indigenizing methodologies. Our awareness of our place in Creation is our responsibility. Indigenous frameworks are ethical and spiritual considerations, and the codes of conduct are those guidelines provided to us by the Creator. (103)

“In owning our knowledge, we must acknowledge the history and roots of our teachings, or the origins of our accumulated knowledge,” she continues (103). But to focus on one’s academic research, at the expense of working with communities, is a mistake, she suggests, since the purpose of Indigenous scholars in the academy is “to ensure that research methods create change which benefits communities” (105). 

Indigenous researchers realize that “[l]ong before we were in the academy, our ancestors were conducting research and relied on Indigenous methodologies as they sought out knowledge. Today, reclaiming Indigenous methods of searching for knowledge embodies our own learning and healing, and this knowledge is transferable” (105). Within universities, “the role of Indigenous re-searchers is to transform systems of knowledge production, to be congruent with Indigenous worldviews and to play a role in producing knowledge and information that is useful, beneficial and purposeful toward Indigenous emancipatory goals” (106). That means resisting academic acculturation (106). 

Absolon acknowledges that she “consciously selected critically conscious Indigenous [for her research] because of their roles as advocates, facilitators, coordinators, helpers, healers, educators and much more” (107-08). All of the researchers she talked to “contributed a critique of colonial research methods and strengthened the presence of Indigenous knowledge in the academy. Activating our roles and maintaining a strong backbone involves strengths and supports that accompany Indigenous re-searchers who enter the academy. We are not alone as we carry our supports with us” (108). Those strengths and supports include “personal strengths, cultural strengths and community supports” (108). Such support systems are necessary for surviving in the academy; that survival “requires a vision beyond the academy, a sense of purpose, a grounding in identity, external supports and internal allies” (108). “Within the academy we are, at times, navigating chilly, intolerant, hostile and assimilating channels,” Absolon writes. “We survive and get through because of a strength in knowing who we are and where our supports come from” (108). 

“Internal fences keep us boxed into particular ways of thinking, being and doing,” and “can confine and limit our perceptions, behaviours and actions” (109). Those fences are the result of colonialism, and “[c]onscious Indigenous searchers have worked to develop and heal their minds from internalized oppression and racism” (109). “Many of these researchers faced internal fences,” Absolon writes. “Their consciousness of these fences is a powerful tool in their searches” (109). She recalls her childhood experiences in the bush, finding her way around and through barriers there. “I believe Indigenous scholars are, at times, bush whacking it in the academy,” she suggests. “We are cutting trails and leaving clearer paths for others” (111). 

“All Indigenous re-searchers who maintain their identity within the academy are bi-cultural,” Absolon contends. “There is diversity within. We are skilled at carrying dual knowledge sets. This is an advantage. It enables us to move in and out of and between our worlds with relative ease. . . . We occupy complex spaces where contemporary, cultural and traditional realities intersect” (111). “Our resource lies in our ability to draw on these dualities and ironies when we engage in research as Indigenous peoples first and then as scholars,” she continues (112). Some of the researchers she spoke to experienced anxiety and panic during phases of their research. “Being connected to the land kept some Indigenous researchers from getting lost in the academy,” she writes. “Taking time to return to the land and feel the essence of the earth grounded their mind, body, heart and Spirit during uncertain and stressful moments” (113). Others turned to ceremonies such as fasting (113). “I simply do not have the words to describe the strength of Spirit of these researchers,” she continues (114). Spirit is, as before, not a metaphor for Absolon: “We are Spirit beings. We search for who we are. We identity and locate and connect ourselves to our nations, our Spirit names, our clans and our land bases, and we have many expressions of gratitude for such gifts” (114). The researchers she spoke with also focus on gratitude as an expression of the values of reciprocity, balance, and harmony (114). 

“Undoubtedly, Indigenous re-search methodologies are empowering to Indigenous peoples,” Absolon writes. “Our re-search is about us and it’s situated in our real experiences, it’s about empowering real people, and it’s about finding our way home” (114-15). One of her insights, she continues, is “that Indigenous researchers . . . are enjoying their search for knowledge when we employ Indigenous methodologies because our learning, recovering, reclaiming and re-asserting is relevant to our Indigeneity. It’s all very purposeful and connected to a greater intention” (115). Part of that connectedness lies in connections to community (115). “Many of the re-searchers talked about wanting to do the best they could for their community and that they persevered because of their community,” she writes (116). 

“The stem as a methodological backbone emanates from the researchers’ sense of self and identity,” Absolon concludes. “The backbone or force of Indigenous re-searchers and research is explicitly grounded in worldview, cultur[e] and tradition. Conscious Indigenous re-searchers are aware that our presence carries a role to resist the pressures to conform and this requires a strong backbone” (117). “Undoubtedly,” she continues, “the stem links the roots to the whole while lifting up the leaves, flower centre and petals. It is the backbone that supports Indigenous re-searchers to actualize their worldviews, histories, knowledge and experiences in their research methodologies within the academy” (117).

Chapter Nine turns to the diverse methodologies represented by the flower’s petals. These methodologies “include the Spirit, heart, mind and body because Indigenous methodologies are wholistic in nature and encompass the whole being,” Absolon writes. “Each petal represents tendencies of Indigenous re-searchers on their searchers. Petals that are hidden represent Indigenous methodologies yet to be articulated because there are many more potential methodologies” (118). Some petals overlap “because Indigenous methodologies are interdependent, relational and reciprocating” (118). “The petals also change from season to season,” she continues. “They are not stagnant for formulaic” (118). Moreover, “Indigenous methodologies are alive; they aren’t set forth in a research textbook” (118). The “gestures, ways of thinking, being and doing” of Indigenous researchers “enact an Indigenous methodology. . . . The Indigeneity of our re-search is held within our own Spirit as our search for knowledge is regarded as a sacred process” (118). “One thing for sure, Indigenous methodologies are concrete, complex and complete,” Absolon writes (118). However, in the university, there is a danger that these methodologies “will be seen as addendums to western methodologies, marginalized as alternative or othered” (118-19). Because they are holistic and cyclical, these methodologies are “pluralistic, eclectic and flexible,” reflecting “the many facets of our existence today, while reflecting the cultural integrity of our ancestors” (120).

Absolon divided the methodologies she encountered “using the elements of the four directions—Spirit, heart, mind and body—to assist in creating some clarity in articulating the methodologies. They are not mutually exclusive of one another, and overlapping concepts occur. The overlaps simply reflect the wholistic, inclusive, relational and interdependent nature of methodologies” (120). She begins with methodologies of the Spirit. “All of the Indigenous searchers talked about incorporating Spirit, prayer, ceremony, dreams and cultural protocols, and this essentially means to care about how we conduct ourselves,” Absolon writes (121). “Establishing respectful relationships with Spirit forms a basic methodological principle,” she continues (121). Researchers use sacred medicines (sage, cedar, sweetgrass, tobacco) in offerings, showing that “Spirit is treated with the utmost respect and reverence” (121). “The journey of our search is a spiritual process, a major methodological concept for Indigenous searchers,” she states. “It’s not something that comes from the mind. The spiritual depth is nurtured and encouraged within Indigenous culture. We are taught to honour our spirit. It’s not something we say we’ve learnt outside of ourselves. It’s a process that flows from within us, and that pathway is often identified as a sacred pathway, a pathway of the Spirit” (121). This understanding can be seen in Indigenous Creation stories, which suggest that “[e]very living thing has a Spirit and a purpose” (121-22). Intuitive knowledge is “connected to our ancestors, which is connected to the Spirit world and other realms. There are certain things that we understand and know because we’re Aboriginal, or Anishinaabek” (122). “The search for knowledge is also a spiritual relationship with learning and knowledge production,” she continues. “When we are searching for ancestral wisdoms or traditional knowledge, the search process must acknowledge Spirit” (122). “Prayers, ceremony and dreams are concrete manifestations of how Spirit has a presence in Indigenous searches,” Absolon states (122-23). Ceremony, she contends, “is an expression of one’s spirituality,” and “[c]eremonies and dreams assist in the synthesis and processing of our searches” (123). 

“Research with a consciousness of Spirit also implies an awareness and understanding of enacting research with heart,” Absolon writes (124). By “heart,” she seems to mean attending to relationships, creating positive research settings, and reciprocating “the sharing and witnessing” of research processes. “Creating positive research settings involves gatherings and meetings that reflect friendships, food, cultural/spiritual ceremonies and conversations about the future, families, communities and children,” she continues (124). In those gatherings or meetings, “people share stories, laugh and sometimes cry” (124). Such methods “require adaptability, flexibility and fluidity” (124). Most of the researchers she interviewed had existing relationships with their research participants, including Absolon herself: “relationships are recognized as an important strength and resource for Indigenous re-search, and we make new relationships through our re-search. We use our relationships to move forward. . . . Our relationships extend the boundaries of family, friendship, colleague, helper, teacher, advisor and so on” (124-25). These relationships “exist between the spiritual, physical and human realms,” but Absolon appears to focus primarily on human relationships, which call for “compassion, sensitivity and subjectivity” (125). Sharing circles are one relationship-based methodology; they provide “culturally congruent channels for sharing stories, cultures, experiences, histories, perspectives, lessons, mistakes, knowledge and wisdoms” (126). Another methodological tool is the “‘witnessing protocol,’” “in which four people simply witnessed and observed the talking circle” (126). Another methodology is dialogue or conversation, distinguished from interviews because it “involves more of an active engagement between people” (127). “Community relationships are another common strength of Indigenous methodologies,” Absolon continues, noting that the purpose of Indigenous research is to benefit the community involved (127). But a researcher may be part of a variety of different communities: Absolon is part of a community of Indigenous researchers, but she also has a “traditional community, geographic community and nation community,” “a clan family and a circle of people who I choose to be in relationship with and who lovingly support me” (128). “Community is determined and defined with respect to the searcher,” she continues; the point is that research does not take place in isolation (128). Working with Elders is often part of working with community (128-29). For Absolon, all of this is related to the heart: “Most of the searchers have a heart connection to their searches and passionate feelings about them. They enjoyed their searches and found them to be meaningful, purposeful and relevant” (129). She also suggests that collaborative dissertations should be considered as a way of “enacting relationship-based searches” (129).

Absolon’s next category, mind, is primarily about respect for Indigenous knowledge: “Enacting re-search that is respectful of Indigenous ways means that Indigenous re-searchers work to advance Indigenous perspectives, worldviews and methods in all areas of education, searching and scholarship” (129). “Indigenous scholars reference and privilege other Indigenous scholarship, knowledge and literature,” in order to “grow and develop and articulate Indigenous theories and methodologies’ (129-30). That is one way to respect Indigenous knowledge. Other ways Indigenous researchers can respect Indigenous knowledge include “asserting Indigenous knowledge and methods, acknowledging their genealogy of knowledge, advancing Indigenous perspectives, . . . making strategic decisions and negotiating academic gatekeepers” (130). Those gatekeepers are “the academics who guard the elitism, power and privilege of the academy . . . to maintain their control over knowledge production” (130). According to Absolon, “[e]nacting respectful re-search is imperative to the searchers, who have said that Indigenous knowledge inquiry is rigorous. It simply takes more time, energy and effort to search the ‘Indigenous way’” (131). Another “common tendency of Indigenous searchers” is “[a]cknowledging our teachers and where our knowledge comes from,” or “respecting the genealogy of knowledge” (131). One “aspect of recognizing how and where we learn is in creating space and visibility in our documents for the people who shared their wisdom and knowledge with us. Indigenous searchers discuss the desire to openly acknowledge who they spoke with and who was involved in their search process as an ethic of acknowledging the genealogy of our knowledge” (131). For Absolon, this acknowledgement is part of the oral tradition, and it “affirms our relationships and interdependence with others in our life. We live in relationship and learn from our relationships; this is the genealogy of how we learn and acquire knowledge” (131-32). Confidentiality is relative; there is a need both to honour and protect “those we have learned from,” so while confidentiality may be necessary sometimes, other times it “may not be appropriate” (132). 

“Physical and body work” are also Indigenous methodologies; they actualize “the Spirit, heart and mind of the search” (132). “Indigenous methodologies incorporate all aspects of our being and all connect to each other,” Absolon writes, so it’s not surprising that the body is engaged as well (132). “Doing and being creative are operative here,” she continues. “There comes a point in our process when we need to go beyond the writing and move from the cerebral, heart and Spirit into the doing and being. Words alone are not enough in a culture that is experiential, wholistic, land based and connected to all of Creation. Indigenous searchers have enacted a physical element in their searches” (132). Creativity, like Absolon’s tapestry, is one example of the body’s role in Indigenous research; another is physical activity, such as Brian Rice’s retracing of “the journey of the Peacemaker in the oral traditions of the Rotinonshonni” as a methodology when he was writing his PhD dissertation (133). (I’ve read Rice’s dissertation and the book that followed, and his walk is quite inspiring.) Other examples include canoe journeys, painting, and spending time on the land hunting and fishing and trapping (133-34). Sacred ceremonies—sweat lodges and shaking tent ceremonies—are also physical (134). So too is working with Elders (135). “The physical element is also about creating space, change and a supportive committee, being creative and undergoing methodological shapeshifting,” Absolon writes. “Indigenous scholars, without question, are pushing for methodological shifts and astutely assert a need for space” (135). Creating space means, metaphorically, finding different ways to present research; Absolon presents several examples (136-37), including storytelling (137-38). These are not that dissimilar from alternative methods of presenting qualitative research—a point where the two very different methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies may touch. 

In the next chapter, Absolon discusses how “[t]he environment of a petal flower affects its life” (139). “Indigenous re-searchers are affected by our environment in the academy,” she writes, noting that they often face “controversy and challenges” asserting their methodologies in what can be an unwelcome space (140). “As Indigenous re-searchers nudge their way toward empowering Indigenous theories and methodologies, ‘old order’ power holders of western forms of knowledge production may become aggravated, irritated, and annoyed,” she continues. Fences are erected, and gatekeepers vigilantly stand guard to maintain the power and privilege of who can know and how this knowledge comes to be” (140). Many researchers are first trained in standard research methodologies, and “[l]etting go of western methodologies opens doors to recognize that other real choices exist” (141). Using Indigenous methodologies “does not mean that we are not objective or rigorous about what we are doing,” Absolon contends (141), and “[d]oing Indigenous methodologies in the academy sometimes means taking the road less travelled and bush whacking it from time to time” (141). Many of the researchers Absolon talked to “expressed frustration and anguish” over their inability to fit their work into standard research frameworks, even though they found some aspects of feminism, phenomenology, critical theory, narrative inquiry and participatory action useful (142).

“Within the western academy, conscious Indigenous re-searchers require two knowledge sets,” Absolon writes. “One knowledge set is grounded in western knowledge paradigms, and the other is grounded in Indigenous cultures and systems of learning. Indigenous searchers constantly have to deal with criticisms about the rigour of Indigenous methodologies” (142). However, “Indigenous methodologies and knowledge are concrete and strong enough to be challenged because they are rigorous and methodical” (143). It is difficult to include Elders on supervisory committees (143). Their participation would be very helpful: 

Working with Indigenous methodologies carries substantial responsibility and obligation. Indigenous epistemologies, which are derived from natural and spiritual laws, instigate strong ethical practices in Indigenous knowledge production. The knowledge acquired in any search can be overwhelming and daunting, and Indigenous re-searchers shared their feelings about doing their best to be conscious of their own process, ethics and protocols. (144)

“The most notorious character at the fence is the non-Indigenous gatekeeper,” Absolon continues, who “block our gaining a place of legitimacy, recognition and power within the academy” (144). Their tactics are examples of “neo-colonialism” and the only response for Indigenous researchers is to “keep asserting, integrating and standing up for Indigenous knowledges and methodologies” (144). Dealing with gatekeepers “can be draining, demoralizing, offensive and disrespectful. Strategic researchers move past them, around them, over them and through them and are cautious of the trap they present” (144). “The dominance and authority wielded by non-Indigenous gatekeepers is problematic, and some Indigenous re-searchers have been forced to abandon their searches because of this abuse of power in the academy,” Absolon writes. “The university contradicts itself when it claims to be here to foster new learning and create new knowledge, and yet enforces conformity of approach” (145).

“Indigenous re-searchers . . . were frustrated when pushed by western academics to make their research comparative,” Absolon continues (145). That means being expected “to utilize western theories and then draw comparisons to Indigenous epistemologies, paradigms and methodologies” (145). For Absolon, this expectation is about meeting “the interests of western academics” (145). “To push Indigenous scholars to make comparisons is problematic on two fronts:

  1. the non-Indigenous gatekeepers don’t have the cultural competency of Indigenous worldviews and knowledge to understand what Indigenous scholars are articulating; and
  2. comparative analysis becomes a major distraction from the Indigenous intellectual and methodological advancements that are motivating Indigenous re-searchers. (146)

“When Indigenous re-searchers are working from an Indigenous theoretical and methodological standpoint, comparisons are unnecessary,” Absolon writes. “Comparing Indigenous approaches with dominant research approaches is not helpful in this project and can in fact undermine it” (146). In addition, while “[n]on-Indigenous gatekeepers try to steer us in research directions we don’t want to go because they don’t understand or see the significance of what we want to research,” and while these “gatekeepers may see our focus as ‘too personal,’ ‘too emotional’ or ‘too subjective,’” “Indigenous voices across the land are echoing that we must continue to assert our knowledge and power as Indigenous peoples by speaking in our own voices and providing a space for the voices of our people to come forward” (146). Besides, 

[n]on-Indigenous academics’ ignorance about Indigenous peoples’ histories, experiences, worldviews, theories and methods is quite restrictive. If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s difficult to recognize your own level of ignorance. Indigenous searchers are subjected to academics who are not competent on Indigenous matters, yet judge and measure us using western standards. (147)

“The limitations of the academy in these matters means that Indigenous scholars often are pressured to be both a learner and an educator of their supervisors,” Absolon continues (147).

Indigenous researchers “also have personal fences that exist because our lives are busy and full,” Absolon writes (147). They are “academic leaders, community leaders, educators, family members, spouses and parents and experience pressure in all these roles” (147). Research often gets pushed aside because of this pressure, and it therefore takes longer to complete. In addition, “[d]oing Indigenous re-search requires more time with process, relationships, community, reflection, Spirit and protocols. The academy has time limits, the community has time limits, natural and spiritual laws are time specific” (147). The effects of ongoing colonization are also stressful (147). “The journey from the head to the heart is said to be the longest journey a person might take,” Absolon states. “Searches for knowledge using Indigenous methodologies are often Spirit and heart driven. They are not easy journeys” (148). Because Indigenous methodologies “emerge organically as the search process unfolds,” the research process “can be fluid and difficult to articulate. This is not to say that our methodologies cannot be articulated, just that it is challenging” (148). 

“All of the re-searchers struggled with the dominant nature of western methodologies,” Absolon writes (148). Standard research methodologies “are after all still cloaked in colonialism—albeit softer forms of colonialism,” and “[f]ew Indigenous re-searchers began by asserting Indigenous methodology” (148). Absolon disagrees with the strategy of including non-Indigenous voices in order for research to be balanced. She writes, “the reverse is not true: euro-theorists have not recorded the need for balance by including the scholarship of Indigenous peoples. Such reasoning also insinuates that our scholarship is imbalanced if we choose not to include the work of euro-theorists” (149). “I consciously privilege Indigenous authors as a political and academic act of validation and goal to ‘lift up’ Indigenous knowledge,” she continues. “My aim is to position Indigenous scholars as voices of authority regarding Indigenous issues” (150).

Indigenous researchers need academic support, particularly from Indigenous faculty members, even from other institutions. “Few Indigenous re-searchers have yet had the benefit of an all-Indigenous committee, and so non-Indigenous allies within the academy play a paramount role,” Absolon states (150). Those non-Indigenous allies “can help keep colonizing methods out of our research,” and in some cases, their research “helps us to understand the institutions we must navigate” (150). In addition, “[c]ommittee members may have the authority to create ‘academic space’ for Indigenous processes and methodologies to emerge” (151). Having that space, she continues, “frees up spiritual, psychological, emotional and mental energy to grow and develop. If we are consumed with defending and arguing, then we are in basic survival mode and not able to grow” (151). Some of the researchers Absolon talked to went through many committee members before they were able to establish a committee that would support their work. On the other hand, “respectful and supportive committee members in positions of power are helpful in navigating the academy’s bureaucratic roadblocks” (151). 

According to Absolon, “[a]cademic writing presents challenges for Indigenous re-search contexts for reasons related to language and oral traditions” (152). She identifies four issues:

  1. academic writing and creating hybrid languages;
  2. what to include from oral traditions in written text;
  3. translation of knowledge, concepts and language; and 
  4. representation of knowledge. (152)

A fifth issue could also be added: completing a dissertation in an Indigenous language. “Gatekeepers uphold western forms of academic writing and often force Indigenous scholars to write in a particular manner for the academy, which is often a non-Indigenous audience,” Absolon argues (152). This creates pressure to change the tone of the writing by “‘white-washing’” findings or by fragmenting information “by creating themes and categories, thus forming a reduced and de-contextualized analysis, whereas Indigenous approaches would keep stories and voices within a wholistic context and let the readers make their own conclusions and interpretations” (152). Gatekeepers may also demand that the use of Indigenous methodologies be justified (152). 

Indigenous researchers “are careful to not remove certain knowledge and teachings from their context,” Absolon continues, for two reasons: “One is that non-Indigenous academics . . . are not familiar with certain phenomena. Second, non-Indigenous gatekeepers tend to take our critiques of colonialism personally and defensively and urge a rewording to soften the stance” (153-54). Absolon suggests that while her “worldview is Anishinaabe,” her “language is english,” which adds, for her, a layer of complication in articulating that worldview (154). The question of transforming oral culture into writing is another challenge. “Eurocentric thinking perpetuates the belief that something is not valid unless it’s written down,” she writes. “Yet, Indigenous values are reflected in Indigenous languages in oral contexts. The translation of language, content and concepts sometimes requires more explanation and description” (154-55). In addition, while “Indigenous languages are largely descriptive and verb based and reflect a particular worldview, English reflects a european worldview and, at times, is inadequate to articulate Indigenous methodologies, philosophies and concepts” (155). In addition, Absolon suggests, by “transcribing oral traditions into written text . . . living stories that were once heard take on the stillness of the written word” (155). She suggests that “‘bundle words’” need to be created in English that would attempt to carry the connotations of Indigenous words (155). That’s an interesting idea; the morphemes that make up Cree words, for instance, tend to carry meanings that are lost in translation. Nevertheless, the researchers Absolon talked to argue that it is inappropriate to use English to convey “Indigenous worldviews and contexts” (155). Hybrid forms of writing—“Indian english,” Absolon states—may be one way of addressing this challenge; another is to use multiple genres of writing (stories, poetry, personal narratives) (156). “Clearly, as we translate between languages and contexts, we are conscious not to compromise, sacrifice or lose significant knowledge, understandings and teachings,” Absolon continues (156). She notes that the audience of Indigenous research includes family, community, and nation: “We want our work to speak to Indigenous people, not just academics” (156). 

“Documenting a knowledge that is active, personal and creative becomes difficult when written text appropriates that voice and freezes that knowledge in a particular time and context,” Absolon writes. “We must be very careful with documenting traditional knowledge because it makes it more accessible to non-Aboriginal peoples for mis-use and mis-representation, which can be damaging to Indigenous peoples” (156-57). Indigenous researchers, then, need to consider what to exclude as well as what to include (157). There is also the issue of being considered an individual expert about knowledge that has been collectively developed by many people: “Many, many people contribute to someone’s knowledge and to cite only the person who wrote about it negates those Elders and teachers who contributed to the knowledge” (158). “A final irony is that we write in isolation about building community, reconnecting and collectively,” Absolon continues. “Writing a dissertation is a lonely exercise, and bringing other voices in helps to break our isolation and build collective consciousness. Integrating Indigenous peoples’ voices into my work was a commitment to acknowledging Indigenous traditions of orality, but in written text” (158-59). 

Finally, Absolon addresses what she calls “[t]horny prickly challenges”: “those bits and pieces that are difficult to grasp, need to be left alone, too tricky to touch and leave us feeling uncertain” (159). “Some of the challenges explored are negotiating our dualities, dealing with methodological traps and quantitative methodologies,” she writes (159). Using Indigenous methodologies within an environment that is “constrictive,” like the university, can leave Indigenous researchers “in agony and conflict” (159). “When we live in a world that rejects our humanity and identity, we end up doing odd forms of emotional and mental gymnastics to compensate and cope,” she writes (159). “Reconciling the dualities of our realities cultivates an ambidextrous consciousness, which means being able to productively negotiate two realities/abilities at once” (159-60). “Spirituality in the search process is a considerable challenge as is the question of what to write about when it comes to sacred knowledge,” Absolon continues:

We must be careful what sacred knowledge methods we bring into the academy. We have to be very careful about what we say or write about. There are sacred pathways that can’t be scrutinized by the academy. Indigenous re-searchers query whether or not to include certain Spirits and sacred knowledge because writing about such things can be controversial. Indigenous searchers respond to these issues by making strategic decisions with regard to what to omit and what to include in their descriptions of their research process, and they often exclude references to sacred beings and sacred knowledge of thee spiritual realm. Indigenous re-searchers continue to search for an ethical and strategic balance to acknowledge the Spirit of/in their work. Some check in with their Elders and traditional teachers to achieve this ethical balance. (160-61)

I would think addressing issues related to spirituality would itself be difficult, since universities tend to be resolutely secular and materialistic (in the philosophical sense) places. Perhaps that difficulty is covered in her discussion of non-Indigenous gatekeepers. “[T]here are more ways of knowing than can be categorized within the academy,” Absolon writes. “What we articulate within the academy is only a fraction of the knowledge that exists within Indigenous peoples’ cultures and traditions. Some things can lose their essence when they are documented and decontextualized” (161). Defining sacred knowledge may require assistance and guidance from knowledge keepers and Elders, and they should be consulted before such knowledge is included in an academic text (161).

Another prickly issue is knowledge extraction and appropriation. “For decades non-Indigenous people have done research on and about Indigenous peoples,” Absolon writes. “Today, we encourage collaboration, partnerships and protocol agreements between Indigenous and non-Indigenous re-searchers” (161). But “can only Indigenous people employ Indigenous methodologies? Are methodological groundings of Indigenous worldviews, paradigms, knowledge and experiences accessible only to Indigenous peoples?” (161). “I believe that anyone can employ a wholistic methodology,” Absolon writes. “I also see that specific to Indigenous methodologies are Indigenous peoples’ worldviews, lens, location and experiences” (161). This response is a nice way of saying “no,” I think, since holistic methodology isn’t necessarily synonymous with Indigenous methodology: although Indigenous methodologies are holistic, not all holistic methodologies are Indigenous? Absolon continues:

Indigenous methodologies require situational appropriateness, which means that they can only be actualized when the whole context is relevant. The whole petal flower and its environment create the context for Indigenous re-search methodologies. Non-Indigenous people can employ some shared elements, such as respect, community benefit, relationship building and so on, but might not locate form similar cultural, spiritual, historical, personal or political experiences as an Indigenous methodology would entail. Situational appropriateness then asks the questions: Do you have an Indigenous worldview, history and experiences? Can you position your process in an Indigenous worldview and framework? If you can answer yes to these questions, then perhaps there is situational appropriateness and it is okay to employ Indigenous methodologies. If the answers are no, then perhaps a more general wholistic methodology is in order. (162)

That response makes a lot of sense. I could not answer yes to those questions, so I should avoid pretending that Indigenous methodologies would be available to me. They wouldn’t be, in any case, because as a secular and materialist person, I can’t engage with methodologies that make claims about spirituality. That is just not where I am situated. For me, the notion of “spirit” is, at the most, a metaphor; I can’t accept it as any kind of reality. My religious upbringing has left me that way, and I’m fine with it.

Quantitative methodologies are another issue. They weren’t part of Absolon’s research, because everyone she spoke to was engaging in qualitative research (using Indigenous methodologies, of course). “The use of Indigenous methodologies in quantitative studies is an area for further thinking and discussion,” she writes. “Certainly, Indigenous searchers would benefit from learning about statistical research and its application to particular fields” (163). That’s refreshing; most of the qualitative researchers whose work I’ve read dismiss quantitative research out of hand as positivistic and therefore bad. She suggests that the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre in Saskatchewan is one place where issues of Indigenous quantitative research ethics are being discussed.

In her conclusion, Absolon states, “My hope is that this collective knowledge bundle inspires Indigenous re-searchers in their searches and fuels change within the academy and other arenas regarding the presence of Indigenous re-search methodologies” (164). “[T]he pathway to emancipation,” she continues, “is in reclaiming our own ways of knowing, being and doing and that we need to begin with who we are, what we know and where we come from. To get out of the consuming trap of being reactive to colonialism and dominance, Indigenous worldviews ought to be central in Indigenous search processes” (165). “Our emancipation won’t come if we use the colonizing tools of knowledge production,” she writes. “We make our knowledge and methodologies central to our searches and left them as valid choices” (165). The holistic methodologies represented by the metaphor of the flower, she suggests, “move theory into practice, rhetoric into action and visions into reality. They are examples of walking the talk” (166). “This examination of Indigenous search methodologies and experiences by Indigenous scholar provides a sample of realistic possibilities,” she continues. “We can meet both academic and community standards and do work which is relevant to our nations and peoples while making an academic contribution to the development of Indigenous knowledge libraries” (167). The next thing to challenge, she writes, is “the isolation factor of having to do our searches alone” (167). “[J]oint graduate searches would . . . aid in rebuilding communities where knowledge production is once again a collective process” (167). There have been joint PhD dissertations in the U.K., so it’s not impossible, although I don’t understand how collaborative dissertations would work in practice. “I wish to encourage others to join the circle of Indigenous scholars in actualizing and articulating Indigenous ways of knowing into Indigenous ways of searching for knowledge,” Absolon concludes:

Kaandossiwin, this is how we come to know: we prepare, we do ceremony, we journey, we search, we converse, we process, we gather, we harvest, we make meanings, we do, we create, we transform, and we share what we know. Our Spirit walks with us on these journeys. Our ancestors accompany us. Our communities support us and our families hold us up. Last, but definitely not least, we come to know because we have to survive in a world that erodes and encroaches upon us. (168)

“How we come to know is both simple and complex; it is both fluid and concrete; is is both subjective and objective; and it is both rigorous and adaptable,” she writes (168).

Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know is, for the most part, a useful book. It tends to be repetitive (as you may have noticed if you’ve made it all the way to the end of my summary), but that repetition might be connected to the governing metaphor of the circle and to the idea that ideas and practices are interconnected. While I appreciate the description of holistic methods of research, I also understand and agree with Absolon’s contention that since Indigenous methodologies are part and parcel of Indigenous worldviews and experiences. It’s all connected. I’m not a social scientist, and so I don’t have to be consumed with questions about methodology, but I would like to see whether holistic non-Indigenous methodologies exist—or whether they can be invented. And if there’s anything a môniyâw like me can learn from Indigenous methodologies, I would like to learn it. That might mean rereading Margaret Kovach’s book on the subject, or the anthology Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships, edited by Deborah McGregor, Jean-Paul Restoule, and Rochelle Johnston, which is sitting on our kitchen table, waiting for me to pick it up. But I’m not going to fool myself that Indigenous methodologies are free-floating and available to anyone; they’re not.

Work Cited

Absolon, Kathleen E. (Minogiizhigokwe). Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know, Fernwood, 2011.

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts, University of Toronto Press, 2010.

McGregor, Deborah, Jean-Paul Restoule, and Rochelle Johnston, eds. Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships, Canadian Scholars Press, 2018.

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Fernwood, 2008.

115. Chris Mays, “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction”

Tired of reading about methodologies in the social sciences, I retreated to more familiar ground: the humanities in general, and Chris Mays’s “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction” in particular. Mays begins with a 30-year-old article on rhetoric by Jim W. Corder, in which Corder explains that “we all ‘creat[e] the narrative’ that is our lives” (qtd. 319). The hard part, according to Corder, is “accommodating the divergent narratives of others”—in other words, in coming to terms with difference (319). Sometimes we can, but other times we don’t: “We turn away, we ignore, ‘we go to war,’ or ‘sink into madness’” (qtd. 319). “This article is about these differences, and the problems that arise when the nuance of our written worldviews goes unexamined,” Mays writes. “Writing, itself, is the central focus here: It is the contention of this article that an examination of writing, and in particular its complex capacity to render worldviews, can help us better understand how differences arise, why they linger, and why they can seem intractable” (319-20). The key to all of this, Mays proposes, “is in understanding the complexity of writing itself” (320).

To contend that writing is complex is nothing new, Mays admits (320). But “writing’s complexity . . . gives it a significant power to interact with and shape out world” (320). In this sense, it is complex “both in its form and function, with subtle discursive constructions generating profound effects on the local reader and in the wider environment” (320). According to Mays, “the power exerted by writing often manifests in its ostensible simplicity. When at its most effective, writing can seem completely straightforward, and the truths it renders can seem obvious” (320). However, that simplicity is an illusion: “the primary source of writing’s power is not its simplicity, but its ability to disguise its own incredible complexity” (320). “To explain this idea,” Mays continues, “this article zeroes in on a controversy over ‘facts’ that exposes the problems that arise when writing’s complexity is overlooked” (321). His aim is “to explore the complex ways facts are made, rather than assuming them to be already finished building blocks of a universal and static reality” (321). He is particularly interested in “the debate over the fabrication of details” in creative nonfiction (321). “[G]iven the complexity of the questions and debates involving fact, fiction, and truth in nonfiction writing, exposing the complex functioning of writing specifically in this genre advances our understanding of how all writing works on audience sand how writing genres—and facts overall—are divergently perceived” (321).

Mays’s decision to focus on creative nonfiction is deliberate, since this form claims to be factual, despite the artistry involved in writing it (321). “However, despite this oft-acknowledged subtlety in the very conception of what a fact is, the actual shaping of facts as they are defined, deployed and debated in this kind of writing is something often glossed over by writers in creative nonfiction, happening beneath the surface of the genre as it does,” Mays writes. “In other words, while many acknowledge subjectivity, few authors in the genre embrace it” (321). Creative nonfiction is “uniquely complex in its constitution of meaning and of facts, as its authors typically work in the murky waters of subjective experience,” and as a result, this form of writing “is often a site of intense confrontation over the facts its authors represent” (321). Mays focuses on “the debate over fact and fabrication in the work of satirist David Sedaris” (321). I love Sedaris’s writing and had no idea such a debate has taken place. “This controversy illustrates writing’s mysterious power well—what seems like a simple debate over the truth of remembered details exposes the way that all writing is elaborately manufactured,” Mays writes. “The controversy also reveals that the seemingly straightforward genre categories we use to classify writing are, in fact, tools we use to pretend this complex manufacturing does not exist” (321-22). However, “[u]nderstanding how this manufacturing works is crucial if we are to have a more nuanced understanding of facts and if we are to sustain a means of engaging with others—and others’ writing—that is more informed, more productive, and more accommodating” (322).

Creative nonfiction “would seem a perfect venue for discussions exposing the complexity of writing and of the problems that arise when factual controversies arise” because “it is a genre that . . . proclaims its basis in fact despite the use of literary techniques to colorfully render that fact” (322). The debate over the James Frey scandal, and similar controversies, “illustrate the difficulty in drawing absolute conditions for the facticity of creative nonfiction” (323). These controversies might “have prompted the widespread adoption of a more fluid or subjective way of describing the genre, or indeed, of describing writing, accuracy, and facts themselves” (323). That’s not what happened. Many proponents of creative nonfiction “have remained steadfast in their insistence that the genre has clear boundaries” (323). “It is surely worthwhile to live by the maxim of not ‘making stuff up,’ and confronting ‘all of the facts’ seems on its face to be a workable goal for a genre that includes the word nonfiction in its name,” Mays continues. However, “the complex workings of writing often clash with the seemingly rigid genre expectations of creative nonfiction,” and that clash “lays bare what can be an important understanding of writing—one that does not take facts as absolute and, thus, one that foregrounds rather than minimizes a process in which creative is not so far away from invented as many would claim” (323-24).

Mays notes that “while rhetoric and composition scholars know well the decades of poststructuralist theory asserting the contingent nature of our claims to certainty, the claim that facts are important comes up again and again” in writing about creative nonfiction (324). “To expose the intricacies of writing’s complexity, though, is to complicate this straightforward idea that creative nonfiction deals in facts,” he continues (324). One way to reveal this complexity is through genre theory. On one hand, a genre provides us with “a regular set of cues that tells us how to understand the writing within it,” and those cues control “the meaning we make out of writing” (324). On the other hand, “genres are inherently unstable and so are always changing” (324). So, “because writing is complex . . . it is both generative of and structured by fluid and contingent genres that can be constituted differently by different audiences or in different contexts” (325). Facts, too, as “part of the meaning we create from writing, are thus themselves continually being made and remade in the ongoing, context-dependent process that is writing” (325). “[W]e understand facts differently in different situations and in different genres,” and so “facts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts” (325). 

Mays isn’t trying “to dismiss the value nor the existence of facts altogether” (325). “The explanation here goes in a different direction than notions of social constructivism that suggest facts, or any kinds of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, are arbitrary or, perhaps, illusory,” he writes. “The account of writing presented here does not do away with stability, nor with facts, but rather exposes the complexity of their creation and argues that this complexity itself produces an illusion of stability and of simplicity” (325). Stability—including the stability of facts—is necessary for us to function (in writing and in life), individually and collectively (326). However, that recognition might 

gloss over the extent to which differences in assessments of what facts are go unnoticed and so can hide the negative consequences of these disparities. That is, those cogent arguments in nonfiction scholarship about the ethical and practical consequences of playing fast and loose with the facts in creative nonfiction, while important to consider, effectively shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained. (326)

“This divergence in facts is hidden by the very mechanism through which facts and meaning are constituted: genre,” Mays continues. “Genre looks stable to observers because it functions to provide stability—it organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326). But that stability is only temporary. “Using genre theory to better understand this complexity and contradiction can help us better navigate divergent and competing understandings of writing that produce drastically differing sets of facts simply by making us aware of the unstable process of these facts’ formation and maintenance,” Mays argues. “This awareness might also help us grasp how we might better recognize—and deal with productively and civilly—our tendency to perceive writing in ostensibly stable configurations and then argue over which configuration is more correct” (326-27).

Now Mays turns to the case of David Sedaris and the question of whether he had accurately recounted his experiences working in a mental institution when he was 13 years old. The response (mainly online) to the revelations made by writer Alex Heard, who fact-checked the story, illustrates “the way that, to most, the situation is black and white and, no matter the opinion, that dissent is largely inconceivable. Observers often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views” (328). “This insularity exposes the problem with creative nonfiction specifically,” Mays continues. “More than other genres, creative nonfiction is a site of extreme nuance and complexity in the way facts are constituted” (328). The complexity of creative nonfiction are, for many observers, “hidden by seemingly straightforward genre rules” (329). “[I]f one perceives creative nonfiction as stable form one’s own vantage point, then the idea that there is disagreement about the meaning (and the facts and the rules) of the writing in this genre might seem so clearly misguided as to be infuriating,” Mays suggests, and “when we apprehend a genre in one particular way, we often fail to notice that it’s actually moving and that there are different ways it can be apprehended—ways that to other people are just as inarguable and obvious” (329). “Facts emerge from writing, but they can emerge quite differently, and the process that creates this divergence is often impossible to see,” he continues. “In this sense, fact and fabrication, highly complex concepts, are always on the move,” and “the very act of writing creates a contingent and unstable context, carved out of a reality that is always exceeding our capacity to fully know it or even to pin it down for too long” (329). “This hidden complexity of writing therefore leads to one of the central conflicts in our appraisals of it in creative nonfiction: There isn’t anything close to absolute consistency in the assessment of whether a work is fact or fiction,” Mays writes (329). 

How people perceive writing in a genre (like creative nonfiction) can “be influenced by conditions that exist in a particular community” (331). But even members of the same community—writers of creative nonfiction, for instance—can have difference perceptions. Mays compares the responses of Heard and of memoirist William Bradley, for instance. Those perceptions matter:

While many scholars of creative nonfiction make the argument that in all nonfiction writing gray areas exist between fact and fabrication, there is always some point for most readers (and critics) at which writing can become clearly dishonest—a point where the boundary between harmless embellishment and deleterious fabrication becomes, if not absolute, then at least clear. What is interesting, however, is that for different people, such a line is drawn very differently. Moreover, it is often difficult for individuals to reconcile their own boundaries with the divergent ones of others, and it often goes unnoticed that seemingly clear standards are often applied very differently in different situations. (332)

For Mays, the point is that “the very complexity of the act of writing hides the way that all writing is conflicted, as the variation of the boundary lines by which we classify writing means that the same writing might be turned into either fact or fabrication, either creative nonfiction or creative fiction” (332). Mays refers to complexity theory to suggest “that the boundaries of creative nonfiction will always seem apparent to the person who has drawn them, just as the delineation of facts or fabrications will seem clear. Despite this apparent clarity, however, the genre rules that govern the perception of fact and fabrications are in fact fluid and malleable, changing as contexts change” (332).

In practice, it is difficult to implement a workable view that, in creative nonfiction, facts are malleable, Mays continues (332):

The subjects of writing can be harmed, for instance, when lax standards for facts create an anything-goes environment, which can also degrade public discourse and allow pernicious ideas to go unchallenged, as when fringe political group representatives attempt to intentionally spread misinformation. (332)


[d]rawing strict boundaries for what is factual discourse ignores the problems entailed by the existence of differing genre configurations. As genre theory shows, genres organize our interpretations of writing in ways that shut out alternative organizing schemes, and so the production of facts in a genre will preclude the legitimacy of other ways of constituting the facts. In short, it is very difficult for a person to draw or demarcate facts in multiple ways, since the very acceptance of one set of facts reifies boundaries that are a product of one version of a genre instead of another. (333)

“Seeing through the lens of complexity and genre theory does allow us the better grasp the mechanisms of this exclusionary epistemic practice,” Mays continues. “Fact, by their very nature, seem to speak for themselves, but this becomes true only after they have been produced within a genre. To ignore the mechanisms of how this production works—and to ignore that genres, and facts, can vary—is to ignore a major complication of saying that facts simply speak for themselves” (333). Citing Jane Bennet, he suggests that “we need to at least recognize that these divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” and that imagining facts to be “absolute and undebatable” is misguided as well as harmful to others around us (333).

Another example of “[t]his actual messiness in our seemingly unambiguous appraisals of writerly fabrications” is the case of satirist Mike Daisey, whose solo show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was both a tremendous success and included “fabricated or embellished” details of Apple’s factories in China (333). Daisey defended his “‘combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license,’” although he did rework his show, “bending a bit to the standards of ‘journalism’” (334). As with Sedaris, some observers concluded that while details might have been wrong, the overall truth of Apple’s treatment of workers in China was “‘indisputable’” (Mays cites the New York Times), while others disagreed (334). “Both Daisey’s work and Sedaris’s work could be considered examples of creative nonfiction, even though there may be disagreements as to whether the work was closer to journalism or theater (for Daisey) or humor writing or autobiography (for Sedaris),” Mays writes (335). His point, however, is “to illustrate the fundamental paradox of writing: as authors, both Sedaris and Daisey wrote, and the moment they did, they created complexity. The boundaries drawn to make sense of this complexity, to make sense of their writing, were drawn out of contingently constituted genres with an apparently static—but actually unstable—network of rules” (335). An awareness of the ways that the “discernible categories of fact and fabrication” are in flux, even though they appear to be stable, “should inflect all our understandings of, and judgements about, both facts and writing” (335).

Mays argues that understanding “the complex processes through which genres are constituted shows them to be both unavoidably obfuscatory and powerfully divisive”:

while it is not necessarily harmful for authors to strive for accuracy and facticity, and there is ethical value in creative nonfiction authors’ attempts to recall details correctly, there is also ethical value in recognizing the quite variable processes by which details are crystallized into facts and in recognizing the processes by which facts are judged—differently—through the prism of different genres. (336-37)

In addition, “while there is merit in holding authors accountable for basic community standards for honesty or for fidelity to the subjects of their writing, it is also valuable to recognize that there can never be absolute accuracy in the complex world rendered by writing,” Mays states. “Indeed, the act of writing itself is the creation of an unstable and malleable context in which absolute accuracy is impossible, even though writing also, paradoxically, creates the conditions—genres—in which such an absolute can be ostensibly assessed” (337).

In his conclusion, Mays returns to James Corder’s call for us to accommodate those with different ideas about the world. “The unwritten difficulty here, though, is that the very process of creating our own narrative inhibits the creation of that commodious universe,” Mays writes. “The very existence of our narrative—and our facts—impedes our recognition and legitimization of the facts and narratives of others” (337). Of course, not all facts, or all stories, deserve to be legitimized: the “fact” that the earth is flat, for instance, or the story that the Holocaust never happened. I’m not sure that Mays, or Corder, is suggesting that we legitimize such stories or such “facts,” but on the other hand, I’m not sure they aren’t suggesting that, either. The criteria for fidelity to reality “is, ultimately, contextual,” Mays suggests, and failing to recognize that one’s standards are only one possibility “is to only see the obviousness of one’s own configuration” (337). We need “to attempt to presume the validity of both your own rules and those of someone else simultaneously” (338). And no text can tell the whole story: “Just as both rhetoric theory and genre theory explain, there is no way to present the entirety of a situation, nor to present a situation that is understood identically by every reader. Authorial choices, and the genre rules used, entail a specific view of reality that is always and unavoidably partial” (338). Overemphasizing “unimpeachable facts,” Mays writes, “elides this very important point and disguises the ways we make choices about our view of the world every minute of every day. It also can discredit writers engaged in the legitimate endeavor of writing about the world and so can distract us from the beneficial effects of these writers’ efforts” (338). Mays calls upon his readers to acknowledge the “rhetoricity” of facts, and he cites Kenneth Burke to make the point “that our perception of the world is always and necessarily a contingent selection among an infinite excess of possibilities” (338).

I’m not sure I agree with Mays’s conclusion, as I’ve tried to suggest. Some possibilities in that infinity of possibilities are going to be wrong, mistaken, or malevolent. But I feel at home in this writing, the way I felt like a stranger when I read (for example) Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, or Tony Adams and Stacy Holman Jones on autoethnography. Perhaps I ought to be considering my writing to be creative nonfiction rather than autoethnography. I will need to read more about both categories to be able to make a decision, but that’s a possibility I need to think about. And the nice thing about Mays’s essay is that his bibliography gives me a place to begin an exploration of creative nonfiction as a methodology. I won’t begin that exploration right away—I have other things to read first—but I’ll get there, eventually.

Work Cited

Mays, Chris. “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English, vol. 80, no. 4, 2018, pp. 319-41.

114. Candace Jesse Stout, “Postrepresentational Qualitative Research Writing”

In my last post, I doubted the existence of something called “postrepresentational writing.” Foolish me! Here’s an editorial on just that topic. Apparently, that phrase means “writing about writing” (227)—at least in part. “[A]s postrepresentational qualitative researchers, we know the relationship between language and meaning to be fragile and thin,” Candace Stout writes (227). And rather than finding meaning and then writing up the results, qualitative researchers actually “conceive of writing as infused within the whole of the research endeavor” (228). Researchers are like poets, novelists, or essayists, writing to discover what they’re thinking, at least in the beginning of the research process (228). Writing collects or creates data, and writing is “an analytic, a tool that moves us in and out, fostering synergism between the researcher and the complex of data” (228). “The writing process clusters, maps, meanders around, wedges between/among data, exposing gaps in content and coherence, categorizing, creating relationships,” Stout writes (228). This is what it means to consider writing a method of inquiry. 

“Imperatively, this conception of writing is not limited to the writing process alone, but lives vibrantly within the writing products—the ‘messy texts’ themselves,” Stout continues. “From a postrepresentational perspective, this is where the center shifts. Rather than imposing oneself upon the reader—my airtight interpretation, a representation of how things are—the researcher/writer moves alongside the reader” (228). The writer “‘gestures to the text, trusting that the narratives, metaphors, conversations, layered texts—those images will cultivate a space . . . where writer and reader might come together with unassuming natures to create new meanings on the grounds of reciprocity. Text as collaboration we can call it, where, predisposed for receptivity, researcher and reader sensibilities engage” (228). Stout cites Stanley Fish’s version of reader-response criticism, suggesting that “readers encounter the researcher’s writing and bring to that text their own methods of inquiry—asking questions, making assumptions, drawing conclusions, accepting, rejecting, judging, valuing, and inserting their own expectations and narratives” (228). “Eschewing representation, the self-conscious text suggests and reflects. It is critical, multiply situated, intertextual and open-ended, a gently demanding text, opening minds and communication about our social world,” Stout continues (228-29). Postrepresentational qualitative social science writing sounds like a novel by Phillipe Sollers. I wonder if such writing actually exists, except as an ideal, or as an unreadable failure. “Given the sensitive and myriad complexities of writing in the postrepresentational qualitative endeavor,” Stout concludes, “it is my hope that we, as art educators might follow along on this path, engaging in an ever proliferating conversation attentive to the nature and possibilities of the worlds within our texts” (229).

I must be old fashioned, or stupid, because while I agree that the representational function of language is complicated and messy, I can’t agree with claims that it doesn’t exist, despite the ongoing “crisis of representation” (227). When I saw “rabbit,” or “lapin,” or “conejo,” or “wapos,” I’m engaging in a representational activity: I’m using language to say something about a furry rodent with long ears and a mythical fondness for carrots, despite language’s fragile, thin relation to reality. So while postrepresentational writing might be something some people worry about, I would have to see examples that demonstrate such writing actually exists. Does anybody out there have any?

Work Cited

Stout, Candace Jesse. “Editorial: Postrepresentational Qualitative Research Writing.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 48, no. 3, 2007, pp. 227-29.

113. Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, “Writing: A Method of Inquiry”

I read an earlier version of this essay (written by Laurel Richardson alone) and decided to read the revised version to see what Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre brought to it. It begins with ethnography, and the suggestion that many qualitative researchers in different disciplines have “found writing as a method of inquiry to be a viable way in which to learn about themselves and their research topic” (959). The essay is divided into three sections. In the first, Richardson discusses the contexts of social science writing, “the creative analytical practice ethnography genre,” and her work over the past decade (including “collaborations across the humanities/social sciences divide”) (959). In the second, St. Pierre “provides an analysis of how writing as a method of inquiry coheres with the development of ethical selves engaged in social action and social reform” (959). And, in the final section, Richardson provides writing exercises for qualitative researchers. 

Richardson begins the first part of the essay by noting that much qualitative social science writing is “boring” (959). While the research was “riveting” and “valuable,” the texts in which that research was presented were “underread” (959). “Qualitative research has to be read, not scanned; its meaning is in the reading,” she writes. “It seemed foolish at best, and narcissistic and wholly self-absorbed at worst, to spend months or years doing research that ended up not being read and not making a difference to anything but the author’s career” (960). For that reason, she “latched onto the idea of writing as a method of inquiry” (960). She has moved from writing as a method of presenting research results—presumably research conducted through some other method of inquiry—to writing itself as a method of inquiry. She notes that she was taught not to start writing until she knew what she wanted to say, until all of her points were organized in an outline. But writing that way was constraining and boring. Those instructions “cohered with mechanistic scientism and quantitative research,” she realized, and “they undercut writing as a dynamic creative process,” undermined the confidence of qualitative writers about their writing, and “contributed to the flotilla of qualitative writing that was simply not interesting to read because writers wrote in the homogenized voice of ‘science’” (960). (That’s not the only cause of bad writing in the social sciences, in my experience.) In the past decade, however, “rather than suppressing their voices, qualitative writers have been honing their writing skills,” and “all kinds of qualitative writing have flourished” (960).

“Language is a constitutive force, creating a particular view of reality and of the Self,” Richardson continues (960). “Styles of writing are neither fixed nor neutral but rather reflect the historically shifting domination of particular schools or paradigms” (960). Since the seventeenth century, for example, scientific writing has been associated “with fact, ‘plain language,’ and objectivity” (960). By the nineteenth century, “literature and science stood as two separate domains”: literature was aligned with art and culture, and having “the rights to metaphorical and ambiguous language,” whereas science believed “that its words were objective, precise, unambiguous, noncontextual, and nonmetaphorical” (960). (I wonder to what extent that is true of scientific writing in the nineteenth century; I would have to see examples.) In the twentieth century, “the relationships between social scientific writing and literary writing grew in complexity,” as the boundary between fact and fiction became “blurred” by Thomas Wolfe and the New Journalism (960-61). “By the 1970s, ‘crossovers’ between writing forms spawned the naming of oxymoronic genres—‘creative nonfiction,’ ‘faction,’ ‘ethnographic fiction,’ the ‘nonfiction novel,’ and ‘true fiction,’” Richardson writes (961). (I would not consider the term “creative nonfiction” to be an oxymoron.) She cites E.L. Doctorow’s contention that fiction and nonfiction no longer existed; instead, there is only narrative (qtd. 961). It’s worth asking, though, if Doctorow is right. Isn’t writing that claims to be nonfiction making a different kind of truth claim than writing that claims to be fiction? If there really is no boundary between fiction and nonfiction, how would one explain scandals in journalism over made-up stories or sources, or the upset James Frey’s supposed memoir A Million Little Pieces caused? “What was offensive about Frey’s claim of truth was that it was not an artistic ploy but a marketing one,” suggests Canadian writer Russell Smith. “He knew that the average person would not, in fact, react to his story with awe and compassion if they thought it was a novel” (Smith). My point is that Doctorow’s claim might not withstand scrutiny—and, in fact, it may have been hyperbole.

However, “[d]espite the actual blurring of genre, and despite our contemporary understanding that all writing is narrative writing”—holy smokes! what happened to lyric poetry, or ekphrasis, or description, or argument? who ever claimed that all writing is narrative? does that person really know much about writing? isn’t that a misreading of Doctorow’s contention?—“I would contend that there is still one major difference that separates fiction writing from science writing,” Richardson states:

The difference is not whether the text really is fiction or nonfiction; rather, the difference is the claim that the author makes for the text. Declaring that one’s work is fiction is a different rhetorical move than is declaring that one’s work is social science. The two genres bring in different audiences and have different impacts on publics and politics—and on how one’s “truth claims” are to be evaluated. These differences should not be overlooked or minimized. (961). 

Okay, but making a truth claim of nonfiction isn’t just a rhetorical move, as the case of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces might suggest. That claim needs to be supported by the text itself. 

Richardson suggests that “in a postmodernist climate,” when “a multitude of approaches to knowing and telling exist side by side,” all “truth claims” end up being suspected “of masking and serving particular interests in local, cultural, and political struggles,” and that no method or theory, discourse or genre, or tradition or novelty “has a universal and general claim as the ‘right’ or privileged form of authoritative knowledge” (961). At the same time, though, “conventional methods of knowing and telling are not automatically rejected as false or archaic”; instead, “those standard methods are opened to inquiry, new methods are introduced, and then they are also subject to critique” (961). Postmodernist doubt “distrusts all methods equally,” but “a postmodernist position does allow us to know ‘something’ without claiming to know everything” (961). (Wasn’t that also possible before postmodernism?) The acceptance of “partial, local, and historical knowledge,” of “the situational limitations of the knower,” means that qualitative writers “do not have to try to play God, writing as disembodied omniscient narrators claiming universal and atemporal general knowledge” or pretend to “scientific objectivity”; instead, they can write “as situated speakers, subjectivities engaged in knowing/telling about the world as they perceive it” (961).

For Richardson, poststructuralism has been “especially helpful” because of the way it “links language, subjectivity, social organization, and power” (961). Poststructuralism holds that language produces meaning “and creates social reality” rather than reflecting it (961)—a claim (both about language and about poststructuralism itself) worth working through carefully rather than simply accepting. “Language is how social organization and power are defined and contested and the place where one’s sense of self—one’s subjectivity—is constructed,” she continues. “Understanding language as competing discourses—competing ways of giving meaning and of organizing the world—makes language a site of exploration and struggle” (961). The shadow behind these sentences seems to be the work of Michel Foucault, but why he remains unnamed is not clear. In any case, Richardson continues:

Language is not the result of one’s subjectivity; rather, language constructs one’s subjectivity in ways that are historically and locally specific. What something means to individuals is dependent on the discourses available to them. For example, being hit by one’s spouse is experienced differently depending on whether it is thought of as being within the discourse of “normal marriage,” “husband’s rights,” or “wife battering.” (961)

But in my reading of Foucault, I see an emphasis on both power and resistance, and on the way that discourses change. It’s possible that while a woman’s community might consider spousal violence to be normal, she might experience it as something that shouldn’t be tolerated. Discourse doesn’t necessarily define experience—not completely. 

“Poststructuralism . . . points to the continual cocreation of the self and social science; they are known through each other,” Richardson writes. “Knowing the self and knowing about the subject are intertwined, partial, historical[,] local knowledges,” and therefore poststructuralism invites researchers to reflect on their methods and “to explore new ways of knowing” (962). (Did no one reflect on method or explore new ways of knowing before the 1960s?) “Specifically, poststructuralism suggests two important ideas to qualitative writers,” she contends. “First, it directs us to understand ourselves reflexively as persons writing from particular positions at specific times. Second, it frees us from trying to write a single text in which everything is said at once to everyone” (962). (No such text has ever existed.) “Nurturing our own voices releases the censorious hold of ‘science writing’ on our consciousness as well as the arrogance it fosters in our psyche; writing is validated as a method of knowing,” she states (962). However, as I’ve seen in what I’ve been reading, an exposure to poststructuralism can also lead to a different kind of “censorious hold,” one in which writers attempt to imitate their French philosophical heroes (or at least their heroes’ translators).

Next, Richardson discusses creative analytical process ethnography, a label that describes qualitative social science writing that “has moved outside conventional social scientific writing” (962). “CAP ethnographies are not alternative or experimental; they are, in and of themselves, valid and desirable representations of the social,” she suggests (962). (So alternative or experimental writing is neither valid nor desirable?) The words “creative” and “analytical” are not incompatible: 

Witness the evolution, proliferation, and diversity of new ethnographic “species”—autoethnography, fiction, poetry, drama, readers’ theater, writing stories, aphorisms, layered texts, conversations, epistles, polyvocal texts, comedy, satire, allegory, visual texts, hypertexts, museum displays, choreographed findings, and performance pages, to name some of the categories that are discussed in the pages of this Handbook. These new “species” of qualitative writing adapt to the kind of political/social world we inhabit—a world of uncertainty. With many outlets for presentation and publication, CAP ethnographies herald a paradigm shift. (962)

But, as I’ve asked before in this blog, does the ethnographic fiction produced by social scientists (to take one example) stand as fiction? Is it peer reviewed by writers or editors of fiction? Does ethnographic poetry stand up against other forms of poetry? Does ethnographic drama? Have the social scientists writing these texts really invested time and effort into their writing as well as their research? Who evaluates the aesthetic success or failure of these various forms of ethnographic writing? Are social scientists just presenting unpracticed or, well, unsuccessful forms of writing to their readers?

According to Richardson, “CAP ethnography displays the writing process and the writing product as deeply intertwined; both are privileged” (962). It raises questions of how the researchers know, and about how they position themselves as knowers and tellers: such questions “engage intertwined problems of subjectivity, authority, authorship, reflexivity, and process, on the one hand, and of representational form, on the other” (962). Because of postmodernism’s claim that writing is always only partial (or perhaps that the knowledge produced by writing is always only partial, researchers can acknowledge that their “selves are always present no matter how hard [they] try to suppress them,” although they are only partially present because as they write, they are repressing “parts of [their] selves as well” (962). (Isn’t that true of any writer, before or after postmodernism?) “Working from that premise frees us to write material in a variety of ways—to tell and retell,” because “[t]here is no such thing as ‘getting it right,’ only ‘getting it’ differently contoured and nuanced” (962). CAP ethnographers can “learn about the topics and about themselves that which was unknowable and unimaginable using conventional analytical procedures, metaphors, and writing formats” (963). Instead of the traditional methodology of triangulation, CAP texts recognize that there are more than three perspectives by which to approach the world: “We do not triangulate; we crystallize” (963). Richardson proposes that the “central imaginary for ‘validity’ for postmodern texts” is “the crystal, which combines symmetry and substance with an infinite variety of shapes, substances, transmutations, multidimensionalities, and angles of approach” (963). Of course, the triangle was chosen as an “imaginary” because three properties are manageable. Is the infinity of reflection and refraction Richardson is describing manageable within any research project? Probably not. However, she offers Travels With Ernest: Crossing the Literary/Sociological Divide, a book she coauthored with her husband, a professor of English, as an example of a text that exemplifies “crystallization practices” which deconstruct “the traditional idea of ‘validity’” and “provides us with a deepened, complex, and thoroughly partial understanding of the topic. Paradoxically, we know more and doubt what we know. Ingeniously, we know there is always more to know” (963).

“Because the epistemological foundations of CAP ethnography differ from those of traditional social science, the conceptual apparatus by which CAP ethnographies can be evaluated differ,” Richardson continues. “Although we are freer to present our texts in a variety of forms to diverse audiences, we have different constraints arising from self-consciousness about claims to authorship, authority, truth, validity, and reliability” (963-64). “Truth claims are less easily validated now; desires to speak ‘for’ others are suspect,” she contends (964). And “[t]he greater freedom to experiment with textual form . . . does not guarantee a better product” (964). Thank you: that’s the point I’ve been trying to make. But, she continues, criteria of evaluation is an issue. How are works of CAP ethnography going to be evaluated? She offers four criteria. The first is substantive contribution: “[d]oes this piece contribute to our understanding of social life?” (964). The second is aesthetic merit: “[d]oes this piece succeed aesthetically?” (964). The third is reflexivity: “[h]ow has the author’s subjectivity been both a producer and a product of this text? Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgements about the point of view? Does the author hold himself or herself accountable to the standards of knowing and telling of the people he or she has studied?” (964). And finally, there is impact: “[d]oes this piece affect me emotionally or intellectually? Does it move me to write? Does it move me to try new research practices or move me to action?” (964). She suggests that in CAP, “[s]cience is one lens, and creative arts is another. We see deeply using both lenses” (964). She wants “to look through both lenses to see a ‘social science art form’—a radically different form of representation” (964). And she claims not to be alone in this desire: “students from diverse social backgrounds and marginalized cultures are attracted to seeing the social world through two lenses” (964). She predicts the creation of a “new qualitative community” that bridges the humanities and social sciences that could “reach beyond academia and teach all of us about social injustice and methods for alleviating it: (964-65). In that community, “[w]riting becomes more diverse and author centered, less boring, and humbler. These are propitious opportunities. Some even speak of their work as spiritual” (965). (Strangely, I’ve seen little evidence of humility in the social science research I’ve been reading over the past month. Self-indulgently presenting bad poetry as art is not a sign of humility.)

“The ethnographic life is not separable from the Self,” Richardson continues. “Who we are and what we can be—what we can study, how we can write about that which we study—are tied to how a knowledge system disciplines itself and its members and to its methods for claiming authority over both the subject matter and its members” (965). Ethnographers need to “find concrete practices through which we can construct ourselves as ethical subjects engaged in ethical ethnography—inspiring to read and to write” (965). Some of those practices will involve:

working within theoretical schemata . . . that challenge grounds of authority, writing on topics that matter both personally and collectively, experiencing jouissance, experimenting with different writing formats and audiences simultaneously, locating oneself in multiple discourses and communities, developing critical literacy, finding ways in which to write/present/teach that are less hierarchal and univocal, revealing institutional secrets, using positions of authority to increase diversity both in academic appointments and in journal publications, engaging in self-reflexivity, giving in to synchronicity, asking for what one wants, not flinching from where writing takes one emotionally or spiritually, and honoring the embodiedness and spatiality of one’s labor. (965)

Honouring “the location of the self,” which Richardson equates with “the embodiedness and spatiality of one’s labor,” will encourage researchers to construct “writing stories,” or “narratives that situate one’s own writing in other parts of one’s life such as disciplinary constraints, academic debates, departmental politics, social movements, community structures, research interests, familial ties, and personal history” (965). Such “writing stories” “offer critical reflexivity about the writing self in different contexts as a valuable creative analytical practice” (965). They “evoke new questions about the self and the subject; remind us that our work is grounded, contextual, and rhizomatic; and demystify the research/writing process and help others to do the same” (965). Apparently these “writing stories” are intended for publication; she suggests that she used them in her 1997 book Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life (965).In writing that book, she writes, “I was reliving horrific experiences,” “memories of being patronized, marginalized, and punished by my department chair and dean,” but some of the stories she wrote were “joyful” as well (965). 

My question is this: how is a “writing story” any different from a memoir or an autobiography? I can’t see the difference—except a “writing story” claims to be “more congruent with poststructural understandings of the situated nature of knowledge” (965). Indeed, Richardson’s description of this practice and the ethics involved sound like creative nonfiction writing. I’m not seeing the difference—except for the drapery of poststructuralism to give the practice some theoretical legitimacy. Maybe that’s not fair; maybe I would have to read Richardson’s “writing story” to make such a judgement. In any case, she states, “I am convinced that in the story (or stories) of becoming, we have a good chance of deconstructing the underlying academic ideology—that being a something . . . is better than becoming” (966-67). Such stories of becoming are what interest Richardson, and she suggests that writing such stories has increased her “compassion for others” as well as her “actions on their behalf,” and helped her to “see more clearly the interrelationships between and among peoples worldwide” (967). 

In the essay’s second section, Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre begins with Gilles Deleuze’s notion of trajectories as lines of flight that map “what can happen if one takes seriously [Richardson’s] charge to think of writing as a method of qualitative inquiry” (967). The reference to Deleuze at the outset isn’t surprising, since the section is entitled “Writing as a Method of Nomadic Inquiry.” As an English major, St. Pierre has been trained “to think of expository writing as a tracing of thought already thought, as a transparent reflection of the known and the real—writing as a representation, as repetition” (967). (I don’t think anyone would teach expository writing that way now.) Today St. Pierre uses writing “to disrupt the known and the real—writing as simulation, as ‘subversive repetition’” (citing Baudrillard and Butler, 967). She has described her academic research “‘nomadic inquiry,’” and much of that work “is accomplished in the writing because, for me, writing is thinking, writing is analysis, writing is indeed a seductive and tangled method of discovery” (967). “Many writers in the humanities have known this all along,” St. Pierre notes, but by bringing that understanding to the social sciences, she suggests that Richardson “has deconstructed the concept method,” putting it under erasure (in Derridean fashion) and thereby opening it up to different meanings (967). She also cites Roland Barthes on the sterility of method and the need, she summarizes, to “interrogate whatever limits we have imposed on the concept method lest we diminish its possibilities in knowledge production” (967), which isn’t quite the interpretation I would put on the quotation she presents. I suppose I would have to read Barthes’s book, The Rustle of Language, to learn more.

One of postmodernism’s lessons, St. Pierre continues, is that “foundations are contingent,” particularly “every foundational concept of conventional, interpretive qualitative inquiry, including method,” and postmodernists have deconstructed many of them, including data, validity, interviewing, the field, experience, voice, reflexivity, narrative, and ethnography (967-68). That doesn’t mean qualitative researchers reject these concepts: “rather, researchers have examined their effects on people and knowledge production during decades of research and have reinscribed them in different ways that, of course, must also be interrogated” (968). Researchers “use old concepts but ask them to do different work,” and acknowledge “that structure is, and always has been, contingent” (968). 

St. Pierre moves on to “the tenuous relation between language and meaning” and the various ways of discussing that relation and the idea that there is “a layer of prelinguistic meaning . . . that language can express,” or that  “some kind of transparent dialogue that can lead to consensus,” or whether consensus is even desirable, because it “often erases difference” (968). Postmodernists, she continues (given her reliance on Derrida and Foucault in this discussion, she really means poststructuralists, I think), “suspect that interpretation is not the discovery of meaning in the world but rather the ‘introduction of meaning’”—citing Spivak’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology—and therefore “we can no longer treat words as if they are deeply and essentially meaningful” (968). If that’s the case, “the interpreter has to assume the burden of meaning-making, which is no longer a neutral activity of expression that simply matches word to world” (968-69). “The implications for qualitative inquiry of imagining writing as a letting go of meaning even [as] meaning proliferates rather than a search for and containment of meaning are both compelling and profound,” she writes (969). “Clearly, postmodern qualitative researchers can no longer think of inquiry simply as a task of making meaning—comprehending, understanding, getting to the bottom of the phenomenon under investigation,” she continues (969). That’s not a rejection of meaning, but it does mean asking different questions about how meanings change, how some have become normative while others have disappeared, what those changes suggest about power, how discourses function and are produced (969). (Of course, if you’re going to ask how meanings have changed, you’re going to need some sense of what things have meant at some point; otherwise, such a question could not be answered.) St. Pierre wonders what writing might do except mean, and she turns to Deleuze and Guattari’s contention that writing is about surveying or mapping rather than signifying. This idea, she suggests, enable researchers to use writing “as a method of inquiry,” a “condition of possibility” for making knowledge differently (969). 

St. Pierre asks “what might the work of writing as inquiry be in postmodern qualitative research?” (969). She cites her own research projects—an interview study and ethnography of a southern rural community—as an example. “It is important to note that this study was not designed to do interpretive work,” she writes. “I never presumed I could know or understand the women—uncover their authentic voices and essential natures and then represent them in thick description” (969). Instead, she set out to do two things:

(1) to use postmodernism to study subjectivity by using Foucault’s ethical analysis, care of the self, to investigate the “arts of existence” or “practices of the self” the women have used during their long lives in the construction of their subjectivities and (2) to use postmodernism to study conventional qualitative research methodology, which I believe is generally both positivist and interpretive. (969-70)

In addition, St. Pierre states,

I determined early in the study to use writing as a method of inquiry in at least these two senses: (1) I would think of writing as a method of data collection along with, for example, interviewing and observation and (2) I would think of writing as a method of data analysis along with, for example, the traditional—and what I think of as structural (and positivist)—activities of analytic induction; constant comparison; coding, sorting, and categorizing data; and so forth. (970)

“[T]hese two methods are not as discrete as I have made them out to be,” she continues. “Making such a distinction is to stay within the confines of the structure of conventional qualitative inquiry in which we often separate data collection from data analysis. Nevertheless, I retain the distinction temporarily for the purpose of elucidation” (970). 

St. Pierre gathered together “all sorts of data”—her dreams, her emotions, her memories—that she “had never read about in interpretive qualitative textbooks” (970). These data, she continues, “were always already in my mind and body, and they cropped up unexpectedly and fittingly in my writing—fugitive, fleeting data that were excessive and out-of-category. My point here is that these data might have escaped entirely if I had not written; they were collected only in the writing” (970). As a method of data analysis, St. Pierre used “writing to think; that is, I wrote my way into particular spaces I could not have occupied by sorting data with a computer program or by analytic induction” (970). Following Deleuze and Guattari, she describes this as “rhizomatic work” in which she “made accidental and fortuitous connections” over which she had no control. “My point here is that I did not limit data analysis to conventional practices of coding data and then sorting it into categories that I then grouped into themes that became section headings in an outline that organized and governed my writing in advance of writing,” she states. “Thought happened in the writing. As I wrote, I watched word after word appear on the computer screen—ideas, theories, I had not thought before I wrote them. Sometimes I wrote something so marvelous it startled me. I doubt I could have thought such a thought by thinking alone” (970). Thinking of writing this way “breaks down the distinction in conventional qualitative inquiry between data collection and data analysis”: “[b]oth happen at once” (970). “Data collection and data analysis cannot be separated when writing is a method of inquiry,” St. Pierre contends. “And positivist concepts, such as audit trails and data saturation, become absurd and then irrelevant in postmodern qualitative inquiry in which writing is a field of play where anything can happen—and does” (971). I find myself a little surprised that anyone would be surprised at the connection between thinking and writing being described here—that has always been my experience of writing—but I’m not a qualitative researcher whose work is supposed to be presented in such a structured way.

To St. Pierre, this approach to writing “deconstructs the concept method, proliferating its meaning and thereby collapsing the structure that relied on its unity” (971). “But how does one ‘write it up’ after the linguistic turn?” she asks (971). She “began to assume a writerly reticence to describe or represent my participants, and thereby encourage some kind of sentimental identification,” she writes (971). (Does description necessarily lead to sentimentality?) “After all, it was subjectivity, not the women, that was the objet of my inquiry,” she continues (971). This focus is typical of postmodern research. She also suggests that she cannot “write a text that ‘runs to meet the reader’ (Sommer, qtd. 971) or a “comfort text that gratifies the interpretive entitlement to know the women” who were participating in her study (971). Rather than being objects that can be known, the women became “a line of flight that take me elsewhere” (971). They were “provocateurs” (971). “I gesture toward them in oblique ways in my writing by relating, for example, one of our vexing conversations that burgeoned into splendid and productive confusion about subjectivity or by relating an aporia about methodology they insist I think,” she continues (971). But she does not write their stories, although she longs to do so (971). She will only write their stories, though, 

after wrestling with that postrepresentational question: What else might writing do except mean? That writing will involve a politics and ethics of difficulty that, on the one hand, can only be accomplished if I write but, on the other, cannot be accomplished on the basis of anything I know about writing. There are no rules for postrepresentational writing; there’s nowhere to turn for authorizing comfort. (971-72)

I wonder if St. Pierre isn’t overthinking and overcomplicating the issue. Writing can do a lot of things other than mean—that’s one of the lessons we can take from poetry—and yet, inevitably, it ends up generating meaning as well. I’m not even sure that something called “postrepresentational writing” exists, although it’s obviously something that some qualitative researchers worry about; there are essays on the subject in the library’s databases. Perhaps St. Pierre’s ethnographic work is an example. Do I have the energy to read it? On this side of campus, though, in the humanities building, we just write, even if we know that writing as a form of representation is an impossibility. I can’t go on, I’ll go on, as the Irish writer said.

“Can the kind of writing I have gestured toward here—writing under erasure—exhibit a substantive contribution, aesthetic merit, reflexivity, impact, and reflect lived experience?” St. Pierre asks. “I believe it can” (972). But she suggests that writing as a method of inquiry takes us toward what Derrida called “the democracy to come” (qtd. 972), a democracy that even though it will never be a full presence, “demands that we prepare ourselves for its arrival” (972). That democracy-to-come, Derrida argued, “is grounded in our relations with the Other” (972). For St. Pierre, “the possibilities for just and ethical encounters with alterity occur not only in the field of human activity but also in the field of the text, in our writing” (972). These “overlapping spaces” (human activity and textuality?) prepare us “for a democracy that has no model, for a postjuridical justice that is always contingent on the case at hand and must be effaced even as it is produced” (972). However, “[s]ettling into a transcendental justice and truth, some deep meaning we think will save us, may announce a lack of courage to think and live beyond our necessary fictions” (972). St. Pierre argues that “we will always be unprepared to be ethical. Moreover, the removal of foundations and originary meaning, which were always already fictions, simply leaves everything as it is but without those markers of certainty we counted on to see us intact through a text of responsibility” (972). “[H]ow do we go on from here?” she asks. “How do we get on with our work and our lives?” (972). She answers with Derrida’s suggestion that “the events in our lives . . . tempt us to be their equal by asking for our ‘best and most perfect’” (Derrida, qtd. 972). “The event, then, calls us to be worthy at the instant of decision, when what happens is all there is—when meaning will always come too late to rescue us,” St. Pierre writes. “At the edge of the abyss, we step without reserve toward the Other” (972). This situation is “the condition of Derrida’s democracy-to-come” that, she hopes, “will enable relations less impoverished than the ones we have thus far imagined and lived” (972). Postmodern qualitative researchers are already accomplishing this democracy-to-come, she continues, “in all the fields of play in which they work” (973). That seems to be an extraordinary claim to make about the possibilities of any form of academic research to make things happen, but maybe she’s correct. I don’t know. She concludes by inviting her readers to “use writing as a method of inquiry to move into your own impossibility, where anything might happen—and will” (973).

In the essay’s last section, Richardson suggests “some ways of using writing as a method of knowing” by choosing exercises that have demystified writing for her students, nurtured their researchers’ voices, and served “the processes of discovery about the self, the world, and issues of social justice” (973). these include using metaphor; being aware of writing formats, in one’s own writing and in the writing of other people;  learning a variety of creative analytical writing practices, by taking creative writing, writing an autobiography, transforming one’s fieldnotes into drama, writing poetry, writing layered texts, writing collaboratively, and writing “writing stories”—“reflexive accounts of how you happened to write the pieces you wrote” (974-75). Those exercises are where the essay ends, along with a quotation from Brenda Ueland about allowing one’s “own ideas to come in a develop and gently shine” (qtd. 975). There seems to be quite a gulf, though, between these exercises and the theoretical discourses St. Pierre uses, or the political and ethical claims she makes for postmodern qualitative research and writing, and I’m not sure what to make of that difference, that separation. 

In fact, I’m not sure I want to turn to social science methodologies any more: their research practices are constantly reacting against (or claiming support from) the notion that they are producing some kind of objective knowledge. Art practices never make that kind of claim, so those reactions aren’t that helpful to artists (or writers). So why would I use a term like autoethnography to describe my writing about my walks, with the pretense to objectivity, however much that pretense is resisted, it connotes? Why wouldn’t I use a term from the world of the arts, like creative nonfiction, to describe that writing? Why not indeed. I feel like I’ve turned a corner by writing that sentence (it’s always been my experience that writing generates thoughts that surprise me). Now all I have to do is start exploring creative nonfiction as a methodology, since my the exegesis I find myself writing (not this year, nor next year, but maybe the year after) is going to require some statement about methodology. That requirement is inevitable. I just have to find a way to meet that requirement, and a methodology I can live with. 

Works Cited

Richardson, Laurel, and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, third edition, edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Sage, 2005, pp. 959-78.

Smith, Russell. “Fiction or Non-Fiction: Does It Matter Any More?” The Globe and Mail, 1 February 2012.

112e. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, concluded

denzin lincoln

Finally I arrived at the book’s final section (aside from its short epilogue): Part IV: “Power, Truth, Ethics, and Social Justice.” “Each chapter in this section connects indigenous theories, pedagogies, and modes of inquiry with emancipatory discourses,” the editors write. “Each works through and around, even if indirectly, critical theory and critical pedagogy. (The ghost of Paulo Freire is on every page.) Each chapter is a call to work through a progressive, indigenous politics of critical inquiry, and each works against the backdrop of global capitalism and neoliberal political, economic, and educational ideologies” (429). They name their decade (which has just concluded) “the Decade of Critical Indigenous Inquiry,” and suggest that this decade will bring “a thorough-going transition from discourses about and on method, to discourses centering on power, ethics, and social justice. This discourse will bring new meanings to these terms. It will also involve a rethinking of terms such as democracy, science, and education” (429-30). I don’t know how accurate that prediction turned out to be; Sage continues to publish books on methodology, so method must still be a concern in the social sciences.

I’m not interested in education, but I decided to read Russell Bishop’s “Te Kotahitanga: Kaupapa Māori in Mainstream Classrooms” anyway, because I thought it might suggests ways in which a môniyâw like me might learn from Indigenous theoretical or methodological approaches. Bishop begins by stating that kaupapa Māori “is a discourse of proactive theory and practice that emerged from the wider revitalization of Māori communities that developed in New Zealand following the rapid Māori urbanization in the 1950s and 1960s” (439). Kaupapa Māori promotes “the revitalization of Māori cultural aspirations, preferences, and practices as a philosophical and productive educational stance and resistance to the hegemony of the dominant discourse” (439). There is a connection between kaupapa Māori and education; it has become more important since the institution of Māori preschools in 1982 and now informs Māori education up to postsecondary institutions, as well as governance bodies (439-40). Kaupapa Māori is about self-determination and autonomy, although “there is a clear understanding among Māori people that such autonomy is relative, not absolute, that it is self-determination in relation to others,” something many non-Māori misunderstand (440). “It is not a call for separatism or noninterference, nor is it a call for non-Māori people to stand back and leave Māori alone, in effect to relinquish all responsibility for the ongoing relationship between the peoples of New Zealand” Bishop writes. “Rather, it is a call for all those involved in education in New Zealand to reposition themselves in relation to these emerging aspirations of Māori people for an autonomous voice” (440). “In other words,” he continues, “kaupapa Māori seeks to operationalize Māori people’s aspirations to restructure power relationships to the point where partners can be autonomous and interact from this position rather than from one of subordination or dominance” (440).

However, Bishop writes, “Māori attempts to promote this indigenous people’s understanding of self-determination has been limited to date, and the most successful Māori education initiatives have been those that, on the surface at least, have most closely approximated the majority culture’s notion of self-determination” (441). The purpose of this chapter is to examine how kaupapa Māori has responded to “the wider crisis in Māori education, particularly disparities in achievement in mainstream educational settings from Māori experiences of successful Māori innovations in education” (441). How might ideas that are fundamental to Māori education “provide a picture of what might constitute an appropriate pedagogy for Māori students in mainstream schools” (441)?

The concept of rangatiratanga, or self-determination, “the right to determine one’s own destiny, to define what that destiny will be, and to define and pursue a means of attaining that destiny in relation to others, with this notion of relations being fundamental to Māori epistemologies,” is fundamental to Māori educational institutions (441). “[E]ducational relationships and interactions, predicated on a Māori understanding of self-determination that includes nondominating relations of interdependence, could well be a means of addressing the seemingly immutable problems of disparate achievement levels within mainstream educational institutions,” Bishop writes. “In this way, issues of power relations, such as initiation, benefits, representation, legitimation, and accountability will be addressed in totally different ways than they have been in the past,” and “participation on one’s own terms brings commitment, and commitment brings about learning” (441-42). One way of implementing this approach in classrooms is “to have children participate in the process of decision making about curriculum planning to the extent of participating in a pedagogy of sharing power over decisions about curriculum content and the directions that learning will take” (442). (I wonder about that; had anyone asked me as a child about curriculum, I would have advocated that arithmetic, and later mathematics, be abolished, because that was my least favourite subject.) Bishop argues that “all students’ achievement levels need to be raised so that educators can create learning contexts that will provide students with those tools that are vital for future citizens in a democracy—the tools of planning, relationships, creativity, critical reflection, and communication,” and that in order to do this, “we need to immerse students in power-sharing relationships with their peers and their teachers from an early age” (442). “In short,” he concludes, “the principle of self-determination within nondominating relations of interdependence should be relevant to all involved in classroom interactions” (442).

Another Māori phrase, taonga tuu iho, or the cultural aspirations of Māori people, suggests “that Māori language, knowledge, culture, and values are normal, valid, and legitimate and indeed are valid guides to classroom interactions” (442). In education, this idea implies “that educators need to create contexts where to be Māori is to be normal, where Māori cultural identities are valid, valued, and legitimate”—“where Māori children can be themselves” (442). This doesn’t mean stereotyping Māori children, but rather understanding the diversity of Māori experience. “In short, a pedagogy is needed that is holistic, flexible, and complex, that will allow children to present their multiplicities and complexities and their individual and collective diversities, rather than a pedagogy that perpetuates teacher images,” Bishop writes. “Taonga tuki iho therefore teaches us to respect the tapu (potentiality for power) of each individual child and to acknowledge his or her mana (power) rather than ascribe cultural meanings to a child” (442).

Ako, or reciprocal learning, suggests “that the teacher does not have to be the fountain of all knowledge but rather should be able to create contexts for learning where the students can enter the learning conversations” (443). One implication of the principle of reciprocal learning “is that active learning approaches are preferred because in this way, the processes of knowledge-in-action are able to be brought to the interaction—indeed, for the interaction,” and this suggests that students ought to be able to participate “using sense-making processes they bring to the relationship and share these with others, as a right, and this has clear implications for the type of classroom interactions and pedagogies that will be useful in promoting this vision” (443).

Another Māori principle is kia piki ake i nga raruraru o te kainga, or mediation of socioeconomic and home difficulties (443). According to this principle, “when parents are incorporated into the education of their children on terms they can understand and approve of, then children do better at school” (443). “[T]he closer that classroom and home experiences are for students, the more likely that students will be able to participate in the educational experiences designed at the school,” and this idea “addresses the preference Māori people have for their problems to be dealt with in culturally familiar ways that intervene in the educational crisis . . . through the promotion of culturally acceptable alternatives” (443). 

Whanau, or extended family, “is a primary concept (a cultural preference” that contains both values (cultural aspirations) and social processes (cultural practices) that has multiple meanings for mainstream education” (443). While the word can mean family ties, “the most rapid growth in the application of the term whanau has been in the metaphorical use of the term to refer to collectives of people working for a common end who are not connected by kinship . . . but act as if they were” (443). “These metaphoric whanau attempt to develop relationships, organizations, and operational practices based on similar principles to those that order a traditional whanau,” Bishop continues, noting that using the term whanau means identifying “a series of rights and responsibilities, commitments and obligations, and supports that are fundamental to the collectivity” (443-44). So, when teachers imagine or theorize classroom actions as metaphorical whanau relationships, “classroom interactions will be fundamentally different from those created when teachers talk of method and process using machine or transmission metaphors” (444). Establishing whanau relationships is an essential part of the research process, Bishop suggests, and in classrooms, ideas of “commitment and connectedness would be paramount, and responsibility for the learning of others would be fostered” (444). The classroom itself “would be sen as an active location for all learners, and this includes the teachers, to participate in the decision-making processes through the medium os spiral discourse—a major means of addressing current power imbalances” (444). 

Kaupapa, or collective vision or philosophy, is another term that “provides guidelines for what constitutes excellence in Māori education” (444). According to Bishop, “mainstream institutions need such a philosophy or agenda for achieving excellence in both languages and cultures that make up the world of Māori children. Such a kaupapa is essential for the development of educational relations and interactions that will produce educational achievement and reduce disparities” (444-45).

These metaphors, “drawn from the experiences of kaupapa Māori educational theorizing and practice,” give us “a picture of the sort of alternative educational relations and interactions that are possible when educators draw upon an alternative culture than that previously dominant” (445). The idea of whanau relationships, for instance, “would enact reciprocal and collaborative pedagogies in order to promote educational relationships between students, between pupils and teachers . . . and between the home and the school as a means of promoting excellence in education” (445). Bishop suggests that this metaphor “also creates an image of classroom relations and interactions where students are able to participate on their own terms—terms that are determined by the student because the very pedagogic process holds this as a central value” (445). Using new metaphors for pedagogy, he continues, repositions teachers “within different contexts where students’ sense-making processes offer new opportunities for them to engage with learning,” which legitimates students’ experiences and “sense-making processes” (445). These metaphors lead to a sharing of power, to classrooms where culture matters and where learning is interactive and dialogic, where connectedness is fundamental to relations, and where there is a common vision of “what constitutes excellence for Māori in education” (445). The notion that “relations ontologically precede all other concerns in education,” Bishop suggests, “might well be termed a culturally responsive pedagogy of relations” (446).

What might a culturally responsive pedagogy of relations look like in practice? That’s the purpose of the rest of the essay, and to answer this question, it turns to a research project, Te Kotahitanga, “one where Māori metaphors inform educational theorizing and practice in ways that seeks to mediate the ongoing educational crisis facing Māori people in mainstream education from within a kaupapa Māori framework” (446). That project, which began in 2001, seeks to “address the self-determination of Māori secondary school students by talking with them and other participants in their education about just what is involved in limiting and/or improving their educational achievement through an examination of the main influences on Māori students’ educational achievement” (446). According to Bishop, “it is a kaupapa Māori position that when teachers share their power with students, they will better understand the world of the ‘others’ and those ‘othered’ by power differentials, and students will be better able to successfully participate and engage in educational systems on their own culturally constituted terms” (446). “Fundamental to kaupapa Māori theorizing is an analysis of that which might limit Māori advancement in education,” Bishop continues, and for that reason, this research project asks students, teachers, principals, and teachers to tell stories about their experiences “in order to develop narratives of the experiences and involvement of these groups in the education of Māori students,” which enables an understanding of students’ experiences “within the wider context of their education and their lives in general” (447). The students reported that being Māori in a mainstream school was a negative experience, and that their success was determined by the ways their teachers interacted with Māori students (447). “In so doing, they alerted us of the need for education to be responsive to them as culturally located people and, in this way, to the emerging literature on the creation of learning contexts and how these contexts might be constituted as appropriate and responsive to the culturally generated sense-making processes of students,” Bishop writes (447). 

Parents and whanau members, on the other hand, “identified that the major influence on Māori students’ educational achievement was the quality of their children’s relationship with their teachers” (447). The expect schools to provide their children with good experiences, and that teachers therefore “needed to have a greater understanding of things Māori, including the reality that Māori people have their own cultural values, aspirations, and ways of knowing” (447-48). Principals also talked about relationships and the attitudes of teachers, as well as “[t]eachers’ low expectations of Māori students and the need for teachers to adjust to the individual learning requirements of their students” (448). Recognizing “Māori students’ culture and taking cognizance of Māori cultural aspirations and notions of belonging” was one way that the principals suggested teachers “might facilitate a more responsive relationship,” as was building “Māori pedagogies that went beyond the limited inclusion of Māori cultural iconography into their curriculum and programs” (448). 

However, teachers felt that “factors from within the discourse of the child and the home” had “the greatest influence on Māori students’ educational achievement” (448). The teachers “perceived deficits within the home or problems that Māori students brought with them to school from home as having the major influence on Māori students’ educational achievement” (448). These included socioeconomic problems, the transience of Māori students, and inadequate parental support, along with other “[d]eficit influences” (448). They also stated that Māori students caused problems at school because of their “low-level aspirations . . . and their lack of motivation and poor behavior” (448). “Teachers identified that Māori students were disorganized, not prepared for their classes or for learning, and difficult to discipline” (448). A small group of teachers “did identify that positive relationships were built in their classrooms through their respecting the cultural knowledge and aspirations of Māori students,” and that “these actions resulted in improved student behavior, engagement, and involvement in learning” (448). 

“A critical reading of the narratives of experience identified that there were three main discourses within which the participant groups positioned themselves when identifying and explaining both positive and negative influences on Māori students’ educational achievement,” Bishop writes (449). The first discourse was “of the child and his or home, which included those influences that were to be found outside of the school and the classroom” (449). The second was “the discourse of structure and systems or those influences outside of the classroom but pertaining to the school itself and/or the wider education system” (449). The third, Bishop continues, “was the discourse of relationships and classroom interaction patterns,” everything taking place within the classroom (449). The stories the participants told were “coded according to idea units and the number of times those units were repeated across the schools, rather than within each school,” in order to avoid having one school dominate the data (449). The results of the coding and analysis, presented in a graph in the essay, reinforces Bishop’s more anecdotal discussion (450). “It is clear from the pattern . . . that the main influences on Māori students’ educational achievement that people identify vary according to where they position themselves within the three discourses,” Bishop writes (451). It is a problem “that it is mainly teachers who position themselves” as seeing the major influences coming from outside of classrooms, unlike students and parents, because “[i]n so doing, a large proportion of the teachers were pathologizing Māori students’ lived experiences by explaining their lack of educational achievement in deficit terms, either as being within the child or their home, or within the structure of the school” (451). That suggests that teachers are blaming “someone or something outside of their area of influence,” thereby suggesting “that they had very little responsibility for the outcomes of these influences,” and in addition, the teachers “see few solutions to solve the problems,” a “very nonagentic position in that there is not much individuals can do from this position” (451). For Bishop, “this deficit theorizing by teachers is the major impediment to Māori students’ educational achievement,” and “unless these positionings and theorizings by teachers are addressed and overcome, they will not be able to realize their agency, and little substantial change will occur” (451). “In contrast, speakers who position themselves within the discourse of relationships and interactions understand that in this space, explanations that seek to address the power differentials and imbalances between the various participants in the relationships can be developed and implemented,” and those same speakers “tend to accept responsibility for their part in the relationships and are clear that they have agency” (451). In other words, they understand “that they can bring about change and indeed are responsible for bringing about changes in the educational achievement of Māori students” (451).

The ways for Māori students to succeed, Bishop concludes, “draw on Māori cultural aspirations,” including ideas of caring, high expectations for Māori students, and “the creation of secure, well-managed learning settings . . . in terms of the mana of the students” (453-54). “The preferred discursive teaching interactions, strategies, and focus on formative assessment processes that are identified in the narratives also resonate with Māori cultural aspirations, above all the creation of whanau-type relations and interactions within classrooms and between teachers, students, and their homes,” Bishop continues. “Reciprocal approaches to learning—through cooperative learning strategies, for example, in concert with the underlying aspiration for relative autonomy—underlie that desire to improve the educational achievement of Māori students . . . through operationalizing Māori people’s cultural aspirations for self-determination within nondominating relations of interdependence” (454). How to do all of that, though, when teachers are clearly either racist and/or exhausted and burned out by classrooms that contain too many students for such personalized interactions? I don’t understand how the research results could be implemented in a practical way.

The essay’s conclusion summarizes its findings, and then suggests that “[o]perationalizing a culturally effective pedagogy of relations means implementing an Effective Teaching Profile” which “creates a learning context that is responsive to the culture of the child and means that learners can bring who they are to the classroom in complete safety and where their knowledges are acceptable and legitimate” (455). This approach “stands in context to the traditional classroom, where the culture of the teacher is given central focus and has the power to define what constitutes appropriate and acceptable knowledges, approaches to learnings and understandings, and sense-making processes” (455). “[W]hen the learners’ own culture is central to their learning activities, they are able to make meaning of new information and ideas by building on their own prior cultural experiences and understandings,” Bishop writes (455). As learners construct “learning experiences” together with their teachers, the students would learn “how to reflect critically on their own learning, how they might learn better and more effectively and ensure greater balance in the power relationship of learning by modeling this approach in class” (455-56). By “raising expectations of students’ own learning and how they might enhance and achieve these expectations,” students would be engaged “actively, holistically, and in an integrated fashion in real-life (or as close to) problem sharing and questioning,” and they would be able to “use these questions as catalysts for ongoing study; this engagement can be monitored as an indicator of potential long-term achievements” (456). Bishop describes these changes as a shift from “traditional classrooms” to “[d]iscursive classrooms” which would “have the potential to respond to Māori students’ and parents’ desires to ‘be Māori,’ desire that were made very clear in their narratives of experience” (456). Moreover, “the deficit theorizing by teachers must be challenged” by creating “more effective partnerships between Māori students and their teachers” and between parents and teachers as well (456). “Once these aspects are addressed, the culture of the child can be brought to the learning context with all the power that has been hidden for so long,” Bishop contends (456).

“The metaphors that Te Kotahitanga draws on are holistic and flexible and able to be determined by or understood within the cultural contexts that have meaning to the lives of the many young people of diverse backgrounds who attend modern schools today,” Bishop writes. “Teaching and learning strategies that flow from these metaphors are flexible and allow the diverse voices of young people primacy and promote dialogue, communication, and learning with others” (456). Such a pedagogy engages participants in collaboration, “mutual storytelling and restorying, so that a relationship can emerge in which both stories are heard, or indeed a process where a new story is created by all the participants” (456). Such a pedagogy would also address “Māori people’s concerns about current pedagogic practices being fundamentally monocultural and epistemologically racist,” and it would recognize “that all people who are involved in the learning and teaching process are participants who have meaningful experiences, valid concerns, and legitimate questions” (456). It would make classrooms into places “where young peoples’ sense-making processes are incorporated and enhanced, where the existing knowledges of young people are seen as ‘acceptable’ and ‘official,’ in such a way that their stories provide the learning base from whence they can branch out into new fields of knowledge through structured interactions with significant others” (456). That kind of classroom would “generate totally different interaction patterns and educational outcomes” from classrooms “where knowledge is seen as something that the teacher makes sense of and then passes onto students,” and in such classrooms, learning would “be conducted within and through a culturally responsive pedagogy of relations, wherein self-determining individuals interact with one another within nondominating relations of interdependence” (456).

As the Te Kotahitanga research project continues, Bishop states, “we are beginning to see significant improvements in Māori student engagement with learning and achievement along with major improvements in their enjoyment of the learning experience” (456). This suggests “that the answers to Māori educational achievement and disparities do not lie in the mainstream,” because the theories and practices associated with colonialism “have kept Māori in a subordinate position while creating a discourse that pathologized and marginalized Māori people’s lived experiences” (456-57). The answers to the “seemingly immutable educational disparities that plague Māori students,” Bishop contends, “lie in the sense-making and knowledge-generating processes of the culture that the dominant system has sought to marginalize for so long” (457). “The power of counternarratives such as kaupapa Māori . . . is such that alternative pedagogies that are both appropriate and responsive can be developed out of the cultural sense-making processes of peoples previously marginalized by the dominance of colonial and neocolonial educational relations of power,” Bishop concludes. “Such pedagogies can create learning contexts for previously pathologized and marginalized students in ways that allow them to participate in education on their own terms, to be themselves, and to achieve on their own terms as Māori” and as “‘citizens of the world’” (457).  

I’m happy that the Te Kotahitanga research project is having such tangible successes, but I wonder how the approaches Bishop outlines in this essay might be scaled up beyond 12 secondary schools, and about how they might be affected by the material limits that classroom teachers face. What about the reality of underfunded schools and overcrowded classrooms? Where are teachers to find the time to build relationships with all of their students and their families (and extended families)? What about the realities of drugs or poor attendance or fractured families, which Bishop dismisses as “deficit thinking”? (Surely those problems do exist and aren’t just imagined by classroom teachers, although they shouldn’t be allowed to become the basis of stereotypes about any group of students.) How does decentering the teacher as transmitter of knowledge work in disciplines like math or science (where storying and restorying would seem not to apply in any way) or, indeed, in English literature (aside from creative-writing courses)? 

I also wonder how the practices that Bishop advocates would change my own teaching practice. Most of my teaching takes in a required first-year composition course in a university. I do use student-centred teaching practices, but often, as the one with knowledge and experience, I often find myself explaining texts to students, and I am the one who judges their work. How might the practices Bishop discusses be implemented in that environment? Would I allow students to choose whatever they wanted to read? Would that mean being expected to read 30 or 40 different novels in order to mark a set of essays? Is that a reasonable expectation for a teacher? What about the opportunities for plagiarism that such a strategy would open up? (Plagiarism is a serious problem; some students, for a variety of reasons, cheat.) Or would we try to come to some kind of decision together about the texts we would read—which the bookstore wouldn’t be able to get to us until after the course was over? (The bookstore can barely stock textbooks when they’ve been given six months’ warning.) Or would it mean abandoning essay assignments altogether, since students don’t like them? Would it mean not asking students to read poetry, since students don’t like it, either? Would it mean ceasing to grade grammar and style, since many students find it difficult to avoid common technical errors? Would it mean abandoning the university’s requirement that all students take this course, since many of them object? And how, in the two and a half hours that we meet every week, could I get to know, in anything more than a superficial way, 40 students? (In a university environment, the students’ families are rarely involved.) The goals of the course—to improve students’ reading and writing abilities—might have to be abandoned if the approach Bishop describes were to be adopted, since students often find those goals too difficult or too abstract or unpleasant. I mean, one of my students this semester wrote in her course journal that she doesn’t want to do anything that is difficult, and that she only wants to engage in activities that are fun. What would Bishop say to a student like that? What I take away from Bishop’s essay is how hard it would be to incorporate Indigenous methodologies or epistemologies into my teaching, at least in the way he describes, which I’m sure is the opposite of the response he expected or desired. Maybe I don’t understand the practices he’s advocating because I’m not a researcher in education or a high-school teacher. I don’t know.

In “Modern Democracy: The Complexities Behind Appropriating Indigenous Models of Governance and Implementation,” Tim Begaye notes that the American colonists borrowed from “[t]he early architects of a democratic state such as the Iroquois and Wabanaki Confederacies” in order “to help develop their understandings of freedom and democracy in the new world” (459). “As it turned out, the colonists appropriated a new interpretation [of democracy] and established a new social and political system that gave further definition of participation in governance,” Begaye writes, “but the colonists had a different understanding of inclusion, equal participation, and freedom of expression because of their history with oppression and religious persecution in England” (459). Their descendants still have an interpretation of democracy that is not inclusive—“participation and access by citizens is minimal” (459)—and for Indigenous people “an assimilative mind-set serves as a mechanism in making them socially, culturally, and politically dependent using the new definition of democracy” (459). Begaye asks:

What, then, does democracy mean if the ‘founders’ theoretically espouse certain values but its practice is limited to a few?Are equality, participation, and freedom of expression values of a democracy, or are they merely metaphors of theory from the past and not achievable practices as it is often espoused in the mainstream? What lessons can be learned from such models of democracies, and could past (colonial) or current (postcolonial) indigenous communities serve as new models? What qualities and consideration are features that would promote a good model of democracy in Native communities? (459-60)

These are the questions Begaye addresses in his essay. He begins by describing Indigenous models of democracy: those of the Haudenosaunee, the Cherokee, the Penacook federation, the Wabanaki Confederacy, and the Powhatan Confederacy. “Similar examples are evident today among the Mississippi Choctaw, the White Mountain Apaches, and the Navajo Nation,” Begaye writes. “These tribal nations and others have unique structures of governance. They combine cultural traditions, norms, and rules with Western concepts to their hybrid government” (460). “Many other tribal nations have retained their traditional democratic approaches to formation and execution of governance,” he states (461).

Next, Begaye describes the American model of democracy, which began with inclusion and participation limited to White men of property. The exclusion that was part of early definitions of democracy “continues to be accepted today,” and it “is evident in the marginalization of the poor and in the treatment of ‘the other,’ which frequently turns out to be separated along racial lines” (461). As American democracy has evolved, “the political pendulum” has become more narrowly defined “into a new binary paradigm of majority and minority, left and right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, and so on,” he continues. “If the inherent quality of expressing differences is a legitimate attribute of a democratic state, then the two-dimension effect has become a new characteristic of democracy created by the dominant political forces, whether it has the effect of diminishing any hope for equal participation of the already marginalized minority,” and “historically divided groups become further victims” (461). “[T]he founders of modern democracy didn’t anticipate, acknowledge, or account for the ensuing diversity of people through change and immigration,” Begaye writes, noting that African Americans and Indigenous peoples have been targets of discrimination and forced assimilation (461-62). “The urban poor and Native reservations in the isolated and remote corners of the United States are missing out on the social and economic benefits of a democratic society because of their status and position within the broader social and economic hierarchy,” and from the beginning Indigenous groups “were not allowed to be participants in the formation of a new government” (462).

As the United States developed, “the Natives continued to be a challenge to the ideals of democracy,” Begaye argues (462-63). Almost 380 treaties were signed between Indigenous nations and the U.S. federal government between 1778 and 1830, showing “examples of recognition and desire to establish democratic relations” (463). That period was followed by “federal policies . . . that sought to remove Native people from their homelands, so that European settlers could farm their land” (463). In 1830, the Supreme Court ruled that Indigenous nations would be considered “‘domestic dependent nations’” (Wilkins and Lomawaima, qtd. 463), which became a prelude to removing them from land east of the Mississippi. “What were once two governments treating each other as equals deteriorated to one of dependency,” Begaye writes (463). After the Civil War, policies of forced assimilation were pursued by the federal government, along with policies that stole Indigenous land and gave people incentives to leave reservations (463-64). The passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 “gave some tribes the means to control their destinies, but it also paved the way for further paternalism paths by setting up a mechanism where the U.S. government had the power to approve or disapprove all activities of tribal governments” (464). In the 1940s and 1950s, a new policy of “termination” led to the elimination of “federal benefits and support for services to tribes as nearly 109 tribes across the United States were ‘terminated’” (464). In 1975, however, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination Act, which “loosened the reins of federal government control by allowing Native tribes to handle many of their own political and government affairs” (464-65). “The fluctuating pattern of federal government policy as it struggled to form a new viable democratic society was evidenced by its lack of understanding of its citizenry,” Begaye writes. “The policy failed to recognize the contributions and existence of the Native people who were crucial to their survival” (465). “While the need to build good relations and understanding with its entire people was going to be evident if democracy was going to be practiced,” he states, “there was clearly a different colonial mind-set displayed in attitude and treatment of Native peoples” (465).

Begaye notes that as late as the eighteenth century Indigenous leaders “were hesitant to be included in a practice of democracy that ostracized their way of life and antagonized their beliefs” (465). Instead, their forms of democracy involved relationships between different nations, clans, and communities, and individuals were allowed to participate directly in government activities (466). “The path to acknowledgement and recognition or to healing is embedded in the sense of community that was formed when tribes and groups were held together with a common bond of clan and strong community values,” Begaye writes. “Clans meant community, friendship, and respect for everything considered alive among humans and nature. The path to being inclusive means resurrecting the original deep understanding in each person, rather than relying on the aesthetics of modernism that prevails and is reinforced by materialistic and superficial ways” (466).

For Begaye, “[t]here are lessons to be learned from centuries of practicing democracy without inclusion” (467). “If democracy means the equal participation of all those citizens who live within its domain, then its breadth and depth of participation has been ignored at the cost of alternative minority views, marginalization, and dissenting expressions,” he continues, and “[a] new form of democracy could contain the essential element of a democracy that still includes the original Native conception of inclusion and participation,” in which leaders “would begin to assume responsibility and be accountable to the people,” and “would take it upon themselves to transform and practice a new value system that includes all groups regardless of past histories” (467-68). The result, he states, would be a “more effective definition of democracy where participation and expression are open to everyone” (468). 

“In a truly legitimate democratic state, the discussion of democracy and education would be irrelevant because everyone would be free to participate and express themselves regarding the welfare of the community or society,” Begaye argues (468). Indigenous societies made decisions by consensus and everyone could contribute. “The question, then, is this: What are the necessary ingredients, and what should be the prevailing political values in a legitimate democratic state?” he asks. “One thing is clear; all citizens must be participating members of the society. Inclusion should be just that—inclusive regardless of race, color, creed, beliefs, and so on” (468). “A democratic society cannot achieve effectiveness as long as groups are marginalized because of the political reasons used as justification for denying them membership and participation,” he concludes (468-69).

There’s no question that American democracy has never lived up to its expressed ideals, and that Indigenous forms of democracy were more inclusive and participatory. However, at the same time there’s a difference between decision making in a relatively small group and decision making in a country of 300 million people. How could consensus be reached among so many people? It’s hard to imagine how that would work.

Begaye’s essay wasn’t related to my work at all, unfortunately, but I had high hopes for “Rethinking Collaboration: Working the Indigene-Colonizer Hyphen,” by Alison Jones with Kuni Jenkins. “To rethink collaboration between indigene and colonizer is both to desire it and to ask troubling questions about it,” they begin. “This chapter critiques desire for collaborative inquiry understood as face-to-face, ongoing dialogue between indigenous and settler colleagues or students. Interrogating the logic of (my own) White/settler enthusiasm for dialogic collaboration, I consider how this desire might be an unwitting imperialist demand—and thereby in danger of strengthening the very impulses it seeks to combat” (471). Jones—it’s her voice we’re reading, rather than Jenkins’s—doesn’t reject collaboration, but she wants to “unpack its difficulties to suggest a less dialogical and more uneasy, unsettled relationship, based on learning (about difference) from the Other, rather than learning about the Other” (471).

Jones notes that she is Pakeha, a Settler born in New Zealand, whereas Jenkins is Māori. Jenkins is older, but Jones was her PhD supervisor; they have become friends and research collaborators, but they have very different perspectives. For instance, Jenkins tells Jones that “a well-known event: the delivery of the first sermon in New Zealand, by Samuel Marsden of the Church Missionary Society, on Christmas Day 1814” didn’t happen (471). Jones is surprised. “Here is the first Western formal mass pedagogical event in New Zealand,” she writes; Marsden apparently delivered his sermon in front of 400 Māori people, with a young chief, Ruatara, as his interpreter (471-72). “There is no record of what Ruatara said,” Jones writes:

Kuni is unconvinced that Ruatara would have attempted any direct translation. Instead, she says, he would have spoken with passionate elegance about the benefits and status of the new settlers; he would have enjoined the people to be good to the visitors and to protect them, in anticipation of the technological, agricultural, and knowledge advantages they would bring to the iwi. (472)

Because the people couldn’t understand Marsden’s English words, Jenkins argues, they were actually responding to Ruatara’s Māori “desires, words, and authority” (472). In other words, it was Ruatara who gave that sermon, not Marsden, and it was a political meeting, not a religious discourse. Moreover, what the historians describe as “a sham fight on the beach, staged for the entertainment of the new arrivals” was actually a pôwhiri, “a very significant mass ritual of encounter, by which the local people indicate their willingness to engage and negotiate with the new arrivals, as well as signal to them that they now have some obligatory connections to the tribes in the area” (472). “Almost at once, two historical events are turned upside down,” Jones writes:

In each retelling of these familiar scenes from our shared past, their power relations shift and become dramatically more complex. The standard account implies that power lies largely with the settlers: It is Marsden who talks to the people and thereby introduces Christianity to a new land; his important arrival is marked by a vigorous bit of entertainment by excited natives. But Kuni reads these stories through a different lens: Ruatara decided on and gave a major address to the people about Pakeha settlement, which he sought to control; the Māori leaders choreographed a major welcome so that the local people would understand the significance of the settlers and their proper place within the protection of the tribe. (472)

This “play of power, knowledge, and reality” is what Jones thinks they should write about (472). And they do: they publish the resulting article.

“Several things happen through this collaboration,” Jones writes:

The stories of the relationships leading to the establishment of the first Western school in New Zealand become layered, richer, more complex. We know the different historical experiences cannot be homogenized into one single account (even though our joint academic publication is genuinely shared work, and neither could do it without the other). At the same time, our new, rich account is not produced through mutual dialogue; neither of us attempts fully to understand the other. What we do understand is that the careful, tense interplay of our histories provides an interesting account of the complexity of contemporary as well as past indigenous-colonizer relations. (472)

I’m not convinced that dialogue necessarily involves an attempt to fully understand someone else—would Mikhail Bakhtin agree with that claim?—and in fact, I’m not convinced that such a full understanding is ever possible. But at least Jones is clearly explaining her definition of dialogue so that her readers understand it and can respond to it.

“Another dynamic is played out in the micro-practice of this collaboration: the negotiation of voice,” Jones continues. “Who speaks? Does joint authorship denote harmonized voices? Is it possible to hear my Māori colleague if I am the one who writes the text, using her insights?” (472). Those are good questions; the form of the text might have to be changed, perhaps structured as a dialogue (even though Jones disavows that term) in order to convey a sense of two voices. But Jones is interested in a larger issue: 

There is never anything simple or settled about indigenous-colonizer writing collaboration. All collaborative arrangements differ depending on the personalities, the partnership, the relative power, and academic desires of the participants. Kuni and I sometimes coauthor our collaborative work; sometimes we do not. This negotiated flexibility reflects a self-consciously conditional and open approach to our joint work on Māori-Pakeha relationships in education. We agree that coauthorship, when it implies speaking with one voice, is impossible. We know that we cannot and do not have a homogenous viewpoint; I speak out of my social position as a critical Pakeha academic, and she takes a Māori/Ngati Porou cultural and political perspective shaped by her academic training. Though this means we often find enough shared ground to speak together as coauthors, it also means that sometimes we speak separately—depending on the audience, the standpoint, or the politics of the writing. (472-73)

This essay is written by Jones, and it “addresses colonizer interests in cross-cultural engagement,” and although Jones is the author, she believes that the voices of Jenkins and her other Māori colleagues and students “echo strongly here” (473).

In their collaborations, Jones writes, she and Jenkins “work the hyphen,” a phrase she borrows from Michelle Fine’s discussion of “the complex gap at the Self-Other border” (473). “For those of us engaged in postcolonial cross-cultural collaborative inquiry, this hyphen, mapped onto the indigenous-colonizer relationship, straddles a space of intense interest,” she writes (473). “The colonizer-indigene hyphen always reaches into a shared past,” she continues, and “[e]ach of our names—indigene and colonizer—discursively produces the other. In New Zealand, the local names Māori and Pakeha form identities created in response to the other. . . . Each term forced the other into being, to distinguish ‘us,’ the ordinary (the word māori means ordinary in Māori language) people, from the others, the white-skinned strangers” (473). Not only does the hyphen between colonizer-indigene, or Māori-Pakeha “hold ethnic and historical difference and interchange,” but it “also marks a relationship of power and inequality that continues to shape differential patterns of cultural dominance and social privilege” (473). That hyphen is thus a site of struggle between groups with very different interests. “Kuni and I attempt to create a research and writing relationship based on the tension of difference, not on its erasure,” Jones writes. “In that the indigene-colonizer hyphen marks the indelible relationship that has shaped both sides in different ways, the hyphen as a character in the research relationship becomes an object of necessary attention” (4730.

“The indigene-colonizer hyphen has attracted a range of discursive postures in collaborative inquiry,” Jones continues: it has been “erased, softened, denied, consumed, expanded, homogenized, and romanticized” (473). It has “stood in for an unbridgeable chasm between the civilized and the uncivilized; it has marked a romantic difference between innocent noble savage and corrupt Western man; it has held the gap between the indigenous subjects of study and their objective White observers” (473). “Modern anxieties about this gap, as well as the paradoxical desire both for difference and for its dissolution via communicative relationships, have led to calls for dialogue and mutual engagement across difference,” she writes (473). A fantasy of “respectful sharing often shapes the hyphen in contemporary liberal cross-cultural research and teaching,” and calls for “dialogue, understanding, and empathy between cultures are common” (473-74). “When mutual understanding is fundamental to cross-cultural engagement, the hyphen becomes a barrier to close empathetic collaboration,” and so the hyphen is softened  “in the interests of mutuality” (474). This reduction means downplaying “[s]tructural power differences, as well as other differences in perspective and history” (474). Education research that “focused on such shared social goods as teacher effectiveness, children’s learning needs, and multiculturalism requires a softened hyphen to allow the foregrounding of mutually shared values and outcomes” (474). “An extreme form of this approach to cultural difference is articulated by those who seek actively to erase the hyphen” through references to the unity of human experience (474). The hyphen is also denied or erased by “the language of hybridity, a code-word for sameness” (474). (Really?) Jones’s examples of that form of erasure aren’t actually about hybridity at all; they are assertions of identity. The point is that assertions of sameness erase the hyphen because it “becomes a marker of social division and a barrier to communication and democracy, something to be (dis)solved. Disavowing the hyphen in the name of sameness becomes literally a productive political act for ‘us all’” (474).

“The almost universal indigenous and Other response to the ideal of what I am calling the erased, denied, dissolved, or softened hyphen has been a firm reinstatement of the gap,” Jones contends (474). Some “colonizer researchers who work with indigenous peoples” therefore “emphasize the gap of difference” (474). “Such collaboration often elicits a posture of self-effacement in White researchers who feel that the powerful and moving colonization stories of indigenous people must speak for themselves,” Jones writes. “The hyphen becomes a bridge, a moment of translation (and sometimes romanticization) for the colonizer researcher who gives voice to the oppressed indigenous person enabling a direct and sympathetic hearing from others” (474). “To those colonizer researchers who would dissolve/consume/soften/erase the indigene-colonizer hyphen into a collaborative engagement between us, there is one, harshly pragmatic response: It does not work,” Jones continues (475). That is because “indigenous peoples—as a matter of political, practical, and identity survival as indigenous peoples—insist on a profound difference at the Self-Other border. The hyphen is nonnegotiable” (475). Indeed, it has to be “protected and asserted and is a positive site of productive methodological work” (475). That hyphen marks “a difficult but always necessary relationship,” not just a relationship between collaborators, “but also their respective relationship to difference. The relationship is also—from the indigenous side of difference—significantly one of struggle, resistance, and caution” (475). 

Jones contends that her rejection of “us” is not “a rejection of possibilities for joint work” (475). “In fact, I believe that collaborative research relationships are essential to insight, and there are far too few good colonizer-indigene collaborations; the hyphen, after all, joins as well as separates,” she writes. “My point is that ‘us’ cannot stand in place of the hyphen; it can only name an always conditional relationship-between” (475). She also notes that the colonizer-indigene binary, which marks “two fixed, radically different, apparently homogenous groups,” ignores “significant divisions and differences . . . within both groups” (475). “[T]he term indigenous may itself be a homogenizing term, produced within colonization and continuing its colonizing work by brushing over national or tribal differences,” she suggests (475). That binary also ignores the “substantial assimilation into Western cultures and languages” of many Indigenous people, although she seems to suggest that intermarriage is a sign of that assimilation (or perhaps interaction?) (475). “In addition, colonizer and indigenous peoples often do not understand themselves in these terms,” she continues, noting that “[t]he boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ on the street, in workplaces, and in classrooms have diminished substantially since our first encounters” (475-76). “Such mutual assimilation”—I can’t help thinking that influence or interaction might be better terms, since colonizers don’t really get assimilated by Indigenous peoples, do they?—“in that it marks pockets of equality, has been and should be cause for celebration” (476). “My argument is not about such interrelationships in the social and personal world,” she writes. “It is important to recognize that arguments about collaborative inquiry across the indigene-colonizer hyphen entail the assertion, as some crucial points, of an indigenous political and social id/entity distinct from that of a colonizer subject. For indigenous subjects, this is a necessary distinction and disjuncture; for collaborators, a necessary ‘between’” (476).

Jones argues that learning about Indigenous people is not possible for members of the colonizing or dominant group, but that learning from Indigenous peoples, “that is, from difference, from the hyphen, becomes the possibility we seek” (476). Non-Indigenous people might know little about Indigenous people, but the latter don’t need to learn about the colonizer: “They have achieved this learning simply as members of a colonized society” (476). “This major skew in learning needs at the indigene-colonizer hyphen has meant that, in some cases, the indigene has refused face-to-face collaboration,” Jones states (476). “How, then, is indigene-colonizer collaboration possible when learning about the Other is problematic for both groups?” she asks. “[H]ow might we think through the colonizer/dominant group request for sharing and possible indigenous resistance to it?” (477). “When the indigenous person fails to address the needs or wishes of the well-meaning, would-be collaborator-colonizer, the latter experiences a shock,” she answers:

Any withdrawal of the indigene from accessible engagement is felt as an unbearable exclusion. But the resulting anxiety for the new outsider is not from loss of social power so much as loss of ability to define the conditions or the social-political space within which, they believe, getting to know each other becomes possible. The terms of engagement are no longer controlled by the dominant group. (477)

The solution to exclusion is typically argued to be inclusion, Jones argues, and that inclusion inevitably involves listening to the voices of “the colonizer/oppressed/other” (478). But the problem with “the call for shared speaking” is that it is “a desire for the dominant/colonizer group to engage in some benevolent action—for them/us to grant a hearing to the usually suppressed voice and ‘realms of meaning’ of the indigene,” since “indigenous access into the realms of the dominant Other is hardly required; members of marginalized/colonized groups are immersed in it daily. It is the colonizer, wishing to hear, who calls for dialogue” (478). Moreover, it’s not always possible for members of the dominant group to understand the voices of Indigenous peoples, even if they possess good will, because centuries of power and privilege may leave them unable to hear: “Deafness of the colonizers to indigenous speakers is one of the necessary conditions of a colonized society. While usually unintentional, such dis-ability enables imposition on others in the name of development and engagement” (478). Perhaps my reaction to Bishop’s essay is an example of such deafness.

Even progressive Settlers “who seek collaboration with indigenous others necessarily remain only partially able to hear and see,” Jones writes:

What determines this ability is nor merely indigeneity. It is not simply that Kuni is Māori that gives her the privileged ability to see what I cannot as we work together; it is an issue of access to knowledge. One’s experience, knowledge, and recognition by one’s own people provide an indigenous person with the authority and insight to contribute as Māori to research on Māori things. With enough immersion in Māori language and culture, it may be logically possible for me as a Pakeha/settler to interpret past and current events “from a Māori point of view.” But in practical terms, outside such complete immersion, it is unlikely as a Pakeha that I will see, hear, and feel from that viewpoint or get emphatically inside, say, the story of Ruatara. (479)

“Even as an accepted collaborator,” Jones continues,

I know that, from a Māori perspective, if the settler collaborator is not of some use, she or he is politely abandoned. Kuni is often called on by indigenous colleagues to justify her working with me. She is asked to consider the extent of nonindigenous influence. We both value these sometimes bitter critiques because they remind us—as if we could forget—that this is always already contested and risky territory on which we work. (479)

“The limits to understanding between indigene and colonizer are not only rooted in our different histories, experiences, and cultures—and therefore what we can hear and what we are told,” Jones continues. “Limited understanding can also be seen as epistemologically inevitable” (479). She cites Sharon Todd’s discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’s discussion of how we make the Other in our own image: “as one who is absolutely different from me, the Other cannot be totally learned about, known, or understood by me. The relationship is necessarily much more oblique” (479). The Other, Jones contends, brings “the experience of difference” to the Self, an experience that confronts the Self with previously unimagined limits to knowledge and learning (479). 

According to Jones, “the nub of the argument” is this: 

The indigene-colonizer collaboration—if we are open and susceptible—is a site of learning from difference rather than learning about the other. The Self-Other hyphen as a positive marker of irreducible demands is a pedagogical site. The hyphen ideally demands a posture of alert vulnerability to or recognition of difference, rather than a pose of empathetic understanding that tends to reduce difference to the same. This is not a moral injunction, but one in the interests of knowledge. It is openness to difference that can provoke meanings beyond our own culture’s prescriptions—and lead to new thought. (480)

“A desire to learn from otherness is in tension with the more common desire to make room for the voices of the Other,” Jones continues. “The liberal injunction to listen to the Other can turn out to be access for dominant groups to the thoughts, cultures, and lives of others” (480). It can be a form of appropriation or colonization: “The imperialist resonances are uncomfortably apt” (480). “Some White researchers have been careful to reject the notion that their demands for dialogical engagement might simply become a form of surveillance and neocolonization,” Jones writes, but supposedly “pure motives” of respecting difference “may be more problematic than they seem” (480). Homi Bhaba, for instance, argues that “[a]ddressing the Other involves answering the colonizer’s benign, maybe even apologetic request: ‘Tell us exactly what happened. I care,’ ‘What is it like for you? I want to learn about you’” (480). Gayatri Spivak also argues “that desire for accessibility to the Other can be simply another colonizing gesture” (480). Bhabha and Spivak call on Western intellectuals “to abandon the myths of representational clarity and total accessibility to the Other” (480). “[I]t is unsurprising that indigenous scholars or researchers might be cautious about collaboration and dialogue with members of colonizer groups,” Jones writes. “If shared talk becomes an exercise only in making themselves more understandable or accessible to colonizer groups, with no commensurate shifts in real political power, then it becomes better to engage in strengthening the internal communication and knowledge, as well as self-reliance, of the people” (481).

“Nor should it be surprising that the colonizer/settler feels anxious about any refusal of indigenous collaboration,” Jones writes, noting that Todd “reminds us that learning is a psychical rather than merely an epistemological event” (481). “It is the strangeness of difference—the unfamiliar space of not knowing—that is so hard to tolerate for the colonizer whose benevolent imperialism assumes both herself or himself as the center of knowing and that everything can be known,” she continues (481). (Does anyone really think that everything can be known?) So, for Settlers “engaged in critical inquiry, there is an inevitable and disturbing moment when the indigenous teacher or informant speaks. It is a moment of recognition—perhaps unconscious—that some things may be out of one’s grasp” (481). Jones suggests that Western science (and social science) defines the unknown as “the still-to-be-known” and that this idea “has radically underpinned the impetus for exploration and colonization,” since both knowledge and colonization “are both premised on the ideal of discovering, making visible, and understanding the entire natural and social world” (481). In contrast, Indigenous cultures do not see “free access to all knowledge” as “a pedagogical or social ideal”; some knowledge, in that paradigm, can only be gained by being given, and is therefore not simply available to anyone who wants to know (481). 

“Therefore, indigenous researchers tend to look extremely carefully at potential collaborators,” Jones states (481): “Right spirit, kinship, and apprenticeship are interesting choices of terms to describe this collaborative work. Lasting loyalty as well as humility and trust were the key elements in their shared inquiry; there is no suggestion of a liberal equality, sharing, or dialogue in working this hyphen” (481). In contrast, universities are “predicated on the possibility of and entitlement to” knowledge (481):

When this fantasy of entitlement is disrupted—for instance, when access to indigenous knowledge and experience is denied, such as when indigenous students remain separate or when indigenous concepts are not adequately explained—settler inquiry experiences a threat. The threat has particular emotional force for those who feel it, I think, because it threatens the dominant group at the very point of our/their power—our ability to know. (481-82)

“These troubles at the indigene-colonizer hyphen invite both sides to avoid the relationship as too difficult,” Jones acknowledges (482). “[C]oming to know our own location in the Self-Other binary and accepting the difference marked by the hyphen” is “hard work,” she continues (482):

The desire for engagement must lead colonizer scholars to a deeper understanding of our own settler culture, society, and history as deeply embedded in a relationship with the culture, society, and history of the indigenous people. Such an orientation to the hyphen invites colonizer peoples to seek to know ourselves in the relationship with Others, to locate ourselves in the “between”—to develop a stronger sense of how our Selves are and have been formed in the troubled engagement with indigenous peoples and their lands and spaces. (482)

That kind of “cross-cultural work necessarily involves thinking about and engaging with the indigenous peoples and/or their texts,” Jones writes. “This orientation to a relationship—to the hyphen—rather than to the Other, is the most feasible posture for a colonizer collaborator” (482). The hyphen, she continues, is “that stroke that both enforces difference and makes the link between. The hyphen’s space does not demand destructive good understanding; indeed, it is a space that insists on ignorance and therefore a perpetual lack of clarity and certainty” (482). Settler scholars interested in this kind of work need to take on “a politics of disappointment and ambivalence,” as well as “a practical politics of hope and of sharp, unromantic pragmatic engagement” (483).

“The inevitable tangle of caution, passion, ignorance, ambivalence, desire, and power that attends the indigene-colonizer hyphen provides rich, though uncertain, pickings for research collaborators,” Jones concludes. “It is within this interesting space, and with a determination to proceed, that Kuni and I continue to invite each other to work the hyphen” (483). The juxtaposition of Māori and Pakeha stories about the same historical events “does not simply enable multiple voices to speak; rather, it allows the indigene-colonizer relationship to be interrogated in uneasy ways that insist on examining power and common sense, as well as the place of histories in the present. In this tension is the fecundity of collaboration” (483).

I am very happy that I’ve finally read Jones’s essay, which I had heard about before but hadn’t bothered to read. In fact, I wish I had read it a long time ago. I’d even go so far as to say that it is going to play an essential part in my project. It even makes me want to take on Levinas’s Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, which I had never considered doing, or at least Todd’s discussion of his thinking. 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read Gregory Cajete’s “Seven Orientations for the Development of Indigenous Science Education,” but after glancing over it, I realized that it might provide a helpful discussion of Indigenous epistemology. It begins by comparing typical American and traditional Indigenous ways of educating children; then it turns to “seven guiding orientations that may guide the development of a contemporary expression of Indigenous education” (488). Any Indigenous approach to teaching science would need to follow the 12 standards for an Indigenous curriculum outlined by Eber Hampton, the focus of Cajete’s first orientation:

  1. Spirituality: Respect for spiritual relationships
  2. Service: To serve the community given its needs
  3. Diversity: respect and honoring of difference
  4. Culture: Culturally responsive education process
  5. Tradition: A continuance and revitalization of tradition
  6. Respect: Personal respect and respect for others
  7. History: A well-developed and researched sense for history
  8. Relentlessness: Honing a sense of tenacity and patience
  9. Vitality: Instilling vitality in both process and product
  10. Conflict: Being able to deal constructively with conflict
  11. Place: A well-developed researched sense for place
  12. Transformation: The transformation of Native education. (488)

“The reality is that Indigenous people’s worldviews are about integration of spiritual, natural, and human domains of existence and human interaction,” Cajete continues (489), suggesting that characteristics of this reality include:

  1. a culturally constructed and responsive technology mediated by nature;
  2. a culturally based education process constructed around myth, history, and observation of nature, animals, plants, and their ways of survival;
  3. use of natural materials to make tools and art, as well as the development of appropriate technology for surviving in one’s “place”; and
  4. the use of thoughtful stories and illustrative examples as a foundation for learning to “live” in a particular environment. (489)

The disruption of these traditional educational systems have led to “personal, psychosocial, and spiritual dysfunction,” and “a general sense of powerlessness and loss of control experienced by many Indigenous people” (489).

The second orientation, “Traditional Native American Education,” states that “[h]olistic learning and education has been an integral part of traditional Native American education and socialization until relatively recent times,” and suggests that the science curriculum he is proposing will “reintroduce the idea of holism and integrated learning in an interactive social environment such as the school or community” (489). That curriculum will include experiential learning, storytelling, the tutor and master-apprentice relationship, dreams, and ritual and ceremony (489-90).

The third orientation, “An Epistemology of Indigenous Science: A Personal Perspective,” suggests that Indigenous science “is a category of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) that includes everything from metaphysics to philosophy to various practical technologies practiced by Indigenous peoples both past and present” (490). It can include “exploration of basic questions such as the nature of language, thought and perception, the movement of time, the nature of human feeling, the nature of human knowing, the nature of proper human relationship to the cosmos, and a host of other questions about natural reality” (490-91). It is “a tremendous inheritance of human experience with the natural world,” “a map of reality drawn from the experiences of thousands of human generations” (491). While Western science is based on objectivity, abstraction, and measurement, “the Indigenous perspective is more inclusive and moves far beyond the boundaries of objective measurement,” and “honors the essential importance of direct experience, interconnectedness, relationship, holism, quality, and value” (491).

The fourth orientation, “Border Crossings,” states that “Indigenous knowledge of nature tends to be thematic, survival oriented, holistic, empirical, rational, contextualized, specific, communal, ideological, spiritual, inclusive, cooperative, coexistent, personal, and peaceful” (491). “How can students from Indigenous cultures learn non-Native subjects such as science without being assimilated harmfully by the underlying value structure?” Cajete asks (492). Crossing the borders between these epistemological cultures is difficult but not impossible: 

Four worlds for student transitions have been identified. These include a congruent world that supports smooth transitions, a different world that requires transitions to be managed, diverse worlds that lead to hazardous transitions, and highly discordant worlds that cause students to resist transitions and in which they become virtually impossible. (492)

The first world is clearly the best: “An approach that integrates scientific, technological, and Indigenous knowledge into real-life situations and issues has the best chance of being effective. Participatory research is one way of accomplishing this” (492). Another way is through “a cross-cultural science-technology-society (STS) model,” a “dedicated student-oriented, critical, and environmentally responsible to science” which “ de-contextualizes Western science in the social and technological settings relevant to students” (492). Another way is to take an anthropological approach to Western science: “Students may act as anthropologists learning about another culture. Like cultural anthropologists, they would not need to accept the cultural ways of their ‘subjects’ in order to understand or engage in some of those ways” (492).

The fifth orientation, “A Strategy for Curriculum Modeling,” suggests introducing “the basic principles of general science by first introducing students to the ways in which these principles are communicated, used, or otherwise exemplified in Native American culture” (492-93). The process would resemble real-life problem solving (493).

The sixth orientation, “Indigenous Students,” distinguishes between three groups of Indigenous students: “rural traditional,” “transitional,” and “urban assimilated,” and their experiences in Cajete’s science classes. 

The seventh orientation, “A Model for Creative Native Science,” suggests that for Indigenous peoples, “science is an abstract, symbolic, and metaphoric way of perceiving and understanding the world,” whereas from the Western perspective, “science is essentially practiced as a rational way to solve problems” (494). However, Cajete argues that these different approaches “can complement one another” and that they are “intimately interrelated,” with each deriving its meaning from the other (494). “Science as a whole is based on both the intuitive and rational minds,” and Indigenous science curriculum needs to recognize that science is a creative process (494). He suggests that students be encouraged to explore the seven orientations of Indigenous cultures: the cardinal directions, the centre (usually the community itself), and Above and Below (494). He then explains what each of these orientations represents: the centre represents the womb, the east insight and “rational intuitive thought,” the west “the dwelling place of the self and the group mind,” the south “medicine and the quest for health and wholeness,” the north animals and “the archetypal unconscious,” Below “the archetypal elements of earth, fire, water, air, and ether,” and Above the cosmos (494). He uses these ideas when he teaches a course called “Native Philosophy” (495). “As students complete their exploration of these seven orientations, they feel the wonder and the awe of being alive in a natural place,” he writes (495). 

In the essay’s conclusion, Cajete states that the approach to science he has outlined “presents a significant departure from more conventional approaches,” because “the underlying assumptions are very different to those that have guided curriculum development in the past” (495). “Science is a form of communication and involves a kind of literacy,” he writes, and this literacy “involves the development of basic skills as tools for understanding and solving problems in reference to nature” (495). That literacy “entails an understanding of concepts and natural processes form the perspective of a particular cultural system of thought” (495). For that reason, “science must be approached as a type of dynamic literacy that must be internalized” (496). Moreover, “[i]f science is to have meaning for students, that meaning must be inherent in both the content and presentation” (496). For that reason, “[m]odern science education must widen its parameters and open up its paradigm to allow a more holistic and integrated perception of itself to take hold and grow in the minds of students” (496).

Having read Cajete’s essay, I realize that it only has a distant relevance to my work, but I wouldn’t have known that had I skipped over it. Not everything I read is going to be useful. The emphasis on relationships is important, though, and reinforces everything else I’ve read on Indigenous epistemologies (including what I’ve learned by studying Plains Cree).

Marie Battiste’s “Research Ethics for Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: Institutional and Researcher Responsibilities” begins, like Cajete’s essay, by comparing traditional Indigenous education to “Eurocentric education and political systems and their assimilation processes,” which “have severely eroded and damaged Indigenous knowledge” (497). However, “[m]ainstream educational institutions are . . . feeling the tensions and the pressures to make education accessible and relevant to Aboriginal people” (498). “Of late, the challenge is not so much about finding receptivity to inclusion but the challenge of ensuring that receptivity to inclusive diverse education is appropriately and ethically achieved and that educators become aware of the systemic challenges for overcoming Eurocentrism, racism, and intolerance,” Battiste writes (498). What she calls “the add-and-stir model” of incorporating Indigenous education into postsecondary curricula and teaching practices “has not achieved the needed change but rather sustains difference and superiority of Eurocentric knowledge and processes,” and so the challenge for educators is “to be able to reflect critically on the current educational system in terms of whose knowledge is offered, who decides what is offered, what outcomes are rewarded and who benefits, and, more important, how those processes are achieved in an ethically appropriate manner in higher educational institutions” (498).

Battiste sets out clearly what she wants her essay to accomplish:

This chapter offers some background to the importance of Indigenous knowledge for all peoples and its vitality and dynamic capacity to help solve contemporary problems and address Eurocentric biases, the cultural misappropriations that are endangering Indigenous peoples and the benefits they receive, an over view of the current regimes of ethics that impinge on Indigenous knowledges, and, finally, a critique of institutional ethics processes that continue to hold on to individual and institutional protections and not collective Indigenous interests. (498)

In her conclusion, she continues, she offers “a process for Aboriginal communities to address protection of their knowledge, culture, and heritage, through a protocol entry process, calling to mind the protective actions taken internationally and regionally among Indigenous communities to stop the erosion of our Indigenous knowledge and heritage” (498). I’m not engaged in what might be called Indigenous research—I prefer to think of my project as Settler research—but knowing about that protocol entry process could turn out to be useful.

The essay’s next section discusses Indigenous knowledge. “Indigenous people’s epistemology is derived from the immediate ecology; from peoples’ experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and memory, including experiences shared with others; and from the spiritual world discovered in dreams, visions, inspirations, and signs interpreted with the guidance of healers or elders,” Battiste writes, noting that ideographs are often used, in conjunction with oral narratives, to transmit collective knowledge from one generation to the next (499). “Indigenous knowledge,” she continues, “represents a complex and dynamic capacity of knowing, a knowledge that results from knowing one’s ecological environment, the skills and knowledge derived from that place, knowledge of the animals and plants and their patterns within that space, and the vital skills and talents necessary to survive and sustain themselves within that environment” (499). That knowledge comes from careful observation and from maintaining “appropriate relationships with all things and peoples” (499). It is preserved in languages: Algonquian languages, for instance, “preserve those relationships in multiple dialects with the language family that acknowledges the animate and inanimate, in their acknowledged experiential knowledge of others, and in the diverse prefixes and suffixes that allow creativity in language and thought to be transmitted orally so that others may understand the deep complexity of that dynamic experience” (499-500). Indigenous knowledge is therefore “a dynamic knowledge constantly in use as well as in flux or change,” Battiste writes. “It derives from the same source: the relationship within the global flux that needs to be renewed, kinship with the other living creatures and life energies embodied in their land, and kinship with the spiritual world” (500). That knowledge “is constantly shared, making all things interrelated and collectively developed and constituted,” she continues. “There is no singular author of Indigenous knowledge and no singular method for understanding its totality” (500). 

However, colonization has resulted in “losses to Indigenous people’s cultures, languages, histories, and knowledge,” and those losses are “not without repercussions for those seeking to redefine or restore Indigenous cultures and societies” (500). For instance, “universities seeking to include Indigenous people in their research for their purposes, even when some benefits accrue to some of those individuals, are insufficient,” and “vetting research on Indigenous knowledge or among Indigenous peoples through a university ethics committee that does not consider protection issues for the collective may contribute to the appropriation and continuing pillage of Indigenous culture, heritage, and knowledge” (500-01). “How can ethics processes and responsibilities in them ensure protection for the heritage and benefits that accrue to Indigenous peoples for their knowledge and not only to the researchers and/or their institution?” Battiste asks (501). “Indigenous knowledge and issues of principles and responsibility of the researcher dealing with sensitive knowledge and protection are fraught with both ambiguity and certainty for Indigenous peoples,” she suggests (501). The ambiguity lies in “areas such as how communities can recover their languages,” for instance, and Elders and community members need to be involved in decisions about ways of achieving that goal (501). “Indigenous peoples must be the custodians of that knowledge,” not schools or institutions, Battiste continues, because “Indigenous knowledge is diverse and must be learned in the similar diverse and meaningful ways that the people have learned it for it to have continuing validity and meaning,” and educators need to respect “the fact that Indigenous knowledge can only be fully known from within the community contexts and only through prolonged discussions with each of these groups” (501). Processes for teaching Indigenous knowledge “must also acknowledge and respect the limitations placed on Indigenous knowledge by the community or people of what knowledge can be shared and in what contexts can or should they be shared” (501).

“As discussions develop regarding the principles and ethics governing Indigenous research,” Battiste writes, “the issue of control or decision making reverberates the singular most important principle—Indigenous peoples must control their own knowledge, a custodial ownership that prescribes from the customs, rules, and practices of each group” (502). That control “can only be achieved through the involvement of those groups holding the custodial relationships with the knowledge,” often not elected chiefs “but others whose responsibilities are directly related to the knowledge and teachings of the clan, family, or nation” (502). According to Battiste, “the inclusion of local community voice seems necessary for arriving at the issue of control” (503). In fact, First Nations “must train local people in the holistic understanding of issues, practices, and protocols for doing research,” so that “they will build capacity to do their own research and consequently use research for their own use and benefit, strengthening and revitalizing their communities, territories, and people while warding off the threats to their culture from those who seek to take their knowledge for benefits defined outside their community” (503). In addition, First Nations “must decide on processes that will ensure that principles of protection and use are developed, disseminated, and used as normative procedures in their territory” (503).

The essay’s third section, “Ethical Issues in Conducting Research in and With Indigenous Communities,” begins by stating that ethical research practices “should enable Indigenous nations, peoples, and communities to exercise control over information relating to their knowledge and heritage and to themselves” (503). “These projects should be managed jointly with Indigenous peoples, and the communities being studied should benefit from training and employment opportunities generated by the research,” she continues (503). Most of all, Indigenous peoples must “have direct input into developing and defining research practices and projects related to them” (503). “To act otherwise is to repeat that familiar pattern of decisions being made for Indigenous people by those who presume to know what is best for them,” she states (503). “Some Indigenous communities want to share what they know, and many have created their own protocols and procedures for doing so,” often limiting “what can be shared and the conditions for sharing” (503). “But all communities want their knowledge and heritage to be respected and accorded the same rights, in their own terms and cultural contexts, that are accorded others in the area of intellectual and cultural property,” Battiste continues (503). The research relationship has to be beneficial for the community “and to those who collectively own that knowledge” (503). For that reason, “Indigenous peoples should be supported in developing their knowledge for commercial purposes when they think it is appropriate and when they choose to do so” (503). 

In addition, “ethical research must begin by replacing Eurocentric prejudice with new premises that value diversity over universality,” and researchers need to “seek methodologies that build synthesis without relying on negative exclusions based on a strategy of differences” (503). The point is “to create ethical behavior in a knowledge system contaminated by colonialism and racism” (503). “Nowhere is this work more needed than in the universities that pride themselves in their discipline-specific research,” Battiste argues, because those academic disciplines “have been drawn from a Eurocentric canon . . . that supports production-driven research while exploiting Indigenous peoples, their languages, and their heritage” (503). There are few academic contexts in which Indigenous knowledge can be talked about without prejudice:

Most researchers do not reflect on the difference between Eurocentric knowledge and Indigenous knowledge. Most literature dealing with Indigenous knowledge is written and developed in English or in other European languages. Very few studies have been done in Indigenous languages. This creates a huge problem of translatability. (503-04)

For Battiste, “[l]inguistic competence is a requisite for research in Indigenous issues,” because Indigenous knowledge cannot be defined in colonial languages (504). Indigenous languages “offer a theory for understanding [Indigenous] knowledge and an unfolding paradigmatic process for restoration and healing” (504). Indigenous languages also “have spirits that can be known through the people who understand them, and renewing and rebuilding from within the peoples is itself the process of coming to know” (504).

“Universality is another ethical research issue,” Battiste argues. “Eurocentric thought would like to categorize Indigenous knowledge and heritage as being peculiarly local, merely a subset of Eurocentric universal categories” (504). That argument is “the result of European ethnocentrism” and an aspiration to domination (504). The term “mainstream” is also objectionable, Battiste contends, because it “suggests one ‘main’ stream and diversity as a mere tributary” (504). “Together, mainstreaming and universality create cognitive imperialism, which establishes a dominant group’s knowledge, experience, culture, and language as the universal norm,” Battiste writes (504). However, “[i]n assessing the current state of research on Indigenous knowledge, researchers must understand both Eurocentric and Indigenous contexts,” Battiste argues. “A body of knowledge differs when it is viewed from different perspectives. Interpretations of Indigenous knowledge depend on researchers’ attitudes, capabilities, and experiences, as well as on their understanding of Indigenous consciousness, language, and order” (504-05). At the same time, though Battiste argues that “Indigenous knowledge must be understood from an Indigenous perspective using Indigenous language; it cannot be understood from the perspective of Eurocentric discourse” (505). This argument reminds me of Jones’s discussion of Marsden’s sermon, or perhaps Ruatara’s translation of it: seeing an event from multiple perspectives enriches our understanding of it.

“Because of the pervasiveness of Eurocentric knowledge, Indigenous peoples today have at their disposal few, if any, valid or balanced methods to search for truth,” Battiste writes (505). Is that true? Books have been written about Indigenous methodologies. It’s true that academic disciplines have “political and institutional stake[s] in Eurocentric knowledge” (505), and that universities are arguably colonial institutions, but Indigenous knowledge is developed outside of those institutions, isn’t it? Battiste turns to the research ethics committees universities have established and argues that those institutions “must respect the committees’ identification of what comprises Indigenous cultural and intellectual property and must respect the gatekeepers of knowledge within Indigenous communities” (505). That respect would include “drawing up appropriate protocols for entering into reciprocal relationships following traditional laws and rights of ownership” (505). Universities would also have to “accept that Indigenous peoples are living entities that that their heritage includes objects, knowledge, literacy, and artistic works that may be created in the future” (505-06). The central point is that “Indigenous peoples must control their own knowledge and retain a custodial ownership that prescribes from the customs, rules, and practices of each group,” that that ownership “can only be realized if the groups that hold these custodial relationships are involved in the research” (506). The next section of the essay discusses the Mi’kmaw Ethics Watch, established by the Grand Council of Mi’kmaq, which “oversees the research protocols, on behalf of the Grand Council of Mi’kmaq, by receiving and assessing research proposals for the Grand Council, applying the principles and guidelines to the proposals, and making comments on the omissions found or on the needed clarity of the proposals for addressing the protocols” (507). The Mi’kmaw Ethics Watch is an example of a process by which a First Nation retains “custodial ownership” of its knowledge.

“Indigenous knowledge represents the protection and preservation of Indigenous humanity,” Battiste writes in the essay’s conclusion. “Such protection is not about preserving a dead or dying culture. It is about the commercial exploitation and appropriation of a living consciousness and cultural order. It is an issue of privacy and commerce” (507). Universities “should not impose standards that are not inclusive to Indigenous communities who want and should control their own knowledge,” and “any research conducted among Indigenous peoples should be framed within basic principles of collaborative participatory research, a research process that seeks as a final outcome the empowerment of these communities through their own knowledge” (508). Indigenous knowledge offers Settlers “a chance to comprehend another view of humanity as they have never have before,” and it is necessary to “understand Indigenous humanity and its manifestations without condescension” (508). “In practical terms, this means that Indigenous peoples must be involved at all stages and in all phases of research and planning,” Battiste writes (508). “[A]ny attempt to decolonize education and actively resist colonial paradigms is a complex and daunting task,” she continues, and Indigenous students must not be given “a fragmented existence in a curriculum that offers them only a distorted or shattered mirror; nor should they be denied an understanding of the historical context that has created that fragmentation” (508). There needs to be a “renewed investment in holistic and sustainable ways of thinking, communicating, and acting together” (508).

“Justice As Healing: Going Outside the Colonizer’s Cage,” by Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, begins with the Michif word “koucheehiwayhk,” or challenge: the challenge of healing communities affected by colonialism (511). “Nowhere is koucheehiwayhk more intense than in matters of what the Eurocentric society calls ‘justice,’” they write. “Even by Euro-definitions, justice is not what Indigenous peoples on this continent have experienced from the invaders-turned-colonizers” (511). Attempts at reforming the criminal justice system have left it “a shackle lined with cotton,” which “is still a shackle” (512). “The colonial concept of ‘law’—referred to for perhaps public relations reasons as ‘positive law’—is fundamentally inconsistent with and indeed opposed to the virtually universal Indigenous understanding of law,” they continue, which “is not about coercion but about learning how to move ‘in a good way’ with the order of things” (512). That conception of the law “is not imposed but organic” (512). In contrast, “legal positivism downplays its reliance on force and instead defends law on the claim that it is being ‘fair and equitable’ to all people by imposing and then protecting what it views as universal interests or values” (512). “Although it is obviously in the best interests of Western legal theory to maintain an image of its law as ‘good law,’ few Indigenous people or peoples experience it as such,” they write (512). Legal positivism (and I’m not sure why the word “positivism” is being used here, but I’m not a legal scholar) “exalts the principles of punishment and has an exotic passion to imprison lawbreakers. Instead of peeling away the layers to understand the root causes of harmful actions, positivist law locks up harm-doers” (512). For that reason, discussing issues of “justice,” as experienced by Indigenous people, requires “both a critique of colonialism and a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture[s], practices, traditions, and historical experiences” (512). “Our root purpose in this chapter,” they write, is to participate in “Aboriginal justice dialogues” by “considering the frameworks within which we seek solutions,” and in particular by reclaiming “frameworks that create space for deep healing by transforming the roots of harm and to critique those frameworks that sabotage healing efforts by reinforcing colonial power” (512).

One of the authors is Indigenous, the other isn’t; in other words, “one of us is of the colonized, and the other is of the colonizers” (513). Both are committed to decolonization, for at least three reasons. First, while (I would think) the reason Indigenous people need to decolonize is rather obvious: “we must reclaim our ways of knowing how to be in good relationships” and “remember our traditional healing ways of remedying conflicts,” and “[i]n decolonizing approaches, we must always ask ourselves whether our cultural integrity is being promoted, respected, and honored. Anything less will not be decolonizing” (513). However, “colonizers need to learn the ways of decolonization that teach respect and the honoring of all relationships” (513). By treating others as objects, colonizers end up treating themselves as objects as well: “objects that are judged successful or not, objects that command high or low salaries, objects that hold high or low positions in hierarchical societies” (513). (As someone who teaches in a university on contract, I am unsuccessful, earn a low salary, and hold a low position in the hierarchy of the university.) “We who are White, who are colonizers, desperately need decolonization too,” they write (513). Second, “rule by force is inherently oppressive and cannot somehow turn benign or benevolent,” they write (513). “Colonization denies entire peoples these inherent human rights”—“choice, consent, and self-determination”—“and the empowering responsibilities that goes with them,” because it is “rule by force” (513). “Until we address and rectify this root of harm, we are kidding ourselves if we believe lesser remedies will ‘fix things,’ whether it be patterns in the criminal justice system or in the relations between peoples,” they continue (513). Third, because “the programming that turns little babies into colonizers is very deep, very entrenched, and certainly very reinforced by rewarding colonizers with every privilege and advantage” (513). However, at some point, we, the colonizers, “knew other ways of being in relationship” (513). Our decolonization, then, “is about getting our ancestral wisdom back, so that respecting ourselves and others can once again be our way of life” (513).

“No matter who we are, rethinking justice down the the root harm of colonization is no easy task,” the authors write (514). Even though the injustices of colonization involve ideas that do not belong to Indigenous peoples, they are often internalized through the processes of colonization. “For example, because the root harm of colonization comes from power-over hierarchies and the abuse of power that follows, our internalized colonizer tends to rear its ugly head most whenever that same pattern of power imbalance is perceived among us,” they continue (514). Moreover, steps towards decolonization meet with resistance, “and not only from our dominant-society colonizers,” but from members of Indigenous communities (514). The remedy for this internalized colonization “is to peel away the layers of colonization within us, so that we can feel the lifeblood of healing justice and plant ourselves within Mother Earth by affirming who we are as peoples” (514). In addition, the emotional responses of Indigenous people to colonization “may be intense and passionate, conflicted, or sometimes even unhealthy, misdirected, or hurtful, but if we respect them for what they are and for their role in the healing, decolonizing process, they can bring us together and provide opportunities for rebalancing ourselves,” they write (515). Those who are decolonizing may be described as “angry” or “too harsh” (515). But, “as Indigenous peoples, we can call on the deep, abiding currents of our traditions, cultures, and communities. Some Indigenous peoples feel these currents more strongly than others, depending on the access we have to elders, traditional family structures, and culturally rooted communities” (515). “[T]his is our challenge as we rethink justice—namely to respond in an Indigenous way to whatever arises, including harms,” rather than responding using “remedies that were designed by and for our colonizers” (516). Therefore, “[t]o reclaim an experience of justice that is healing, we need to rely on ways that build on the millennia-old foundations of our cultural wisdom and learning as Indigenous peoples,” although doing so “is not easy, simple, or clear-cut” (516).

Restorative justice, a way of “relying on community-based Indigenous ways of healing relationships and communities,” involves a fundamentally spiritual vision of “being connected in a good way—a way that honors the intrinsic worth and good of each person” (516). “In this context, healing was not about ‘fixing’ individuals but about transforming relationships,” they write. “This depth of healing can’t be forced or managed from without; it is something that those who are involved must seek to hold a space for in themselves, so that they can respond in a good way to others” (516). Restorative justice began “with community efforts to create spaces where such values”—“honesty, compassion, harmony, inclusiveness, trust, humility, openness, and most important, respect”—“and to expressing them in relationships and communities became not only possible but also natural—simply the way to be” (516). Restorative justice does not resort to coercion, but rather responds to harms in ways that engage “everyone’s powers of transformation”; “it was a way of being together that was by nature healing and transformative for all those involved” (516). As communities have engaged in processes of restorative justice, “not only individuals but also the communities themselves have experienced healing and transformation” (517). However, “restorative justice no longer inspires” a vision “of community-based healing and transformation,” and now it simply “represents one more tool for colonizers to maintain power, hierarchy, mistrust, and imbalance” (517). Why?

A lack of funding for community justice programs is one factor, but “what has gone wrong with restorative justice goes much deeper,” because “colonization remains the ruling framework,” and it is “coercive and exploitative at its core”: the framework of colonization “is antithetical to the authentic practice of justice” (518). Healing requires “decolonizing transformation” (518). “As conceived from its Indigenous origins, healing justice calls for a profound paradigm shift from the dominant society’s ways of responding to harms,” the authors write:

Instead of handing our conflicts over to “experts” or “professionals,” everyone feels equally called to be humble, self-critical, open, self-disclosing, willing to change, and prepared to own some role in the dynamics that led to harm. These are difficult demands, and they entail responsibilities that the criminal justice system enables us to ignore and pass off to colonial institutions. Justice as a way of life is demanding on persons and communities. (518)

I find myself wondering how many people possess those virtues. How would this form of justice deal with pathological narcissists or sociopaths, people who are self-aggrandizing, blind to their own faults, closed, self-protecting, unwilling to change, and unprepared to accept their role in “the dynamics that led to harm”? What if the victim played no role in those dynamics? Surely traditional Indigenous justice systems had ways of dealing with those who weren’t interested in participating in this form of justice. What might they have been?

These responsibilities, the authors continue, “challenge colonizer thinking. Colonizer programming makes us view some people as inherently inferior to others. Its language is rampant with ‘them’ as ‘the problem’ and colonizers or colonizer surrogates as ‘the solutions’” (518). “The ‘social norm’ is that ‘those others’ don’t fit and don’t belong, and ‘their problem’ is that ‘they’ need to learn to be just like ‘us,’ namely, the colonizers,” they write (518). So my response in the previous paragraph would be considered a form of “colonizer thinking.” But such people exist; one is currently the President of the United States. What would traditional Indigenous systems of justice do with someone like him? Would Indigenous societies never produce such damaged individuals?

The core challenge, they continue, is that “[w]e cannot practice justice as a way of life and remain colonizers. We cannot avoid confronting the colonizing cage—a cage that traps both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people” (519). McCaslin and Breton write:

If there is a genuine effort to practice justice as our way of life—a way informed by values of respect, humility, inclusiveness, and all the other values essential to healing justice—then we will invariably come to a point where it is apparent to all of us that Eurocentric thought, with its inherently colonizing assumptions, expectations, behaviors, norms, and institutions, must go. After centuries of horrific experiences, even many colonizers are realizing that colonialism cannot work as justice. (519)

That realization and commitment to decolonization is what is necessary for “healing justice” (519). 

Colonizers committed to decolonization know how difficult it is to confront the roles they bear as colonizers (here the text shifts from two speakers to one, Breton speaking alone):

I know that decolonization necessarily challenges my privileged treatment, and I also know that I and my fellow colonizers have vested material interests in keeping things “as is.” But more than that, I know that my social conditioning and the socially constructed sense of who I am—all the mental, emotional, and material habits that I have been raised to accept—support oppression in a thousand subtle and blatant ways. These dynamics of oppression have been rendered invisible to me, however painfully visible they are to others. The decolonizing work begins here with naming these dynamics, so that I can engage the lifelong work of breaking their hold. (519)

Without that “persistent work,” colonizers will “lapse into the default mode of supporting the colonizer paradigm” without realizing that’s what they’re doing (519). “This seems to have been the dilemma for many well-meaning colonizers who have come into restorative justice,” the authors continue: “For those of us who were exposed to the paradigm of justice as a way of life, we were brought face-to-face with our programming as colonizers and faced a clear call to abandon that way of life—to reject and undo the power-over paradigm into which we were born. Doing this is our koucheehiwayhk” (519). 

And it’s admittedly a big challenge:

If we embark on decolonization, we know the Eurocentric worldview will lose its privileged status. Claims to racial superiority will have to go, and White supremacist programming in all its forms will have to be confronted. We as a people will also have to confront horrific wrongs in how we got to where we are as a society—the centuries of costs paid by others for White privilege and for the inheritances now being passed to White children and not to Indigenous children. Suddenly, those of us who have been the privileged people in the racially organized hierarchy are placed in the role of wrongdoers, offenders, and perpetrators of harms. It is no longer the “degraded other” who is on the hot seat. (519)

“If given a choice between confronting all these realities and running back to the colonizer model that allows denial, privilege, and marginalizing the ‘other,’ what are Eurocentric people likely to choose?” the authors ask:

Given lifetimes of programming, given the stakes, given the hard road ahead of working to make things right with peoples who know what has been done and the history of Whites getting away with horrific colonizer actions through all sorts of rationalizations, self-justifications, and academic and sociological variations of “blaming the victim,” which road is a born-and-bred colonizer likely to choose? (520)

No wonder that when the restorative justice movement reached this crossroads, it failed to confront the challenge of decolonization (520).

“What is needed is not another technique of colonizing control but a paradigm shift that takes us out of the colonizers’ cage altogether,” the authors continue (520). Colonization is the reason for the failure of restorative justice. “The core vision of ‘going to the roots of harm’ and ‘doing what it takes to make things right’ has been exposed as empty rhetoric,” they write, “invoked only when colonial power structures deem it advantageous to do so” (520):

Instead of working toward wholeness for peoples—which means addressing genocide, fraud, theft, systematic and institutional racism and abuse, and the culture-wide cover-up or defense of these crimes—restorative justice has bailed out. Insofar as it focuses exclusively on individual crimes within the criminal justice framework, restorative justice as a movement has failed to address the “elephant in the living room” of how we got to where we are as peoples, and the colonizers’ cage continues to be reinforced. (520)

As a result, restorative justice “is used to make the violence of the criminal justice system . . . seem more humane” (520). “If we want to give restorative justice a fighting chance,” they write, “then we have to call colonialism out from its pervasive invisibility as ‘the norm,’ name it for what it does to peoples and to people, name why it cannot work as justice, and commit ourselves to undoing it” (521).

Is decolonization possible? the authors ask. Can we get outside “the colonizers’ cage” (521)? They suggest that “the truth tribunals and truth commissions” that were then being proposed in Canada would challenge the legitimacy of colonial structures and rectify the past (521). (Is it possible to change what has already happened?) “As we undergo this first right of leaving the colonizer’s cage, we naturally start rethinking law and justice: How do we as Indigenous peoples choose to preserve harmony among us? How do we understand law, and how do we keep it?” they ask (521). The “prevailing Eurocentric concept of law is grounded in legal positivism,” they continue. “It defines law as a set of rules and norms that become binding insofar as some authority has the power to strictly enforce them as such” (522). But the law has “no relation to moral values, natural law, or inherent order” (522). Laws “can be arbitrary, inequitable, and unjust, or they can be idealistic, equitable, and high-minded” (522). Those who have the power to “decide which rules and norms will be treated as binding . . . will enforce them accordingly. Their binding character derives not from any intrinsic quality of connectedness to the nature of things but simply from the fact that some person or group has the external power to impose a particular set of rules as binding on everyone else” (522). In other words, the law is based on force, and because the law (in Canada) “is established within the colonial context, the law-created ‘norm’ is designed to protect the colonial status quo” (522). While sometimes the law appears to be neutral and fair, “[i]t is the colonizers’ privilege to be fair or oppressive at will . . . as it serves colonizing interests to do so” (522). But “an image of fairness is not the same as actual fairness, nor does it make a system based on force and might truly fair,” and “positive law is not by nature fair or unbiased,” because it “is by nature oppressive” and based on power (522). Because the law is based on power, it “fails to do justice for the billions of people globally who do not find themselves at the top of the power hierarchy” (523).

However, because “the Indigenous concept of law is generally described as natural law”—because “Indigenous views of law generally describe a lawfulness inherent in the nature of things—humans, the natural world, and the unseen worlds all woven together,” is “encompasses far more” than Eurocentric notions of law (523). Indigenous law “is inherent in the natural and cosmic order of which we are all a part and on which we depend for our existence” (523). “Understanding the lawfulness of things begins with the core concept of respect”: “Good relations require a way to work things out not by coercion but rather by honoring the needs, views, interests, competence, and autonomy of others” (523). “The ‘laws’ that govern how to be in a good relationship inhere in the very nature of things”: as a result, they do not need to be enforced (523). “[I]f being in a good way with others is what matters to us, then we cannot escape the considerations that our Indigenous view of the law raises,” by, for instance, passing a law that states “that disrespectful treatment will build good relationships,” or “that toxic waste is good nutrition for life forms” (523). Indigenous law acknowledges that “we are all related,” and “[u]nderstanding the lawfulness of things helps to align us with our world by making us mindful of how we are all related” (523). Adhering to moral and spiritual values is important “because they speak to our intrinsic relatedness to all that is”: “From the perspective of many Indigenous peoples, we cannot successfully have or do justice without adherence to such values” (523). 

While Eurocentric anthropologists have misinterpreted Indigenous law as a version of positive law, Indigenous peoples “adhere to lawful, hence respectful, ways of being, not because we are compelled to do so by groups or authorities through fear of punishment but because this is a sustainable way to live, and we understand that” (524). “Our ways of understanding law hold us in a good relationship with each other and the natural world,” the authors write, and “[t]o go against a lawful way of being would be to embark on a path that is inherently destructive,” because it would lead to disrespectful actions, and respect is “what sustains us” (524). “The difference in these fundamental concepts of law underscores why colonialism has been so destructive and will remain so,” they write:

Indigenous ways are based on values of respect, talking things out, patience, compassion, shared responsibilities, deep family and community bonds, and healing. They are not about giving orders or commands, coercion, or telling people what they must or must not do. Indigenous ways are not prescriptive in nature but permissive. They provide broad guidance on what we should do, and then they trust everyone’s innate learning processes to guide each person in a good way, a way that maximizes their learning as human beings. (524)

In contrast, “colonial law is all about control”:

It supports hierarchies of power, and it uses judgment and punishment to enforce compliance with win-lose, individualistic, adversarial, and divisive norms. The colonial system of laws was not designed with Indigenous values in mind or to favor Indigenous interests, nor does it inspire respect for how we as human beings are related. (524)

Such a legal system “can only damage Indigenous people and communities,” but it doesn’t benefit colonizers either: “is it good for someone who has a power advantage to hurt others for personal benefit and to get away with it?” (524). Genuine changes to the criminal-justice system “would have to honor Indigenous self-determination since this is what the value of respect requires,” and that would mean decolonization (525). The dominant system cannot “simply be made less force centred and coercive, hence less disrespectful and coercive, without changing its core paradigm” (525). Under such a system, “transformation and healing will not occur, and so patterns of harm will continue” (525). The realities of power make it unlikely that a respectful, just, and healing system of justice will be achieved in the near future, and so “our challenge—koucheehiwayhk—is to find paths from where we are to where we want to be” (525).

Truth and reconciliation commissions are a starting point. The second step, the authors continue, “is clarifying our values and goals” (525). “What is it that we want to do, and how to we want to do it?” they ask. “Which values do we want to bring to the process? Is our goal to ‘fix’ some isolated person or set of circumstances, or is it to think and work more holistically, which means addressing the larger contexts of harm?” (525). “Who we are as Indigenous peoples provides the framework we need for the thorough transformation that is required,” they write, suggesting that, for example, restoring Indigenous languages will connect “us immediately with who we are as peoples” (525). Honouring relatives is “another core expression of who we are as peoples, and this too provides a powerful framework for transformation” (526). So to does engaging in treaty relationships, which “are transformative by their very nature. Engaging our treaties as a framework for legal transformation not only transforms how we respond to harms . . . but also engages us in decolonization as peoples,” because the treaties “locate us in our precolonized culture and so serve as a beacon from our past for our present and future decolonization work” (526). Moreover, “because many treaties spell out the boundaries of jurisdiction between Indigenous peoples and modern states, they spell out who has jurisdiction over whom and under what circumstances” (526). (I think that’s true, but only if the entire treaty texts, including the oral versions of the treaties, are taken into account.) “To comply with the colonizers’ modus operandi of ignoring these documents as a means of further extending colonial power is to be complicit in the dismantling of our self-determination,” they continue. “This is why treaties speak to the core issue for restorative justice: Who has the power and authority to decide how to respond to harms in Native communities? Treaties defend our existence as sovereign nations and therefore clearly state: We do” (526).

“Given these frameworks, how do we push past the colonizer’s entrapping mazes and get to the cage’s door?” they ask (526). The 1999 R. v. Gladue ruling is one step in the right direction, the suggest, although its principles are daily “overridden by methods that reinforce the colonial status quo” (526). (Harold Johnson said the same thing on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition this week.) “Another step toward changing the criminal justice system has been to try to ‘indigenize’ the criminal justice system,” the authors suggest (527). (Harold Johnson would say that won’t work, I think, although I have yet to read his recent book on the subject.) “Efforts to reform but not to transform the colonial system further support the view of many Indigenous people that our energies are wasted in trying to make our shackles hurt a little less,” they continue. “Transformation begins with naming colonialism as the root harm. The shackles must come off, and the cage must go; this is the goal for justice that is truly healing—the end to which our means must be aligned” (528). Restorative justice, they suggest, “could still serve a vision of decolonization because it is not tied to the existing fact-based, positivistic legal protocol or to the body of case-based colonial law” (528). (What’s wrong with facts? Don’t those involved need to have some sense of what actually happened?) Instead, restorative justice operates under the premise that “a harm has occurred, and people come together with a commitment to hearing the stories on all sides and working together to put things right to everyone’s mutual satisfaction” (528). “Because the participants themselves work out which steps need to be taken for the harm to be repaired, mechanisms of coercion are not helpful,” they write (528).

Two people cannot map out a path towards decolonization, the authors acknowledge. What they do suggest, however, “is that any step of change, however well intentioned, will fall prey to the default framework of perpetuating colonial oppression if those involved to not consciously and intentionally make a paradigm shift and claim a framework of decolonization” (529). Decolonization must become “the standard for evaluating whatever is being proposed or implemented: does it move us closer [to] or farther from our decolonization?” (529). This shift “begins with naming colonialism as the root harm that needs to be healed,” as the cause of Indigenous peoples’ suffering (529). Such a shift of framework “empowers Indigenous peoples to use our own Indigenous means to respond to harms among our own people,” and “involves the serious, genuine, and difficult nation-to-nation work of rectifying the immense crimes against humanity that we have suffered and that have brought us to where we are not as peoples” (529). “We call for nation-to-nation relationships, land return, reparations, restitution, return of resources or payment for their exploitation with interest, adherence to treaties, and hence the return of our sovereign jurisdiction over our homelands and ancestral land cases,” they write. “Decolonizing is not just a big work; it is the core of healing justice for Indigenous peoples. It signifies a scope of transformation the likes of which we have not yet seen” (529). “As we move in a decolonizing direction, we will move closer to practicing justice as a way of life—a way that holds the promise of being transformative for all those involved and hence profoundly healing for both the colonized and the colonizers,” they conclude. “May the vision of this koucheehiwayhk inspire and sustain us through the rough waters we inevitably face as we move in this turbulent but fundamentally healing direction” (529).

The focus on decolonization as holding out promise for colonizers as well as colonized in this essay surprised me, but perhaps it should not have, because unless decolonization benefits Settlers in some way, the prospects of it happening (without some form of duress) are slim. And the emphasis on treaties was also helpful. I was surprised that an essay on the criminal-justice system could speak to my project the way that this one does.

My supervisor is interested in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was the model for the Canadian version, although ours focused only on one form of colonial harm: residential schools. That focus excluded everything else that colonialism has wrought in this country—deliberate starvation, loss of land, unfair interpretation of treaties, the Pass System, and genocide—but, if McCaslin and Breton are correct, it was a starting point. (It seems to have been a finishing point, too, unfortunately, since little has taken place since the Canadian TRC’s report was issued four years ago.) “The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): Ways of Knowing Mrs. Konile,” by Antjie Krog, Nosisi Mpolweni-Zantsi, and Kopano Ratele, begins by asking,

How do we read one another? How do we “hear” one another in a country where the past often still bleeds among us? How much of what we hear translates into finding ways of living together? How do we overcome a divided past in such a way that “the Other” becomes “us”? (531)

Those are excellent questions, and the authors suggest that one incident during one testimony at the South African TRC may help readers “[t]o form an idea of some of the many stumbling blocks toward understanding one another in a society with a divisive history” (531). Understanding that incident “will reveal both the barriers, as well as the extent of the trouble, one has to go to arrive at some comprehension of one’s fellow human beings,” they continue (531). They “hope to underline the necessity of making use of indigenous languages and knowledge systems to access greater understanding and respect for one another,” and they “also want to emphasize the personal enrichment and understanding our working method has brought us” (531-32).

They begin by suggesting that it’s important to remember “that some testimonies do not fit the general framework,” and that “it may be important to reread these ‘nonfitting’ testimonies in particular ways,” in order to be able to say, “[w]e know one another” (532). They briefly suggest that Eurocentric culture “places a high priority on individuality and reason and is inclined to presuppose that European values could be applied universally,” while Afrocentric culture “places the emphasis on communality and a view of a human being that presupposes interpersonal relationships as expressed in umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which means a person is a person through other persons” (532). They describe the essay’s four aims: first, they write, “we hope that our contribution will caution against any conclusion that does not take into account translation aspects as well as transcultural and philosophical knowledge and contexts” (532). Second, they want “to reconstitute the sensibility of one witness, Mrs. Konile” (532). Third, they “hope to show how using indigenous knowledge can sometimes bring one to a completely different or sometimes even opposite conclusion to the one arrived at via more usual channels” (532). And finally, they write, “we want to underscore the importance of the original version of testimonies. We are pleasing that all the original versions of the South African TRC should be transcribed,” rather than just English translations: “By having the original version available, testimonies could contribute to intercultural knowledge that will help people to live together with empathy and understanding” (532).

After a short description of apartheid, the authors turn to Mrs. Konile. In the mid-1980s, seven young men were lured by an African National Congress traitor to receive military training so they could become soldiers of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC’s military wing. They were killed by security forces—some shot while they were trying to surrender—and Russian weapons were planted on their bodies before the national television broadcaster was called to film the bodies. The young men became known as the Gugulethu 7 (533-34). Mrs. Konile is the mother of one of the young men, Zabonke Konile. For some reason, in the transcript of her TRC testimony, she is the only mother who is mentioned by her surname alone, and her name is misspelled (534).

Next the authors describe their working method, which they suggest is “as important as our findings” (534). First, they read the official version on the TRC web site, finding it “largely incoherent and incomprehensible”:

Among the possible explanations were bad translation and an unintelligible witness, which in turn opened up another set of questions: Was the witness apparently unintelligible because she was traumatized or because she simply did not understand what had happened and what was happening around her? Antije Krog presented a reading to the group of how she could not “hear” Mrs. Konile and indicated some of the problems she encountered when analyzing the testimony. (534)

Then they ordered the tape of the original Xhosa version of the testimony from the South African National Archives and used their “different disciplines, backgrounds, cultures, and languages to gradually devise a way to ‘hear’ Mrs. Konile” (534). Nosisi Mpolweni-Zantsi transcribed the testimony, and then she and Kopano Ratele retranslated it into English, discovering translation and transcription errors (534). According to the authors, “it became clear that incomprehension had been created at different stages of the process toward an official version, including:

ordinary interpretation mistakes (from the victim to the interpreter);

an inability, at times, to incorporate cultural codes into the interpretation, which led to additional misreadings (victim to interpreter);

transcription mistakes from the spoken English (interpreter to transcriber);

a kind of TRC framework in place that could not render the inner monologue of Mrs. Konile comprehensible (TRC to victim). (534)

(I’m curious about how anyone’s inner monologue would be audible.) The process of interpretation was, the authors suggest, akin to “an archaeological excavation—every weekly session unearthed a new reality closer and closer to a multifaceted and complex original” (534). Nevertheless, they continue, “Mrs. Konile’s testimony was so ill-fitting, strange, and incoherent that we initially assumed that it was perhaps more of an intuitive and spontaneous expression of her inner self than a deliberate and conscious construction of a narrative identity” (534). However, deeper analysis demonstrated that she “was not only narrating coherently within particular frameworks but also resisting other frameworks imposed upon her. . . . the meta-codes that could have transmitted her shared reality with many other South Africans were greatly hamstrung by language and an absence of cultural and psychological context” (534).

In the next section, Antije Krog (the author of this part of the essay) recalls that during the hearing, she was a journalist, and at that time, she found Mrs. Konile’s testimony confusing and incoherent (535). “At the same time,” she writes, “I suspected that her testimony was important, precisely because it was different from the others and that, perhaps, one needed other tools to make sense of it” (535). One process that was happening, Krog suggests, was that Mrs. Konile was “busy constituting and identity for herself” in the context of the TRC hearing (535). In addition, “[e]verybody listening to Mrs. Konile was interpreting her narrative,” even though Mrs. Konile’s story “placed barriers in the way of empathetic interpretation,” because in footage of her testimony, “one could see how restless and uncomfortable the other mothers became when she testified” (535). The “goat incident” in Mrs. Konile’s narrative “is key to her whole story,” Krog states (535). Mrs. Konile speaks of a dream of a goat looking up, “a very bad dream” (qtd. 535). She also appears to confuse Cape Town with the township where she actually lived (535). Mrs. Konile’s testimony, Krog continues, “posed problems for a possible counternarrative reading”—one that would counter “the main racist narrative of the apartheid government,” as the testimonies of the other three mothers who testified with Mrs. Konile did: 

They presented acute, yet harrowing, detail of their last interactions with their sons on the mornings of their deaths. All three articulated the unforgettable moment they saw on television: how the police pulled their sons’ bodies so that they lay face up for the television camera. All three could formulate precisely how they regarded these gross violations and what they wanted from the TRC. All three had a very clear perception of the moral questions at stake. (536-37)

“In contrast,” Krog continues,

Mrs. Konile’s testimony seemed to drift from one surrealist scenario to the next; most of her testimony had nothing to do with her son but was describing her own personal suffering in a highly confused way—leaving the impression that her son’s main value for her was monetary and that she was in any case not really aware what was happening around her. She also seemed to have no idea what to ask of the perpetrators or the commission. (537)

Krog suggests that she was not certain what this meant: was Mrs. Konile “deepening the counternarrative,” or was her testimony an exception, a narrative “that did not work out for a variety of reasons?” (537).

Krog turns to trauma theory for an explanation, citing Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub and their suggestion that the task of testimony is to impart knowledge (537). “Mrs. Konile’s testimony was clearly a firsthand knowledge of something, but was it firsthand knowledge of the death of a son, or was it perhaps more a kind of firsthand knowledge of poverty?” Krog wonders (537). There was no sense that what Mrs. Konile was saying “came from a community. Her story did not carry any mark of shared experiences. . . . She became a testifier of a solitary figure thrown around in an incoherent and cruel landscape” (537). 

Next, Krog reads Mrs. Konile’s testimony through Elaine Scarry’s work on the effects torture has on language. “Possibly the inability of Mrs. Konile to contain and lift her pain out of herself and show it to the TRC was because that pain had destroyed her language,” Krog suggests, citing Scarry’s suggestion that pain resists expression and makes language incoherent (537). While the official transcript did not suggest anything about Mrs. Konile’s pain, watching the video of her testimony “confirmed how much pain did manifest in Mrs. Konile’s language, suggesting that she had indeed lost her grip on the complexity around her son’s death. (The absence of nonverbal sounds in the transcribed version provides a further obstacle to adequately interpreting TRC texts)” (537-38).

Finally, Krog considers the effect of trauma on memory. She cites an article by Nanette Auerhan and Dori Laub that identifies nine different ways in which trauma is remembered. “One of them is called fragmentation, which means that the memory retains parts of a lived experience in such a way that they are decontextualized and no longer meaningful,” she writes (538). “Should one accept that Mrs. Konile’s life became the fragments that she was able to live with?” Krog asks. “The fact that it was incoherent to an outsider was of lesser importance than the fact that it was precisely the decontextualized and isolated fragmentation that made it possible for her to survive the death of her son” (538). On that day in 1996, before the TRC, she simply “put the fragments of her life on the table, and in the brokenness of it, one could see the chaos and pain, and only guess at the suffering” (538).

In the essay’s next section, Nosisi Mpolweni-Zantsi (the section’s author) acknowledges that when she listened to the audiotape of Mrs. Konile’s testimony and read the official transcript, she felt gaps: “Some of the reasons for the gaps could be attributed to the difficulty or challenges of simultaneous interpreting, but others seemed to be more problematic” (238). She decided “to investigate whether there was information lost in the interpretation and translation of Mrs. Konile’s testimony,” and she also “wanted to determine how this lost information influenced intercultural communication between Mrs. Konile, on one side, and the TRC officials, audience, and other possible readers, on the other side” (538). She also “wanted to determine whether knowledge of an indigenous context would lead to a fuller interpretation that would do justice to the person who testified” (538). Mpolweni-Zantsi notes that there are significant problems with the English translation of Mrs. Konile’s words. In particular, the goat she dreamed about was standing on its hind legs, not looking up. She emphasizes the strangeness of this dream by using three consecutive synonyms (539). “Bringing in the lost information via the original text allows a conclusive reading,” Mpolweni-Zantsi writes: “First, she dreamt about the goat. Then, she went with a friend to get a grant. She saw Peza there and regarded his presence as ominous. As the story unfolded, her foreboding plus the dream seemed to take on greater significance in terms of cultural habits” (539). (Peza was an ANC activist who told Mrs. Konile about her son’s death [535, 540].)

Because the translator omitted specific cultural allusions—the sense of foreboding carried by the Xhosa word umbilili, for instance—“the interpreter removed important information that could be seen as pointers to the tragic death of Mrs. Konile’s son, Zabonke. She was not only talking about her own personal forebodings, but was trying to express her own pain” (539). “[A]n interpreter who was familiar with her culture would have understood that the signs, repetition, and exclamations in her speech conveyed important information about her emotional state,” Mpolweni-Zantsi continues. “But how were these indicators to be transferred into English and afterwards into written text?” (539-40). 

The first omission made the crucial role of culture in Mrs. Konile’s testimony clear: according to Mpolweni-Zantsi, she obviously came from a rural village in the Eastern Cape, not from Cape Town, and she therefore would not have been as politically conscious as the other woman from Gugulethu who testified. Instead, she “would be more closely connected to traditional habits instead” (540):

The sequence of forebodings every time Mrs. Konile saw Peza, plus the story of the goat dream, indicate that, culturally, these incidents were connected for her,” she continues. “She obviously read them as warning signs fro the ancestors that she should expect bad news. In other words, by relating these incidents, Mrs. Konile was communicating a message to the TRC audience that effectively said, “Long before I heard of my child’s death, I was already in pain through the premonitions and the bad dream.” But the interpreter seemed to have either missed the cultural codes or was unable to effectively find a way to transfer them into English. (540)

Mrs. Konile was also unhappy because her son was not buried in her community but with his comrades in Cape Town: 

According to Xhosa culture, it is important to be buried next to one’s ancestors. This is seen as a way of maintaining a chain of communication between the deceased and the ancestors. . . . His burial in Cape Town must have left her with a deep wound because not only had she been deprived from any connection with her own child, but his burial in a far-away place cut her, as well as him, off from the ancestral chain. (540-41)

After she told the TRC about her “skirmish with the police to get the body of her child, she said, ‘And I gave up.’ These words illustrated her deepening sense of helplessness and powerlessness. . . . Symbolically, she was describing a huge loss, not only monetary, but an unbridgeable rupture had taken place” (541). This discussion, Mpolweni-Zantsi concludes, “highlights that the process of interpreting and translating should also be seen as cross-cultural communication,” and that because of the “slippages in the interpretation and translation of Mrs. Konile’s testimony, the valuable information with regard to her feelings and aspirations could not reach the TRC officials and the audience” (541). “Instead, her testimony seemed incoherent,” she writes (541). An “intimate cultural knowledge can lead to a fuller and more just interpretation of a mother tongue testimony that could restore the dignity of the testifier” (541).

The following section, “An African Psychological Reading,” by Kopano Ratele, begins with Mrs. Konile’s dream about the goat in a strange pose:

At the level of deep affect or unconscious, it is not strange when Mrs. Konile says an animal was the sign of what she would learn about the next day. But the dream also functions at a much simpler level. The word dream is the vital missing link that could have made Mrs. Konile intelligible. What she told the commission turned from incoherent to coherent through a single line missing from the official English text. In isiXhosa, this line (“Phezolo ndiphuphe kakubi”; seven words in English: “Last night I had a terrible dream”) brings Mrs. Konile back from the psychopathological wilderness—into which a reader of the English text might have put her—to a cultural embeddedness. Even if the sentence fails to make her wholly imaginable as an adult psychological subject, these words render her into somebody whose story is “followable.” She had a dream: a bad, or strange, dream. (541)

So the problem of Mrs. Konile’s intelligibility is in part a translation and transcription error. But there is more to this problem. Ratele notes that the TRC “was looking for a certain kind of story: that of a brutal regime, stoic struggle, resilient mothers and families, and an eventual triumph over evil” (541). But that’s not the story it got from Mrs. Konile. Instead, she sighed heavily at the beginning of her testimony and said she was already tired of the TRC process, and that she despaired of it. “While the TRC hearings were meant to deal precisely with ‘telling,’ its cathartic effect, and thus forgiveness, the commissioners appeared unprepared for and uneasy about Mrs. Konile—they addressed very few questions to her,” Ratele continues. “It was as if her story was resisting the imposed framework fo the hearings; as if her mind resisted easy readings” (541-42).

Ratele notes that many African people interpret their waking lives using dreams: 

dreams seem to have been an acceptable part of the existential methods many African people used and continue to employ to make sense of their lives. In this light, it is a terribly ordinary thing for Mrs. Konile to come to the hearings and talk of a dream. It makes so much sense that it would be easy for some readers to miss this part of her psychological make-up: how things are related to one another in the world for her regarding cause-effect. (542)

That dream, Ratele continues, “is a central part of the story, for it is an essential element of Mrs. Konile’s psyche, because it is a key to her world” (542). In addition, underestimating the fact that her dream and her story “are connected to language in critical ways” would “contribute to misunderstanding her and her world” (542). 

Ratele interprets the dream as, first of all, a connection to the ancestral worlds: “The goat and the dream are messengers from the other world. Dreaming of a goat, Mrs. Konile is suggesting, was like receiving a letter from the ancestors that something is amiss” (542). It is a sign that the living and the dead are not far from each other; in addition, contact with the ancestors (in dreams or at a grave side) is “not only cultural but also spiritual and, given the history of South Africa, social and political too” (542). That dream “connects Mrs. Konile to her culture, her people, her Gods, and wider society and its politics. . . . What is important is that she is reminded that she is interconnected to a wider world of her people and with other worlds” (542). The dream’s third meaning is the way it seems “to connect her to what is happening elsewhere in the world, the world of politics and wider South African society” (542). It brought the politics of the liberation struggle (which she lives far away from) into her life before her son’s death did so (542). Finally, “the dream reconnects Mrs. Konile to herself. Mrs. Konile is in the midst of (re)constituting her self and her world as an individual person of African heritage” (542). “In sum,” Ratele continues, “the dream of the goat is a guide, a connecting cable, a warning, and a psychological tool. It leads her at once to her people, her son, those in the other world, and herself” (542). It makes perfect sense that her dream is in her testimony and that she tells her testimony in the way that she does (543).

“There is no way of understanding Mrs. Konile without understanding how dominating modes of knowing rupture indigenous modes of knowing,” Ratele writes (543). He gives the example of African students from townships or rural areas who attend universities in South Africa: they must “get rid of everything they were taught about the nature of social relations and persons,” and if they don’t do that quickly, “they are bound to struggle” (543). “The phrase motho ke motho ka batho (a person is made into being a person by other persons) is seldom fully apprehended—even African intellectuals do not fully apprehend what is carried in that value,” he states (543). Psychology claims to be universal, but that individual cultures have their own ways of thinking about everything: “How do you study Mrs. Konile’s so-called incoherence if you assume that there is no difference between her and the average North American mind?” (543). You can’t. “[I]t is precisely because of a lack of understanding about the self-in-community and the unity-of0-the-world that makes Mrs. Konile sound incoherent,” Ratele contends, and colonialism and racism seek “to destroy those specific values, because it is incomprehensible that one lives for others. It is very difficult for the Western mind or psyche to accept that others make one. In Western psychology, the individual comes first and is foremost, the family is constituted by individuals, and the world is made up by individual minds” (543). 

But Mrs. Konile shows us that, “for some people, this does not hold. In fact, it is the other way round” (543). Her community needs to help her to decipher her dream or plan a ritual in response to it. But, “[o]n a deeper philosophical level, I interpret the dream as telling Mrs. Konile about a wholeness being threatened because she is not an individual, not in the way it is defined in the dominant frameworks of psychology” (544). What the dream reveals is that, in contrast, Mrs. Konile “is part of a world where she is in contact with the living and the dead,” a world with “little existential loneliness,” although her son’s death “introduces her to a deep loneliness: “She experiences it as being cut off from the community. She is sighing because she has become and individual through the death of her son—selected as it were to become an individual” (544). “So to understand Mrs. Konile, to get to a psychological comprehensibility, our approach needs to be founded on her reality,” Ratele concludes: “her notion of her position in a universe of people, animals, and things; and her thoughts and feeling of how she relates to others and the environment. In other words, meaning systems undergird the possibility of being understood by others” (544).

The essay’s conclusion notes that one of the TRC’s goals, the restoration of the personal dignity fo the victims, “could only begin when the testimonies were ‘heard’ and ‘understood’—also and especially those who fell outside the norm” (544). Their “critical qualitative research into Mrs. Konile’s psychological and cultural framework” has led them to “the opposite conclusion of the ‘Western reading’ earlier in the chapter,” in which “the constant harping on the word I initially carried selfish and obsessive undertones” (544). Instead, “in Mrs. Konile’s own context, it became a desperate plea to get rid of the sudden individualism forced upon her” (544). This analysis has taken “a radical step,” the authors continue:

We are saying that within a postcolonial context, a woman may appear either incoherent because of severe suffering or unintelligible because of oppression—while in fact she is neither. Within her indigenous framework, she is logical and resilient in her knowledge of her loss and its devastating consequences in her life. She is not too devastated to make sense; she is devastated because she intimately understands the devastation that has happened to her. However, the forum she finds herself in and the way narratives are being read make it very hard for her to bring the depth of this devastation across. (544).

Their method, they continue, “has radical and new implications regarding the study of TRC testimonies,” because some testimonies, “such as that of Mrs. Konile, are likely to reproduce old cultural, racial, and geographical divisions” (544). To overcome them, “there is almost no other way to proceed than by collaboratively working within a communally orientated, human-centered methodology” (544). That notion of collaboration isn’t what I would take from this essay; rather, you might just need someone who knows (in Mrs. Konile’s case) the Xhosa language, culture, spirituality, and psychologically intimately. After all, as the authors continue,

every narrative is rooted. In order to really “hear” that story, one has to take the rootedness into account—especially in light of a divisive past. Understanding the “ground” from which narratives sprout is sometimes only possible through the input of those who have deep knowledge of this “ground.” By ignoring the “ground” of her narrative, one is cutting Mrs. Konile from her roots as well as a larger humanity. In other words, one is trying to interpret her without all that makes her herself. (544-45)

I agree wholeheartedly about the need for rootedness; my question is whether understanding that rootedness necessarily requires collaborative work. 

Nevertheless, the authors state that their collaborative method allowed them to realize the ways that Mrs. Konile’s narrative could not be heard within “the dominant discourse”; to “make use of the fact that at least two of us are able to traverse culture and language in order to enter both the dominant and indigenous discourse or ‘ground’”; to rescue Mrs. Konile’s discourse from “the ‘incomprehensible’ into a new discourse that values her resistance to the master narrative”; to challenge stereotypes; to rethink their initial interpretations of Mrs. Konile’s story; and to “be deeply influenced in our own ‘listening’ to one another as cultural psychological work was happening in the researchers themselves” (545). “In this way,” the authors conclude, “knowledge of Mrs. Konile opens up ways for people emerging from a context of conflict and estrangement to access understanding and respect for one another. Mrs. Konile has made us hear her and, through her, one another” (545). Perhaps another way to think about this conclusion is to suggest that their research into Mrs. Konile’s story enabled them to “work the hyphen” (Jones 473)?

For me, this essay was an eye-opening experience: the description of a relationally based psychology was fascinating, and I would be interested in learning more about other culturally specific psychological frameworks (to use a word that is repeated frequently in this anthology). That notion also speaks to the shallowness of approaches that focus on the performative self alone, as in the essay on autoethnography in the anthology that I had such a hard time understanding. Performativity might be one aspect of who we are, but it’s obviously not the only one. In any case, above and beyond scoring points against essays I didn’t enjoy, this one made me think, and I’m happy I read it. 

In “Transnational, National, and Indigenous Racial Subjects: Moving From Critical Discourse to Praxis,” Luis Mirón states that he has three objectives for his essay. First, he intends “to debunk the widespread idea that the processes of globalization are so totalizing that resistance is nearly unfathomable” (547). Second, he wants to demonstrate “that despite clear racial differences that transnational, national, and indigenous subjects embody and culturally experience daily . . . these subjects are difficult to categorize” because they may “have more in common than previously theoretically imagined,” and so “the possibilities for coalition building remain strong” (547). And, finally, he will “advance a conception of performative ethnography, building on discourse theory and semiotics, in hopes of pointing a path by which the racial subjects named above”—Mexican immigrants to the United States, and U.S.-born African Americans and Latinos—“who historically have occupied the periphery, or the margins, may now enter new borderlands in dialogue and solidarity with one another,” leading to “[s]ocial action and social change” (547-48). The essay’s conclusion, he continues, will explore “the possibilities for democracy in multiple social and political spaces, including education (broadly conceptualized) embodied in the rapidly growing eco-green consciousness” (548).

The essay’s purpose, Mirón continues, is “to dialogically challenge ‘globalization,’ that is, to show how the processes of globalization are interactive—they both constrain and render possible new forms and spaces of democratic practice,” including the struggle against climate change, “in hopes of facilitating dialogue and coalition building among multiple racial subjects” (548). I’m not convinced that a theoretical essay published in an expensive anthology that only social scientists will read is the way to achieve these goals—wouldn’t actual political activism at a local level help to build such coalitions?—but what do I know? 

The next section of the essay, “Transnational Subjects,” argues that “these categories of subjectivity and identity are just that—abstract categorizations” (548). People “partly defy fixed categorization,” exhibiting “fluid lives” (548). Mirón intends to focus “on transnational flows of people, culture, capital, and knowledge, typical of the spaces all of these racial subjects occupy in the age of information and the shift in capital from production to the mode of information” through “a critically grounded look at transnational migrants, cultural citizens who defy legal designations” (548). Mirón begins this discussion with an account of Antonio Mejia, who travelled to the United States to work twice, and formed something called the Grupo Unión. He then shifts to an “avant-garde video, The Sixth Section,” which “documents the formation and successes of Grupo Unión, a Mexican community development organization in Newburgh, New York,” that is one of 3,000 such organizations in the U.S. (548). (Okay—now I understand—but Mirón needs to tell this story more effectively.) The members of Grupo Unión all come from the same town in Puebla, Mexico; together, they “help improve their hometown by combining their money and putting it toward a townwide project or need” (548). “The more the collective did for the town, the more powerful it became to the Mexican politicians,” and the governor of Puebla actually came to Newburgh to meet with the migrants, who pressured him to pave roads in that state (549). Mirón suggests that Grupo Unión is an example of “transnational organizing” and that its efforts have impacts in both the United States and in Mexico (549). “Such transnational urbanism flies in the theoretical face of structurally oriented social theorists who almost universally state that poor immigrant citizens lack the capacity to effectively resist the deleterious forces of global capital,” Mirón writes, citing David Harvey as his antagonist (549). For Mirón, “such a unidimensional view of the processes of globalization rests on empirically questionable as well as conceptually flawed models of citizenship” (549).

The “transnational migrant workers” Mirón is discussing “emphasize the importance of becoming polyglot cultural citizens, allowing them to move in spaces that transcend the nation and potentially but not as readily the state as well” (549). He is working with “a notion of cultural citizenship . . . that goes beyond legalistic definitions to encompass the more informal aspects of how people integrate into their environments, so that legal citizenship is not the end, or even the beginning, of numerous, active local mediations over the terms of the local-transnational integration of people” (549). When they have green cards, the members of Grupo Unión hold “a form of dual-culture citizenship as citizens of Mexico and legal residents of the United States” (549). From their perspective, “their economic status as U.S. workers pushes the Mexican state to be more responsive—and potentially less corrupt—to communities, and their extra earnings support their families rather than U.S. corporations” (549). Mirón uses this notion to argue that “we need a new theoretical paradigm to highlight the complexities of transnationalism, a theory that is more sensitive to cultural forces and politics on the ground” (549).

Nation-states can no longer “be bounded,” Mirón argues, because of global flows of capital and the “major demographic transformation” caused by immigration in not only the United States but other Western countries as well (549). “In other words, the nations of the West, of which the United States is one example, have been ‘invaded,’ to use a popular metaphor, but peoples from non-Western or Third World countries” (550). However, “the crucial thing about these migrants is that, quite unlike what the traditional literature on immigrations suggests, transnational immigrants have not uprooted themselves, leaving behind their homeland and facing the often-pailful process of incorporation into a new national culture”; rather, because of communication technology and transportation links, “they have been able to forge multistranded ties that link together their society of settlement and origin,” and thus should be understood as “transmigrants” (550). Citizenship needs to be rethought “in terms of the strategies migrants use to navigate transnational spaces” (550). Mirón provides other examples of “transmigrants” to support this contention; then he turns to the work of Michael Peter Smith, his primary theoretical touchstone and the source of the phrase “transnational urbanism” (551). Smith aims “to give new meaning to the everyday practices of social actors, most especially those transnational migrants and citizens exercising human agency from below,” and “transnational urbanism” refers to the ways that “migrant citizens negotiate hybridity in transnational urban spaces” (552). One absence in Smith’s writing is an attention to consciousness; because he “does not usually theoretically foreground the individual, a complete understanding of social life is not possible” (552). This absence might explain Mirón’s interest in the stories of individuals like Mejida.

In the essay’s next section, Mirón argues that “an alternative paradigm of ethnography—grounded in a theory of performativity—renders possible the everyday representation and understanding of racial subjectivities and identities” (553). This paradigm makes possible “both synchronistic difference and commonality” (553). Clearly Mirón isn’t talking about performance ethnography but something else:

this alternate paradigm allows for the possibility of constructing a new racial self. A conception of performative ethnography . . . allows for a more radical style, a style that is embodied in the practice of silence (deep listening to the racial Other), the normative goal of which is the achievement of the racial subjects’ own will to power. (553)

Aside from general discussions of “the performative/performance turn in ethnography and critical ethnography in particular,” however, it’s not clear why Mirón calls this form of ethnography “performative” (554). He suggests that “the act of considering the work”—he means a work of literature, it seems—is “a performance” (554). Reading or interpreting a work, then, is a performance. This work is not the same as a text, he continues, following Roland Barthes, because a text is “a social space and, by implication of collaboration with the reader,” it is also politically efficacious (555). “By extension, performative research texts such as ethnographies facilitate or creatively establish the social space for subject formation, subjectivity, and identity” (555). In other words, “ethnography constitutes a performative text of science that is also embedded in politics, morality, and ethics” (555). He seems to be using Barthes, and the notion of “the creative ‘play’ of the artistic work” as a “desire-full engagement,” to suggest a parallel between artistic or literary texts and the writing of social scientists, a claim I can’t help thinking Barthes would find comical at best. After all, Barthes was interested in art, and he made a clear distinction between work and text, a distinction Mirón blurs. 

Mirón contends that “[t]his conception of the performative, particularly in relation to social research, stands ideologically on the ground of a vision of social action and, ultimately, social change,” because it represents “a vision that is located in politics and praxis around which the fragmented left can hopefully coalesce” (555). He hopes that the “moral-ethical values” of “restorative justice, racial equity, and the public interest, especially in the context of public schools and other political institutions where poor citizens of color seem to suffer chronically from a seeming perpetual lack of financial and policy resources” will “become self-evident when pursued within the performance of ethnography” (555). He is particularly interested in the “political nature” of education (555): “it is in the broad space of education where the indigenous racial subject can shake metaphoric hands with the domestically indigenous (African American, Latino, and Asian American, among others) and the transnational subject” (556).

Next, Mirón sets out to “describe theoretically the dynamics of racial subject formation” (556). He extends Judith Butler’s writing on gender performativity “to issues of racialization and racial identity,” suggesting that “the act of racial subject formation should not be conceptualized as a singular action but rather as a series of reiterative practices through which discourse produces the effect that it names” (556). The “performative discourse” of “Latino transurban agents’ apparent exploitation of and political gains derived from globalization,” however, “does not so much bring into being what it names as it produces through its reiterative power the very ‘thing’ that it regulates and controls, if not dominates” (556). However, Mirón suggests that although the subject is constituted through discourse, that doesn’t mean it has no agency: “Such a discursive constitution through the uses of language creates the very possibility for agency,” which suggests, for him, that “human and political agency is a somewhat paradoxical and ironic by-product of the knowledge-power relation,” in other words, “a political outcome . . . of productive power relations” through which “the racialized subject can be reconstituted” (556). Mirón is wrestling with issues related to agency and social construction that are familiar to anyone who has read structuralist or poststructuralist theory, but his discussion is too brief and confused to be convincing, in my opinion.

Mirón turns to J. L. Austin’s definition of the performative to suggest that “[a] performative ethnography grounded in everyday cultural practices produces material consequences for the racial subject,” because “ethnography ‘performs’ the words it describes or the subjects it names” (556). Austin’s notion of performative discourse, however, involves a specialized form of speech or writing, and to claim that ethnographic discourse is always performative is a questionable conclusion to draw from Austin’s How to Do Things With Words. Nevertheless, Mirón argues that “performative ethnography embeds not only the uses of the imagination, including the postcolonial imagination and that of the indigenous, but social action as well,” and therefore “ethnographic research practices may ultimately generate the racial subjects’ own will to power” (557). Social change, he continues, “may emanate from a grounded aesthetics that locates creative self-expression in the realm of everyday cultural practice,” and those who advocate for social justice, “including ethnographers, need not necessarily mount campaigns to overthrow the capitalist system,” but rather might “transform lived cultural experience through the relentless new labor of self-expression” instead (557). But why would ethnographers, rather than racialized subjects of ethnography, engage in that kind of transformation? I am not following Mirón’s argument at all.

“On a broader social scale, the politics of a culturally grounded performativity makes possible the conditions for rewriting history,” Mirón continues (557). Class, like race, “is a historical and social construction,” and “[a] practical application derived from performative ethnographic techniques is that scientific knowledge of the racial subject may compel classroom teachers of poor, working-class minority students across the globe to join teachers and parents of White, middle-class students to revolt against economically overdetermined high-stakes testing” (557). Is he talking about standardized testing? Tests like the SATs that are part of university admissions processes? I don’t know. What about the parents of those “poor, working-class minority students across the globe”? Where are they in this “practical application”? Why “across the globe”? Is that a nod to his earlier (and quite interesting) discussion of “transnational urbanism”? I don’t know.

“A culturally grounded creativity, in summary, permits ethnographic researchers to reflexively articulate what the racial subject instinctively ‘knows’—self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her racial identity,” Mirón argues (558). But why are ethnographers involved in that articulation? The “will to power . . . is hastened by the ethnographer’s attention to the form of ethnographic research,” he continues (558). Again, why are ethnographers so important in this process? What makes them so necessary? Weren’t the members of Grupo Unión engaged in their work before ethnographers became aware of them? For Mirón, “the mooring of knowledge, creativity, and power embedded in the formation and everyday lived cultural experiences of the racial subject has profound implications for a new paradigm of ethnography,” because “racial subjects—as creative collaborators in social action on behalf of restorative justice—are potentially transformed into political agents” (558). “An emphasis on the racial subject’s own will to power casts serious doubt on the utility, if not validity, of traditional ethnographic research and perhaps even critical ethnography,” which are “disembodied from lived, culturally grounded experience” (558). “These subjects”—which subjects?—“cannot speak and, therefore, may lose their agency or become relegated to acts of resistance as passing moments in time” (558). I don’t understand Mirón’s point. What is clear is that he believes that “the conception of performative ethnography” he has described “may begin to turn this paradigm”—the paradigm of qualitative inquiry itself—“on its head” (558). That’s no small ambition, and it seems like a lot to ask from a form of ethnography that takes interpretation as a type of performance. I think that’s what he means by “performative ethnography,” but the argument is really not clear to me, particularly since, in his final sentence, he offers “critical ethnography” as a synonym for “performative ethnography” (559). 

In his conclusion, Mirón states, “[i]t is my vision and political-ethical dream that a performative ethnography described above can serve an educational purpose, a kind of grounded critical pedagogy. Such pedagogical uses of ethnography may, in fact, net practical political gains” (558). He claims that “a broad educational space” that “extends beyond schooling” exists, and that this space is one in which “multiple racial subjects may meet and coalesce around the need to save the planet from unimaginable natural and social destruction owing to intense global warming” (559). Let’s hope that dream comes true; along with Greta Thunberg, many young activists from the global south, including Ridhima Pandey, Kaluki Paul Mutuku, and Nina Gualinga are engaged in that kind of work (Unigwe). But it’s a long way from a focused discussion of one transnational community in New York to such grand claims, hopes, or dreams, and Mirón’s opening caution—that he is trying to do many things in a short space (547)—may be the reason I find this essay so confusing and poorly articulated.

Finally, the editors include a relatively brief epilogue entitled “The Lions Speak”; the title refers to an African proverb they include as an epigraph, which says, “Until the lion can tell his own stories, tales of the hunt will be told by the hunter” (563). They begin by describing their epilogue as “a punctuation mark, a semi-colon to a thought or thoughts unfinished, or a coda for themes and a series of motifs that are incomplete, partial, sometimes fragmentary” (563). Their goal in putting together this anthology was to start 

a dialogue that seeks to find common ground between critical theoretical positions, which advance discriminating and often unflattering analyses of colonial, postcolonial, and geopolitical social economies, as well as indigenous methodologies, which simultaneously seek to ‘reenchant’ social inquiry with the sacred and spiritual connections to social life and also to propose research design strategies that honor native lifeways and wrest social science away from a dominant and domineering Western model of use and commodification. (563)

There is much common ground between these two sets of theories and methodologies, they suggest, and “[a]s a consequence, there is no final punctuation, no ending stress on the statements from our authors here” (563). Instead, “[t]here are only proposals” which are important for “their potential for furthering a dialogue around the world both between indigenous and First Nations peoples, as well as between critical theorists and researchers who stand ready to help in any way that can serve” (563).

The editors suggest that “there are three precarious but urgent issues that await both more theorizing and praxis” (563). First is the question of whether the lions of their title, “having spoken, will exert a powerful voice over more than just their own ‘territory’” (563-64). What effect will those metaphorical lions have “on Western science in a broader sense” (564)? Second, “who owns the past” (564)? (They mean who owns Indigenous artifacts, art, and remains.) Third, “[w]hat constitutes ethical behavior within and among First Nations research enterprises?” (564). “Each of these issues will likely foreground indigenous methodologies for the foreseeable future,” and for that reason, “they are the genuine epilogue to the essays within these covers” (564).

The next section of the epilogue continues with the metaphor of the lions and the stories they have to tell. “Western researchers will find themselves locked out of research with indigenous peoples unless they are willing to bend themselves to the rule of law that indigenous peoples have crafted for themselves and their own protection,” the editors write (564).“The critical point is that the lion is speaking,” they continue, but the issue of who owns the past is “waiting in the wings” (566). “It is not merely indigenous peoples who are conscious of reclaiming legacies and exemplars of cultural heritage,” they write. “It is, however, indigenous peoples who have the most to lose in the cultural heritage wars” (566). By that statement, they mean that “the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples is under attack,” and they “are fighting back” (566). Tangible artifacts are not the only issue; another is “who owns the past, who is empowered to collect it—or leave it be—and for whom and under what circumstances it has meaning, spiritual power, identity, and agency” (567). The quarrel is about intellectual property, they suggest, and they note that because Indigenous peoples have their own ideas about intellectual property, Western concepts of IP “may not be the most useful ways to think about the role of research with First Nations peoples” (567). For the editors, both sides in this argument have merit: conservationists on one hand, and Indigenous peoples “for whom cultural connection and preservation are paramount” (568). 

Both of these issues are ethical issues, they write:

Many of our authors have spoken passionately regarding the need to reformulate a research ethics that enables us to participate morally and authentically with indigenous and First Nations collaborators and that permits knowledge to be cogenerated, which can then be shared with interested communities, while at the same time seeking a way for the indigenous communities to share in the benefits and the “profits” of our research. (568)

Such reconfigured forms of research “demand not only vastly different relationships with our research participants but also extreme revisioning of our ethical stances and practices,” they continue (568). One response to the inadequacy of government regulations on the protection of human research subjects “has been the formulation of a number of local, tribal-centred, or culture-centred sets of ethical principles,” they note (569). The important thing to note, they suggest, is that “[b]oth Western social scientists (who practice alternative interpretive research) and indigenous communities alike have been moving toward the same goals”; both “seek a set of ethical principles that are feminist, caring, communitarian (rather than individual), holistic, respectful, mutual (rather than power imbalanced), sacred, and ecologically sound” (569). 

The editors then address what is missing from this anthology, what they would have liked to have included, where it has gaps: they would have liked to have included more poststructuralists, a critical ecologist, voices from Asia, an Aboriginal contributor from Australia, writers from Latin and South America, European scholars on workers cooperatives (in Europe and elsewhere) (569-70). “We have simply not been able to convince some of these scholars to withdraw from the work they are doing to work for a handbook,” they write, suggesting that a second edition might “elicit a different kind of coverage” (570). Nevertheless, they are proud of the scholars who did work with them: “[b]oth individually and together, they represent a different set of research practices and an emerging globalized sensibility that undercuts the commodified, marketized, neoliberal forces of globalization sweeping the developed, developing, and underdeveloped regions of the world today” (570).

And that’s it—the last sentence of a nearly 600-page anthology. Was it worth reading this monster? Yes and no. Some of the essays were frustrating, but some were enlightening. I think my summaries will have identified which essays were which. I would have liked to have seen more clarity regarding the uses of notions of performance and performativity in many of these essays; clearly I missed the apparent “performative turn” in the social sciences. The writing on Indigenous theories and epistemologies was most useful for my project, particularly the essay by Alison Jones (with Kuni Jenkins) and the essay on TRC testimony (partly because of its description of a sense of self defined by the community rather than the individual), as well as the discussion of decolonization in the essay by Wanda McCaslin and Denise Breton. And it’s clear to me that I need to read more on autoethnography, if only to determine what I want to call the writing that comes out of my walking project(s). It’s been a long trudge, a plod, but I’m finally finished, and I can turn to the next thing. 

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How to Do Things With Words, Oxford UP, 1962.

 Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.

Johnson, Harold. Peace and Good Order: The Case for Indigenous Justice in Canada, Penguin, 2019.

Unigwe, Chika. “It’s not just Greta Thunberg: why are we ignoring the developing world’s inspiring activists?” The Guardian, 5 October 2019.

112d. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, continued

denzin lincoln

According to the editors, the chapters included in Part III, “Critical and Indigenous Methodologies,” “reflexively implement critical indigenous methodologies. . . . by transforming, rereading, and criticizing existing research practices, including life story, life history, ethnographic, autoethnographic, narrative, visual, and postcolonial methodologies” (323). They also elaborate on their earlier definition of indigenous methodology: “Critical indigenous methodologies,” they write,

implement indigenous pedagogies. They are fitted to the needs and traditions of specific indigenous communities. This fitting process may include creating new methodologies, as well as modifying existing practices. In each instance, pragmatic and moral criteria apply. The scholar must ask if these practices or modifications will produce knowledge that will positively benefit this indigenous community. And if so, which members? Of course, this answer cannot always be given in advance. The meaning of any set of actions is only visible in the consequences that follow from the action. (323)

This statement could just as well be applied to research in or with Indigenous communities, and I find myself wondering exactly how education researchers in particular, or social scientists in general, use the term “pedagogy.” Clearly it means something more than just teaching or curriculum. Exactly how much more I can’t say, because I don’t know.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s essay, “History, Myth, and Identity in the New Indian Story,” begins by suggesting that “[t]here are historic and mythic journeys everywhere in Native narratives,” so to call attention to “history, myth, and identity” in Indigenous literature, including “the so-called new Indian story,” a term that seems to mean contemporary Indigenous fiction, means “going back to origins” (329). Going back to those origins leads to a recognition of the importance of geography and language, and it also means recognizing “the holy people and . . . all of the creature worlds and sights and sounds of the universe which surround human beings and their lives” (329). “It seems to me that in terms of the imaginative concepts, which are evident in Indian narratives, origin myths and historical migrations are probably the least accessible and least well known of the influences,” she continues. “Yet, they resonate in the most humble of stories and poems” (329). Her example is one of her own stories, which is probably not the most convincing strategy to use in an essay such as this one. But it does lead to a question: “How does this storytelling assist in understanding the definition of the term indigenous as well as the function of indigenous origins in modern thought?” (330). 

“[I]f we accept the notion that ideas and concepts of origin are essential elements of an indigenous text, we are required as readers to look more deeply into the cultural translations that such a story presents,” Cook-Lynn writes. “The recording of Native views while investigating philosophical formulations has always been the purpose of storytelling, especially that storytelling that tells one generation of listeners what the previous generation has come to know through the long tenancy of the tribe in specific geography” (330). That “reality” is what distinguishes Indigenous storytelling “from other more modern categories of storytelling” (330). However, she continues, “[i]t is an unfortunate reality that the study of American Indian literatures today, with few exceptions, reveals that the new Indian Story being told in the mainstream is rarely believed to be the bearer of traditional knowledge, history, or myth” (330). She defines what she calls “new Indian Story” as the “contemporary genre” called “Native American literatures,” and suggests that “since many American Indian writers today are not the practicing singers and chanters, tribal ritualists, medicine healers, and even committed participants in what may be called a ‘tribal world,’” we should not expect to find traditional knowledge in their work (330-31). Many writers know little about ceremony or ritual or tradition or language; what they are good at “is telling stories, writing novels, practicing poetry and drama, writing memoirs and essays, making movies, and doing journalism” (331). Nevertheless, “origin stories . . . remain the stuff of tradition in the new narrative and, ultimately, are what we rely on when we talk of ‘identity’” (331). “Native literatures are replete with these origin stories,” she states, and they are meant literally, because Indigenous peoples “understand the functions of storytelling as chronologies of the past and the future” (331). I don’t understand how those functions mean that origin stories must be taken literally. 

“The truth is, our literatures have suffered the oppression of colonial intrusion, much knowledge is forgotten or ignored, and we as Native people have often been confused or disillusioned as to what it all means in terms of contemporary lives,” Cook-Lynn writes (331). Part of that intrusion is an imposition of what she calls “the master narrative,” or the Settler version of who Indigenous peoples are (331). “Much of what American Indian literary works have been doing has been to dispute that legacy of colonial intrusion, and in doing so, mythic sensibilities are rediscovered and reclaimed,” she continues. “The ‘master narrative’ is coming under closer scrutiny, and the return to tradition is becoming more important in the Native American story” (331). “The function of mythology . . . from which all ideas about origins emerge, is an essential part of that scrutiny,” and because it is up to Indigenous peoples to talk about the Indigenous life of this continent, “concepts of indigenousness are developed, personalities are identified, events that shape eras are reviewed, and geographies become the center of cultural endeavour” (332). These concepts, personalities, events, and geographies are central to Indigenous origin stories. “[O]ne of the reasons to continue to tell the stories is to remind all of us that we are in danger of losing respect for all living things, including each other,” she continues. “We have lost some kind of communal common sense, and we really do need to talk to one another about how to bring about a new period in our concomitant histories” (332). 

Cook-Lynn laments the fact that “the greatest body of acceptable telling of the Indian story is still in the hands of non-Natives” (332-33). “This means that the Indian story, as it is told outside of the tribal genres and the Indian character, has its own modern imprimatur,” she states (333). Cook-Lynn spends the next several pages discussing Settler literary texts about Indigenous peoples, as well as biographies collected by ethnographers, such as Black Elk Speaks; those biographies are “required reading” for understanding “the pathology of Whites and Indians in America” (336). These “‘informant-based’ Indian stories” are “offshoots of biography” (336). She suggests that readers and writers of biography (apparently not just biographies of Indigenous people) are motivated by “voyeurism and busybodyism” and that biographers are like burglars looking for jewelry (337). The writer of “the ‘informant-based’ Indian story,” she contends, “almost always take sides with the ‘informant’ who gives him or her specific answers to specific questions. The writer/biographer is a believer. That is the nature of the relationship between the Indian informant and writer, and that’s what gives the story its authority for the reader” (337). However, “that’s also what makes these stories neither history nor art in terms of Native intellectualism” (337). For Cook-Lynn, those texts are “anti-intellectual,” because they lack ambiguity, and because their “essential focus is America’s dilemma, not questions about who the Indian thinks he or she is in tribal America” (337-38). These texts are thus “political in nature, colonialistic in perspective, and one-sided” (338). What she calls “Native American intellectualism” is interested in “tribal indigenousness,” and that factor “makes the ‘life story,’ the ‘self’-oriented and nontribal story, seem unrecognizable or even unimportant, non-communal, and unconnected” (338). “If stories are to have any meaning, Indian intellectuals must ask what it means to be an Indian in tribal America,” she argues. “If we don’t attempt to answer that question, nothing else will matter, and we won’t have to ask ourselves whether there is such a thing as Native American intellectualism because there will no longer be evidence of it” (338). I’m not sure I follow this argument; surely the range of Indigenous writing, from Taiaiake Alfred to Leanne Simpson, is evidence that Indigenous intellectuals exist. I must be missing something important. And why is she conflating the category of intellectual with the category of writer? I don’t follow.

Next, Cook-Lynn turns to writers she describes as “mixed-bloods” and complains that in their work there is “much lip service given to the condemnation of America’s treatment of the First Nations” but “few useful expressions of resistance and opposition to the colonial history at the core of Indian/White relations” (338). Instead, she sees “explicit and implicit accommodation to the colonialism of the ‘West’” that has led to “an aesthetic that is pathetic or cynical, a tacit notion of the failure of tribal governments as Native institutions and of sovereignty as a concept, and an Indian identity that focuses on individualism rather than First Nation ideology” (338). She cites Gerald Vizenor’s work as an example and describes “the ‘postcolonial’ story” as “the so-called mixed-blood story,” and suggests that “mixed-bloodedness has become the paradigm of preference” because the “bicultural nature of Indian lives has always been a puzzle to the monoculturalists of America” (338). Another example is the work of Louise Erdrich, which depicts “an inadequate Chippewa political establishment and a vanishing Anishinabe culture” that “suggests the failure of tribal sovereignty and the survival of myth in the modern world” (338-39). According to Cook-Lynn, “Erdrich’s conclusion is an odd one, in light of the reality of Indian life in the substantial Native enclaves of places like South Dakota or Montana or Arizona or New Mexico” (339). That may be, but perhaps Erdrich’s conclusion fits her experience? Or is Cook-Lynn arguing that only positive representations of Indigenous life are appropriate?

Cook-Lynn decries the “plethora of stories of the individual Indian life, biographies, and autobiographies of emancipated Indians who have little or no connection to tribal national life” that “has become the publishing fare of university presses in the name of Native scholarship” (339). She also complains of works of fiction in the 1990s that “catalogue the deficit model of Indian reservation life” and “do not suggest a responsibility of art as an ethical endeavor or the artist as responsible social critic,” which she considers “a marked departure from the early renaissance works of such luminaries as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko” (339). The key words in that critique are “ethical” and “responsible”: for Cook-Lynn, Adrian Louis (whose work I don’t know) is neither ethical or responsible in his fiction. “The failure of the contemporary Indian novel and literary studies in Native American studies to contribute substantially to intellectual debates in defense of First Nationhood is discouraging,” she writes, and writers and scholars at American universities have refused or been unable “to use a nation-to-nation approach to Native intellectualism” in their work. Instead, “[a] ‘tolerant’ national climate with resourceful diversity curricula has forged the apparatuses through which the study of aesthetics, ideology, and identity in Native thought has flourished to the detriment of autonomous models in Native studies,” and as a result, “there has been little defense of tribal nationhood, and the consequences of that flaw are deeply troubling”:

Indian Nations are dispossessed of sovereignty in literary studies, and there as elsewhere, their natural and legal autonomy is described as simply another American cultural or ethnic minority. Scholarship shapes the political, intellectual, and historical nation-to-nation past as an Americanism that can be compared to any other minority past. Many successful Native writers whose major focus is “mixed-blood liberation and individualism seem to argue their shared victimhood through America’s favorite subjects about Indians (i.e., despair, rootlessness, and assimilation). (339)

The contemporary “American literary voice seems dependent on a university setting,” where few Indigenous people “reside” and those few “are notable for their willingness to change tribal traditions to mainstream traditions of modernity, transcribing in English and imagining in art some principles of personal (but not tribal) politics and expressing the Indian experience in assimilative and mainstream terms” (339-40).

“The mixed-blood literature is characterized by excesses of individualism” and “are the result more of the dominance and patriarchy most noted in American society than of tribalness,” Cook-Lynn continues. “Mixed-blood literary instruction may be viewed as a kind of liberation phenomenon or, more specifically, a deconstruction of a tribal nation past, hardly an intellectual movement that can claim a continuation of the tribal communal story or an ongoing tribal literary tradition” (340). “The omnipresent and evasive role of the urban mixed-blood Indian intellectual writer has not bee examined in its relationship to tribal nation hopes and dreams,” and such writing represents “a movement of considerable consequence whose aim seems to be to give instruction to the academic world about what the imperialistic dispossession imposed on American Indians through the development of capitalistic democracy has meant to the individual, emancipated Indian” (340). The “mixed-blood literary movement” also suggests “that a return to tribal sovereignty on Indian homelands seems to be a lost cause, and American individualism will out” (340). The legacy of such writing will be more assimilation “and confusion as economic questions and cultural questions and federal Indian policy questions become more a matter of power than doctrine” (340). She suggests that this movement “is led by those whose tribal past has never been secure” and that it “is simply the result of the economy and culture imposed by conquest and colonization and politics” (340).

Cook-Lynn cites Antonio Gramsci to argue that these writers “are failed intellectuals because they have not lived up to the responsibility of transmitting knowledge between certain diverse blocs of society,” which from her perspective suggests “that the mixed-blood literary movement arose as a result of the assimilation inherent in cultural studies driven by American politics and imperialism” (340). According to Gramsci, the function of intellectuals is “to be at the forefront of theory but, at the same time, to transmit ideas to those who are not of the so-called professional, academic, intellectual class” (340). She cites Vine Deloria’s contention that “a turn away from academe toward tribal knowledge bases that exist at a grassroots level is the answer to the complex dilemmas of modern scholarship in Indian affairs,” which leads to the suggestion that ideas “are to be generated from the inside of culture, not from the outside looking in” (340). “It is evident that the mixed-blood literary phenomenon is not generated from the inside of tribal culture since many of the practitioners admit they have been removed from cultural influence through urbanization and academic professionalization or even, they suggest, through biology and intermarriage,” and as a result, it is “a literary movement of disengagement” (341):

When writers and researchers and professors who claim mixed blood focus on individualism and liberation, they often do not develop ideas as part of an inner-unfolding theory of Native culture; thus, they do not contribute ideas as a political practice connected to First Nation ideology. No one will argue that Native studies has had as its central agenda the critical questions of race and politics. For Indians in America today, real empowerment lies in First Nation ideology, not in individual liberation of Americanization. (341)

Cook-Lynn suggests that “[t]he explosion of the mixed-blood literary phenomenon is puzzling to those who believe that the essential nature of intellectual work and critical reflection for American Indians is to challenge the politics of dispossession inherent in public policy toward Indian nationhood” (341). Not only is it puzzling, but it is also dangerous, because those involved, “people who have no stake in First Nation ideology,” want “to absolve themselves of their responsibility to speak to that ideology,” and “their self-interest in job seeking, promotion, publishing, tenure, and economic security, dismisses the seriousness of Native intellectual work and its connection to politics” (341). 

The work produced by “the mixed-blood literary movement” is “personal, invented, appropriated, and irrelevant to First Nation status in the United States,” and it can lead to “no important pedagogical movement . . . toward those defensive strategies that are among the vital functions of intellectualism: to change the world, to know it, and to make it better by knowing how to seek appropriate solutions to human problems” (341). “How long, then, can mixed-blood literary figures teach a Native American curriculum in literary studies of self-interest and personal narrative before they realize . . . that the nature of the structural political problems facing the First Nation in America is being marginalized and silenced by the very work they are doing?” she asks (341). Well, at least now I know what Cook-Lynn means when she refers to Indigenous intellectuals: it is a very specific definition focused on the “tribal nation” (340) and “tribal culture” (341) and excludes “mixed-blood” or urban Indigenous people.

Cook-Lynn goes on to criticize contemporary writers for taking “an art for art’s sake approach,” although she also complains that “much bad poetry (which should be called ‘doggerel’) and bad fiction (which should be called ‘pop art’) has been published in the name of Native American art” (341). She cites John Gardner’s contention that “bad art has a harmful effect on society,” and demands that responsible critics distinguish between literary fiction and popular fiction (341). According to Cook-Lynn, “there are such concepts as (a) moral fiction and (b) indigenous/tribally specific literary traditions from which the imagination emerges,” and that there needs to be a discussion of “what is literary art and what is trash or fraudulent or pop in North American literatures,” although only a few “American Indian writers” would “have the stomach for” such a discussion (341-42). She again cites Momaday’s 1968 novel House Made of Dawn (which I don’t know) as a classic “not imply because it adheres to the principles of the oral traditions of the tribes,” or “because it seeks out the sources of ritual and ceremony, language, and storytelling,” although both aspects are “essential”:

It is considered a classic because it is a work that explores traditional values, revealing truth and falsity about those values from a framework of tribal realism. It is diametrically opposed to fantasy, which often evades or suppresses moral issues. Momaday’s work allows profound ideas to be conceptualized, allows its Indian readers to work through those ideas and move on to affirm their lives as Indian people. (342)

House Made of Dawn also “adheres to the Gardner principle and the principles of the oral traditions that good stories incline the reader to an optimistic sense” (342). She wants the ideas contained in literary texts to contain ideas that are “life affirming to the indigenes” (342).

“[I]f untrammeled and unexamined,” the “art for art’s sake phenomenon” will let “Indian artists off the hook” and lead them “away from what some of us may consider a responsibility to our own tribal traditions. Though modernity suggests the inevitability of that moving away for the sake of a living art, I am not sure that are can be considered art if it ignores its own historical sense” (342). She deplores the tendency towards magic realism in contemporary Indigenous fiction, noting that it arose in Spanish-language, South-American literature, which she describes as a colonizing literature. This interest in magic realism, she argues, “could be thought of . . . as another generic imposition upon the indigenous story. And the question of distortion in American Indian intellectualism or its outright dismissal again looms” (342). She asks what magic realism distorts in relation to Indigenous cultures (342). “Do we accept the idea that the current Indian story rises out of ‘The Age of mixed-blood and magical fantasies’?” she asks. “If not, artists and critics must come to understand that popular Native American fiction is as extricably tied to specific tribal legacies as contemporary Jewish literature is tied to the literary legacies of the nations of Eastern Europe or contemporary Black literature is tied to the nations of tribal Africa” (343).

In the concluding section of Cook-Lynn’s essay, “The Dilemma,” she asks “how it is that what might be called experimental work in contemporary Native American literature or ‘pulp fiction’ narratives or fantasies will assist us with our real lives” (343). “Does this art give thoughtful consideration to the defense of our lands, resources, languages, and children?” she asks. “Is anyone doing the intellectual work in and about Indian communities that will help us understand our future? While it is true that any indigenous story tells of death and blood, it also tells of indigenous rebirth and hope, not as Americans or as some new ersatz race but as the indigenes of this continent” (343). “Does the Indian story as it is told now end in rebirth of Native nations as it did in the past?” she continues. “Does it help in the development of worthy ideas, prophecies for a future in which we continue as tribal people who maintain the legacies of the past and a sense of optimism?” (343). These, for Cook-Lynn, are essential questions for Indigenous writers; texts that do not address them “have little or nothing to do with what may be defined as Native intellectualism” (343):

What is Native intellectualism, then? Who are the intellectuals? Are our poets and novelists articulating the real and the marvelous in celebration of the past, or are they the doomsayers of the future? Are they presenting ideas, moving through those ideas and beyond? Are they the ones who recapture the past and preserve it? Are they thinkers who are capable of supplying principles that may be used to develop further ideas? Are they capable of the critical analysis of cause and effect? Or, are our poets and novelists just people who glibly use the English language to entertain us, to keep us amused and preoccupied so that we are no longer capable of making the distinction between the poet and the stand-up comedian? Does that distinction matter anymore? Does it matter how one uses language and for what purpose? (343)

She suggests that the work of Alfonso Ortiz, N. Scott Momaday, and Vine Deloria, Jr. was “based in history and culture and politics that looked out on the White world from a communal, tribally specific indigenous past” (343-44). She sees little in contemporary Indigenous writing, however, that “has the perspective that propelled Ortiz, Momaday, and Deloria toward a scholarship that concerned itself with indigenousness” (344). Contemporary Indigenous literature is not “profound” and it “does not pose the unanswerable questions for our future as Indians in America” (344).

Cook-Lynn has other questions to ask: “Who says our modern works, which focus on the pragmatic problems of the noncommunal world of multicultural America, are worthy to be the lasting works in our legacy of artistry?” (344). And “who says that the modern works written by American Indians, introspective and self-centred,” have gotten “it right”? (344). “[T]he modern Indian story (whether told by an Indian or a non-Indian) seems to have taken a very different course from its traditional path in Native societies,” she writes. “In doing so, it has defined the literary place where the imaginative final encounter may be staged and only time holds the answer to its continuity or rejection or obligation or interdiction” (344). “Native intellectuals,” whom she describes as “dabbling” in “a rather shallow pool of imagination and culture,” “must pull ourselves together not only to examine the irrelevant stories of ‘other’ storytellers”—I think she means non-Indigenous writers who take on Indigenous topics here—“but to critically examine the self-centred stories we presume to tell about our own people” (344).

Cook-Lynn has very definite ideas about how Indigenous stories ought to be told, and she is not unwilling to be prescriptive:

Indian stories, traditions, and languages must be written, and they must be written in a vocabulary that people can understand rather than the esoteric language of French and Russian literary scholars that has overrun the lit-crit scene. Scholars in Native intellectual circles must resist the flattery that comes from many corners, defend freedom, refute rejection from various power enclaves, and resist the superficiality that is so much a part of the modern/urban voice. We must work toward a new set of principles that recognizes the tribally specific literary traditions by which we have always judged the imagination. This distinguished legacy—largely untapped by critics, mainstream readers, and Native participants—is too essential to be ignored as we struggle toward the inevitable modernity of Native American intellectualism. (344-45)

“[T]he business of history and myth and identity for American Indians and for all of us is a complex matter,” Cook-Lynn continues. “It deserves our attention” (345). Yet colonialism “has dealt a crushing blow to all of this world that I have been describing here briefly,” she writes. Nevertheless, “[d]espite the crimes of history, we write. We continue as poets, novelists, fictionists, parents, grandparents. We continue to want the stories. We have little power, but that does not mean that we have no influence” (345). It is her business as a writer and scholar, she states, “to remember the past and recall the old ways of the people. Literature and myth and history have always been the way to shape a new world” (345). She ends by citing her own writing as an example of work that sees the world through the optic of “tribal experiences” (345). 

I’m not sure what to make of Cook-Lynn’s argument—and as a môniyâw, I’m not sure it’s my business to pass judgement on the claims she makes here—but I am very uncomfortable with its prescriptive nature and its attack on “mixed-blood” writers. Neither strikes me as particularly useful or helpful. However, I’ll have to ask my friends who are experts in the area what they think of this essay (or, at least, my summary of it).

I skipped “‘Self’ and ‘Other’: Auto-Reflexive and Indigenous Ethnography,” by Keyan G. Tomaselli, Lauren Dyll, and Michael Francis, because I have no intention of engaging in ethnography in my project (autoethnography, perhaps, but ethnography, no), and turned to “Autoethnography is Queer,” by Tony E. Adams and Stacy Holman Jones. I have a lengthy book on autoethnography edited by Adams, Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis, and if it isn’t on my reading list, it probably should be—but perhaps this essay will give me enough of a preview. (Probably not, though.) They begin with an anecdote that leads to a discussion of the distinction between “subjugated knowledges,” which “are present but disguised in theory and method, criticism and scholarship, experience and disciplinary (and disciplining) conversations,” and “knowledge of subjugation—stories of struggle, oppression, humiliation” (374). They cite Craig Gingrich-Philbrook’s questioning of whether “stories of loss, failure, and resistance don’t often work as ‘advertisements for power’”:

He wonders if such stories ask us to hew to an overly formalist view of what not only constitutes autoethnography but what makes for successful, viable, and remarkable personal storytelling in the name of autoethnography or any other academic pursuit. He wonders if our interest in realism, in evocation, in proving—once and for all—that what autoethnographers and experimental writers are doing is scholarship—trades in and betrays literary ambiguity, writerly vulnerability, institutional bravery, difference, and artistry. He suggests that telling stories of subjugated knowledges—stories of pleasure, gratification, and intimacy—offers one possibility for writing against and out of the bind of sacrificing a multitudinous artistry for clear, unequivocal knowledge. (374)

Oh, dear, I find myself wondering, is this more prescription—this time, prescribing what kinds of stories autoethnographers ought to tell? Besides, what does the phrase “trades in” mean in that sentence? What is the relationship between trading in something—marketing it to others—and betrayal? And are social scientists really artists? Wouldn’t they have to dump the word “sciences” from the noun phrase “social sciences” and call themselves “social artists” instead? Does art have scientific value? Is that its purpose? Really?

The authors return to the anecdote with which the essay begins—a story about being recognized at Starbucks—to suggest “that something socially and culturally and politically significant—something queer—happened” in that encounter (374). “What are the possibilities of particular, ambiguous, mundane, queer stories of encounter?” they ask:

What are the promises and possibilities of this artistry (a word I substituted, just now, for work) for qualitative research and critical methodologies? Will such stories help us generate some type of agreement about the value, seriousness, and commitment of autoethnographic work, our approach in engaging such work, and our recognition of those who are doing it and doing it well? Will such stories provide a counterpoint to the balancing act of telling of loss and pleasure, despair and hope? Will such stories help us decide who gets invited to speak, who gets an audience, who gets tenure, who gets acknowledged? Will such stories help us build communities, maintain borders, live somewhere in between? I’m not sure they will and I’m not sure I want them to. (374)

That last sentence leaves me wondering what the point of all of this has been. What do the authors actually want autoethnography to do? 

“Autoethnography, whether a practice, a writing form, or a particular perspective on knowledge and scholarship, hinges on the push and pull between and among analysis and evocation, personal experience and larger social, cultural, and political concerns,” they continue in the essay’s next section, “Hinge” (374). The authors write that “attempts to locate, to tie up, to define autoethnography as as diverse as our perspectives on what autoethnography are as diverse as our perspectives on what autoethnography is and what we want it to do” (374). Such attempts try to “delineate the relationship of self or selves (informant, narrator, I) and others/communities/cultures (they, we, society, nation, state)” in different ways: as extractive, as personal, as an “evocatively rendered, aesthetically compelling, and encounter,” as an art form that “exhibits aesthetic merit, reflexivity, emotional and intellectual force, and a clear sense of a cultural, social, individual, or communal reality” (374-75). Autoethnography in this formulation, they continue, “is an effort to set a scene, tell a story, and create a text that demands attention and participation; makes witnessing and testifying possible; and puts pleasure, difference, and movement into productive conversation” (375). Why “movement”? Is that word meant literally or metaphorically? What is moving, and where is it going?

Opening up “definitional boundaries” is another way of approaching autoethnography, they continue (375). In this approach, autoethnography is an “‘orientation toward scholarship,” rather than “a method, a specific set of procedures, or a mode of representation” (Gingrich-Philbrook, qtd. 375). This approach “does not abandon intersections or interests but instead makes the politics of knowledge and experience central to what autoethnography is and does, as well as what it wants to be and become” (375). With the addition of performance and embodiment, autoethnography becomes “‘a way of seeing and being [that] challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other’” (Denzin, qtd. 375). Okay, but what other form or method or orientation discussed in this handbook does not challenge or potentially endorse “hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other”? Isn’t that a claim made about everything that’s been discussed in this handbook so far?

In any case, “[t]he actions and meanings that we invoke and engage when we utter and inscribe the word ‘autoethnography’ conjure a variety of methodological approaches and techniques, writing practices, and scholarly and disciplinary traditions” (375). There is no single definition “or set of practices” involved; instead, “an abstract, open, and flexible space of movement is necessary to let the doing of autoethnography begin, happen, and grow” (375). However, such a “considered, differential positioning has also caused worry about whose or what traditions we’re working in, which methods of analysis and aesthetic practice we’re using (or ignoring), and whether we can co-exist peacefully while at the same time generating positive movement (and change) in our multiplicity” (375). Beyond “the crises of legitimation, representation, and praxis,” there are questions about “the relationship between analysis and evocation, personal experience and larger concerns, and the reason we do this work at all,” they continue. “Is it to advance theory and scholarship? To engage in an artistic and necessarily circuitous practice? To render clean lines of inquiry and mark sure meanings and thus knowledge? To change the world?” (375). Are these ambitions incompatible? If so, can autoethnographers acknowledge their differences and claim their own versions of autoethnography? “We could also return to the oppositions and to the hinge, to the elemental movement . . . that work these oppositions,” they write. “And, returning there, we could ask what the hinge holds and pieces together, here solidly, there weakening, in many places coming undone: analysis and evocation, experience and world, apples and oranges” (375). “We could also ask what our hinges do, what versions of lives, embodiments, and power these hinges put in motion, what histories they make go,” they continue (375-76). 

According to the authors, those are fundamental questions that go “beyond contextualization, historicization, and reflexivity to intervene in the very construction of such constructions” (376). Those questions “ask questions about what counts—as experience, as knowledge, as scholarship, as opening up possibilities for doing things and being in the world differently” (376). (Can questions ask questions?) They also ask questions about who gets to be recognized as human (376). “Asking these questions suggests that we dismantle the hinge—that we become ‘unhinged’—from ‘linear narrative deployment,’ creating work and texts that turn ‘language and bodies in upon themselves reflecting and redirecting subaltern knowledges,’ and in which ‘fragments of lived experience collide and realign with one another, breaking and remaking histories’” (Tami Spry, qtd. 376). But at the same time those questions “also remind us of the necessity of the hinge, of the ink that it makes, however, tenuously, to others even in the release of their hold on us,” a necessity that “speaks to the threat of ‘becoming undone altogether,’ creating selves, texts, and worlds that no longer incorporate the ‘norm’ (of sociality, of discourses, of knowledges, of intelligibility) in ways that make these selves, texts, and worlds recognizable as such” (376). They cite Judith Butler on “the juncture from which critique emerges” (qtd. 376), which they take to be the same as the hinges they are discussing.

Next, the authors present a list of what seem to be characteristics of autoethnography’s hinge, quoting Judith Butler, Chandra Mohanty, and Chela Sandoval as they do so:

The claiming of experience, of a personal story, of humanity in the struggle over self-representation, interpretation, and recognition. The accounting for oneself as constituted relationally, socially, in terms not entirely (or in any way) our own. The movement between two “traps, the purely experiential and the theoretical oversight of personal and collective histories.” The performative space both within and outside of subjects, structures, and differences where the activist (the writer, the performer, the scholar) becomes in the moment of acting (the moment of writing, performing, doing scholarship). Where we are made in the same way the judge, promiser, oath taker is made in the act of judging, promising, or swearing an oath. The hinge is an instrument of transitivity, a moral movement that is inspired and linked, acting and acted upon. The hinge asks us to align what may seem divided perspectives—without forgetting their differences or their purposeful movements—in order to “puncture through the everyday narratives that tie us to social time and space, to the descriptions, recitals, and plots that dull and order our senses.” (quoting Butler, Mohanty, and Sandoval 376)

After presenting these different perspectives on autoethnography, the authors reveal their own position: they agree with Sandoval’s argument for “a ‘differential’ methodology that aims at tactically, and we might add tectonically, shifting ways of being, knowing, and acting in the world” (376). (The word “tectonically” is hyperbole: do we actually expect our research to make the earth move?) “As one point, or tactic for departure, we explore the hinge that links autoethnography and queer theory,” they continue:

We wonder if, in the binding and alliance of autoethnography and queer theory—if in recognizing ways these “broad orientations” complement and fail each other—we might emerge with something else, something new. We are not after a homogenizing blend or a nihilistic prioritizing of concerns. . . . Instead, we want a transformation of the identities and categories, commitments and possibilities that autoethnography conjures and writes, as well as the identities and categories, commitments and possibilities of autoethnography itself. We wonder what happens when we think, say, do, and write: autoethnography is queer. (376-77)

Well, you can’t say that Holman Jones and Adams aren’t ambitious. But honestly, is any academic essay likely to transform “the identities and categories, commitments and possibilities” that autoethnography, or any other form of research, generates or represents? One of the problems I have with such claims, which I see repeated throughout this anthology, is their utter lack of humility, their incapacity to recognize the limits of possibility of academic research, their claims to a political efficacy that cannot possibly be realized. That’s one of the reasons I keep hoping for examples of the methodologies described by these texts: I am looking for at least one example of a methodology that can support the theoretical claims these authors make. So far, I’ve been disappointed, probably because the revolutionary fervour in the theory is impossible to put into practice.

In the essay’s next section, the authors respond in poetry to poetry written by Minnie Bruce Pratt. It’s an example of autoethnography, an account of trying to write a paper, or perhaps give a paper (the narrative context is not clear until the end of the section) and it leads to a larger significance. “I want to say that this poetry does not stop or end with queer,” they write. “The our poetry does not stop or end with radical historicization, with questioning categories or normalization, with turning cutting language inside out or making manifest violent and colonizing hierarchies, though these are things that must be done” (378). It’s not entirely clear whether the authors are talking about their own poetry, or Pratt’s, or both, or the collective poetry of the LGBTQ+ community. In any case, the poetry they are describing clearly has large political ambitions. They continue:

I want to say that such poetry, such a poetics, is also a chance for movement, a means to transform the static of a noun—queer—into the action of a verb—queering. I want to speak about moving theory play into methodological activism. I want to say, autoethnography is queer. I want to make autoethnography into performative speech that creates a freedom from having to be “careful about what we say” (Pratt, qtd. 378)

Let’s leave aside the equation between poetry and poetics (the words are not typically considered synonyms) and the claim that “queer” is a noun (it’s a verb, a noun, and an adjective, according to the OED) or that “queering” is a verb (as a participle, yes, but as a gerund, it’s a noun). What claim is actually being made here? What does “queer” mean in this context? What about the slippage between “queer” as an identity and as a broader subversion of orthodoxy? Isn’t the latter usage an appropriation? Doesn’t the fact of that appropriation need to be addressed—if indeed that’s the way they are using the word? At the end of the section, the authors write of being prevented from finishing their presentation: “I am asked, then told, that I am finished” (378). The common conference phenomenon of running over one’s allotted time seems to have become an act of political repression. Again, we run into the phenomenon of poetry, claimed as a methodology, not being peer reviewed by other poets, a necessary characteristic of a methodology. The nearly obsolete word “poetaster” comes to mind.

My questions about the word “queer” are addressed in the essay’s next section. They cite Judith Butler’s definition—that queering is a redeployment or twisting from “a ‘prior usage’ (derogatory, accusatory, violent) in the ‘direction of urgent and expanding political purposes” (Butler, qtd. 378). “Queer theory refuses to close down inventiveness, refuses static legitimacy,” they write. “One could argue that queer theory has discursively achieved this legitimation and sanctioning, a form of normalcy, but it can attempt to work against this normalcy, never becoming comfortable with itself as a sensibility of its cultural acceptance” (378). However, “many queer theorists unfortunately have a difficult time queering themselves,” meaning that queer theory (like anything else) has a tendency to harden into the static rigidity of a law or program (378). They suggest that bringing autoethnography and queer theory into dialogue will lead in a direction similar to Sara Ahmed’s “melding of phenomenology and queer theory”: “what can happen if we queer autoethnography?” (378-79). “Both autoethnography and queer theory share conceptual and purposeful affinities: Both refuse received notions of orthodox methodologies and focus instead on fluidity, intersubjectivity, and responsiveness to particularities,” they continue:

Both autoethnography and queer theory embrace an opportunistic stance toward existing and normalizing techniques in qualitative inquiry, choosing to “borrow,” “refashion,” and “retell” methods and theory differently. Both autoethnography and queer theory take up selves, beings, “I”s, even as they work against a stable sense of such self-subjects or experience and instead work to map how self-subjects are accomplished in interaction and act in and upon the world. And, given their commitments to refiguring and refashioning, questioning normative discourses and acts, and undermining and refiguring how lives and lives worth living come into being, both autoethnography and queer theory are thoroughly political projects. (379)

However, both autoethnography and queer theory have been “criticized for being too much and too little—too much personal mess, too much theoretical jargon, too elitist, too sentimental, too removed, too difficult, too easy, too White, too Western, too colonialist, too indigenous. Too little artistry, too little theorizing, too little connection of the personal and political, too impractical, too little fieldwork, too few real-world applications” (379). They argue that “[q]ueering autoethnography both answers and exacerbates these critiques in that they are critiques of abundance and excess”:

Queering autoethnography takes up a broad orientation to research and representation that exists between and outside the tensions of experience and analysis. It hinges distance and closeness, equality and prioritizing oppression, conversation/dialogue and irony/rebellious debate, and accessibility and academic activism. Our goal is to be “inclusive without delimiting,” to “remap the terrain” of autoethnography and queer theory “without removing the fences that make good neighbours.” (Alexander, qtd. 379)

Their goal, they write, is to “hinge a brief portrait of queer theory and queer projects to the purposes and practices of autoethnography” (379).

In the next section, the authors (Adam, I think, is writing this part) discuss how wearing a short or hat with the logo of an LGBTQ+ human rights organization has led to being treated nicely by baristas, flight attendants, and servers, and to receiving an apology from a homophobic cashier in a grocery store. That autobiographical (or autoethnographic: really, what separates the two forms? does autoethnography have a greater ambition than mere autobiography or memoir?) interlude is followed by a summary of queer theory, which they contend “is best conceived of as a shifting sensibility rather than a static theoretical paradigm” which “developed in response to a normalizing of (hetero)sexuality as well as from a desire to disrupt insidious social conventions” (381). (Why is “hetero” in parentheses?) “Fluidity and dynamism characterize queer thought, motivating queer researchers to work against disciplinary legitimation and rigid categorization,” they write, citing Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as those primarily responsible for its development (381). The word “queer,” they continue, “can function as an identity category that avoids the medical baggage of ‘homosexual,’ disrupts the masculine bias and domination of ‘gay,’ and avoids the ‘ideological liabilities’ of the ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ binary” (381). They quote Sedgwick on “queer”:

[it] can refer to “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” Queer can also serve as a temporary and contingent linguistic home for individuals living outside the norms of sex and gender (e.g., intersex, transsexual) and, as such, must not just involve transgressions of sexuality; a person can claim a queer signifier if she or he works against oppressive, normalizing discourses of identity. As a critical sensibility, queer theory tries to steer clear of categorical hang-ups and linguistic baggage, removes identity from essentialist and constructionist debates, and commits itself to a politics of change. (381)

Given this definition, I wouldn’t feel comfortable adopting the term to describe my own research, although I didn’t feel that way after reading Sara Ahmed’s work. Different definitions, perhaps, have different effects and include or exclude different people, even unintentionally. 

That is the point of the essay’s next section, “Categorical Hang-Ups and Linguistic Baggage.” Queer theory “values ‘definitional indeterminacy’ and ‘conceptual elasticity,’” (Yep, Lovaas, and Elia, qtd. 381). Queer theorists reject “‘labeling philosophies’” while reclaiming “marginal linguistic identifiers” (381). They “work to disrupt binaries of personhood, and remain inclusive of identities not subsumed under canonical descriptors” (381). Queer theorists also revel “in languages’s failure, assuming that words can never definitively represent phenomena or stand in for things themselves” (381). (I’m not sure queer theorists are the only ones aware of language’s failure to represent phenomena, though.) The authors’ example of language’s failure is the way one defines “woman”: their various attempts at providing a definition (not all of which are serious: one is “All women are terrible at math and science,” for instance) fall apart, particularly in relation to transwomen (381). “The more we interrogate identity categories, the more we fall into linguistic illusion, the more we recognize language’s fallibility,” they write. “Such an illusory, fallible condition, however, creates a ‘greater openness in the way we think through our categories,’ a goal of queer research” (Plummer, qtd. 381-82). In relation to questions of identity, the failure of language “becomes important: While we interact with others via socially established categories, these labels crumble upon interrogation, thus making a perpetual journey of self-understanding possible” (382). As a method, autoethnography “allows a person to document perpetual journeys of self-understanding,” which then “allows her or him to produce queer texts” (382). That’s quite a leap—is all autoethnography queer in that sense? is all life-writing queer in that sense—but, the authors continue, such a “queer autoethnography also encourages us to think through and out of our categories for interaction and to take advantage of language’s failure to capture or contain selves, ways of relating, and subjugated knowledges” (382). 

The authors’ second point is “that queer theory conceives of identity as a relational ‘achievement’” (Garfinkel, qtd. 382). “An achievement metaphor,” they contend, “situates identities in interaction, in processes where we are held accountable for being persons of particular kinds, kinds that we sometimes know or try to present ourselves as, but also kinds about which we have no definitive control” (382). “A queer, identity-as-achievement logic implies that we are held accountable for identities that often take the form of linguistic categories,” they continue, “but implies we can never know what categories others may demand of us or what kinds of people others will consider us as; we can try to pass as kinds of persons, but we may not succeed or know if we succeed” (382). This notion “implies that selves emerge from and remain contingent upon situated embodied practices, acts that rely on compulsory, citational, stereotypical performances about being kinds of people” (382). It also suggests “that identities fluctuate across time and space, thus requiring constant attention and negotiation,” and that identities are not singular, fixed, or normal, even if they appear that way (382). It also “distances identity from essentialist and constructionist debates of selfhood”: from, on the one hand, the notion that identity if biologically determined, and on the other, the claim that identities are “socially established and maintained through interaction” (382). Instead, a “queer, identity-as-achievement” perspective “embraces the contextual achievement of and passing as certain kinds of people” (382). Identity is a performance, then, or a series of performances: 

In one context, an individual may be perceived as heterosexual whereas in another context, the individual may be perceived as bisexual or homosexual. In another context, an individual may pass as White, and in another context, this individual may pass as Black, and in another context, this individual may pass as multiracial. In one context, an individual may pass as Catholic, and in another context she or he may pass as Baptist, and in another context, she or he may pass as Jewish. (382)

But are all of these performances appropriate? Do they all make sense? Should White people, for example, attempt to pass as Indigenous? Should Gentiles attempt to pass as Jews? Does this argument end up supporting the performances of Joseph Boyden or Rachel Dolezal? I mean, I’m a Settler: I can’t pretend to be anything else. I wouldn’t want to engage in that kind of pretense, either. And what is the connection between context and interpretation, on the one hand, and the performance of identity, on the other? Is performance always contextual? Or are two very different ideas—performance and the reception of performance—being jumbled together here?

“An identity-as-achievement perspective does not imply that biology has nothing to do with interaction, nor does it foreground environmental influences on selfhood; the essence of selves and the processes through which selves are made are the foci of queer theory,” they continue (382). That’s a confusing sentence: biology must therefore have something to do with interaction, but environmental influences are in the background rather than the foreground? I don’t understand. What are selves made out of, if not, in part, the entanglements between a variety of cultural influences and biology, among other things? I understand that the authors are trying to distance queer notions of identity as performance from biological essentialism or environmental determinism, but that sentence leaves me wondering what biology has to do with “interaction” and where environmental influences are situated. And, strangely, in a subsequent autoethnographic section of the essay, a reference is made to “scripts of masculinity,” suggesting that social or cultural influences to exert some pressure on the performance of identity. It seems to me that the argument that identity is mostly a performance ignores the ways in which it is not.

But when autoethnographies appear in the permanency of print, this “queer sensibility” can become fixed and rigid: “a written text can function as a permanent representation, a lifeless, uncompromising snapshot of culture. Finished texts solidify human trajectories in time and space, making it possible for life to imitate immobile art” (382). Wait a minute—aren’t they talking about representations of life, rather than life itself? By publishing autoethnographic accounts, they continue, “we solidify an identity into text, and we harden a community, never allowing us or it to change” (383). I’m not sure this presumed immobility is any different from photography or painting or film or any means of representation. Then what? “But by considering autoethnography queer, we recognize that identities may not be singular, fixed, or normal across all interactions,” they write. “Identities constructed through a queering of autoethnography are relational; they shift and change. We are held accountable for being particular kinds of people by numerous seen and unseen forces”—who or what conducts this policing of identity? what are these “forces”?—but our/these kinds of identities are in constant need of attention, negotiation, and care” (383). But how does a theoretical perspective counter the material fact of the printed text’s immobility? I don’t think it can. Then what?

Their third point is that queer theory is politically committed—if that commitment, or politics, “deconstructs what may pass as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’” and “focuses on how bodies both constitute and are constituted by systems of power as well as how bodies might serve as sites of social change,” as well as “embraces a ‘politics of transgression’” (383). Queer theorists, they continue, “revel in ‘symbolic disorder,’ pollute established social conventions, and diffuse hegemonic categories and classifications” (383). Queer theory is therefore perverse: its projects “function as this denormalizing perversion often by re/appropriating marginal discourse” in order “to pollute canonical discourse, to question what mundanely passes as normal,” to “counter canonical stories, and make discursive ‘trouble’” (383). Even the use of the word “queer” is “a queer act, a queer politics,” because that usage reappropriates “the once-taboo word and tries to reclaim abject power” (383). “By using queer in an affirmative sense—by incorporating it into mainstream discourse and associating the term with the academically valued theory—queer endeavors can emerge as desirable and esteemed,” they write (383). 

“Queering autoethnography embraces fluidity, resists definitional and conceptual fixity, looks to self and and structures as relational accomplishments, and takes seriously the need to create more livable, equitable, and just ways of living,” Adam and Holman Jones write (384). (The notion of self and structures—what structures—as “relational accomplishments” is a new idea that needs to be explored. How are structures “accomplishments”? Who accomplishes structure? That sounds collective rather than individual, doesn’t it? And if so, is this an acknowledgement that cultural and social influences play a role in the performance of self?) “The hinge that links queer theory and autoethnography,” they continue, is “a differential and oppositional form of consciousness” which is transitive because it intervenes in social reality (384). The “subject-selves” of autoethnography “are forthrightly incomplete, unknown, fragmented, and conflictual,” and by “[f]ailing to recognize these contingencies, ellipses, and contradictions,” autoethnographers end up in a place “where boundaries are policed, disciplinary and scholarly turf is defined and fought over, and systems for what and who ‘counts’ and doesn’t count undermine the very liberatory impulses we imagine for our work” (384-85). “In the place of relationality, performativity, and transitivity, we create singularity, clarity, and certainty,” they write. “In short, we create good stories: stories that report on recognizable experiences, that translate simply and specifically to an ‘actionable result’—an emotional response, a change in thinking or behavior, a shift in policy or perception, publication, tenure” (385). I’m astonished by the slippage in the last sentence of that quotation: tenure or publication as “an ‘actionable result’”? What is the link between such personal benefits—which any writer would desire, frankly—and the high-minded desire for a potential “shift in policy or perception”? Moreover, don’t all writers hope to get at least an emotional response from their audiences? Don’t they hope (to some extent) to change their audiences’ perceptions? How then is autoethnography different from other kinds of writing?

Autoethnographers, they continue, have tended to favour “clarity and transparency of knowledge . . . over ambiguity—room for interpretation, misunderstanding, not knowing, leaving things unanswered”; they have “[f]oregrounded knowledge claims and publication in sanctioned or legitimate outlets”—in academic journals, for example—and have “gloss[ed] over aesthetic (literary) concerns”; they have looked for “proof of worth and legitimacy by creating typologies for good stories to enact” even while resisting that compulsion; they have “[e]ngaged in recursive debates about how to define autoethnography” (385). None of this sounds very queer; it sounds like a problem they might want to address, or a self-criticism. They return to Gingrich-Philbrook’s call for writing about “subjugated knowledges, stories that are present but disguised”: 

These are stories of pleasure, of gratification, of the mundane, as they intersect, crisscrossing rhizomatically with stories of subjugation, abuse, and oppression. One of the most ready forms for such tellings is found in narrative accounts of our lives. And so, autoethnography is queer. Saying so means taking a stand on a poetics of change. Saying so treats identities and communities as a performative, relational accomplishment. (385)

They cite Judith Butler’s contention that stories are always told “in order to make ourselves ‘recognizable and understandable’” (qtd. 385):

This is a recognition of a need to unfasten the hinge that separates experience and analysis and the personal and the political, even as we need it to create an intelligible humanity, a life both livable and worth living. It is a recognition of humanity that doesn’t end or stop in the move from the space of illegitimacy, all breath and speech, dark and hollow, to the place of legitimacy, resplendent and lucid in word and text. (385)

Why is speech illegitimate while text is “resplendent”? Why sneak in that binary opposition in a text that is ostensibly about undoing binary oppositions? I don’t get it.

They cite a long quotation from Butler about the need to be “undone by another” (qtd. 385) and wonder “if the ethics of undoing that Butler describes enacts both the pleasures and the oppressions of autoethnography and, furthermore, if it anticipates the juncture, the stitching together—the hinging—of autoethnography and queer theory” (385-86). They suggest, for example, that autoethnographers ought to make “work that becomes, like a perpetual horizon, rather than an artifact of experience,” that “acts as if, rather than says it is” (386). “Such work understands the importance of being tentative, playful, and incomplete in equal measure with radical historicization, persistent questioning, and perpetual revision,” they claim (386). They call upon autoethnographers to make “work that simultaneously imagines fluid, temporary, and radically connected identities and that creates and occupies recognizable identities”: that kind of work would see “identities as relational accomplishments: manifestations of selves that shift and change, that must be negotiated and cared for, and for which we are held personally, institutionally, and ethically responsible” (386). Finally, they suggest that autoethnographers make “work that advocates for trouble, that takes a stand in and on the otherwise,” thus disrupting “taken-for-granted, normalizing stories” and positing “more open, more free, and more just ways of being in the world” (386). I would be more interested in these descriptions of what autoethnography ought to be like if the authors were able to provide examples of work that resembles the kind of writing they are calling for. I need examples of practice, as well as the demands of theory. 

“We encourage you to claim and reclaim the word queer in the name of autoethnography, in the name of challenging categories and achieving identities and communities that are fluid yet complex, multiple yet cognizant of the attention, negotiation, and care that impinge on any scholarly project,” they conclude. “We encourage you to twist autoethnography from its prior usages, whether diminishing or valorizing, and put it to use for altogether new political purposes” (386). I wonder of those words are intended as a rebuttal to the description of autoethnography they provide on the previous page. 

In the essay’s final, autoethnographic section, the authors wonder about taking chances “motivated not out of a misplaced or, worse, righteous self-sufficiency, but a willingness to become undone and moved to act” (387). “Why not write over, on, and through the boundaries of what constitutes and contributes to autoethnography—to qualitative and critical research—by creating a few queer stories, a few queer autoethnographies?” they ask. “Why not embrace a critical stance that values opacity, particularity, indeterminateness for what they bring and allow us to know and forget, rather than dismissing these qualities as slick deconstructive tricks, as frustrating, as unmoving and unrecognizable?” (387). Those words definitely sound like a rejoinder to the description of autoethnography as privileging clarity, transparency, ad knowledge. To queer autoethnography, then, would be to write differently.

For my part, I like both clarity and ambiguity and I don’t see why one can’t have both. I think ambiguity is not the same as indeterminacy, and I’m not sure why knowledge is something to be abandoned. I haven’t read the three key writers on queer theory, but I have trouble believing that our selves are entirely performed without some influence, at least part of the time, from biology and our cultural or social contexts. I know those contexts have had an influence on who I’ve become, on the range of roles available for my performances of self. The authors must know so too; why else do they uncritically cite Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy? Perhaps I would have to read Judith Butler, at least, to understand why Holman Jones and Adam are making this claim, or perhaps that claim has been stretched beyond a reasonable point. Nor am I sure that “queer” is a word that I ought to use; to turn it into a metaphor would be to ignore the actual struggles those who identify as queer experience. And, finally, I’m not sure why autoethnography, as a term, is preferable to memoir or autobiography or life-writing. Don’t all examples of life-writing address the subject’s wider context(s)? Is autoethnography making a truth claim that those other ways of writing the self do not? I don’t have answers to these questions; they only way to get answers, I would expect, would be to keep reading.

I almost skipped over D. Soyini Madison’s “Narrative Poetics and Performative Interventions,” mostly because I’m not interested in performative ethnography (I’m not really interested in ethnography at all as an academic discipline), but the anecdote with which Madison begins the essay—a student complaining about the prescriptiveness of the readings in one of her  graduate courses—caught my attention. She wonders if there is some truth in his accusation; perhaps she “was overemphasizing theory and politics at the expense of sound methodological practice” (391). On the other hand, she found the student’s complaint hard to understand,  she writes, “because it has always been impossible for me to separate theory from method. How can there be such a thing as critical methods without critical theory or politics and political theory? Can’t we embrace theory and politics in the field and work for social justice—out of which our methods are generated—without being accused of ‘telling people what to do’?” (391).  That student’s objection reminded her of something two Afro-Peruvian human rights activists had told her a few weeks before: academics typically come to Peru to research folklore rather than the way that “‘beads, songs, myths, and weaving’” are connected to the material conditions of their lives (391-92). “The student equated a critical theory approach to methodology as ‘telling people what to do’; the Peruvian activists equated a lack of political and critical consciousness in the field as ‘folklore encounters’ that ignored material suffering,” she continues. “What critical, performance ethnography hopes to bridge is the frustration and feelings of lack in both these positions: the poetics of a space AND its politics as well as its politics and its poetics” (392). (I find the use of chiasmus in that sentence hard to understand; it seems to be merely repetitive rather than expressive or explanatory.) “Haven’t we learned by now that expressive and cultural traditions always occur within the machinations of power that encompass them?” she asks (392).

“Critical performance ethnography is animated by the dynamics interacting between power, politics, and poetics,” Madison continues, and the purpose of this chapter is to examine “these dynamics within the oral narrative performances of local human rights activists in Ghana, West Africa, who are working for the rights of women and girls against tradtional cultural practices that impede their freedom and well-being” (392). So Madison, unlike Dwight Conquergood, does not do performance ethnography herself; instead, she is interested in the way that these performances provide “a bridge and opportunity for readers to listen to ‘indigenous’ activists telling us (and each other) what they do” (393). The stories those activists tell, she writes, “serve as examples of critical performance ethnography because the narrators poetically narrate their own indigenous and critical methodologies based on the politics of their performative interventions in defending the human rights of Others” (393). Or does Madison engage in performance ethnography herself as well? “I interpret the in-depth interview with each rights activist through a performance lens to capture the complexity and multilayered dimensions reflected in the expressiveness of the human voice and body in the act of telling as well as the immediate environment or scene—ripe with influence and meaning—of the telling,” she writes (393). So her practice reproduces the performances of those activists? It’s not clear; she describes what she does as “poetic transcription,” which might be a way of presenting the interviews she conducts, or might be a way of describing a performance. At the same time, she tells us that this chapter will present two stories told by Ghanaian activists, and that “[t]hroughout the narratives, I weave my own commentary and observations to illuminate the implications of their words and experience” (393). That sounds less like performance ethnography and more like, well, ethnography without the performance.

That approach—the weaving of the voices of the researcher and the research participants—has been criticized “by numerous observers and practitioners of qualitative research,” including herself (393). Those critiques argue that “[t]he researcher’s analysis is an intrusion where the subject’s narrative is often silenced” and upstaged; that the researcher’s analysis is an “idiosyncratic interpretation” that “distorts the interpretive report and expressions of the narrator”; that the researcher’s analysis “promotes theoretical jargon that renders the narrative analysis itself”—the words of the informant or participant, I think—“ineffectual at best and silly at worst”; and, as description, the researcher’s analysis is redundant and repetitive (393-94). 

Although Madison “often” agrees with those criticisms, she writes, “I also believe a delicate balance of analysis can open deeper engagement with the narrative text and unravel contexts and connections within the undercurrents of the narrative universe, without the researcher acting as a psychoanalyst, clairvoyant, or prophet” (394). In including her own commentary, her goals are 

to attend to the narration—as one is compelled to attend to or interpret the significance of any object or text rich with meanings, history, value, and possibility—by entering selected moments of subtext and implicit moments of signification so that we may engage the depth of inferences, the overreaching consequences, and the politically valuable import in order that we as readers may be offered an additional realization of the narrative and the narrator. (394)

When researchers include their own commentary, she continues, their analysis “serves as a magnifying lens to enlarge and amplify the small details and the taken-for granted,” the “meanings and implications below the surface that need to be excavated, contemplated, and engaged; their analysis “serves to clarify and honour the significance of the ‘telling and the told,’ citing Pollock; their analysis recognized that the interview “is a substantive event—a surrounding scene of signification and its objects—a gestalt where the immediate telling becomes a richly descriptive environment of symbolic worth,” and “where the immediacy of the telling environment frames and relates to its content or is told,” and so the analysis enables the interview to become “an eventful enactment of witnessing, testimony, and dialogue”; the researcher’s analysis uses theory “to unlock the multiple truths embedded below the surface”; and the researcher’s analysis “serves to emphasize, reiterate, and make apparent the beauty and poignancy of the description” by embracing “the emotions and sensuality of what is being described and how it is being described—the telling and the told—to illuminate the textures, smells, sounds, tastes, and signts being rendered within the content of the told and within the form of the telling” (394-95). 

“Performance ethnography demands a felt-sensing experience—emotions and sensuality—that employs lyrical, poetic, or performative language to wisely embellish the existential gestalt of the interview event, making it more present before us, with heart and beauty,” Madison continues. “The subaltern does speak, always, and we must listen with more radical intent. These subaltern knowledges are sometimes hidden away in locations that are at times hard for us to reach as they speak the philosophies, logics, and approaches of their life worlds and in their own languages” (395). That is the reason why ethnographers “call upon our local advisers in the field to help us try to comprehend. We listen so we can be of use to them—a messenger and an interpreter to make what they say and do known to other Others” (395). 

In her discussion of the interviews Madison conducted, she presents the participants words in lines, like poetry, so that clarifies what she means by “poetic transcription” (393). She also alternates between that transcription and her own analysis of it, as she promised she would.   I am skipping over the evidence of her practice, even after complaining about discussions of methodology that are not grounded in examples of practice, and I am aware of that; however, I am also aware of the need to get through this essay, and this book, and move on to the next thing that has to be read. In any case, after those interviews, she writes about the harm religious practices do to women, but also something she believes “is equaly, if not more, unjust and life threatening, but certainly more convoluted and disguised”: “the injustice of the location of poverty,” a term she describes in a footnote as “a supplement to the notion of a ‘location of culture’” (402, 405). So she is attempting to do what the Peruvian activists said needed to be done: she is connecting the gender-based injustices of religious traditions to the lived experiences of poverty, colonialism, and a contemporary “political economy that breeds poverty and that sets a climate for human rights offenses” (403). 

Madison concludes with what she calls a “Wish List”: she hopes that “we learn critical theory thoughtfully, rigorously, and purposefully for the politically charged objective of clarifying unproductive confusion and precisely naming what could otherwise be dangerously imprecise”; she hopes that “[w]e resist theoretical feudalism by not assigning the power of interpretation exclusively to a few lords of knowledge,” a form of theorizing that is “undemocratic,” and which produces “repetitive clichés”; she hopes that “[w]e do not speak for Others when we can listen while Others speak”; she hopes “[w]e do not, not speak while only humbly listening to the Other speak,” because “[l]istening does not mean NOT speaking,” but rather “paying attention to when it is the right time to speak”; and, finally, she hopes that “[w]e practice at home what we preach on paper and in the field,” that “[w]e work to become more generous with each other within the academy as we work for a politics of global generosity,” and that academic generosity becomes as important as academic freedom (404). 

Because I’ll be talking to other people as I walk, there are aspects of Madison’s discussion that are helpful to my project, and I’m glad I decided not to skip past her essay. I wonder what I’ve missed in the essays in this anthology that I didn’t read. But, that said, I decided not to bother with the final essay in this section, which discusses postcolonial readings of visual culture. Time is short, my exams are coming quickly, and I’ve been reading this book for more than two weeks. I need to get on to something else.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.

112c. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, continued

denzin lincoln

The second part of the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies focuses on critical and Indigenous pedagogies. Even though I’m not interested in pedagogy as part of this project, I persevered. “In the five chapters in Part II, indigenous scholars describe Hawaiian, Native American, Mestizaje, endarkened, and Islamic pedagogies,” which “exist in-between, border, marginal, and liminal spaces, the crossroads where colonializing and decolonializing frameworks intersect and come into conflict with one another” (211). “Each pedagogy represents a particular indigenous worldview,” the editors continue, and “[e]ach rests on special cultural and spiritual understandings” (211). 

In “Indigenous and Authentic: Hawaiian Epistemology and the Triangulation of Meaning,” Manulani Aluli Meyer introduces readers “to indigenous epistemology as viewed by Native Hawaiian mentors, friends, and family” so that we “will understand that specificity leader to universality” (217). Universality, Meyer continues, “is a spiritual principle within ancient streams of knowing” (217). Knowing, or epistemology, is “specific to place and people,” Meyer writes, and both knowledge and truth are “vast, limitless, and completely subjective” (218). The essay presents seven categories, she continues, which “help to organize systems of consciousness that are needed to enliven what knowing means in today’s rampage called modernity” (218).

The first of these categories is “Spirituality and Knowing: The Cultural Context of Knowledge” (218). “Knowledge that endures is spirit driven,” Meyer writes. “It is a life force connected to all other life forces. It is more an extension than it is a thing to accumulate” (218). The spiritual principles that are “the foundation of a Hawaiian essence” are “the intentionality of process, the value and purpose of meaning, and the practice of deep mindfulness” (218). “[I]f played out as epistemology,” these principles “help us enter spaces of wonderment, discernment, right viewing, and mature discourse” (218). “Spirit as knowing is a real idea that allows us to ritualize ways to collect medicine, read a text, prepare a meal, or communicate with family, Meyer continues. “It allows knowing to be an act of consciousness that reaches beyond the mundane into connection and alignment with an essence that finds its renewal throughout the generations” (218-19). This “higher reach of knowing” collapsed during colonialism and assimilation, and “[i]t must right itself through our engagement to secure our survival” (219). For Meyer, the interpretation of knowledge as spirit does not affect one’s research. Rather, “[i]t merely points to a frequency that if heard will synergize with your courage when you write without fear after asking questions that search for deeper meaning to an act, an idea, a moment” (219). “An epistemology of spirit” encourages us to be of “service to others or to our natural environment” (219). Meyer ends by calling upon her readers to see their work “as a taonga (sacred object) for your family, your community, your people—because it is” (219).

The second category, “That Which Feeds: Physical Place and Knowing,” is about the land. “Land is our mother. This is not a metaphor,” Meyer states (219). “For the Native Hawaiians speaking of knowledge, land was the central theme that drew forth all others. You came from a place. You grew in a place and you had a relationship with that place,” she continues. “This is an epistemological idea” (219). Because of mobility in contemporary North American society, many people find this idea difficult to understand, she writes, but the land and the ocean shape her thinking, her way of being, and her sense of what is valuable (219). “One does not simply learn about land, we learn best from land,” she contends. “This knowing makes you intelligent to my people. How you are on land or in the ocean tells us something about you. Absolutely. It opens doors to the specificity of what it means to exist in a space and how that existing extends into how best to interact in it” (219). However, land is more than a physical location: “It is an idea that engages knowledge and contextualizes knowing. It is the key that turns the doors inward to reflect on how space shapes us” (219). Space is not about emptiness but rather about “consciousness” (219). Space is “an epistemological idea because it conceptualizes those things of value to embed them in a context” (219). “Land as an epistemological cornerstone to our ways of rethinking is all about relating in ways that are sustaining, nourishing, receptive, wise,” Meyer writes. “Knowing with land should help you find out more about your own self, and when that process begins as a researcher, you start to open your own phenomenological inquiry into your origins of space,” about “how space influenced your thinking” (219). 

In the third category, “The Cultural Nature of the Senses: Expanding Our Ideas of Empiricism,” Meyer writes, “I am empirically configured by my past, and my senses and body were the tools and recording devices through which I retrieved and stored all data” (220). This leads to a very different claim: “Our senses are culturally shaped. This is an epistemological idea” (220). Her example is a cornfield. She does not see the same cornfield as a farmer who looks and recognizes that the corn “is in need of calcium and water” while she notices “nothing” (220). “This fundamental idea that our senses are culturally shaped seems almost obvious, but it must be understood deeply if you are to proceed into what many may not understand,” she continues. “What this entails for your research is that you will need to slow down what it means to see something, hear something, or experience something” (220). Understanding one’s uniqueness “at this basic level will bring a keen understanding of the nuance” of one’s own subjectivity (220).

The fourth category is “Relationship and Knowledge: Self Through Other” (220). “Existing in relationship triggers everything: with people, with ideas, with the natural world,” Meyer writes (221). This “epistemological category” suggests that “[k]nowing was the by-product of slow and deliberate dialogue with an idea, with others’ knowing, or with one’s own experience with the world. Knowing was in relationship with knowledge, a nested idea that deepened information (knowledge) through direct experience (knowing)” (221). “The focus is with connection and our capacity to be changed with the exchange,” she continues. “Thus the idea of self through other” (221). This idea inspires research because “[i]t reminds us that knowledge does not exist in a vacuum” (221). Rather, “[i]ntelligence is challenged, extended, and enriched when viewed in dyad awareness or group consciousness” (221). (Is knowledge the same as intelligence?) “Will your research bring forth solutions that strengthen relationships with others or will it damage future collaborations?” she asks. “How will your relationship with self inspire truth and courage to do what will be needed when predictable roadblocks enter your view? A knowledge that includes true awareness of other will radically alter research protocols, questions, and processes” (221).

“Utility and Knowledge: Ideas of Wealth and Usefulness” is the fifth category. “Function is the higher vibration of an idea, not the lower,” Meyer begins. “How one defines function is first discovered in its meaning and then its interpretation” (221). (I’m not following the notion of a hierarchy of vibrations.) “Make your work useful by your meaning and truth,” she continues. “I know it sounds ethereal, but this is the point: Knowledge that does not heal, bring together, challenge, surprise, encourage, or expand our awareness is not part of the consciousness this world needs now. This is the function we as indigenous people posit” (221). She includes by positing that “We are all indigenous” (222). (I would never describe myself that way.)

The sixth category, “Words and Knowledge: Causality in Language,” is “an epistemological category better reflected in Hawaiian literature and historic textual discussions than the mentors [she] interviewed” (222). “Hawaiians at one time believed in the causative agency of intention,” Meyer explains. “Thought creates. This is why it was seen as negative to even think of hitting a child. Negative thoughts then had negative consequences” (222). The belief that “effect begins with intention” is “an epistemological idea that helps us mature into a deeper relationship with what action and reality is at its core: thought” (222). “The idea that thought creates and intention shapes the observable world may seem far-fetched to some, but it is now recognized and discussed in depth by indigenous scholars, quantum physicists, mothers, and social scientists and summarized in groundbreaking works,” she argues, citing several texts, including one by Vine Deloria and one called The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (222). “Our thoughts create reality,” she continues (222). She suggests that, for Hawai’i, “postcolonialism” (does she mean decolonization?) “is not first a physical place but a mental one” (222). She suggests that this effects one’s research because, rather than objectivity, “it is fully conscious subjectivity” called “metaconsciousness,” and calls upon her readers to write their thoughts in prologues or appendices to their research (222).

The last category is “The Body/Mind Question: The Illusion of Separation,” which Meyer describes as “the capstone of Hawaiian epistemology and its sharpest sword in this duel with mainstream expectations of what it means to know something” (223). “The separation of mind from body is not found in a Hawaiian worldview,” she explains. “Indeed, intelligence and knowledge were embedded at the core of our bodies—the stomach or na’au” (223). “Body is the central space in which knowing is embedded,” she continues. “Our body holds truth, our body invigorates knowing, our body helps us become who we are. This is not simply a metaphoric discussion of union with sensation and conceptualization. Our thinking mind is not separated from our feeling mind. Our mind is our body. Our body is our mind. And both connect to the spiritual act of knowledge acquisition” (223). This idea is “an integral space in the triangulation of meaning” (223). “Knowing there is intelligence in feeling and feeling in intelligence begins the long turnaround from an isolated thinking self void of the potential messiness of subjective realities found in all versions of the world,” Meyer writes. “It brings us back into ancient sensibilities that recognize the strength found in conscious subjectivity and clearly stated origins of thought found in empirical, objective recognition” (223). The reference to “ancient sensibilities” sounds New Agey, and it would be helpful to see sources cited here. “[S]ubjectivity is actually a maturing of objectivity,” she concludes, “not a dumbing down” (223). I’m not sure what that means.

What are the implications of these categories for research? “It has become clear to me that the specificity of these Hawaiian epistemological categories is indeed endemic to islands in the middle of the Pacific,” Meyer states. “But they also offer a way to organize universal truths” that the reader “may wish to consider,” including the notions that “[f]inding knowledge that endures is a spiritual act that animates and educates,” that “[w]e are earth,” that “[o]ur senses are culturally shaped,” that “[k]nowing something is bound to how we develop a relationship with it,” that “[f]unction is vital with regard to knowing something,” that “[i]ntention shapes our language and creates our reality,” and that “[k]nowing is embodied and in union with cognition” (223-24). In other words, those categories, for Meyer, represent both culturally specific aspects of Hawaiian epistemology and universal truths. “I arrived at this view-plain through the specificity of knowing my ancient self—spaces we all can recognize because we all have them,” Meyer explains. “True intelligence is self knowledge” (224). 

The next section of the essay, “The Triangulation of Meaning: Body, Mind, and Spirit,” is, according to Meyer, its “authentic part” (224):

It is a set of ideas that may bring you back to remembering. It extends indigenous epistemology into a context of world awakening. It is daringly simple, but then again, words only point to the truth. Genuine knowledge must be experienced directly. It is meant to help your organize your research mind and give you the courage to do so with the rigor found in facts, logic, and metaphor. It is offered now because it organized my own thoughts and oiled the tools needed to dismantle the master’s house found in perfect order in my own mind. (224)

The idea of triangulation comes from wilderness education: “if you wish to find your place on a topographical map, you need only locate two geographical distinctions on land, and with the use of a compass and pencil, the third and final spot—your location—can then be found” (224). “[T]he metaphor of triangulating our way to meaning with the use of three points” involves “[b]ody, mind, and spirit” (224). “Using body, mind, and spirit as a template in which to organize meaningful research asks us to extend through our objective/empirical knowing (body) into wider spaces of reflection offered through conscious subjectivity (mind) and, finally, via recognition and engagement with deeper realities (spirit),” Meyer states (224). Why is objective knowing associated with the body, though, and subjective knowing associated with the mind? “Body is a synonym for external, objective, literal, sensual, empirical,” she continues, contending that “your schooled mind has been shaped by mostly [that] one point in the triangulation” (225). “Change agents, indigenous researchers, cultural leaders, and transformational scholars are now working together to help this idea grow up,” she concludes. “So, take a breath. Keep your mind open” (225). 

In the next section, “The Number Three,” Meyer suggests that Buckminster Fuller’s tetrahedron is “the sacred geometry of infinity, energy, and the perfect balance of equilibrium found in postquantum physics” (225). Dualities and binary systems have “caused untold horror and helped create a rigid epistemology we now assume cannot evolve” (225). “[A]s we gather evidence from all sectors of world scholars, mystics, and practitioners, we are discovering that life moves within a context of dynamic consciousness that synergizes with Aristotle’s highest intellectual virtual he referred to as phronesis,” she continues. “This is not simply a discussion of moral relativity or the third point in duality; it is a piercing into different planes of epistemology to discuss what inevitably shifts into nonduality because of its inherent wholeness” (225). The vague reference to “scholars, mystics, and practitioners” (practitioners of what?) suggests the New Age source of this argument. 

The next section, “Reaching for Wholeness,” begins with the statement, “The world is more than dual. It is whole” (225). “With regard to research, we still believe statistics is synonymous with truth,” Meyer states. “It is a dangerous road to travel when we pack only empirical ways of being into our research backpack” (225). But this book collects essays by people who do qualitative research, not quantitative research—is number crunching the only empiricism? Really? “Empiricism is just one point in our triangulation of meaning, and although it may begin the process of research, it by no means is the final way in which to engage, experience, or summarize it,” Meyer continues. “Research and life are more in line with three simple categories that have been lost in theory and rhetoric: body, mind, and spirit” (225-26). Body, she suggests, represents “the part of your research that may be counted, sorted, and emphasized because of statistical analysis. It is what you see, not the way in which you interpret what you see or hear” (226). Body “is what science has cornered. It is expressed through sensation via objective measurement and evaluation. It is a valuable and rigorous part in the triangulation of meaning and the center of most research processes” (226).“It has been the bread and butter of research and science and the main assumption found in the notion of rigor,” she continues. “It is objective, tangible, and measurable” (226). But it is not enough: “don’t you think it’s time to evolve?” (226).

“To believe that science or objective and empirical-based research could describe all of life reduces it to its smallest part,” Meyer argues (226). I’m not convinced anyone does believe that, however. I am sensing a straw-man argument here—or else the author has had her qualitative research rejected by quantitative journals. “Objectivity is its own limitation,” she writes. “Enter mind, subjectivity, thought. Courage is needed to articulate these ideas with a robustness that will signal a leap in consciousness within our society” (227). It is obvious, she continues, that “[o]ur rational minds, our inside thoughts, our subjective knowing are vital to how we experience and understand the world” (227). She presents quotations from her “heroes,” who include Leroy Little Bear and Greg Cajete, supporting the claim that subjectivity precedes objectivity (228). “Mind, as the second point in our triangulation of meaning, helps us recover from the bullying and uniformity of ‘power-over’ epistemology,” she concludes. “It gives us breathing space to self-reflect in meaningful ways and engage with a rigor perhaps not captured in academic citations” (228). 

“Follow mindfulness to its own intelligence and seek inevitably what most scholars refuse to admit exists: spirit,” Meyer writes. Spirit, she states, is “the third point in a spiral” (229) (the metaphor has suddenly changed). Spirit is neither religion nor dogma. Rather, “it is data moving toward usefulness, moving toward meaning and beauty. It is the contemplation part of your work that brings you to insight, steadiness, and interconnection. It is the joy or truthful insights of your lessons and the rigor found in your discipline and focus that is not so much written about but expressed nonetheless” (229). Spirit is “about seeing what is significant and having the courage to discuss it. . . . This category that pulls facts into logic and finally into metaphor recognizes that one will eventually see more than what is presented” (229). “To know we are more than simply body and thought is to acknowledge how those ideas expand into wider realms of knowing and being,” she continues. “This is a spirit-centred truth that is older than time” (229). Spirit “will help you think of your research as something of value and keep you at the edge of your wonder with how it will shape who you are becoming” (229). Spirit encompasses both body and mind: “It is an advancement of earlier ideas and gives a structure of rigor that positivism is ultimately shaped by” (229). “It is the frequency by which all connect. It is not simply a linear sequence. All three categories occur simultaneously” (229). 

In the essay’s final section, “Ha’ina mai ka puana: Thus Ends My Story,” Meyer writes, “I believe it is time to think indigenous and act authentic even at the price of rejection. To disagree with mainstream expectations is to wake up, to understand what is happening, to be of service to a larger whole” (230). “This is why we are heading into the field of hermeneutics—interpretation—via epistemology,” she contends. “We must first detail what we value about intelligence to even see there are other interpretations of life, brilliance, and knowing” (230). (I’m not sure exactly who is heading into hermeneutics through epistemology.) “When ancient renditions of the world are offered for debate within a context of real-life knowing, there is a robustness that I find invigorating and breathtaking,” she continues. “Here is where interpretations matter and because indigenous folk are peopling places we were never found before, do you see why things are changing? We simply posit difference—a difference that knows place and encourages a harmony within that place” (230). Indigenous people, she writes, bring with them “dreams, food, elders, courage and the clarity of speech and purpose” (230).

I’ve read Sandy Grande’s “Red Pedagogy: The Un-Methodology” before—I even have a file of notes on this computer that I took while I was reading it—but that was years ago, and I might as well give it another look. She begins by referring to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, a book that she suggests charts a path “for those still navigating the deeply troubled waters of academic research” (233). “The historically turbulent relationship stems from centuries of use and abuse at the hands of Whitestream prospectors (read: academics), mining the dark bodies of indigenous peoples—either out of self-interest or self-hatred,” she writes (233). “Whitestream” is a term borrowed from Claude Denis, who suggests that while American society is not “White” in demographic terms, “it remains principally and fundamentally structured on the basis of the Anglo-European ‘White’ experience” (251). The same could be said of Canadian society, of course. “The history of dehumanization”—dehumanization through the employment of research by colonialism, I think—“raises significant questions for the indigenous scholar”: a choice between “retaining his or her integrity (identity) as a Native person or doing research” (234). There is a need for an academic exorcism, and “the demon to be purged is the specter of colonialism” (234). “As indigenous scholars, we live within, against, and outside of its constant company, witnessing its various manifestations as it shape-shifts its way into everything from research and public policy to textbooks and classrooms,” she writes, asking whether “[i]t is possible to engage the grammar of empire without replicating its effects?” (234). “By virtue of living in the Whitestream world, indigenous scholars have no choice but to negotiate the forces of colonialism, to learn, understand, and converse in the grammar of empire as well as develop the skills to contest it,” she states (234).

Red pedagogy is “an indigenous pedagogy that operates at the crossroads of Western theory—specifically critical pedagogy—and indigenous knowledge,” bridging two epistemological worlds and asking that as Indigenous scholars “examine our own communities, policies, and practices, that we take seriously the notion that knowing ourselves as revolutionary agents is more than an act of understanding who we are. It is an act of reinventing ourselves, of validating our overlapping cultural identifications and relating them to the materiality of social life and power relations” (234). To allow for this process of reinvention, she continues, Red pedagogy needs to be thought of as “a space of engagement. It is the liminal and intellectual borderlands where indigenous and nonindigenous scholars encounter one another, working to remember, redefine, and reverse the devastation of the original colonialist ‘encounter’” (234). That’s a powerful statement about pedagogical scholarship, and I find myself wondering whether it could be applied to other fields of endeavour, such as art practices, as well. 

“What follows is a framework for thinking about indigenous knowledge as it encounters critical pedagogy or Red pedagogy,” Grande writes. But first, she outlines the historical roots of Red pedagogy—the colonial and genocidal policies and attitudes through which the U.S. government attempted to destroy Indigenous cultures. “While it is important to recognize the progress that has been made since colonial times, it is also evident that the legacy of colonization persists,” Grande states (235). One way to address the socioeconomic effects of that legacy is “culturally based education,” which would involve recognizing and using Indigenous languages, employing pedagogy that stresses traditional cultural characteristics and relationships between adults and children, teaching strategies that are “congruent with traditional culture and ways of knowing and learning,” curriculum that recognizes the importance of Indigenous spirituality, community participation in education, and using “the social and political mores of the community” (235-36). However, Grande maintains, “unless educational reform also happens concurrently with an analysis of colonialism, it is bound to suffocate from the tentacles of imperialism” (236). In addition, since 90 per cent of Indigenous students attend off-reservation schools, “indigenous educators need to theorize the ways in which power and domination inform the processes and procedures of schooling and develop pedagogies that disrupt their effects” (236). “[A]n education for decolonization must . . . make no claim to political neutrality,” and “it must engage a method of analysis and social inquiry that troubles the capitalist, imperialist aims of unfettered competition, accumulation, and exploitation”—forms of analysis that “have been the domain of critical theorists” (236). 

However, despite its apparent relevance, Indigenous scholars “have had limited engagement with critical theories of education” and have “concentrated on the social and political urgencies of their own communities” (236). “Against such immediate needs, engagement in abstract theory seems indulgent . . . Eurocentric and thereby inherently contrary to the aims of indigenous education,” Grande writes (236). However, “the lack of engagement with critical theory has ultimately limited possibilities for indigenous scholars to build broad-based coalitions and political solidarities,” and that limitation “has serious implications” (236). “[T]he time is ripe for indigenous scholars to engage in critique-al studies” through Red pedagogy, which “aims to initiate an indigenous conversation that can, in turn, engage in dialogical contestation with critical and revolutionary theories” (236-37). The purpose of this essay is “to initiate this conversation, examining points of tension and intersection between Red pedagogy and critical theory: articulating possibilities for coalition” (237).

Grande describes the intellectual roots of critical pedagogy in the work of Paulo Freire and John Dewey, and in the later developments of poststructuralist, Marxist, postcolonial, feminist, and critical race theory. Critical pedagogy, according to Grande, is rooted in a Marxist social and economic analysis. It must be collective, critical, systematic, participatory, and creative, she continues, citing McLaren and Farahmandpur (237). These principles, she continues, “are clearly relevant to Native students and educators in dire need of pedagogies of disruption, intervention, collectivity, hope, and possibility” (238). “The foregrounding of capitalist relations as the axis of exploitation helps reveal the history of indigenous peoples as one of dispossession and not simply oppression,” she continues (238), although I’m not sure Marxist analysis is necessary for that. Nevertheless, “revolutionary critical pedagogy remains rooted in the Western paradigm and therefore in tension with indigenous knowledge and praxis”; in particular, “the root constructs of democratization, subjectivity, and property are all defined through Western frames of reference that presume the individual as the primary subject of ‘rights’ and social status” (238). Those “basic failures” of critical pedagogy raise “three central questions”:

  1. Do critical/revolutionary pedagogies articulate constructions of subjectivity that can theorize the multiple and intersecting layers of indigenous identity as well as root them in the historical material realities of indigenous life?
  2. Do critical/revolutionary pedagogies articulate a geopolitical landscape any more receptive to the notion of indigenous sovereignty than other critical pedagogies rooted in liberal conceptions of democracy?
  3. Do critical/revolutionary pedagogies articulate a view of land and natural resources that is less anthropocentric than other Western discourses? (238)

These “perceived aporias” are not deficiencies but rather “points of tension” that help “to define the spaces-in-between the Western and indigenous thought-worlds” (238). “[T]he basis of Red pedagogy remains distinctive, rooted in traditional indigenous knowledge and praxis,” she continues (238). Addressing these questions, each in turn, may “map a common ground of struggle with revolutionary critical pedagogy” that may “serve as the foundation for eventual solidarities” (238).

In her discussion of the first question, Grande begins with postmodernism’s “framing of questions of identity and difference exclusively in terms of the cultural and discursive” without reference to “structural causes and material relations that create ‘difference’” (238). “[S]uch postmodern tactics serve to obfuscate, if not deny, the hierarchies of power,” and so she turns to “the postcolonial notion of mestizaje as a more effective model of multisubjectivity,” which both “signifies the decline of the imperial West” and “decenters Whiteness and undermines the myth of a democratic nation-state based on borders and exclusions” (239). However, an emphasis on hybridity or mestizaje can lead to “losing sight of the unique challenges of particular groups and their distinctive struggles for social justice” (239). In addition, this “transgressive subjectivity . . . both furthers and impedes indigenous imperatives of self-determination and sovereignty,” because “it remains problematic for indigenous formations of subjectivity and the expressed need to forge and maintain integral connections to both land and place” (239). “[T]he radical mestizaje retains the same core assumption of other Western pedagogies,” which is that “in a democratic society, the articulation of human subjectivity is rooted in the intangible notion of rights as opposed to the tangible reality of land” (239). 

“To be clear, indigenous and critical scholars share some common ground,” Grande admits: “they envision an anti-imperialist theory of subjectivity, one free of the compulsions of global capitalism and the racism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia it engenders” (240). (Is capitalism necessarily the driving force behind those things?) “But where revolutionary scholars ground their vision in Western conceptions of democracy and justice that presume a ‘liberated’ self, indigenous scholars ground their vision in conceptions of sovereignty that presume a profound connection to place and land,” she states, noting that “the seemingly liberatory constructs of fluidity, mobility, and transgression are perceived not only as the language of critical subjectivity but also as part of the fundamental lexicon of Western imperialism” (240). Since Indigenous identities are “defined and shaped in interdependence with place, the transgressive mestizaje functions as a potentially homogenizing force that presumes the continued exile of tribal peoples” and their assimilation” (240). For Grande, “any liberatory project that does not begin with a clear understanding of the difference of indigenous sovereignty will, in the end, work to undermine tribal life” (241).

This analysis, Grande writes, “points to the need for an indigenous theory of subjectivity that addresses the political quest for sovereignty and the socioeconomic urgency to build transnational coalitions” (241). It is essential, she continues, the Indigenous peoples “work to maintain their distinctiveness as tribal peoples of sovereign nations” while moving “toward building inter- and intra-tribal solidarity and political coalition”—in other words, both borders and ways to cross those borders (241). “Such a Red pedagogy”—and, really, Grande is talking about more than just pedagogy—“would transform the struggle over identity to evolve, not apart from, but in relationship with, struggles over tribal land, resources, treaty rights, and intellectual property” (241). A Red pedagogy would also set out “to construct a self-determined space for American Indian intellectualism, recognizing that survival depends on the ability not only to navigate the terrain of Western knowledge but also to theorize and negotiate a racist, sexist marketplace that aims to exploit the labour of signified ‘others’ for capital gain” (241). Finally, Grande continues, a Red pedagogy would be “committed to providing American Indian students the social and intellectual space to reimagine what it means to be Indian in contemporary U.S. society, arming them with a critical analysis of the intersecting systems of domination and the tools to navigate them” (241).

Grande cites Alexander Ewen’s term “Indianismo,” a response to concepts of mestizaje or indigenismo (252), as a proposed construct that would “guide the search for a theory of subjectivity in a direction that embraces the location of Native peoples in the ‘constitutive outside’” (241). “Specifically, it claims a distinctively indigenous space shaped by and through a matrix of legacy, power, and ceremony. In so doing, the notion of Indianismo stands outside the polarizing debates of essentialism and postmodernism, recognizing that both the timeless and temporal are essential for theorizing the complexity of indigenous realities,” she writes. (241). “[T]he Red notion of Indianismo remains grounded in the intellectual histories of indigenous peoples,” she continues. “The centrality of place in the indigenous thought-world is explicitly conveyed through tradition and language and implicitly through the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature” (241). “What distinguishes the indigenous struggle for self-determination from others,” Grande writes,

is their collective effort to protect the rights of their peoples to live in accordance with traditional ways. It is the struggle to effectively negotiate the line between fetishizing such identities and recognizing their importance to the continuance of Indians as tribal peoples. Regardless of how any individual indigenous person chooses to live his or her life, he or she is responsible for protecting the right to live according to ancestral ways. As such, while indigenous peoples resist the kind of essentialism that recognizes only one way of being, they also work to retain a vast constellation of distinct traditions that serve as the defining characteristics of tribal life. (241)

Indigenous languages “must play a crucial role in maintaining the fabric of Indianismo,” because they “are replete with metaphors of existence that implicitly convey notions of multiplicity, hybridity, dialectics, contingency, and a sense of the ‘imaginary’” (241). (I’m not sure what she means by “‘imaginary.’” Why is it in scare quotes?) 

In her response to the second question, about Indigenous sovereignty and democracy, Grande contends that Red pedagogy “operates on the assumption that indigenous sovereignty does not oppose democracy,” but rather “views sovereignty as democracy’s only lifeline, asking, Is it possible for democracy to grow from the seeds of tyranny? Can the ‘good life’ be built upon the deaths of thousands?” (242). For Grande, the “playing field” of this discussion is the American educational system, where “liberal educators have championed the notion of cultural pluralism as the pathway to democracy, imbricating the constructs of national unity, multicultural harmony, and inclusion as the guiding principles of American education” (242). Such “progressive education still functioned as an assimilationast pedagogy designed to absorb cultural difference by ‘including’ marginalized groups in the universality of the nation-state, advocating a kind of multicultural nationalism” (242). However, “[c]ontemporary revolutionary scholars critique liberal forms of critical pedagogy, naming their ‘politics of inclusion’ as an accomplice to the broader project of neoliberalism” because “such models ignore the historic, economic, and material conditions of ‘difference,’ conspicuously averting attention from issues of power” (242). Instead, “revolutionary scholars call attention to the ‘democratically induced’ oppression experienced by colonized peoples,” and in that way, “they reconstitute democracy as a perpetually unfinished process, explicitly recentering democratic education around issues of power, dominance, subordination, and stratification” (242). However, those “revolutionary theorists” are still working “within a Western, linear political framework,” and therefore “they do not, in and of themselves, represent an emancipatory politics for indigenous people” (243). It’s not clear that those theorists “give any greater consideration to the pedagogical imperatives of indigenous sovereignty,” and there lies “the central tension between revolutionary visions of socialist democratic education and the indigenous project of education for sovereignty and self-determination” (243). “One of the most significant ways this difference plays out is the quest for indigenous sovereignty tied to issues of land, Western constructions of democracy are tied to issues of property,” Grande writes. “[G]iven the inexorable ties between land and sovereignty, sovereignty and citizenship, and citizenship and the nation-state, one of the most glaring questions for indigenous scholars is how a revolutionary socialist politics can imagine a ‘new’ social order unfolding upon (still) occupied land” (243). Her question, then, is “How does the ‘egalitarian distribution’ of colonized lands constitute greater justice for indigenous peoples?” (243). “The failure to problematize the issue of (colonized) land is perhaps the major deficiency of Marxist and other Western-centric politics,” she writes (243), a comment that recalls Craig Fortier’s argument in Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism.

In addition, critical and Red pedagogy disagree about how to reconfigure democracy: “contrary to the assertions of revolutionary theorists, capitalist (exploitative) modes of production are not predicated on the exploitation of free (slave) labor but rather, first and foremost, premised on the colonization of indigenous land” (244). Privileging the class struggle “underestimates the overarching nature of decolonization: a totality that places capitalism, patriarchy, White supremacy, and Western Christianity in radical contingency” (244). “This tension alone necessitates an indigenous reinvisioning of the precepts of revolutionary theory, bringing them into alignment with the realities of indigenous struggle,” Grande writes. “The task ahead is to detach and rethink the notion of sovereignty from its connection to Western understandings of power and base it on indigenous notions of relationship” (244). 

Language must be central to decolonization, Grande continues: “Thus, where a revolutionary critical pedagogy compels students and educators to question how ‘knowledge is related historically, culturally and institutionally to the processes of production and consumption,’ a Red pedagogy compels students to question how knowledge is related to the processes of colonization,” and how “traditional indigenous knowledges can inform the project of decolonization” (244). According to Grande, this notion implies a threefold process for education:

(a) the subjection of the processes of Whitestream schooling to critical pedagogical analyses; (b) the decoupling and dethinking of education from its Western, colonialist contexts, including revolutionary critical pedagogy; and (c) the conceptualization of indigenous efforts to reground students and educators in traditional knowledge and teachings. (244)

“[T]he project of decolonization not only demands students to acquire the knowledge of ‘the oppressor’ but also the skills to negotiate and dismantle the implications of such knowledge,” Grande continues, suggesting that “traditional perspectives on power, justice, and relationships are essential, both to defend against further co-optation and to build intellectual solidarity—a collectivity of indigenous knowledge” (244).

Sovereignty, according to Grande, is “a restorative process” rather than “a separatist discourse” (244). It is “a profoundly spiritual project involving questions about who we are as a people” (245). It will require Indigenous people “to engage in the difficult process of self-definition, to come to consensus on a set of criteria that defines what behaviors and beliefs constitute acceptable expressions of their tribal heritage” (245). It will be “a process of reenchantment, of ensoulment, that is both deeply spiritual and sincerely mindful. The guiding force in this process must be the tribe, the people, the community; the perseverance of these entities and their connection to indigenous lands and sacred places is what inherits ‘spirituality’ and, in turn, the ‘sovereignty’ of Native peoples” (245). “[T]he vision of tribal and community stability rests in the desire and ability of indigenous peoples to listen to not only each other but also the land,” Grande writes. “The question remains, though, whether the ability to exercise spiritual sovereignty will continue to be fettered if not usurped by the desires of a capitalist state intent on devouring land” (245).

Finally, Grande arrives at her third question, about whether critical or revolutionary pedagogies articulate a view of land that is less anthropocentric than other Western discourses (245). She structures her answer through a discussion of the work of Bowers, who states that the “‘core cultural assumptions’ of revolutionary critical pedagogy” render it “indistinguishable from other Western pedagogies” (245). Its emphasis on critical reflection, a way of thinking derived from the Enlightenment, “undermines the ‘mythopoetic narratives’ that serve as ‘the basis of a culture’s moral system, way of thinking about relationships, and its silences’” (qtd. 245). Its emphasis on change and transformation “has led critical theorists to ignore what needs to be conserved and the value of ‘intergenerational knowledge’ (aka tradition)” (246). It is “‘based on an anthropocentric view of human/nature relationships,” and “presumes a ‘Western approach to literacy’ that ‘reinforces patterns of social relationships not found in oral-based cultures’” (Bowers, qtd. 246). Not that Grande agrees with Bowers. She suggests that critical pedagogy emphasizes “meaning,” rather than critical reflection (246), and that while the “root metaphor of ‘change as progress’ presents specific challenges to indigenous cultures rooted in tradition and intergenerational knowledge, revolutionary theorists do not categorically advocate change as inherently progressive” (246-47). In addition, while “the process of interrogation itself may encode the same sociotemporal markers of a colonialist consciousness that incites movement away from ‘sacred’ ways of knowing toward increased secularization,” that does not “preclude such processes of interrogation from being an integral part of Red pedagogy, particularly as indigenous communities remain threatened and deeply threatened and deeply compromised by colonialist forces,” meaning that Indigenous communities may need “social transformation” as part of a resistance to colonization (247-48). She does suggest that the claim that revolutionary critical pedagogy is anthropocentric is accurate (248). Expressions of “profound anthropocentrism” are both “unnecessary to the imperatives of the critical project” and “weaken its validity,” because they suggest that “[t]he value of the Earth itself is . . . only derived in terms of its ability to serve a distinctly human resource, carrying no inherent worth or subjectivity” (248). And, regarding literacy, “indigenous cultures engaged in institutional forms of schooling are just as concerned with students’ literacy as other cultures” (248-49). For Grande, “the value of revolutionary pedagogies is that the concept of ‘literacy’ is reformed to take on meaning beyond a simple depoliticized notion of reading and writing” (249). Grande concludes that revolutionary pedagogies could provide “the analytical robustness and ideological inclination needed to sort through the underlying power manipulations of colonialist forces,” even though they “are born of a Western tradition that has many components in conflict with indigenous knowledge, including a view of time and progress that is linear and an anthropocentric view that puts humans at the centre of the universe” (249). “Nevertheless,” she continues, “if revolutionary critical pedagogy is able to sustain the same kind of penetrating analysis it unleashes on capitalism, it may evolve into an invaluable tool for indigenous people and their allies, fighting to protect and extend indigenous sovereignty over tribal land and resources” (249). 

Grande ends her essay with “seven precepts” that provide “a way of thinking our way around and through the challenges facing American education in the 21st century and our mutual need to define decolonizing pedagogies”:

  1. Red pedagogy is primarily a pedagogical project. In this context, pedagogy is understood as being inherently political, cultural, spiritual, and intellectual.
  2. Red pedagogy is fundamentally rooted in indigenous knowledge and praxis. It is particularly interested in knowledge that furthers understanding and analysis of the forces of colonization.
  3. Red pedagogy is informed by critical theories of education. A Red pedagogy searches for ways it can both deepen and be deepened by engagement with critical and revolutionary theories and praxis.
  4. Red pedagogy promotes an education for decolonization. Within Red pedagogy, the root metaphors of decolonization are articulated as equity, emancipation, sovereignty, and balance. In this sense, an education for decolonization makes no claim to political neutrality but rather engages a method of analysis and social inquiry that troubles the capitalist-imperialist aims of unfettered competition, accumulation, and exploitation.
  5. Red pedagogy is a project that interrogates both democracy and indigenous sovereignty. . . .
  6. Red pedagogy actively cultivates praxis of collective agency. That is, Red pedagogy aims to build transcultural and transnational solidarities among indigenous peoples and others committed to reimagining a sovereign space free of imperialist, colonialist, and capitalist exploitation.
  7. Red pedagogy is grounded in hope. . . . a hope that lives in contingency with the past—one that trusts the beliefs and understandings of our ancestors, the power of traditional knowledge, and the possibilities of new understandings. (250)

“Red pedagogy,” Grande concludes, “is about engaging the development of ‘community-based power’ in the interest of ‘a responsible political, economic, and spiritual society’” (250). It is about Gerald Vizenor’s notion of survivance, which he describes as “an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy and victimry” (qtd. 250). For Grande, survivance “speaks to our collective need to decolonize, to push back against empire, and to reclaim what it means to be a people of sovereign mind and body” (250)

I understand Grande’s intentions in attempting to bring Indigenous thinking and critical theory together, but I find myself wondering whether critical theorists actually have more to learn from Indigenous ways of knowing than Indigenous thinkers do from critical theory. I was hoping for a more densely textured exposition of Indigenous epistemology and ontology here (assuming those are the correct terms to use; Vanessa Watts would disagree), and because Grande’s focus was more on critical theory, I realized that I would have to turn elsewhere, perhaps to Neil McLeod’s book on Cree narrative memory, to find that exposition. I’ve read McLeod’s book before, but probably need to read it again.

I skipped the last three essays in this section, because my project isn’t related to critical pedagogy. The two essays I did read, though, suggest that while it is difficult to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous methodologies together, it is possible, and the results can be powerful. It needs to be done very carefully, though, probably by asking questions about non-Indigenous methodologies from an Indigenous perspective, rather than the other way around. That’s one good reason to read the work of Indigenous scholars carefully. I’m looking forward to getting through this book, finally, because the other books on my table—works by Indigenous researchers—are works that will, I think, accomplish that kind of scrutiny.

Works Cited

Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.

Fortier, Craig. Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism, ARP Books, 2017.

McLeod, Neil. Cree Narrative Memory: From Treaties to Contemporary Times, Purich, 2007.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.

112b. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, continued

denzin lincoln

As I stated in the previous post, the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies  is so long—some 600 pages—that I’ll be posting summaries of each of its sections, rather than trying to post one massive summary. Part 1 of the Handbook, the editors write, “begins with the suggested reform and decolonization of the academy through critical research” by taking up “multiple paradigmatic and theoretical formations, including those connected to postcolonial theory; feminist, critical race, and queer theory; participatory action research; and critical pedagogy” (21). “We choose to interpret these presentations of theory as if they were performances—disruptive, unruly attempts to decolonize and indigenize research in the academy,” the editors write. “These decolonizing performances context and challenge the complicity of many modern universities possessed of neoconservative, neocolonial belief systems” (21-22). 

The first essay in this section is “Decolonizing Performances: Deconstructing the Global Postcolonial” by Beth Blue Swadener and Kagendo Mutua. It begins by stating that it will “highlight the ways in which decolonization is about the process in both research and performance of valuing, reclaiming, and foregrounding indigenous voices and epistemologies” (31). (I’m not sure what the word “performance” means in this context.) “[W]ithin decolonizing projects, the possibilities of forging cross-cultural partnerships with, between, and among indigenous researchers and ‘allied others’ and working collaboratively on common goals that reflect anticolonial sensibilities in action are importance facets of colonization,” Swadener and Mutua write. “By bringing together critical personal narratives and postcolonial theory, we will demonstrate how decolonizing research uncovers the colonizing tendencies of language, specifically the English language,” as well as “the centrality of the U.S. academy in the articulation of ‘valid’ research questions and processes for investigating those questions; the cultural imperialism of research funding agencies,” which define positivist research as the only valid form of research; “and how such research produces discourses that inscribe and render Others powerless” by silencing their voices (31). “[W]hat makes decolonizing research decolonizing is not an adherence to a specific research method or methodology,” they continue (33). Rather, “decolonizing research is defined by certain themes and defining elements and concepts that arise when researchers engage in what they describe as decolonizing research versus research that studies coloniality or postcoloniality” (33). In addition, they argue, “decolonizing research is performative—it is enmeshed in activism” (33). (Aha! So that’s what performative means—or, at least, what it can mean, or might mean, at least in this essay.) In fact, the term “anticolonial research” is “a more accurate descriptor of this endeavor” (33). Decolonizing research “speaks to the issue of the performativity and continual interrogation of not only the process of the research but also its outcomes/outputs” (33). In addition, “decolonizing research recognizes and works within the belief that non-Western knowledge forms are excluded from or marginalized in normative research paradigms,” and therefore Indigenous voices and epistemologies are silenced (33). Decolonizing research “as a performative act functions to highlight and advocate for the ending of both discursive and material oppression” that are involved in this silencing and in “the encryption of the non-Western subject” as what Michel Foucault called “a ‘governable body’” (34).

Swadener and Mutua argue that their work, “which extends beyond research within indigenous contexts, recognizes that colonization in representation is more than a spatial-temporal experience, and by stating this, we are by no means minimizing the brutalities of that experience” (34). Their work, they continue, “recognizes the same mechanisms and colonizing ways in certain research that studies, produces, and silences specific groups (e.g., persons with disabilities) through the ways it constructs and consumes knowledge and experience about such groups” (35). Decolonizing research, then, “extends to conducting research, not exclusively in contexts where the geopolitical experience of colonization happened, but indeed among groups where colonizing research approaches are deployed” (35). “[U]nlike postcolonial theory, decolonizing research goes beyond the mires/lure of defining colonialism solely in terms of spatial or temporal dimensions, often ignoring the brutality of the material consequences of coloniality,” they write (37-38). Instead, 

[d]ecolonizing research argues for materialist and discursive connection within postcoloniality and lays open the technologies of colonization, including language (English language) as the medium of research representation, deployment of Western epistemologies (often in diametric opposition to indigenous epistemologies), deployment of methodological imperialism (as defined within the Western academy versus indigenous modes of inquiry, representation, and ways of knowing), and the determination of “valid” research questions (generated in the Western academy and “investigated” in indigenous contexts). (38)

They want to bring together qualitative research and postcolonial theory to “make possible the production of new spaces for recasting research in liberatory ways that foreground indigenous epistemologies and ways of knowing in the field,” particularly by “destabilizing the ‘center’ of research and academic ways of knowing by reframing ‘the field’” (38). Decolonizing research “emphasizes performativity,” and by “performativity” they mean being “actively engaged performatively in decolonizing acts framed variously as activism, advocacy, or cultural reclamation” (38). 

However, decolonizing methodologies run the risk of “being appropriated, indeed recolonized, and at times reduced to slogans and superficial versions of the intended project,” particularly due to “the impacts of neopositivism and an ‘identity politics’ backlash on interpretive research” (38-39). There is also the problem—at least, the authors identify it as a problem—of a “lack of a unified voice in postcolonial and critical research” (as if such unity were possible or even desirable) (39). “Furthermore, a growing number of Native American scholars have written powerfully about resistance to the Western academy and have called for indigenizing the academy and ‘literary separatism,’ foregrounding indigenous narratives and traditions,” they continue. “The divergent nature of the issues that are important to the decolonizing project further speaks to the diverse nature of the issues that lends the decolonizing project its strength and staying power” (39). The use of other languages in research—that is, Indigenous languages—is another issue: “Decolonizing or anticolonial(ist) scholars also must grapple with the issue of which language(s) in which to publish their work” (39). Of course, publishing in an Indigenous language would limit the reach of one’s research results, but if one had been carrying out research with an Indigenous community, doing so would be a mark of respect.

“Social action or praxis has a critical role in the performance of decolonizing methodologies,” Swadener and Mutua write. “Indeed, critical, culturally framed praxis is at the heart of many enactments of decolonizing methodology” (40). However, they ask questions about “both social action projects and the future of decolonizing research” (41). They are concerned about “how research benefits particular communities and subgroups/cultures in those communities” (41). They “anticipate the expanded use of alternative, performative genres including arts, music, drama, oral storytelling, narratives, and work with popular media . . . as vehicles of growing resistance to Western, neoconservative, and positivist paradigms” (41). (Of course, such forms of nonrefereed publication won’t help anyone get tenure.) “We also anticipate more hybrid identities and border-crossers performing research in ways that resist ‘insider-outsider’ dichotomies while continuing to authentically foreground indigenous issues and work—though not without complications and contestations,” they continue (41). “In this chapter, we have attempted to provide an overview of research that positions itself as working against colonization and reflecting indigenous or nondominant epistemologies and traditions,” they conclude. “[W]hile there are no formulaic universals of ‘decolonizing’ research methodologies, there are compelling examples of systematic approaches, including narrative and performative genres, most of which include activist agendas working toward social justice, sovereignty, self-determination, and emancipatory goals” (41). In addition, “decolonizing research goes beyond a postcolonial analysis to a more socially engaged, collaborative alliance model that reconstructs the very purposes of research and epistemologies that inform it” (41). And, “[i]n evoking a performative metaphor, we recognize the many forms of knowing, communication, and being in a complex and persistently oppressive world” (41). 

In “Feminisms From Unthought Locations: Indigenous Worldviews, Marginalized Feminisms, and Revisioning an Anticolonial Social Science,” Gaile S. Cannella and Kathryn D. Manuelito write, “[t]he purpose of this chapter is to form an alliance of feminist, Native, and womanist worldviews that would provide a radical rethinking of the purposes, methods, and interpretations of research applicable to the construction of social justice in contemporary hypercapitalist patriarchy” (46). They believe “that native worldviews (especially those of women), traditionally marginalized feminisms, and womanist forms of female identification provide needed possibilities for activist reinvisionings of research as construct (and social science as disciplinary practice), a “revisioning” that “is especially necessary at a time when science (grounded in the linear notions of knowledge accumulation and progress that actually generate vulnerabilities to simplistic, dualistic thinking) is being attacked by those who would use vulnerabilities to reinscribe power over us” (46). I’m not quite sure how Cannella and Manuelito are using the word “science” here; do they mean social science? Is this an attack on positivism or not? It’s not clear. They recognize that the forms of thinking they intend to bring together have often been “at odds with each other,” conflicts that are “understandable as people are embedded within different histories and various intersecting survival locations within patriarchy and colonialism,” but they note that “[i]ntegrating Native worldviews with traditionally marginalized feminisms involves the intertwining of disposition, theory, and actions” which must transform the “purposes, questions, and methods of research” (46-47). “We propose an anticolonialist social science that would generate visions of egalitarianism and social justice,” they continue. “This anticolonialist social science would recognize the intersection of new oppressive forms of power created even within attempts to decolonize” (47). 

Cannella and Manuelito note that “[t]he public, dominant history of American Indians has been formulated since colonization,” and that this history has been replete with “inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations” (48). Scholars have participated in this process of marginalization: “Human worldviews based on collective human rights, communal orientations, and constructions of sovereignty grounded in reciprocity rather than individual ownership have been treated as if nonexistent” (48). “Euro-American feminist constructions of universal female experience and White, privileged criticisms of patriarchy” have been questioned by “Native women and a range of women of color who identify themselves as feminists” (48). Cannella and Manuelito suggest that the current moment exhibits “a new colonialism, reworking the past in ways that are more insidious, that interconnect the violence of racism, sexism, and oppression of the poor . . . with a form of cultural erasure that is so thorough that it rivals physical genocide” (48). This new colonialism “is a patriarchal hypercapitalism that imposes market domination . . . over diverse epistemologies around the world as if a superior and therefore legitimate authority” (48). 

It is within this context that they argue that “[r]esearch as construct is so deeply embedded within Enlightenment/modernist thought that arguing for its continued practice is actually a reproduction of the Eurocentric and American error,” although the believe that since rejecting research as a practice is “most likely not an option,” reconceptualizing research is “of great importance,” partly by changing the power relationships involved by involving people “in creating, conducting, owning, and judging research about themselves,” and by researchers recognizing “that there is no singular voice, no prototype of Native or Indigenous peoples” (49). Also, “a decolonialist science would privilege research goals/purposes that no longer accept the Eurocentric assumption (error) that some human beings have the power to ‘know’ others (whether cognitively or through personal stories) but would rather acknowledge and focus on the complexities of our contemporary sociopolitical condition(s)” (49). They describe this “decolonialist social science” through three points: it would “(a) investigate ways that society(ies) produce(s) forms of exclusion and erasure; (b) examine new forms of domination, as well as reinscribe/reinforce codes of imperialism; and (c) facilitate community action research originating from traditionally marginalized people” (49). I think the second phrase in point (b) is supposed to mean the opposite of what it says; perhaps they want researchers to look at the way that codes of imperialism are reinforced in the current moment? Anticolonialist research, they continue, “requires an orientation that is radically activist and does not support a false separation between academic research and transformative actions in the contemporary world” (49). In addition, it would no longer be appropriate for research to label other human beings; “rather, the research focus would be on the underlying assumptions, the will to power, that creates such constructs in the first place. Even our current academic attempts to recognize, hear, understand, and celebrate (and, however unintended, essentialize) Indigenous or Native voices would be examined” (50).

Anticolonialist research “would require that traditional and newly emergent methodologies be transformed into public conversations in ways that avoid the construction of dualist counternarratives that actually reinscribe modernist simplicities” (50). Is that a rejection of the distinction between Settler and Indigenous? Would such a rejection make sense? Such research “would be turned inside out to generate possibilities for continued dialogue with self and others regarding reconceptualization of even the techniques designed to counter colonialism and to generate unthought possibilities” (50). The focus of this research would be on examining forms of power (50). “Anticolonialism requires that no issue is off limits, yet all are treated with respect for complexity and influence on human beings, as well as positions that could unintentionally inscribe new imperialisms,” Cannella and Manuelito continue (50). 

Cannella and Manuelito suggest that “the belief in the interconnectedness of life forms and nature, spiritualized egalitarian respect for all, and the importance of transformative actions that are found (however differently expressed) in Native epistemologies and feminisms from often marginalized or purposely discredited locations” can “provide new (and/or reconceptualized) knowledges and ways of speaking, unthought possibilities, and positive emotional-intellectual locations from which to generate being with, and caring for, each other that are egalitarian and life affirming” (51). The challenges that anticolonialist social science makes to “matrices of power” are only one component of that form of research, one which is “necessary (but not sufficient) for an anticolonial, egalitarian consciousness. Various forms of being, understanding, and interpreting offer unlimited positions from which to construct social science” (51). They cite the Diné story of Changing Woman and its effects within Diné society, suggesting that the “feminine organic archetype does not separate mind and body” (52). “Embracing, exploring, and privileging (without attempting to market) egalitarian, reproductive life force, and body knowledges from the margin would result in an entirely reconceptualized social science,” they argue (53). They suggest that ecofeminism “offers unique epistemologies that assume interconnections between human and nonhuman, life and nonlife” that avoid dualistic thinking (53). They suggest that “ecofeminists would reverse priorities away from capitalist production toward sustainable reproduction and ecology,” unlike notions of sustainable development (54). “Collectivist, reciprocal ways of being and living in respectful and honest relations are of utmost importance as we have increasingly denounced our connectedness, spiritualities, and possibilities in the name of competition, efficiency, individualism, measurement, and profitability,” they contend. “Social science discourses, knowledges, and ways of being that are caring, insightful, and that value our collective connections to each other (including all forms of life and ‘nonlife’), while fostering our diversities in ways that challenge commodification, may be the most needed contemporary emotional and intellectual acts” (54). They also contend that the “contemporary condition requires a mestiza warrior activism for the construction of an anticolonialist social science,” a form of wisdom that “would consciously construct new spaces for multiplicity, border essences, and woman identification” (56).

“Native epistemologies and marginalized feminisms can actually serve as foundational for the construction of an anticolonial, egalitarian social science,” Cannella and Manuelito conclude. “A transformative egalitarianism would insist that the purposes of research are to make visible, center, and privilege those knowledges that have been placed in the margins because they represented threats to power, while avoiding the creation of new power hierarchies or the objectification of those knowledges (or the people associated with them)” (56). In addition, they contend that “[r]esearch interactions are needed that allow for the different epistemological spaces from which to collect and analyze data without imposing power on others” (56). “This anticolonial social science would no longer accept the assumptions that human beings have the ability or ‘right’ to define, know, or judge the minds, cultures, or ways of being of others,” they continue (56). Instead, research must “reveal and actively challenge social systems, discourses, and institutions that are oppressive and that perpetuate injustice,” “support knowledges that have been discredited by dominant power orientations in ways that are transformative (rather than simply revealing), and “construct activist conceptualizations of research that are critical and multiple in ways that are transparent, reflexive, and collaborative” (56). These goals will mean transforming some research practices and eliminating others, while “[o]thers will emerge as we struggle together to hear, respect, and support each other and the collective environment that surrounds us all” (56). What strikes me about this essay is the way that it arrives at positions similar to the arguments made by Springgay and Truman, but from a completely different theoretical background. I also find myself wondering what Vanessa Watts would have to say about their argument, particularly their use of the word “epistemology,” a term she rejects. I also find myself wondering if there are any examples of anticolonial social science research, or if this article is more of a manifesto that describes practices that have yet to take shape. I think some art practices might fit parts of their description of anticolonial social science research, though not all of it. (I’m not sure that any practice could completely conform to their description of anticolonial social science research.)

In “Waiting For The Call: The Moral Activist Role of Critical Race Theory Scholarship,” Gloria Ladson-Billings and Jamel K. Donnor state that their purpose is to “move away from solely describing the epistemological terrain (both dominant and liminal) to advocating the kinds of moral and ethical responsibilities various epistemologies embody” (63). The “call” they refer to in the essay’s title “is that moment where, regardless of one’s stature and/or accomplishments, race (and other categories of otherness) is invoked to remind one that she or he still remains locked in the racial construction” (61). Their essay is focused on race and racism, and they argue that even though racism is “a permanent fixture of American life, we must still struggle against it” (64). “Our success will not necessarily come in the form of a tightly constructed scholarly treatise but rather in the form of scores of other community, student, and scholar activists who continue or take up this cause rather than merely waiting for ‘the call,’” they write (64). 

Ladson-Billings and Donnor begin by acknowledging “the incredible volume of work that scholars of color have produced that we regard as ethical epistemologies” (64). “What each of these groups (i.e., African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans) has in common is the experience of a racialized identity,” they write. “Each group is constituted of a myriad of other national and ancestral origins, but the dominant ideology of the Euro-American epistemology has forced them into an essentialized and totalized unit that is perceived to have little or no internal variation” (66). At the same time, though, “members of these groups have used these unitary racialized labels for political and cultural purposes,” because such identifications enable “an acknowledgement of some of the common experiences group members have had as outsiders and others” (66). This “double consciousness,” they contend, “pervades the experience of racialized identities,” and they “believe it is imperative to include another theoretical axis—that of postcolonial[ism],” to serve “as a corrective to our penchant for casting these issues into a strictly U.S. context” (66-67). At the same time, they cite McClintock’s suggestion that the “post” in “postcolonialism” is “prematurely celebratory” (qtd. 67). It certainly is in this country.

That first section of the essay, Ladson-Billings and Donnor suggest, addresses “axes of moral and ethical epistemology on which the work of scholars of color rests (i.e., double consciousness, sovereignty, hybridity, heterogeneity, postcolonialism)” (67). The essay’s second section, they continue, points “towards the problems of dichotomy that current political and social rhetoric provokes” (67). They are particularly interested in the “us” versus “them” discourse that followed the 9/11 attacks (67) and the way that the “us” in that binary “serves to maintain White privilege and justify the subordination of anyone outside this racial designation” (68). The third section begins by citing legal scholar Derrick Bell’s argument that “the qualities of passion, risk courage, inspiration, faith, humility, and love are the keys to success that maintain one’s integrity and dignity,” and that these qualities are “standards of behavior in both scholarship and relationships” (70). “Clearly, this is a different set of standards than those the academy typically applies to research and scholarship,” they continue. “But how well have the usual standards served communities of color?” (70). Not well, they answer. While researchers might abide by the standards of scientific inquiry, “these standards are not inclusive of the moral and ethical action that must be taken,” they suggest (72). They believe that critical race theory can provide both a methodology and a theory that “seeks not merely reversal of roles in a hierarchy but rather displacement of taken-for-granted norms around unequal binaries (e.g., male-female, public-private, White-non-White, able-disabled, native-foreign)” (73). Critical race theory “is not limited to the old notions of race”; rather, it “is a new analytic rubric for considering difference and inequity using multiple methodologies—story, voice, metaphor, analogy, critical social science, feminism, postmodernism” (73). “So visceral is our reaction to the word race that many scholars . . . cannot see beyond the world to appreciate the value of [critical race theory] for making sense of our current social condition,” they write, and they list a number of scholars who, they argue, “all produce a kind of [critical race theory]” (73). “They are not bogged down with labels or dogmatic constraints”; instead, “they are creatively and passionately engaging new visions of scholarship to do work that will ultimately serve people and lead to human liberation” (73). What is necessary, they continue, is for scholars “to break new epistemological, methodological, social activist, and moral ground” (73). Unfortunately, the names in their list are primarily theorists, I think, rather than people engaged in other, more tangible forms of research, which might be a problem if they are calling for the creation of new forms of social science research. All social science research can’t be theoretical, can it? 

The next section argues that “[a]ll scholars of color need to acknowledge the salience of popular culture in shaping our research and scholarly agendas, for it is in the popular that our theories and methodologies become living, breathing entities” (74). Like scholars who “have made connections with the hip-hop generation,” social scientists “must similarly situate themselves to play a more active and progressive role in the fight for equity and social justice” (76). “Their work has to transcend narrow disciplinary boundaries if they are to have any impact on people who reside in subaltern sites, or even policy makers. Unfortunately, far too many academics spend their time talking to each other in the netherworld of the academy,” publishing in “obscure journals” and using language that does not “translate to the lives and experiences of real people” (76). 

The following section suggests that a transformation—such as a transformation of the academy—“implies a change that emanates from an existing base” (76). However, the old—the academy—may have to be destroyed in order “for it to be responsive to the needs of everyday people” (77). That’s rather utopian, and it’s far more likely that the academy’s destruction will take place at the hands of populist politicians and neoliberal bureaucrats. “A reconstructed university would displace much of the credentialing function of the current system and organize itself around principles of intellectual enrichment, social justice, social betterment, and equity,” they write. “Students would see the university as a vehicle for public service, not merely personal advancement,” and they would take courses “in an attempt to improve both their minds and the condition of life in the community, society, and the world” (77). They note that this idea “has little or no chance of success in our current sociopolitical atmosphere,” and that as they are currently structured, universities are premised on the “continued employment of elites,” the supply of “a well-prepared labor force,” and increasing their own endowments (77). “A reconstructed university would have a different kind of reward system where teaching and service were true equals to research and scholarship,” and its students would be selected “for their ability to contribute to the body politic that will be formed on a particular campus” rather than their academic preparedness (77). There is something rather Stalinist in the idea of recruiting students based on their political opinions rather than their ability to do the work required in university, isn’t there? “We are skeptical of the academy’s ability to reconstruct itself because of the complicity of its intellectuals with the current social order,” they conclude (79).

The essay’s concluding section suggests that “committed intellectuals must move into spaces beyond the academy to participate in real change,” and that this move “may mean that academics take on less prominent roles in order to listen and learn from people actively engaged in social change” (79). “Our call for a revolutionary habitus recognizes that the ‘field’”—they are citing Pierre Bourdieu here—“in which academics currently function constrains the social (and intellectual) agency that might move us toward social justice and human liberation,” they write (79). “[D]espite notions of academic freedom and tenure, professors work within a field that may delimit and confine political activity and views unpopular with university administrators, state and national legislators, and policy makers,” they continue (80). They suggest that their “notion of a revolutionary habitus might better be realized through Espiritu’s powerful conceptualization of ‘home’” as “a way to think about the permeable nature of concepts such as race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and ability” (80). “[W]e need to consider the way that we are all border dwellers who negotiate and renegotiate multiple places and spaces,” they write (80). “Thus the challenge of those of us in the academy is not how to make those outside of the academy more like us but rather to recognize the ‘outside-the-academy’ identities that we must recruit for ourselves in order to be more effective researchers on behalf of people who can make use of our skills and abilities,” they conclude (80). This idea would mean becoming more comfortable in communities “so that our work more accurately reflects their concerns and interests” and renouncing “our paternalistic tendencies and sympathetic leanings to move toward an empathic, ethical, and moral scholarship that propels us to a place where we are prepared to forcefully and courageously answer ‘the call’” (80). This argument is all very utopian (and thus impossible to realize), and I’m surprised that it neglects the fact that the majority of teaching on most campuses is done by armies of poorly compensated contract faculty who have no job stability and no institutional support for research of any kind—radical or traditional. That’s quite a blind spot—and as someone who has worked for years as contract faculty, I find it quite insulting.

“Critical Race Theory and Indigenous Methodologies,” by Christopher Dunbar Jr., begins with the history of “Negro” scholarship in the U.S. Many “scholars of color” embraced “a position that everything about race is subjective, hence challenging the notion of objectivity and the perception that given the same materials and resources, anyone could conduct research and arrive at the same findings—that is, the belief that life experiences and/or power relationships have no impact on research outcomes” (86). “The advantages to scholars of color results from the opportunity/obligation to transcend the either/or way of knowing,” Dunbar writes, suggesting that the scholars he includes in this essay “argue against dualistic positioning” and “provide multiple positions/lenses that challenge the dominant cultural model that they contend distorts their realities and has served only to sustain power relations that continue to place them at a disadvantage” (86). He suggests that Indigenous methodologies are important for critical race theory, and that “both Indigenous scholars and scholars of color” must “provide alternative modes of inquiry that accurately represent/reflect and critique their experiences” (87). 

The first section of the essay looks at critical race theory. “Two common interests unify critical race scholarship,” Dunbar writes. “The first is to understand how a regime of White supremacy and its subordination of people of color have been created and maintained in America, and the second is a particular examination of the relationship between that social structure and professed ideas such as the rule of law and ‘equal protection’” (87). Critical race theory is an outgrowth of critical legal studies, whose proponents believe that scholarship cannot be neutral or objective, and that “[t]here is no scholarly perch outside the social dynamics of racial power from which to merely observe and analyze,” because knowledge (and the way it is created) is “inevitably political” (87). Both critical race theory and critical legal studies rely on narrative as a way to challenge the academy’s “meritocratic paradigm” (Eleanor Marie Brown, qtd. 87). 

Some scholars “argue that race is scientifically meaningless”—that it is “a socially constructed concept”—and “‘[a]ntirace’ and so-called mixed race theorists” encourage the rejection of “all race concepts on strategic, scientific, conceptual, sociohistorical, and existential grounds” (88). The methods of these scholars “have included development of autobiographically based multiracial and ‘borderline’ identity theories, refutations of biological essentialism, and identification of historical and conceptual underpinnings of White racism” (88). According to Dunbar, though, “[r]ace is a constant in my life. It may be the only constant” (89). “I have framed much of my research in story form because I, too, agree that a story frames my research,” he writes (89). Scholars of colour, he states, need “to adopt critical methodologies toward the transformation and liberation of oppressed people” (90). “I would argue that the peculiar set of experiences of African Americans necessitates a methodological approach of inquiry that also differs from a Euro/Western approach to uncover and discover the lived experiences of disenfranchised, colonized, and Indigenous people,” he continues. “That is, there are (and need to be) multiple ways of inquiry/knowing” (90).

Stories “are a powerful tool for reflection,” and their language “is an act of epistemology” (91). “The Indigenous worldview places Indigenous peoples at the center of the research environment and is cognizant of Indigenous values, beliefs, paradigms, social practices, ethical protocols, and pedagogies,” Dunbar writes. That worldview “identifies both Indigenous and non-Indigenous research voices and perspectives, but these will be filtered and framed by Indigenous worldview. The knowledge framework will be one that his holistic and integrated, and this will further inform the view of research and research training and its impact on peoples and cultures” (92). “Indigenous research is about changing and improving conditions,” he continues (92). Critical race theory “legitimates and promotes the voices of people of color by using storytelling to integrate the experiential knowledge drawn from history of the ‘other’ into critiques of the dominant social order,” Dunbar argues, citing Laurence Parker (93). Telling personal stories “involves the work of reflection and telling. . . . It is both a historical and political process that places people of color in control of their story. Stories often trace the path/history of the person telling the story” (94).

There are challenges to critical race theory; they come from Latino critical race theorists, who “challenge the use of race as the central unit of analysis” and “argue that critical race theory has provided little understanding of the political economy of racism and racialization” (94). Latino critical race theorists are critical of “the use of narratives and storytelling, positing that this method, though useful in its own respect, tends to essentialize the plight of a disenfranchised people” and that it romanticizes, homogenizes, and exaggerates their experiences (94-95). They argue that “the effort toward the liberation of disenfranchised people requires moving race from the center of emancipatory efforts and placing the capitalist economy paradigm as the focus toward social and economic equality” (95). Dunbar also cites Matsuda, who suggests that it’s important to learn from those who have been “poor and Black,” and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s notion of Kaupapa Māori, or “Māori research,” which is more specific and accurate than “Indigenous research” (95). The purpose of those brief discussions, however, is not clear, nor is their connection to challenges to critical race theory. In fact, the final pages of this essay seem to fall apart into disconnected fragments. If that’s a deliberate formal decision, it doesn’t work.

“Reflecting on what I have written over these several pages has served to solidify my belief that an understanding and utilization of critical race theory as a method of inquiry is essential to understanding the impact of racism and the ongoing struggle of Indigenous and people of color not only in the United States but in other countries around the world,” Dunbar concludes. “Critical race theorists and Indigenous methodologists speak to the necessity of writing their own script. They note that storytelling is a sacred act shared from the heart that relives/recounts their history and culture. It is their story—stories that bring back life” (95-96). “Indigenous scholars and critical race theorists reject the notion of one truth,” Dunbar continues. “They argue that there are multiple ways of knowing, depending on whose lens is used. The notion of objectivity as evidence of truth is deemed invalid. They challenge the immorality of subjugation and the concept that a ‘racelessness’ society can exist” (96). This argument suggests that critical race theory and Indigenous methodologies are very similar, but I find myself wondering about how they might be different. The essay’s final section criticizes forms of scholarship that focus on capitalism or Indigenousness rather than race. Such scholarship “does not address the multiple injustices that have occurred in history and continue to occur daily in the lives of people of color and Indigenous people,” Dunbar argues. “To move race from the center would mean the dominant cultural model would have to surrender its positionality and hence power and domination. I know of no instances where power was willingly surrendered” (97). In addition, “[t]o suggest that people of color remove race from their center would mean to ignore the injustices that have occurred throughout history. It would mean ignoring the truth and exposing social inequities that give rise to continued social injustice. Race gives rise to exclusionary practices and not the other way around” (97-98). “It is critical that Indigenous scholars and scholars of color take the lead in framing their stories,” Dunbar writes, and he suggests that Indigenous scholars, “in challenging traditional research methods, have adopted methods of their own” which “consider the whole person, that is, the religion, culture, language, nuances, spirituality, and other values shared by their people” (98). Indigenous research attempts to accurately represent the lives of Indigenous peoples: “The research is intended to revive their people as opposed to researching them to ‘death’” (98). I agree that Indigenous research is important, but the essay ends without clearly distinguishing Indigenous methodologies from critical race theory, which leaves one with the mistaken assumption that they end up being the same thing.

In “Queer(y)ing the Postcolonial Through the West(ern), Bryant Keith Alexander brings together queer and postcolonial theory through an autoethnographic perspective. “[A]s a Black/gay/man/teacher/performer/scholar—I speak/write from a place of both bondage and freedom, held in place by the tensive ties of history’s legacy that depicts me as exotic other, a transplanted aborigine negotiating diaspora in a land that both recognizes and disowns,” he writes (103). “I claim a tensive comfort in postcolonialism and queer theory, knowing that I am both placed and displaced in both, yet I move forth boldly voicing experience, engaged in ‘the production of identity’ by renarrating the past and resisting the treachery of invisibility and exclusion that each promotes,” he continues, quoting Stuart Hall (103). (“Tensive,” a word that means “the quality of stretching or straining” or causing “a sensation of tension or tightness in the body,” according to the O.E.D., doesn’t seem to fit the sentence, but it recurs throughout Alexander’s essay.) “The method that I engage here is a critical interpretive queer methodology that engages a particular focus on critique but uses a highly personalized reflective and refractive method of revealing the invested self-implication of the author in the telling of the told, in a form that both signals and subverts traditional forms of scholarly discourse, contributing to both the field of knowing and the field of expressing the known,” he states, arguing that he is “building a kind of grounded theory, of doing and describing at the same time” (104). This essay itself is, he argues, “queer” in content and form, because “it resists the encompassing strictures of traditional forms of scholarly discourse, while working the political line between what is assumed to be only an aesthetic form without substantive worth and a critical excavation of thought that often sanitizes the dense particularity of the writer, which often receives false accolades as objectivity in scholarship” (104). “[O]nly an aesthetic form without substantive worth”—to a poet, those would be fighting words. Alexander argues that by illuminating and subverting the paradox of postcolonial theory—it sets out to dismantle the object with which is it fixated—he will not be “completely erased in the Whiteness of the scholarly mandate of academic performance to which I more than partially subscribe” (104).

After that lengthy introduction, Alexander turns to points of contact between postcolonial and queer theories. He argues that both are “engaged in a project of excavation and rescue of the alienated and silenced other,” and both are “subverting regimes of the normal and systematic deconstructions of colonial legacies, to create spaces for the variable performative identities of racialized and gendered minorities to practice voice” (105). In addition, both are engaged “in a rhetoric of critique and a rhetoric of possibility that liberates alternate ways of knowing, constructing, and engaging the world through the dense particularity of being” (105). In addition, both set out to illuminate and dismantle “systems of oppression” through critical analysis (105). Both are also “grounded in Whiteness: one a resistance to Whiteness as in European territorial conquests and its consequences, the other a blanching of racialized sexual differences that do not necessarily foreground Whiteness as its intent but as its effect; an erasure of racialized difference within the quest of universalizing larger notions of queer identity” (105). He cites Homi K. Bhabha’s definition of postcolonial perspectives as emerging “from the colonial testimony of Third World countries and the discourses of ‘minorities’ within the geopolitical divisions of east and west, north and south” (qtd. 105) because it “identifies both a point of origin, as well as the expanse of possibility within an approach to criticism that has, as a concerted effort, to crack the code of history’s conceit and open spaces that question not only the master(’s) narrative, but gives voice to untold stories cloistered in the margins of minority populations and lived experience” (105). He argues that postcolonial theory “pivots on the following logics”: a shift in who gets to speak, which opens “the categories of diversity in race, genders, and sexualities”; a shift in context, “from larger social and political systems to the specific contexts of private/public lives and the ways in which place and space become meaningful terrain of practiced lives”; and a shift in theory from modern to postmodern to “critical postcoloniality,” from “abstracted generalizations to emergent constructions grounded in the articulation and actualization of experience”(105-06). “Issues of voice, power, context, and theory are contingencies of human social relations that dictate the known and the knowing, histories and futures, and the quality of human existence that makes new histories and emergent identities possible,” Alexander writes (106). The “core logic for the transformative potential in critical postcolonial studies” is “the radical revisioning of social temporality,” he continues, citing Bhabha again. Somehow—the inclusion of the word “temporality” is confusing the issue—this “core logic” “reshapes and helps to revision the progenitors of human accomplishment, in a manner that is inclusive of the more collective contingencies of actual experience in the dynamism of human social relations” (106). What that has to do with temporality, however, either in Bhabha or in Alexander, is lost on me.

Alexander next suggests “two purposeful and very idiosyncratic critiques of postcolonial studies” (106). The first is that postcolonial theory has tended to “focus on the dominating qualities of heterosexual identities, their regenerative abilities to sustain domination over sexual minorities, and their contributions to the spectrum of intellectual, artistic, and practical human innovation” (106). The second is the claim that “postcolonial studies is built around the concept of otherness—as both a point of departure and critique,” which tends to reify the “presumed subjugated positionality” of “minority voices” (107). According to Alexander, this “construction of otherness in postcolonialism is linked with the relationship of origins—colonizer to colonized—but the relationship can also be distinguished by points of destination and departure—which leads to a particular resistance of indigenous people to feel that postcolonial theory has failed them” (107). In other words, postcolonial theory does not apply to settler colonialism, and in fact the “post” in “postcolonial” is itself a problem. 

A discussion of queer theory follows. “In its most idealistic and liberatory impulse, queer theory” uses the word “queer” not only to describe “a gendered identity location” but “as resistance to orthodoxy—expounding, elaborating, and promoting alternative ways of being, knowing, and narrating experience—through scholarship, through embodied being, through social and political interventions in regimes of the normal” (108). However, “queer theory is not presented as alternative . . . but as the reality of alterity that penetrates the suppressed and supplanted presence of difference that always and already exists in daily operations—both political and practical, as well as academic and everyday” (108). Therefore, “queer is antifoundationalist work that focuses on the opposition to fixed identities,” and queer theory itself “is interested in remapping the terrain of gender, identity, and cultural studies” (108). Queer theory is also “a form of academic activism” (108). “[H]ow does the occlusion of people of color become counterintuitive to the project and the very nature of cultural studies,” Alexander asks, given the way that queer theory remaps the terrain of gender, identity, and cultural studies by denaturalizing sexual identity? (109). In addition, if “queer” is an “inclusive signifier,” “then what about any discussion that links perception, practices, performances, and politics of sexual identity to race, ethnicity, culture, time, place, and the discourses produced within these disparate locations?” (109). “Are the specific experiences and concerns of queer folks of color erased in the dominant discourse of queer theory?” he continues (109). And if queer theory is grounded in feminist theory, “then doesn’t the collectivizing of experience prove unfaithful to the listening, debunking the singularity of voice, and the articulation of lived experience that undergirds feminism?” (109-10). (So no one shares aspects of their experience with anyone else? Isn’t this a radical individualism that denies the possibility of community?) 

Queer theory is apparently therefore indifferent to 

the unjustified generalization of common concerns and experiences within an imagined community in which there is contestation over the very terms gay and queer. Consequently, while queer studies grounds itself as an academic manifestation, it risks engaging and codifying the representational politics of alternative communities that it seeks to intervene in and thus becomes fraught with the danger of imperialism, colonialism, academic puffery, and racism. (110)

“[W]ithin the employment of the notion of queer studies, the gaps have been large enough to cause considerable slippage, if not a complete occlusion of the experiences of queer colored folk,” Alexander continues, suggesting that “queer” both includes and excludes (110). “The question then becomes, what and why does it exclude?” he asks. “Queer theory uses a false notion of building community in order to dissuade arguments of exclusion” (110). The word “queer” homogenizes the experiences and desires of people from a range of identities, particularly racialized identities, which it excludes in “what appears as either an intentional or unintentional act of racism in a project that has as its goals the notion of broad inclusivity” (111). This is a “dilemma” for Alexander, who writes, “I am engaging a critique of queer theory while engaged in a process of a queer reading of queer theory and its relationship to the postcolonial project” (112). 

“And so maybe my particular construction and critique of queer theory in fact erases the divide that separates colonial and postcolonial theory,” Alexander writes. “If queer theory seemingly promotes mostly white constructions of gay sexual identity, it most certainly is (inadvertently) complicit in racial domination in the service of sexual specificity; a study of White queers at the exclusionary expense of all others” (112). (How does that argument erase the division between colonial theory—which Alexander has not discussed or defined—and postcolonial theory? I don’t understand.) “But herein may lie both the limits and possibilities of queer epistemology,” he continues:

especially when pushed by a queer of color critique, a critically applied method of disidentification, and a burgeoning quare studies, each demanding a specific and text-specific analysis of racial and sexual deference, each examining the text and subtest of same-sex desire and the strategic rhetorics that both patronize and pathologize queer identity, and each examining the rhetorical strategies of exclusion and occlusion of racial sexual minorities that establish the motivating and guiding impulse in queer theory. Whether as a particular backlash to queer theory or as a culturally conscious/community-conscious critique for social transformation and empowerment—maybe a queer of color critique and the emergent interpretive queer methodology that I am espousing in this project—embody in more salient ways, the postcolonial move that should be are the core of queer theory, focusing on the complicated construals of queer identity across variables of race, class, and geography, with the particular focus on articulating experience and voice. (112)

I don’t work in the area of queer theory, and so I don’t have much to say about Alexander’s argument, except to wonder what he would make of metaphorical uses of the term “queer,” as in Springgay and Truman’s book on walking. My sense is that he would be angry in an application of the word “queer” that moves away from literal meanings of the term, although I could be completely wrong about that. Clearly he expects queer theory to engage with the issues that are important to him. “[M]y approach to doing a queer reading in this project pivots off of these logics to foreground not just the obviously queer but the multiple logics in which queer is being promoted as a restrictive and delimited possibility within a larger heteronormative promotion of the ideal,” he continues. “But I want also to acknowledge the moments in which queers of color are excluded or constructed in ways that further marginalize that identity construct, in the service of promoting heteronormative constructions of White masculinity—even in the presumed context of foregrounding queer identity” (113). For my part, I would like to see examples of queer theory that promote “heteronormative constructions of White masculinity,” because I would be very surprised if such things existed.

Next, Alexander offers “an alternative method of doing a critically interpretive queer reading that is an extension of the queer methodology that structures this text” (113). This method uses “disidentification,” or (quoting Muñoz) “a ‘recycling and rethinking [of] encoded meanings . . . that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications’” (qtd. 113). (What might that look like in practice?) According to Alexander, disidentification is “a practiced positionality and a method that seeks to subvert mainstream constructions of queer identities in presumably liberal social texts” (113). (Are these texts literal or metaphorical? Are only some texts “social” or are all texts social? What is the function of that adjective, anyway?) “I am moving toward a method of queer resistance that contests hegemonic colonial methods of sexuality and queering through a critical method that has a ‘culture-specific positionality’ that reveals my biases and investments without promoting yet another exclusionary method with a singular focus on raced identities, but one that promotes a critical awareness of exclusion and not self-promotion,” he writes (113). In this method, “the act of queering a social text is not only a methodological offshoot of queer theory seeking to unmask sexual erotics, same-sex desire, or sexual deviancy in any particular text to denaturalize assumed natural social processes,” nor is it “just a rearticulation of the postcolonial project, an analysis that shows how cultural, intellectual, economic, and political processes work together to perpetuate and to dismantle colonialism,” but it is “a paradigmatic approach to reading social, cultural, and political texts that covertly seek to perpetuate violence against queer lives while maintaining human social relations that create hierarchies of race, class, and sexual identity” (113). More importantly, the approach Alexander is advocating “is also a method that foregrounds the critical—as a systematic focus on content and intent with commentary and direction—and the ways in which particular queer identified texts are imbued with residual effects not only of heteronormative dominant values but a particular emphasis on Whiteness that is counter intuitive and often disparaging to the lives of racialized sexual minorities” (113). What Alexander is “moving toward” is “the emergence of a critical interpretive queer methodology that addresses the concerns of both a nihilistic postcolonial perspective”—how is that perspective nihilistic?—“and homogenizing queer studies, thus suturing the pains and possibilities of each,” a method “that works toward elaborating social action issues without simply replacing ills with additional harms but introducing new spaces of inquiry,” a method “like quare studies” which would attend to race as a social and cultural construction or performance, while also “crossing or bleeding the borders of identity construction, which affects the material practices of culture, gender/sexuality, and the socially delimited constructions of possibility” (113-14). 

This method, he continues, would acknowledge and use Indigenous knowledge, “understood both as the commonsense ideas and cultural knowledge of local peoples” but also “theories of the flesh, which fuse the specificities of lived and embodied experience to create a politic born out of necessity” (114). Such Indigenous knowledge would include “those particular spaces like prisons, ghettos, and underdeveloped nations within the backyards of developed countries” (114) and involve 

the innate sense of understanding one’s positionality in relation to the social and political constructs that strive, in both radical and subtle ways, to erase the significance of lived experience and bodily being to perform resistance, an indigenous and queer resistance that opens up a breathing space to know self in relation to hegemonic notions of racial and sexual identity as that particularly relates to the socially constructed marked other—which most often is the indigenous native withering under the colonial gaze. (114)

“[W]hich most often”? After his withering critique of generalities and homogenizations of queer identities and lives earlier in this essay, Alexander is going to do the same thing to Indigenous people? Really?

Critical interpretive queer methodology, Alexander continues, “analyzes a social text to reveal how the cloistered gay lives in the text, living in a presumed democratic society, and is both celebrated—as a part of the commercial mainstreaming of queerness—yet penalized as sexual deviancy within the larger dominating construction of heteronormativity” (114). It is, he writes, “a method that moves back and forth between social text and actual experience to reveal how the two are always and already co-constructed and codependent yet often placed in a hierarchical position of worth” (114). Given that his example is the fictional feature-length film Brokeback Mountain, I’m not sure where “actual experience” would apply, though. Whose actual experience? Alexander is setting up a critique of mainstream films like Brokeback Mountain for their characters’ “self-loathing that is socially inserted in the public construction of queer desire, as a heteronormative default setting, signaling pathology and a longing for (hetero) normalcy” (115). That would seem to be an easy criticism to make about such films, but Alexander is arguing that his method is complex: 

I am moving toward a method that moves between human rights and queer cosmopolitanism to develop what should be a grounded sense of common investments in human social relations—bleeding the borders of difference by foregrounding those very instances in which difference is marked and reified. This is from the perspective and articulated voice of one whose absented presence is only signaled in the text, but never actualized; one whose racialized possibility is presented as a counternarrative to the dominance of Whiteness—here relegated as the other—both alternative for Whiteness and alterity to Whiteness. (115)

He continues:

I am moving toward a method that deconstructs a social text for the tripartite and competing issues of foregrounding same-sex desire, while concomitantly promoting overt homophobic skepticism, within the particularity of also foregrounding racial specificity that competes against notions of a multicultural community building: community both in the larger human social system and a presumed common political concerns. Such a method blends and bleeds the borders of postcolonial and queer studies—in what might be a form of postcolonial queer analysis. (115)

Alexander promises that his reading of Brokeback Mountain will “demonstrate this burgeoning methodology” (115). I am so happy to see an example of a methodology in this essay, because such examples or practical applications have been missing from the other essays in this book that I have read so far.

Alexander states that his approach to Brokeback Mountain is postcolonial: “Postcolonial texts—and, more importantly in this case, social positions—presumably seek to open up spaces of liberation and possibility,” he writes (115). He also states that he is reading the film “as synecdoche for the culture machine of the film industry in the production of hegemonic notions of social propriety” (115). According to Alexander, Brokeback Mountain is “both a mechanism to out long-suppressed depictions of same-sex desire, through a presumed proclamation of affiliation (or at least support) and identity declaration (as presumed sexual alternative), but it also fulfills the critical possibility of the medium to question and questions of desire” (116). (The last phrase of that sentence makes little sense to me.) He focuses on specific scenes as “strategically constructed arguments in the larger rhetorical messaging of the film that creates a dispositive perspective of gay lives and how the reading of the text opens up new spaces for conversation and activism against the subtle social sanctioning of violence against queer bodies” (116). Brokeback Mountain, he writes, both popularizes and penalizes “the politics of queer identity as negotiated through heterosexual and uniquely White male sensibilities” (116). It “outs long-suppressed homosociality and homoeroticism in the American western genre” while also using gay male desire “as a mechanism to uphold the virtues of (performing) White male heterosexuality, as a mechanism to perpetuate a pernicious homophobia, as well as social and religious constructions of ‘family values’ that further instantiate the specificity of gender roles” (116). The “self-constraint and self-hatred for the potency of same-sex desire portrayed by the main character” act as “an internal, yet culturally inseminated, mechanism to control the lures of libidinal gay desire—which are never completely held at bay but later held in disguise behind the portrait of the ultimate sign of heteronormativity—male/female marriage” (116-17). What Alexander seeks to reveal is that Brokeback Mountain is “a propaganda for the always and already present heteronormative logic that perpetuates hatred of and violence against ‘queer’ populations, particularly in the case of gay men” (117). “[W]hat is queer in the film is not the main characters (who of course are queer) but the rhetorical strategy of the text that lulls the viewer into the assumption of an alternative love story with a ‘happy ending’ . . . but with the altogether traditional moral of applied heteronormativity that trumps queerness in the most vile and violent ways—ways that are always and altogether know,” Alexander writes, describing the film as “a coy text” that diverts the viewer’s attention “from one site or locus of meaning potentially risky or dangerous to what appears to be a more comfortable and secure space but in fact becomes a place of entrapment” (117). For Alexander, the fact that the film’s marketing did not “overtly suggest a queer theme” is an example of such coyness (117).

According to Alexander, “[a] queer reading as a form of disidentification asks the reader to . . . reread the encoded message” of the film “in a fashion that exposes the encoded message, which . . . universalizes a particular construction of queer lives toward particular heterosexual, if not mainstream, constructions of normalcy and the consequences of presumed-to-be deviant behavior” (118). Minority identities are excluded from the film, he continues: “The film is (reductively speaking) about two White queers. The only reference and allusion to queers of color pinpoints Mexican queers, presumabl[y] prostitutes, who become literally shadow figures in a darkened alley across the border,” substitutes for the desired and rejecting “ideal White male lover” (118). “[T]he film only offers a suggestion of the sexuality of the Mexican men in this particular scene,” and “the sexual exchange in what is constructed as prostitution” is really about “commerce and the fluidity of sex as a practiced activity as a by-product of colonialism” (118). Those men become commodities rather than agents of choice, and merely expedients rather than focuses of desire (118). Their bodies are “knowingly situated in an economic dilemma in which prostitution is expedient financial gain, hence becoming portal, promotion, and possibility for the sexual desires of others,” and this “colonial encounter” is staged as a “homoerotic colonial fantasy come true, deregulated by economic power and made manifest as acceptable within the larger frame of the film that promotes, if not rehistorizes, such convenient colonial relations that realign identity, politics, and desire” (118-19). “In reducing people of color to commodities, people to be purchased or engaged as second alternatives, the film reinforces not so subtle aspects of racism and sexism,” Alexander contends, and he concludes by suggesting that “[t]his overall pivot point for analysis, appropriation of liberal stances for political purposes, is linked with the second theme of invoking the conservative links between sexuality, religion, and normalcy as a means of establishing standards of social conduct” (119).

The next section of Alexander’s reading of Brokeback Mountain focuses on those links between sexuality, religion, and so-called normality. “I believe that Brokeback Mountain works in opposition to particular movie dramas that foreground the nexus of gay-life-tragedy—stories such as the Matthew Shepard Story . . . and others that have as their intent to politicize alterity and promote tolerance,” he writes (119). In contrast, “Brokeback Mountain establishes a fictive location of critique that becomes a site of real domination; the object of critique becomes the abject gay bodies bashed, beaten, and narrated in the film as historical object lessons for heteronormativity” (119). In other words, the film “becomes another mechanism for disciplining gays” by situating “gay bashing in the realm of fiction and maybe even fantasy” (119). “The film almost uses the act of violence against gays as a promotion or performative act of compulsory heterosexuality in a manner that goes uncritiqued and without social consequences,” Alexander writes (119-20), and Brokeback Mountain, unlike The Laramie Project (a play about the death of Matthew Shepard), “falls short of this social justice and community-building goal” (120).Divorce and marriage, “both socialized and legal institutional mechanisms that attempt to dictate particular human social relations,” are “promoted within the film as social sanctions—normalization and its presumed opposite” (122).

The third section of Alexander’s reading of the film focuses on a flashback in which Ennis’s father takes him and his brother to see a dead body—a neighbouring rancher who was apparently murdered because he was gay. This viewing, Alexander argues, is “an object lesson” that is intended “to enforce heteronormativity and the socially sanctioned consequences of its opposite” (122). “This becomes the grounding logics for the analogy used to justify and reinforce the social hysteria around homosexuality that Ennis perpetuates, nay promotes in his telling—to forestall any possibility of two men living together,” Alexander writes. “The analogy serves as both comparative template and prophecy” (122). It is a prophecy of Jack’s murder, and it makes Ennis “complicit in the social outcome of Jack’s murder” because of the “projective fate of queerness to which he has invested and helped call into being” (123).

“In offering these three pivot points toward doing a critically interpretive queer analysis of Brokeback Mountain,” Alexander writes, “I want the reader to see an attempt at not revealing the queer undertones in the text already  marked as ‘queer,’ but . . . an attempt to recycle and rethink encoded meanings in a cultural text that is presumably liberal but in fact perpetuates very conservative notions of social priority that can easily (and not so easily) go undetected within the political processes of promoting the particularity of dominative values” (123). This interpretation, he continues, comes from “a queer of color critique that identifies investments that re both specific to race and culture but does not fixate in those disparate territories while addressing issues most pertinent to a renewed queer theory interested in transforming the politics of representation that restrict and diminish all our lives” (123). Brokeback Mountain is “always and already a heteronormatively constructed and hegemonically dominating text that seeks to set straight issues of desire, happiness, and socially sanctioned happy endings in the west(ern)” (123). It’s not that the story it tells takes place in a homophobic social and cultural context, then, one marked by internalized homophobia within its characters, but that the film itself is homophobic. Any identification gay audiences may experience with the film’s characters “must also be closely linked with an act of mourning the despair of particular gay lives of which the film also narrates and perpetuates,” Alexander contends. “The project of queer lives is only understood within the larger context of the film. The film encourages the continuation of cloistered lives within the shadows of the dominative value of heteronormativity” (124). It pretends to take “a liberal stance on social issues but in fact sustains, if not sanctions, the same barbaric practices toward queers” (124). Fair enough, but now I want to see Alexander discuss a representation of gay life that he approves of—perhaps The Matthew Shepard Story, the made-for-TV movie he mentions briefly, The Laramie Project, or perhaps an avant-garde queer film. We know what he finds impossibly compromised and suspect. What kind of representation avoids the problems he identifies in Brokeback Mountain? I’ve read a lot of political critiques of Hollywood films in the past 30 years, and usually they are quite predictable: a mainstream film that pretends to be politically engaged or radical in some way turns out to be quite conservative. Alexander’s reading of Brokeback Mountain is much the same. Why not pay attention to representations that avoid the typical failings of Hollywood? They must exist somewhere.

Alexander suggests that critically interpretive queer methodology is focused on action, and he describes action in a number of different ways: “as continued critical readings of socially constructed texts about queer lives,” “as resistance to nostalgic romanticized depictions of queer lives with all too predictable tragic endings,” “as resistance to being happy with unsavory representations and promotions of cloistered gay lives,” “as the resistance of queers of color to being reduced to shadow figures and secondary choices of white lovers,” “as the continued construction of essays written from a queer of color analytical perspective,” “as critiquing the everyday cultural practices of home and community that establish the foundations of our deepest insecurities and pains about sex and sexuality” (124-25). All of these forms of action refer back to his reading of Brokeback Mountain, but Alexander goes on to list other forms of action, such as the book Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America, or David Román’s Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS—forms of scholarly action, then. But he returns to Brokeback Mountain:

At the end of Brokeback Mountain, like the characters themselves, I am left battered and bereft. In writing this queer reading of the text, I know that I am not complicit in the construction of these categories and the retelling of these particular tales that further my own marginalization. Like other queers of color, I know that my queer reading is both an act and a call for disidentification. (125)

“I seek to use the raw materials of this decoded text as a means of representing the disempowered politics of queer lives that the film perpetuates through a particular brand of hegemony and heteronormativity promoted with the text and in fact empower the queer lives that the film very strategically patronizes and pathologizes,” he continues. “Such acts might in fact be the core logics of any project that seeks to queer postcolonialism, an act that at once focuses and distinguishes the radical possibilities of being and sounds out voice from the marginalized spaces of nation and state form which such social and political texts promote their particular rhetorics” (126). 

The essay concludes with an epilogue in which Alexander claims “this space to practice voice at the intersection of a nihilistic postcolonial perspective and a homogenizing queer studies” (126). (I’m still not clear what he means by “nihilistic” in this context.) What follows is an attempt at poetry. If social scientists are going to publish poetry, they really need to attend to the craft of writing poetry. It’s not simply a free expression of one’s emotions or ideas. There’s a lot more to it than that. It’s an artistic discipline. It deserves to be treated as one.

In “Indigenous Knowledges in Education: Complexities, Dangers, and Profound Benefits,” Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg explore “the educational and epistemological value of indigenous knowledge in the larger effort to expand a form of critical multilogicality—an effort to act educationally and politically on the calls for diversity and justice that have echoed through the halls of academia over the past several decades” (135). This project “seeks an intercultural/interracial effort to question the hegemonic and oppressive aspects of Western education and to work for justice and self-direction for indigenous peoples” (135). “In this critical multilogical context, “ they continue, “the purpose of indigenous education and the production of indigenous knowledge does not involve ‘saving’ indigenous people but helping construct conditions that allow for indigenous self-sufficiency while learning from the vast storehouse of indigenous knowledges that provide compelling insights into all domains of human endeavor” (135).

According to Kincheloe and Steinberg, “indigenous knowledge” refers “to a multidimensional body of understandings,” “a lived-world form of reason that informs and sustains people who make their homes in a local area” and who produce “knowledges, epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies that construct ways of being and seeing in relationship to their physical surroundings. Such knowledges involve insights into plant and animal life, cultural dynamics, and historical information used to provide acumen in dealing with the challenges of contemporary existence” (136). Their use of this definition “accounts for the many complexities that surround the term and the issues it raises,” they continue (136). They acknowledge their privilege and that the term “indigenous itself . . . appears to conflate numerous, separate groups of people whose histories and cultures may be profoundly different” (136). “[I]t is not our intent to essentialize or conflate diverse indigenous groups,” they write, and their “definition of indigeneity and indigenous knowledge always takes into account the colonial/power dimensions of the political/epistemological relationship between the indigenous cosmos and the Western world” (136). “[T]he standpoint of colonized peoples on a geopolitics built on hierarchies, hegemony, and privilege is an invaluable resource in the larger effort to transform an unjust world,” they continue (136); I wonder if that statement could be interpreted as somewhat extractive.

“We believe in the transformative power of indigenous knowledge, the ways that such knowledge can be used to foster empowerment and justice in a variety of cultural contexts,” Kincheloe and Steinberg write. “A key aspect of this transformative power involves the exploration of human consciousness, the nature of its production, and the process of its engagement with cultural difference” (136). Indigenous knowledges, they continue, “become a central resource for the work of academics,” and they find it “pedagogically tragic that various indigenous knowledges of how action affects reality in particular locales have been dismissed from academic curricula,” because those knowledges “could contribute so much to the educational experiences of all students” (136). “Our intention is to challenge the academy and its ‘normal science’ with the questions indigenous knowledges raise about the nature of our existence, our consciousness, our knowledge production, and the ‘globalized,’ imperial future that faces all peoples of the planet at this historical juncture” (136). In other words:

We want to use indigenous knowledge to counter Western science’s destruction of the Earth. Indigenous knowledge can facilitate this ambitious 21st-century project because of its tendency to focus on relationships of human beings to both one another and to their ecosystem. Such an emphasis on relationships has been notoriously absent in the knowledge produced in Western science over the past four centuries. (136-37)

“[A]dvocates for indigenous knowledge,” they continue, argue for “the inseparability of academic reform, the reconceptualization of science, and struggles for justice and environmental protection” (137). In addition, Indigenous knowledge shows how academic research can be “directly linked to political action” (137).

In Indigenous studies, “emerging political awarenesses have been expressed in terms of the existence of a global Fourth World indigeneity” (137). Those who argue in favour of this idea suggest that Indigenous peoples share experiences of domination. While “it is important to avoid the essentialist tendency to lump together all indigenous cultures as one,” it is also important to “maintain an understanding of the nearly worldwide oppression of indigenous peoples and the destruction of indigenous languages and knowledges” (137). This “complex dynamic” is the focus of their essay (137).

Kincheloe and Steinberg suggest that “the best interests of indigenous and nonindigenous peoples are served by the study of indigenous knowledges and epistemology” (137). An appreciation of Indigenous epistemology, for instance, “provides Western peoples with another view of knowledge production in diverse cultural sites” which “holds transformative possibilities, as people from dominant cultures come to understand the overtly cultural processes by which information is legitimated and delimited” (137). That awareness might “shake the Western scientific faith in the Cartesian-Newtonian epistemological foundation as well as the certainty and ethnocentrism that often accompany it” (137). This “meta-epistemological context” might result “in a much more reflective and progressive consciousness” that would “encounter the possibility that the de/legitimation of knowledge is more a sociopolitical process than an exercise of a universal form of disinterested abstract reason” (137). However, questioning or rejecting “absolute and transcendent Western reason” need not lead to relativism, which can be avoided “by an understanding of culturally specific discursive practices” (137-38). For example, the Chagga people of Tanzania believe that truth is “a contingent, local epistemology” and “would not claim power via its ability to negate or validate knowledge produced in non-Chagga cultures” (138). According to Kincheloe and Steinberg, “[s]uch an epistemological issue holds profound social and political implications, for it helps determine the power relations between diverse cultural groups” (138). “In this reconceptualized, antifoundational epistemological context, analysts must consider the process of knowledge production and truth claims in relation to the historical setting, cultural situatedness, and moral beliefs of the reality they confront,” they write. “Such understandings do not negate our ability to act as political agents, but they do force us to consider our political and pedagogical actions in a more tentative and culturally informed manner” (138). As a result, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples might find it possible “to enter into a profound transformative negotiation around the complexity of these issues and concepts—a negotiation that demands no final, end-of-history resolution” (138).

“Our point here is on one level quite simple—humans need to encounter multiple perspectives in all dimensions of their lives,” write Kincheloe and Steinberg (138). “This concept of multilogicality,” they continue, “is central to our understanding of indigenous knowledges” (138). “A complex science is grounded on this multilogicality,” and in a recognition of this multilogicality, “we begin to see multiple causations and the possibility of differing vantage points from which to view a phenomenon” (138). The place from which one observes shapes what one sees, they continue, noting that this “standpoint epistemology” suggests that “the assumptions or the system of meaning making the observer consciously or unconsciously deploys shape the observation” (138). This notion “shapes social analysis, political perspectives, knowledge production, and action in the world” (138). “A multilogical epistemology and ontology promotes a spatial distancing from reality that allows an observer diverse frames of reference,” and in this “multiplex, complex, and critical view of reality, Western linearity often gives way to simultaneity, as texts”—why only texts?—“become a kaleidoscope of images filled with signs, symbols, and signifiers to be decoded and interpreted” (139). 

“The transformation of Western consciousness via its encounter with multilogicality vis-à-vis indigenous knowledges takes on much of its importance in relation to a more humble and empathetic Western perspective toward indigenous peoples and their understandings of the world,” Kincheloe and Steinberg continue (140). This perspective will lead to a greater understanding of colonialism. “It will be the responsibility of social and political activists all over the world to translate these awarenesses into concrete political actions that benefit indigenous people” as “informed allies” (140). “[I]ndigenous knowledge studies . . . can facilitate indigenous people’s struggle against the ravages of colonialism,” they continue (140). In addition, “a transformed social science would involve the pedagogical task of affirming indigenous perspectives, in the process of reversing the disaffirmations of the traditional Western, social scientific project,” in part by making use “of a variety of previously excluded local knowledges” which “could be deployed to rethink the meaning of development in numerous locales where various marginalized peoples reside” (141). Such knowledge could help Indigenous peoples to “move closer to the possibility of solving their problems in their own ways” (141). 

Nevertheless, non-Indigenous researchers who care about the effects of colonialism on Indigenous peoples “are faced with a set of dilemmas”: “Not only must they avoid essentialism and its accompanying romanticization of the indigene, but they must also sidestep the traps that transform their attempts at facilitation into further marginalization” (141). Those researchers must keep asking themselves the question, “How can the agency, the self-direction of indigenous peoples be enhanced?” (141). They must also remain aware of the difference between celebration and appropriation of Indigeneity (141). The study of Indigenous peoples and their knowledges can become a process of Europeanization, “as Western intellectuals conceptualize indigenous knowledge in contexts far removed from its production” (141). However, those intellectuals “have little choice: if they are to operate as agents of justice, they must understand the dynamics at work in the world of indigenous people” (141-42). When Indigenous knowledges are conceptualized as “ethnoscience” by non-Indigenous researchers—Indigenous botany seen as “ethnobotany,” for example,” Indigenous knowledge is seen as “culturally grounded,” while Western science remains “transcultural and universal” (142). Indigenous knowledge is thus relegated to “a lower order of knowledge production” (142). In addition, seeing Indigenous knowledge in disciplinary terms taken from the Western academy (botany, pharmacology, medicine, and so on) “is to inadvertently fragment knowledge systems in ways that subvert the holism of indigenous ways of understanding the world” (142). In this way, Indigenous knowledge ends up “tacitly decontextualized, severed of the cultural connections that grant it meaning to its indigenous producers, archived and classified in Western databases, and eventually used in scientific projects that may operate against the interests of indigenous peoples” (142). This extractive process destroys the dynamic quality of Indigenous knowledge. In addition, Western researchers often insist on testing the viability of Indigenous knowledge through scientific procedures, which shows the “Western disregard of the need to protect and perpetuate the cultural systems that produce dynamic indigenous knowledge” (142).

“How do we deal with the understandable tendency within indigenous studies to lapse into essentialism?” Kincheloe and Steinberg ask (142). Notions of “essentialist authenticity” that romanticize Indigenous cultures by freezing them at some point in the past are myths “that must be buried along with other manifestations of essentialist purity” (142-43). “Without such burial, indigenous cultures are discouraged from shifting and adapting, and indigenous knowledges are viewed simply as sacred relics fixed in a decontextualized netherland,” they write. “Our examination of indigenous knowledge attempts to enlarge the space” for dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges, “denying the assertion of many analysts that European and indigenous ways of seeing are totally antithetical to one another. These cultural and epistemological issues are complex, and our concern is to avoid essentialist solutions by invoking simplistic binary oppositions between indigeneity and colonialism” (143). Such an “either-or approach leaves little room for dialogue, little space to operate. Counteressentialist views of indigenous knowledge understand the circulation of culture, the reality of ‘contamination’” (143). If cultures as seen “as interrelated networks of localities,” they will be understood as “shaped and reshaped by boundary transgressions,” and therefore any claims about cultural purity will be obviated (143). So too will assertions of fixed, stable Indigenous identities. “In our multilocal understanding of indigenous knowledge, we maintain that all identities are historically constructed, always in process, constantly dealing with intersections involving categories of status, religion, race, class, and gender,” they write, noting that this notion of hybridity “is conceptually unsettling” (143). While this claim is probably true, it neglects to attend to the tremendous power imbalance that has characterized 500 years of colonialism and genocide in the Americas. 

“Our counteressentialist imperatives must always be understood within the framework of our valuing the diverse perspectives of indigenous peoples and our understanding of the continuing marginalization of their cultures and their perspectives,” they continue. However, “[h]aving made this antiessentialist argument, it is still important to note that within indigenous communities, the concept of essentialism is sometimes employed in ways significantly different than in the anti/postcolonial critical discourses of transgressive academics around the globe,” for strategic purposes and “in relation to spiritual dynamics involved with one’s genealogical connection to the Earth and its animate and (in Western ontologies) inanimate entitles” (144). 

The “epistemological tyranny” of the Western academy “subverts multilogicality,” Kincheloe and Steinberg write. “In this context, the notion of indigenous knowledge as a ‘subjugated knowledge’ emerges to describe its marginalized relationship to Western epistemological and curricular power,” they suggest, and “the term subjugated knowledge asserts the centrality of power in any study of indigenous knowledge and any effort to include it in the academy” (144-45). Nevertheless, “[w]hen Western epistemologies are viewed in light of indigenous perspectives”—particularly perspectives on the genocide of colonialism—“Western ways of seeing . . . cannot remain the same” (145). “In the reconceptualized academic curriculum that we imagine, indigenous/subjugated knowledge is not passed along as a new canon but becomes a living body of knowledge open to multiple interpretations,” they continue (145). However, it’s important that Indigenous knowledge not only been seen “through the lens of subjugation” (145). “No doubt the dance connecting the celebration of the affirmative dimensions of indigenous cultures, engaging in humor in the midst of pain, and fighting against mutating forms of colonial oppression is a delicate and nuanced art form—but it is one worth learning,” Kincheloe and Steinberg contend. “In this complex space, we begin to understand the value of understanding and developing multiple ways of viewing the power and agency of indigenous peoples and the brilliant knowledges they produce” (146). Those of us who are not Indigenous “learn to listen quietly in such contexts” (146). “As indigenous peoples tell their stories and rethink their histories, it is the duty of critical multilogical historians to listen carefully and respectfully,” they continue, and in doing so, we “can become not only better allies in the indigenous struggle against colonial subjugation, for social justice, and for self-determination,” but we can become better researchers (147). From here, Kincheloe and Steinberg outline the educational benefits that come from analyzing academic practices in the context of Indigenous knowledges (147). We will rethink our purposes as educators; consider the ways knowledge is produced and legitimated; create a more just and inclusive academy; gain new levels of insight; and demand that educators at all levels become researchers as well (147-50). 

A “critical multilogical analysis of indigenous knowledge is an examination of how different peoples construct the world,” although “such an epistemological study cannot be conducted in isolation, for any analysis of indigenous knowledge brings up profound political, cultural, pedagogical, and ethical questions that interact with and help shape the epistemological domain” (150). For that reason, questions like “what is indigenous knowledge, and why should we study it?” don’t “lend themselves to easy and concise answers” (150). That complexity is the result of the need to avoid essentialism (150). However, researchers describe Indigenous knowledges as forms of knowledge “produced in a specific social context and employed by laypeople in their everyday lives,” rather than by researchers “in archives or laboratories” (150). Indigenous peoples “produce forms of knowledge that are inseparable from larger worldviews” (150). “All knowledges are related to specific contexts and peoples,” but, they ask, “what context, and what peoples?” (151). “Cartesian-Newtonian-Baconian epistemologies and many indigenous knowledge systems differ in the very way that they define life—moving, thus, from the epistemological to the ontological realm,” they continue. “Many indigenous peoples have traditionally seen all life on the planet as so multidimensionally entwined that they have not been so quick to distinguish the living from the nonliving” (151). At what point do humans become separate from the oxygen they need to survive, from the water and food they must consume? A belief “that the rivers, mountains, land, soil, lakes, rocks, and animals are sentient may not be as preposterous as Westerners first perceived it,” since “all these sentient entities nurture human beings, and it is our role as humans to nurture them” (151). This idea reflects “a way of knowing and being that is relational” (151). The knowledge this epistemology and ontolology generates is “holistic, relational, and even spiritual,” and “the Eurocentric epistemology of studying, knowing (mastering), and then dominating the world” seems, in that context, “frighteningly out of place, as it upsets the sacred kinship between humans and other creations of nature” (151). “The indigenous epistemologies referenced here are not uncomfortable with a lack of certainty about the social world and the world of nature, for many indigenous peoples have no need to solve all mysteries about the world they operate with and in,” they assert (151).

Critiques of science tend not to come from scientists but from outsiders, Kincheloe and Steinberg suggest (151-52). Their intention “is to make the argument that a scholarly encounter with indigenous knowledge can enrich the ways we engage in research and conceptualize education while promoting the dignity, self-determination, and survival of indigenous people. . . . familiarity with indigenous knowledge will help academics both see previously unseen problems and develop unique solutions to them” (152). Yet if that knowledge is approached in an extractive way, the results may not be positive, they suggest. “Understanding this admonition, we frame indigenous knowledge not as a resource to be exploited but as a perspective that can help change the consciousness of Western academics and their students while enhancing the ability of such individuals to become valuable allies in the indigenous struggle for justice and self-determination,” they write (152). Indigenous knowledge is potentially revolutionary and transformative; it could lead to “an approach to knowledge production that synthesizes ways of knowing expressed by the metonymies of hand, brain, and heart” (152). Thy would like to begin a conversation with Indigenous knowledge that “leads to a reconceptualization of the Western scientific project and Western ways of being-in-the-world around issues of multiple ways of seeing, justice, power, and community” and that “challenges the epistemological foundations of the ethnoknowledge known simply as science” (152). (Does the term “ethnoknowledge” mean they have abandoned their earlier critique of the use of that prefix?) By studying Indigenous knowledge, “Western scientists come to understand their work in unprecedented clarity,” and that clarity can lead to seeing similarities between Indigenous knowledges and some conventional forms of feminism or critical theory (153). 

Those examples point to a problem in Kincheloe’s and Steinberg’s argument: the claim that social science is science in the same way that biology or chemistry or physics is science. Does economics, for example, use the same methods as biology? Really? Would scientists agree with such a claim? The scientists I know would laugh at it. Those of us who aren’t trained in the sciences should be careful about the kinds of claims we make about scientific knowledge and the scientific method. After all, vaccines work for everyone, regardless of their cultural background, don’t they? I would be much more comfortable with this argument if the authors were clearly talking about social science research, since that’s what they know and what they practice. No doubt biology and chemistry have led to oppression and harm as well, but shouldn’t researchers more familiar with the scientific method engage in critiques of science? I don’t believe that all such critiques come from outside the scientific disciplines.

“Our goals as educators and researchers operating in Western academia is to conceptualize an indigenously informed science that is dedicated to the social needs of communities and is driven by humane concerns rather than the economic needs of corporate managers, government, and the military,” Kincheloe and Steinberg conclude. “Much too often, Western science is a key player in the continuation of Euro-expansion projects that reify the status quo and further the interests of those in power” (153). The authors advocate a dialogue between Western science and Indigenous knowledges, one that would lead to the redrawing of scientific boundaries and that would open the eyes of Western researchers “to the political and cultural forces at work in all scientific labor” (154). That dialogue would “reduce the ugly expression of epistemological xenophobia and the essentialism it spawns” (154-55). It would also lead to an acknowledgement of the way that the “cultural orientations and values” of non-Indigenous researchers “can do great harm to indigenous peoples” (155).

“Do You Believe in Geneva? Methods and Ethics at the Global-Local Nexus,” by Michelle Fine, Eve Tuck, and Sarah Zeller-Berkman,” begins with a description of their participatory action research projects and states the authors’ intention to “cast a critical eye” on that research “through the lens of Indigenous knowledge” (157). “We invite a conversation about participatory methods, oscillating at the global-local pivot, by commuting between three kinds of texts,” they write:

participatory and Indigenous writings on method, online exchanges of an international discussion group of participatory researchers we convened, and collaborative work we have undertaken with the Global Rights coalition of youth activists. Across texts, we interrogate the dialectics of method that erupt as critical youth work digs deep into local places and travels cautiously across the globe. We end with suggestive thoughts for activist scholars inquiring with youth in a place, across places and then those who dare to trace global footprints of domination and resistance. (158)

They recall a Global Rights youth training session on participatory action research, one intended to produce a document that could be used to lobby for reform at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, and note that there was a “palpable tension” that could be felt “in the distinct goals of global and local work” (158). The youth wanted to be heard and to affect public policy, but at the same time, they wondered how the research would help their families and communities (158-59). That tension seems to be the “pivot” they described earlier.

“One of our methods for writing this chapter has been to pay close attention to what, in our quilted discourse, can serve as a metaphor and what cannot,” they write (159). They are particularly upset by the metaphorical use of words like decolonization and Indigenous (not surprisingly, given Tuck’s work with K. Wayne Yang). “Rather than lines drawn in the sand,” they write, “these are instead reminders of the slippery surface of language, the seductive pull of solidarity, and the terrific sloppiness with which we make names and claims under imperialism” (159):

Both those who are served by domination and those who are committed to social justice, seeking solidarity among oppressed peoples, engage in the too common practice of taking on the charged, contextualized, experienced words of brilliant communities and stretching them to fit inside their own mouths and own communities. On one hand, we recognize the assimilationist, exploitive tradition that is at work behind this practice and recognize that there are some who always feel entitled to scoop out the most on-point language and plant it in their work. . . . We urge our readers and remind ourselves to resist the appropriation of pain and language of Indigenous peoples and other oppressed peoples. (159)

“On the other hand,” they continue, “there are some ideas that speak so poignantly to issues of maldistributed power that our work across space, across time, across disciplines is deepened, thickened, by being compelled by them into practice” (159). “Colonization and sovereignty,” as prerequisites for democracy, “are examples of those ideas” (159). 

Being Indigenous is not a metaphor, they write. “Those of us who are Indigenous have experienced the everyday realities of continued colonization, which has shaped the ways in which we think of ourselves, one another, and the ‘whitestream’ and the ways in which we write, speak, and come to research,” they continue. “Those of us who are not Indigenous have been profoundly shaped by our witnessing of colonization, by our roles as accomplices, abettors, exploiters, romanticizers, pacifiers, assimilators, includers, forgetters, and democratizers. Indigenous knowledge and experiences are markedly different from local knowledge” (159-60). I like the way that the authors do not allow their non-Indigenous audience to escape involvement in colonialism, and it’s clear that they are making a distinction between Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge; the latter must include what I am taking to be the false knowledge of the “whitestream” (they cite Sandy Grande as the source of that term). Colonization is not a metaphor either, but it “can be a lens through which to understand not only the rez but also the ghetto, the windswept island, the desert, the suburbs, the gated communities, and the country club” (160)—everything, in other words. “Understanding colonization as the primary relationship between the United States and oppressed peoples makes us know that decolonization involves not only bodies but also structures, laws, codes, souls, and histories,” they contend, citing Linda Tuhiwai Smith (160). (Who said decolonization would only involve bodies? Are the authors responding to an actual argument here?) 

Geneva in this text represents the opposite pole to the one represented by Indigenous communities and local communities (I thought they were drawing a distinction between Indigenous and local?). They resist the local to global hierarchy, they write, “framing this relationship as the global-local nexus,” because “[s]pace is not a metaphor” (160). (Who said space was a metaphor? What argument are they addressing?) 

The point of this essay, the authors continue, is “to carve out moments of conversation between participatory action research and Indigenous writings while refusing the paper over the tough differences” (160). They go on to explain what participatory action research, or PAR, is:

Participatory methods respond to [contemporary] crises in politics by deliberately inverting who constructs research questions, designs, methods, interpretations, and products, as well as who engages in surveillance. Researchers from the bottom of social hierarchies, the traditional objects of research, reposition as the subjects and architects of critical inquiry, contesting hierarchy and the distribution of resources, opportunities, and the right to produce knowledge. (160-61)

“While all PAR projects are constructed to speak critical truths to those in power,” they write, “some commit to writing academic scholarship, whereas others spawn organizing brochures, speak-outs, poetry, videos, popular youth writings, spoken word performances, theater of resistance, or maybe just a safe space free from toxic representations” (161). Their projects “have been place based,” and focused on the experiences of young people in a range of schools (161). “We believe in the significance of working doggedly, in a place, with local history, context, and struggle under your fingernails, and we believe that across places, youth inquiry and resistance can be fueled by global connections and contentions,” they suggest (161). In addition, they “assert that some knowledge carried in oppressed and indigenous communities should not be reported or documented; it is not to be known by those outside of the local community—that sacred local knowledges can be defiled and that research has, for too long, been the ‘neutral’ handmaiden of knowledge commodification” (161).

Now the authors return to the Global Rights training session, “a place where the air of global possibility and colonial danger filled the room” (161). The group of young people decided, after three days of work, that it was more important to “speak back to their home communities” than it was to try to get the attention of the United Nations (162). “Breathing in the power of possibility, our eyes stung . . . at the treacherous contradictions that lay at the global-local intersection,” and since that event, they “have been thinking hard about the dialectics of method tucked into the folds of global-local work” (162). “We take up four of these dialectics, to provoke imagination for method, to spark a conversation, to invite participatory inquiry that privileges the local while stretching thoughtfully toward to global,” they state (162). Those dialectics are:

preserving the right to “difference” in human rights campaigns devoted to universal access, documenting the history and geography of privilege as well as pain, nesting research inside grounded struggles for sovereignty that must be addressed before claims of democracy can be voiced, and articulating the obligations to local audience and local use when “jumping scale” toward global analysis. (163)

Those dialectics are the focus of most of the remainder of the essay.

The authors begin with difference and access, noting that “the discourse of human rights’ struggles for universal ‘access’ to education can silence or homogenize local demands for ‘difference’” (163). Some young people wanted to be educated only with others from their linguistic or cultural communities; others wanted to be educated with students from outside those communities. Some saw English instruction as liberatory; others saw it as imperialism. If groups do not seek access to dominant institutions, then how can discrimination be corrected while building difference into the remedy? (163). “The question of ‘difference’ looms large and clumsy, often silenced, in conversations for access to education, health care, housing, work, or even marriage rights, especially as researchers seek to document exclusion and policy makers/advocates seek remedy for all,” they write. “It is not easy to hold the notion of ‘difference’ in your head while trying to measure or ‘correct’ injustice systematically” (163). The young people divided into smaller groups and tried to develop surveys about different aspects of injustice in education. One group was developing questions about the things that kept students from completing school. They came up with a long list, and were asked to choose which questions had breadth—that is, which ones spoke “to the wide variety of reasons students did not complete their schooling”—as well as depth—which spoke “to the intimacy of politics of injustice” (164). There was little agreement about which questions were most important, and in the end, the youth “decided to pose the questions on the survey so that the ones being surveyed had the opportunity to prioritize the issues that kept them from completion” (164). Given the distinct histories, politics, and desires of each community, conversations about ‘difference’ deserve to be aired, not suffocated, at the global-local nexus,” the authors state:

Demands for “access” cannot mute noisy, contentious, sometimes divisive discussions of “difference.” Damage is done when remedies to injustice are universalized. Oppression is fortified when the knowledge for solutions is homogenized. Commitments to access must always be welded to equally strong commitments to difference. (164-65) 

I wonder, though, how much difference can be included in remedies to injustice. Does the conclusion the authors reach suggest that each community needs to come to some kind of consensus? What if that’s not possible? How many schools, to use their example, can exist in a small community? What if some young people aren’t interested in completing their education? What happens then? The goal of understanding difference in questions of access is a noble one, but what would it look like in practice?

Next is the need to look at both the privileged and the oppressed. They wanted to “study privilege as well as those who have been denied,” because “[u]nless the very classed, gendered, ethnic, and racialized formations of accumulated capital are documented—not just the ‘damage’ of those who pay the dearest price for globalized injustice—social analyses run the risk of obscuring the architecture and mechanisms of social oppression; we collude in the presumption that ‘merit’ and privilege are trouble free” (165). They asked, “how do we map the geography and distribution of pain and privilege—who has it? What does it look like? How is it reproduced? Where is it hidden? Whose sacred knowledge deserves to be protected, and whose deserves to be exposed?” (165). Given the authors’ emphasis on knowing when metaphors are being used, it seems appropriate to note that “map” here is a metaphor.

Each young person in the group was to travel home with a survey to be “administered to 50 males and females from the ‘dominant’ group and 50 from the ‘marginalized’” (165). However, “on the ground, the constructs of privileged and marginalized (like discrimination) splintered” (165). The divisions and the number and range of unanswered (perhaps unanswerable?) questions were so great that the idea of a survey was abandoned. “[W]e had a hard time ‘operationalizing’ privilege,” the authors state (165). “Social scientists do not have easy methods for documenting the material, social, and psychological circuits of privilege—policies and practices of hidden/denied/outsourced ownership, accumulation, exploitation, embodiment, and reproduction of privilege,” they continue (166). “To gather up this evidence about privilege requires far more than simple self-report: digging deep, investigating behind, and lifting the skirts of privilege to view beneath and under dominants’ coattails, families, bank accounts, stock portfolios, sexual liaisons, pornographic Web sites, drug use, and ‘cleaned’ police records,” they write, citing examples of such research (166). 

“Documenting the geography of pain, the shameful twin of privilege, may appear to be a somewhat easier task, but here we bump into issues of personal and community ethics and vulnerability,” the authors contend (166). “It may be (relatively) easy for researchers to document the quantitative indicators of raw deprivation—in illness and mortality rates; access to hospitals, medical personnel, and insurance; number of teachers; schools; books; and literacy rates,” they continue (167). “But questions of intimate subjectivities of deprivation and the collateral damage of psychic violence are harder and more consequential to capture and, in some audiences, more likely to be resisted, too painful to hear, too costly to speak” (167). Some of the young people wanted to stay quiet about these issues; others wanted to speak. “What constitutes ‘sacred knowledge’ or sovereignty in one community, or by some members of one community, may indeed by the primary purpose for the research in another,” they continue (167). And not just members of a community, either; let’s not forget that individuals (like the young people in the training session) may, for their own reasons, want to speak or remain silent. “In participatory work, some of the ‘trickiest’ conversations circled around pain, vulnerability, and damage, asking who gets to have a private life and whose troubles are public,” the authors conclude:

What can be included in the net of “evidence” of social oppression? What will be used against my community, as we document histories of colonization? Do we ever get to reveal the pathology of the rich, their drug abuse, violence against women, and corporate and environmental violence enacted by elites? These are indeed hard calls and not ones that participatory researchers should make alone. The power of global analysis is, perhaps, to be able to speak the unspeakable without vulnerability. This is yet another rub and the intersection of privilege, pain, and outrage, at the global-local nexus, where a set of important conversations with youth are waiting to be hatched. (167)

I’m losing the sense of the “global-local nexus” here, for some reason. Would revealing a community’s difficulties (the local level) help that community? Wouldn’t the community already have a sense of those problems? How would revealing those difficulties to policy makers (the global level) reduce the vulnerability of those making the revelations? I don’t understand. Besides, don’t we get some sense of the various pathologies of the rich in stories like the ones about Jeffrey Epstein’s circle of friends? Don’t we know about corporate and environmental violence? I see the point the authors are raising in this section, but am confused by the language in the conclusion they draw from it.

The dialectic between sovereignty and democracy is the essay’s next topic. Some of the young people at the Global Rights workshop were Indigenous, and their “experiences spoke to the complexity of a human rights-based campaign for the end of educational discrimination at the hands of governments that do not respect Indigenous sovereignty” (167). They saw the plan that was being produced by the group “as being severely mitigated by long histories of colonization and assumptions of equal opportunities and immunities to the dangers of transgression” (167-68). The authors came to the conclusion that there is no democracy without sovereignty. “The struggle for sovereignty is a real, experienced struggle for tribal and detribalized people,” and the existence of that struggle “could be perceived as a threat to the fantasies we are taught to have about ourselves: sovereignty and the self-determined political, cultural, social status that Indigenous peoples all over the world demand from the governments that have otherwise attempted to absorb or destroy them, through a coarse eye that reads as separatism” (168). “Sovereignty, complicated yet crucial to democracy in practice, is at the heart of how we as researchers and storytellers attend to our data,” they continue (169). “At the heart of participatory research lies a desire to resuscitate democracy as a whole, and yet this is an important historic moment to (re)consider democracy,” they suggest:

Democracy has been and is being waged on our bodies, in our names, as an occupying force. It has been exposed by Indigenous thinkers as an ideology that thwarts Indigenous interests and maintains the privilege of the power elite. The practice of democratizing has been a practice of desecration, of burning down, of forgetting, of watching home-language speakers’ mouths with soap, of forced removal, of denial, of deprivation, of depletion. (169)

“Thus, the work of those involved in participatory research with youth to reclaim and reframe democracy is a vulnerable yet pivotal endeavor,” they write. “What, then, does it mean for us involved in this endeavor to take sovereignty seriously as a prerequisite to democracy?” (170). 

What it means, they state, is “that each participant in our research has sovereign rights,” and that “[s]overeignty as a prerequisite to democracy involves the cease-and-desist of Eurocentric, colonizing power formations” (170). It also “calls for us to mind what is sacred,” including the right to keep sacred knowledge private” (170). And it involves “the right to complex personhood,” meaning that everyone remembers and forgets, is “beset by contradictions,” recognizes and misrecognizes themselves and others, and lives lives that “are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning” (A. Gordon, qtd. 170). “Sovereignty with a commitment to the rights of complex personhood does not defy democracy,” the authors conclude; “it is a requirement” (171).

The fourth dialectic is that between obligations to communities and others, and the demand to “‘jump scale’ to document global circuits of hegemony and resistance” (171). In that shift—from the local to the global—“the question of obligation to whom, accountability for what, and being grounded where grew more diffuse,” the authors state. “As local projects coagulated toward a vague sense of the global, images of audience and purpose blurred. To whom, for what, with whom, and toward what end to we create materials, products, scholarly documents, performances, exhibitions, and/or protests for global analysis?” (171). “First and foremost,” they state,

we caution that it is necessary that those of us who desire to leap between local participatory and global analyses build, self-consciously and transparently, mechanisms of participation so that our work remains situated, even if multisituated, and accountable to place. Global or cross-site work must remain nonhierarchical and have integrity with home spaces. Global research must remember, always, that the local is its mother. (172)

As is so often the case, I find that call would be more effective with an example of such “mechanisms of participation.” The suggestion that “we need to be listening for the whispers over coffee breaks, in informal spaces, that speak to the fear that local demands are being passed over for concepts far more grandiose and unclear” (172) is hardly a description of a “mechanism.”  The second obligation is avoiding homogenization; the third is thinking about the interrelations between struggles in different places, and the final obligation has to do with “the delicate ethics and responsibilities of PAR researchers—having access to and responsibility for local knowledge and action” (173). There are also “opportunities of scale,” they suggest, that may conflict with the need to be responsible to communities (174). “Traditional notions of generalizability are deliberately troubled in our work—as they should be,” they write. “But they are not discarded. The question of generalizability is perhaps one of the most vexing and difficult questions in critical inquiry” (174). They call for “an intersectional generalizability—work that digs deep and respectfully with community to record the particulars of historically oppressed and colonized peoples/communities and their social movements of resistance, as well as work that tracks patterns across nations, communities, homes, and bodies to theorize the arteries of oppression and colonialism” (174). I’m not convinced that call answers the questions they are asking. The local is “the foundational base for building toward a global framework” (175), but does that resolve the conflict they have described between the local and the global? I don’t have to worry about that kind of conflict—I’m not a social scientist and probably won’t make generalizations based on my work—but if, for instance, some communities want everything kept private and don’t want researchers to publish their results (one of the examples they provide), how could one respect those desires while trying to generalize from that research? I don’t think one could generalize at all, in that situation. Perhaps there’s no need to generalize—it’s not common in humanities disciplines, for instance, which tend to focus on specific texts without making larger claims.

In their conclusion, Fine, Tuck, and Zeller-Berkman state, 

We recognize that for each of these dialectical relations—access/difference, privilege/pain, democracy/sovereignty, global/local—there is an ideological valence, a gendering, racializing, and classing, attached to the split elements. Each prior element—access, privilege, democracy, and global—signals “modern.” Each latter element—difference, pain, sovereignty, and local—embodies “backward” or conservative. (175)

How do “pain” and “sovereignty” suggest backwardness? I don’t understand. They continue:

Democracy, access, privilege, and globalization are big ideas, associated with men, Whiteness, and progress. Calls for sovereignty, difference, pain, and the local weigh down people and movements. They are carried in the bodies of women, people of color, poor people who are viewed as holding back, resistant or ignorant of what is in their best interest. (175)

Participatory action research, they write, “must not only refuse these binaries and the associated valences but also must aggressively trouble the splitting as a form of political (and methodological) dissociation” (175-76). “At the heart of participatory design lies a recognition that when the stubborn particulars of local context . . . are disregarded, globalized justice research becomes another act of colonization,” they argue. “When difference, local, sovereignty, and pain are dissociated from global movements, justice campaigns simply fly above embodied lives and burning communities” (176). And yet in these dialectics is the “possibility for radical work to be opened up, reconceived, unleashed, or—sometimes—placed away for sacred keeping. This is where critical and indigenous work joins, even as they tip toward very different sensibilities in praxis” (176). “Struggle is ongoing; global provocation is powerful, but home is where we live,” they conclude, and proof or evidence is “only one resource that must be brought to bear in a long, participatory mark toward social justice” (176). 

Although my intention was to read all of the essays in this anthology, I skipped the last two of the first section, because they focus on critical pedagogy, and I’m not interested in pedagogy because I’m not doing research on education. Still, a lot is happening in the essays I did read, although I’m not sure that my initial response to the book’s introduction—a caution regarding the possibility of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous methodologies into dialogue—has changed. I still think that bringing those two different ways of thinking and doing together would be difficult for all kinds of reasons. I feel the same about appropriations of the word “queer” by straight academics as a metaphor. But at least now I have a sense of how Denzin and Lincoln might have been using the word “performance” in the introduction. That’s one mystery solved (perhaps). 

Works Cited

Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.

112a. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies

denzin lincoln

This book—it’s very long to be considered a mere “handbook,” but that’s how the editors and publisher describe it—is another of the texts my supervisor asked me to read for this project, and for that reason I needed to consider it carefully. It’s a long book—600 pages in all—and as a consequence, this summary is long as well. Because it’s so long, I’ve decided to break it up into parts that reflect the book’s different sections. Otherwise, I’ll find myself posting a massive, 200-page summary that no one is going to read and that will probably crash my WordPress app.

I have many questions about the essays I’ve read in this book; some of those questions might be useful, others cranky and pedantic, but they all reflect my efforts at understanding the essays I’ve read here. The important question to ask about this book as a whole, though, is what positive or useful information can I take away from reading it? 

The preface, described by its authors, Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, as a “manifesto,” “is an invitation to indigenous and non-indigenous qualitative researchers to think through the implications of connecting indigenous epistemologies, as well as theories of decolonization and the postcolonial, with emancipatory discourses, with critical theory, and with critical pedagogy” (ix). Non-Indigenous scholars, they write, “have yet to learn that it is time to dismantle, deconstruct, and decolonize Western epistemologies from within, to learn that research does not have to be a dirty word”—they are referring to Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s description of research on the first page of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples—“to learn that research is always already moral and political” (ix). A dialogue between critical theorists and Indigenous scholars is necessary, they write, and they believe that “indigenous scholars can show critical theorists how to ground their methodologies at the local level” (x), although what “local level” might mean isn’t clear. They define Indigenous methodology as “research by and for Indigenous peoples, using techniques from the traditions and knowledges of those peoples,” quoting an article by Evans, Hole, Berg, Hutchinson, and Sookraj (x), and they define critical methodology as “scholarship done for explicit political, utopian purposes, a discourse of critique and criticism, a politics of liberation, a reflexive discourse constantly in search of an open-ended, subversive, multivoiced, participatory epistemology,” citing Lather (x). “Because of their liberatory, emancipatory commitments, we believe critical methodologists can, in concert with indigenous methodologies, speak to oppressed, colonized persons living in postcolonial situations of injustice,” Denzin and Lincoln write (x), although in many places, including Canada, “postcolonial” is the wrong word to use in this context. 

Denzin and Lincoln identify Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (first published in 1968) as the text which brought critical theory and critical pedagogy together for scholars in the 1980s (x). At that time, some Indigenous scholars were beginning “to appropriate and rework Western qualitative methodologies, epistemologies and systems of ethics,” while critical theorists “were working over the same terrain, trying to answer questions raised by indigenous scholars” (xi). An explosion of theoretical and critical discourses took place. “Out of this intersection of discourses, the crisscrossing of theories of performance, pedagogy, and interpretative practice, came a fourfold interest focused on performance, interpretative pedagogies, indigenous inquiry practices, and theories of power, truth, ethics, and social justice,” they continue (xi). This handbook “charts this confluence of interests” (xi). “To summarize, we believe that the performance-based human disciplines can contribute to radical social change, to economic justice, to a utopian cultural politics that extends localized critical (race) theory and the principles of a radical democracy to all aspects of decolonizing, indigenous societies,” they continue, and “nonindigenous interpretive scholars should be part of this project,” although the way “this endeavour is implemented in any specific indigenous context should be determined by indigenous peoples,” and that “this initiative should be part of a larger conversation—namely, the global decolonizing discourse connected to the works of anticolonialist scholars and artists” (xi).  I am somewhat confused by the term “performance-based,” because aside from performance ethnography, I can’t imagine what the intersection between critical theory and performance as I understand the term would look like. 

Next comes the introduction, also written by Denzin and Lincoln. “We seek a productive dialogue between indigenous and critical scholars,” a dialogue which “involves a re-visioning of critical pedagogy, a re-grounding of Paulo Freirie’s pedagogy of the oppressed in local, indigenous contexts” (2). They call “this merger of indigenous and critical methodologies critical indigenous pedagogy (CIP)” (2). (Denzin and Lincoln are education scholars; I am not, and one of my struggles with this book will be its focus on pedagogy.) Critical Indigenous pedagogy “understands that all inquiry is both political and moral,” “uses methods critically, for explicit social justice purposes,” “values the transformative power of indigenous, subjugated knowledges,” “values the pedagogical practices that produce these knowledges” and “seeks forms of praxis and inquiry that are emancipatory and empowering,” and “embraces the commitment by indigenous scholars to decolonize Western methodologies, to criticize and demystify the ways in which Western science and the modern academy have been part of the colonial apparatus” (2). The purpose of this introduction is to outline “a methodology, a borderland epistemology, and a set of interpretive practices” (2). The focus here seems to be on research in or with Indigenous communities, although no doubt the methodology, epistemology, and practices the authors will discuss will be useful for other forms of research.

Qualitative research “exists in a time of global uncertainty,” with conservative governments more interested in quantitative models (3). “In response to such challenges, a methodology of the heart, a prophetic, feminist postpragmatism that embraces an ethics of truth grounded in love, care, hope, and forgiveness, is needed,” they suggest (3), although I find it hard to imagine those virtues standing up to the hard-nosed claim that quantitative research provides the only form of truth. “Indigenous scholars are leading the way on this front,” they contend, by disrupting traditional research methodologies and developing new ones that privilege Indigenous knowledges (3). Non-Indigenous scholars are building connections with these Indigenous scholars,” they continue, “learning how to dismantle, deconstruct, and decolonize traditional ways of doing science, learning that research is always already both moral and political, learning how to let go” (3). Let go of what? I’m not sure. Control? Certainty? Particular assumptions? All three? “Ironically, as this letting go occurs, a backlash against critical qualitative research gains momentum,” they write (3-4). That backlash seems to be rooted in the demand for quantitative, “evidence-based” research rather than qualitative research in the social sciences (4). That theme recurs in this text, and in its strident criticism of quantitative methods, which tend to be dismissed as positivistic (a bad word in the discourses around qualitative research).

However, the authors note that qualitative research is hardly innocent; it has been part of colonial forms of knowledge and power (4). Both qualitative and quantitative research are scientific and provide “the foundation for reports about and representations of the other,” which in the context of colonialism, become “an objective way of representing the dark-skinned other to the White world” (4). That’s why Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes research as a dirty word (4). They list eight historical moments of qualitative research, including the future, which is their present; it “confronts the methodological backlash associated with the evidence-based social movement” and “is concerned with moral discourse, with the development of sacred textualities” and “asks that the social sciences and the humanities become sites for critical conversations about democracy, race, gender, class, nation-states, globalization, freedom, and community” (4). Contemporary critical methodologists and Indigenous scholars are now “performing culture as they write it, understanding that the dividing line between performativity (doing) and performance (done) has disappeared. But even as this disappearance occurs, matters of racial injustice remain” (4-5). What does the word “performativity” mean here? Is performative ethnography—they cite Dwight Conquergood here—really that powerful? Do they actually expect radical social science research to eliminate racial injustice? Does any field of academic social science research have that much power?

Critical qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the gendered observer in the world,” they continue. “It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices are forms of critical pedagogy. They transform the world” (5). Well, okay, but clearly they don’t completely transform the world; the power of this form of research must be limited, or else its ambitions exceed its efficacy. This research is a form of inquiry “done for explicit political, utopian purposes, a politics of liberation, a reflexive discourse constantly in search of an open-ended, subversive, multivoiced epistemology” (5). “Interpretive research practices turn the world into a series of performances and representations,” they continue (again, why the emphasis on performance?), which “create the space for critical, collaborative, dialogical work” and “bring researchers and their research participants into a shared, critical space, a space where the work of resistance, critique, and empowerment can occur” (5).

Indigenous methodology (shouldn’t “methodology” be plural?) is located “in an intersection of discourses, the site where theories of performance, pedagogy, and interpretive practice come together,” Denzin and Lincoln write. “This produces a focus on performance, interpretive pedagogies, indigenous inquiry practices, and theories of power, truth, ethics, and social justice” (5). “Taking our lead from the performance turn in the human disciplines, we assert that the performative is always political, and the pedagogical is always political, they continue (5). Oh! I didn’t realize there had been a performance turn. The reference there is to a 2003 text by Denzin, which I would think is several turns ago, so perhaps the emphasis on performance and the performative here isn’t that important now, or perhaps I need to do more reading. (Probably the latter, although I’m not convinced that performance ethnography—the subject of Denzin’s 2003 book—is really dominant within qualitative research.) Or perhaps “performance” is a metaphor rather than a literal word here. “Critical personal narratives,” they write, “can be turned into performance texts that function as performative interventions. Such work may queer autoethnography, by politicizing memory and reconfiguring storytelling and personal history, as counternarratives,” thereby disrupting “taken-for-granted epistemologies, by privileging indigenous interpretive pedagogies and inquiry practices” (5). I have to say, though, that I’m always suspicious about the efficacy of artistic or performative presentations of qualitative research. I am always reminded of Chaucer’s words from “The Parliament of Fowles”—“The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne”—and wonder how one can become proficient both in artistic or performance practices and qualitative research methods. Maybe some people can do both, but does everyone who claims to have the capacity to present their research through art or performance really have the chops to be able to do that? I am doubtful—particularly because such artistic or performative presentations of research are rarely if ever submitted to peer review by artists or performers. 

Denzin and Lincoln note that there are several difficulties involved in proposing a conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous research discourses. There is the history of research being used for colonial purposes. There is the fact that “interpretive performance theory and critical race theory” require modifications to “work within indigenous settings” (5). “The categories of race, gender, and racialized identities cannot be turned into frozen, essential terms, nor is racial identity a free floating signifier,” they write. “Critical theory must be localized, grounded in specific meanings, traditions, customs, and community relations that operate in each indigenous setting,” rather than being universalized (5-6). The privileging of Western knowledge systems and their epistemologies need to be decolonized and deconstructed; those epistemologies must become “the object of critique and inquiry” (6). In addition, “the spaces between decolonizing research practices and indigenous communities must be carefully and cautiously articulated” (6). Among other concerns, “[t]here are conflicts between competing epistemological and ethical frameworks, including (Western) institutional human subject research regulations” (6). (Isn’t that the main contention of Vanessa Watts’s essay?) Communities need to have power in research (6). Finally, critical researchers are outsiders to “the indigenous colonized experience,” despite their desire to be allies or “fellow travelers” (6). Indeed, Denzin and Lincoln quote Terry Tempest Williams’s cautions that what works for Indigenous peoples will not work for Settlers, that the stories of Indigenous peoples can only work for Settlers as examples of what is possible (6). Non-Indigenous researchers, they write, “must construct stories that are embedded in the landscapes through which we travel. These will be dialogical counternarratives, stories of resistance, of struggle, of hope, stories that create spaces for multicultural conversations, stories embedded in the critical democratic imagination” (6). There is also the very real danger that the non-Indigenous use of Indigenous methodologies or epistemologies will be extractive—just another appropriation.

Then, the authors return to the notion of performance, which they suggest is “embodied struggle,” a “sociopolitical act” (7). They’re not speaking metaphorically, either; they cite the work of Anna Deveare Smith and Daniel David Moses and examples. Of course, Smith and Moses are playwrights, not qualitative researchers; the suggestion that qualitative research must be presented as performance, or that “performance events become gendered, transgressive achievements” or models of “emancipatory decolonized indigenous research” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Dwight Conquergood’s practice is one example, but is all qualitative research performative? What does that claim even mean? And is all performance politically liberatory? I’ve seen a lot of plays that aren’t. The appropriation of an art form for qualitative research is a problem—at least, it’s a problem for me. Besides, the work of Anna Deveare Smith and Daniel David Moses is peer reviewed by other playwrights and theatre professionals, something that’s not true of performance work by social scientists.

Critical pedagogy has its critics, Denzin and Lincoln write, particularly Indigenous researchers who argue that “some versions of critical pedagogy undertheorize and diminish the importance of indigenous concepts of identity, sovereignty, land, tradition, literacy, and language,” and that critical pedagogy imposes “Western, Enlightenment views of those terms on the indigenous experience” (8-9). Poststructural and postmodern feminists argue that critical pedagogy does not “adequately engage the issues of biography, history, emotionality, sexual politics, gender, and patriarchy,” and that it fails “to interrogate the perspective of the White male theorist” (9). But the Indigenous critique seems to be more important to Denzin and Lincoln, because they follow this discussion with a discussion of Indigenous research that begins with the observation that “critical theory failed to address how indigenous cultures and their epistemologies were sites of resistance and empowerment,” although they note that this criticism “was muted by the commitment of indigenous scholars to the same values as critical theory—namely, to resistance and struggle at the local level” (9). “The ‘local’ that localizes critical theory is always historically specific,” they write. “The local is grounded in the politics, circumstances, and economies of a particular moment, a particular time and space, a particular set of problems, struggles, and desires” (9). The local carries with it “a politics of resistance and possibility” (9). Indigenous research asks eight questions about any research project, including those informed by critical theory:

  1. What research do we want done?
  2. Whom is it for?
  3. What difference will it make?
  4. Who will carry it out?
  5. How do we want the research done?
  6. How will we know it is worthwhile?
  7. Who will own the research?
  8. Who will benefit? (Tuhiwai Smith, qtd. 9)

Those are excellent questions to ask of any research project, including artistic research. “They must be answered in the affirmative,” Denzin and Lincoln argue; “that is, indigenous persons must conduct, own, and benefit from any research that is done on, for, or with them” (9-10). “These eight questions serve to interpret critical theory through a moral lens, through key indigenous principles,” they continue. “They shape the moral space that aligns indigenous research with critical theory” (10). Both critical and Indigenous “formations” are antipositivist; “rest on antifoundational epistemologies”; privilege “performative issues of gender, race, class, equity, and social justice”; develop their “own understandings of community, critique, resistance, struggle, and emancipation”; and understand “that the outcome of a struggle can never be predicted in advance,” because struggles are “always local and contingent,” “never final” (10).

“Localized critical indigenous theory and critical indigenous pedagogy [encourage] indigenists, as well as nonindigenous scholars, to confront key challenges connected to the meanings of science, community and democracy,” Denzin and Lincoln write (10). They cite G. Smith and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who call upon “indigenists” to be proactive, to craft their own versions of science and empirical activity, to develop participatory models of democracy, to use theory proactively as an agent of change, to act in ways that are accountable to Indigenous communities, and to resist new forms of colonization (10). Indigenous pedagogies, they continue, “fold theory, epistemology, methodology, and praxis into strategies of resistance unique to each indigenous community” (10). “Indigenists resist the positivist and postpositivist methodologies of Western science because these formations are too frequently used to validate colonizing knowledge about indigenous peoples,” they write. “Indigenists deploy, instead, interpretive strategies and skills fitted to the needs, language, and traditions of their respective indigenous community,” strategies that “emphasize personal performance narratives” (11). “These pedagogies confront and work through governmental treaties, ideological formations, historical documents, and broken promises that connect the indigenist group and its fate to the colonizing capitalist state,” they state (11). 

Those pedagogies also contest “the complicity of the modern university with neocolonial forces” and encourage and empower Indigenous peoples “to make colonizers confront and be accountable for the traumas of colonization” (12). A decolonized academy would “honor difference and promote healing,” and be “interdisciplinary and politically proactive”; it would respect Indigenous epistemologies and encourage “interpretive, first-person methodologies” (12). It would honour “different versions of science and empirical activity” and value “cultural criticism in the name of social justice” (12). It would seek “models of human subject research that are not constrained by biomedical, positivist assumptions” (12). It would turn “the academy and its classrooms into sacred spaces, sites where indigenous and nonindigenous scholars interact, share experiences, take risks, explore alternative modes of interpretation, and participate in a shared agenda, coming together in a spirit of hope, love, and shared community” (12). “This decolonizing project attempts to rebuild nations, communities, and their people through the use of restorative indigenous ecologies,” Denzin and Lincoln write. “Theory, method, and epistemology are aligned in this project, anchored in the moral philosophies” that are taken for granted in Indigenous cultures (12). 

“The move to the politics of performance has been accompanied by a shift in the meaning of ethnography and ethnographic writing,” a shift that includes poetry and drama, short stories and other fictional narratives, conversations, creative nonfiction (including autobiography and personal narratives), photographic essays, fragmented and layered texts, “co-constructed performance narratives,” and “performance writing that blurs the edges between text, representation, and criticism” (12). This description suggests that these forms are somehow easy to adopt or employ, that anyone can write poetry or drama or fiction that is aesthetically and emotionally powerful—a proposition that show the social sciences attempting to colonize the art practices, as I have already argued: after all, poets and dramatists and writers of fiction spend their lives developing their crafts. The suggestion seems to be that anybody can write aesthetically successful literature, which is just not the case. Moreover, that creative work would need to be reviewed by peers—poetry by poets, fiction by writers of fiction, plays by dramatists—for it to have the status of a methodology. In addition, isn’t there an important distinction to make between fiction and nonfiction? Don’t fiction and nonfiction make very different truth claims? “Critical personal narratives are counternarratives, testimonies, autoethnographies, performances texts, stories, and accounts that disrupt and disturb discourse by exposing the complexities and contradictions that exist under official history,” they continue (12-13). The “current historical moment require morally informed performance and arts-based disciplines that will help indigenous and nonindigenous peoples recover meaning in the face of senseless, brutal violence, violence that produces voiceless screams of terror and insanity,” they continue (13). That may be true, but is that the work of social scientists? “A respectful performance pedagogy,” Denzin and Lincoln continue, honours Indigenous spirituality: “It works to construct a vision of the person, ecology, and environment that is compatible with these principles,” and “demands a politics of hope, of loving, of caring nonviolence grounded in inclusive moral and spiritual terms” (13). 

“There is much to be learned from indigenous scholars about how radical democratic practices can be made to work,” Denzin and Lincoln write (14). The participatory mode of knowing that is characteristic of Indigenous inquiry “privileges sharing, subjectivity, personal knowledge, and the specialized knowledges of oppressed groups,” they continue. “It uses concrete experience as a criterion for meaning and truth. It encourages a participatory mode of consciousness, asking that the researcher give the group a gift as a way of honoring the group’s sacred spaces” (14). Such gift-giving can build relationships built on shared beliefs and cultural practices (14). “Because it expresses and embodies moral ties to the community, the performative view of meaning serves to legitimate indigenous worldviews,” they suggest. “Meaning and resistance are embodied in the act of performance itself. The performative is where the soul of the culture resides. In their sacred and secular performances, the members of the culture honor one another and the culture itself” (14). For this reason (I think), “[a] new set of moral and ethical research protocols is required” that fit Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) perspectives (14). (The link between performance and these research protocols is not clear to me.) The purpose of research according to these protocols would not be “the production of new knowledge per se,” but rather its purposes would be “pedagogical, political, moral, and ethical, involving the enhancement of moral agency, the production of moral discernment, a commitment to praxis, justice, and ethic of resistance, and a performative pedagogy that resists oppression” (14). I find that statement quite astonishing: how can the purpose of social science research not be the production of knowledge? Am I missing something? Perhaps this perspective comes from the fact that education is a helping profession, like social work or nursing? I’m not a social scientist of any kind, so I honestly don’t know.

In their conclusion, Denzin and Lincoln suggest that it’s possible “to imagine scenarios that turns the tables on the neocolonizer” (15). For instance, it’s possible to imagine “human subject research practices that really do respect human rights, protocols of informed consent that inform and do not deceive, research projects that do not harm, and projects that in fact benefit human communities” (15). “Indigenous ethical and moral models call into question the more generic, utilitarian, biomedical, Western model of ethical inquiry,” they write, and those models “outline a radical ethical path for the future” by calling for “a collaborative social science research model that makes the researcher responsible, not to a removed discipline (or institution) but rather to those studied,” a model that “stresses personal accountability, caring, the value of individual expressiveness, the capacity for empathy, and the sharing of emotionality” (15). “This model implements collaborative, participatory performance inquiry” and “forcefully aligns the ethics of research with a politics of the oppressed, with a politics of resistance, hope, and freedom” (15). Such a model “directs scholars to take up moral projects that respect and reclaim indigenous cultural practices,” thereby producing “spiritual, social, and psychological healing” that leads “to multiple forms of transformation at the personal and social levels” that “shape processes of mobilization and collective action” and help people “realize a radical performative politics of possibility” (15). (The word “performative” is rapidly becoming an empty adjective here.) That “politics of possibility” would enact “emancipatory discourses and critical pedagogies that honor human difference and draw for inspiration on the struggles of indigenous persons” (15). Indigenous stories will help us “learn new ways of being moral and political in the social world,” and help us “come together in a shared agenda, with a shared imagination and a new language, struggling together to find liberating ways of interpreting and performing in the world” (15). “In this way,” they conclude, “does research cease to be a dirty word?” (15).

That’s a good question. Maybe research can stop being a dirty word, but I think it’s a lot harder to bring Indigenous methodologies, informed by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies (or cosmologies, as Vanessa Watts argues) together with Western methodologies, informed by Western epistemologies and ontologies. The dangers of using Indigenous methodologies in an extractive way or of appropriating those methodologies are very real, as are the criticisms by Indigenous scholars of the project Denzin and Lincoln are describing. And maybe artistic or performative presentations of qualitative research will be aesthetically powerful, or maybe they will be self-indulgent and communicate less than more traditional ways of presenting that research—such presentations of research would need to be peer reviewed by artists as well as other qualitative researchers. So I’m cautious about the claims Denzin and Lincoln make in the preface and introduction of this text. Perhaps the essays they have collected will change my mind.

Works Cited

Conquergood, Dwight. “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” The Community Performance Reader, edited by Petra Kuppers and Gwen Robertson, Routledge, 2007.

Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition, Zed/Otago University Press, 2012.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.

111. Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!)”

watts place-thought.jpg

I came across a reference to this article in Stephanie Springgay’s and Sarah E. Truman’s Walking Methodologies in a More-Than-Human World: WalkingLab, one of many texts they refer to that have resonance for my own work. Watts begins with two creation stories: the Haudenosaunee story of Sky Woman, and the Anishinaabe story about the Seven Fires of Creation. “Before continuing, I would like to emphasize that these two events took place,” Watts states. “They were not imagined or fantasized. This is not lore, myth or legend. . . . This is what happened” (21). I have to admit that I stumbled over those sentences, because although I agree that creation stories are significant, I don’t take them literally, as Watts does. For one thing, all creation stories can’t literally be true. And I’m not elevating the Christian story told in the Book of Genesis above Indigenous creation accounts by taking it literally, either, although that story, as Watts points out, has had serious consequences. The creation stories Watts relates have important consequences as well: they have enabled a cosmology of relationality that is very different from the separation between humans and the world that is constructed in Genesis.

Watts suggests that these two creation stories “focus on a common historical understanding of the origin of the human species—the spiritual and the feminine”; they “speak to the common intersections of the female, animals, the spirit world, and the mineral and plant world” (21). Both stories “describe a theoretical understanding of the world via a physical embodiment—Place-Thought” (21). This is the central term in Watts’s article. “Place-Thought is the non-distinctive space where place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated,” she writes. “Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts” (21). Because of the centrality of Place-Thought within Indigenous world views, “Indigenous perceptions of whom and what contributes to a societal structure are quite different from traditional Euro-Western thought,” which is focused on the actions of human beings, and in which “we can see the emergence of non-humans being evaluated in terms of their contributions to the development and maintenance of society”—that is, human society (21). “This article will examine how agency circulates inside of two different frames: Place-Thought (Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies) and epistemological-ontological (Euro-Western frame,” Watts writes, noting that her intention is “both to emphasize a differentiated framing of Indigenous cosmologies as well as to examine our rich and intelligent theories found in these cosmologies” (21). Watts is particularly interested in “what the land’s intentions might be, and how she tries to speak through us,” and in resisting “the colonial frame” by imagining and striving for the “original instructions” given to Indigenous peoples, which are located in what Susan Hill calls “the ‘pre-colonial mind’” (22). These stories, then, are both cosmologies and resistance to colonization.

“Colonization is not solely an attack on peoples and lands,” Watts continues; “rather, this attack is accomplished in part through purposeful and ignorant misrepresentations of Indigenous cosmologies” (22). “Frameworks in a Euro-Western sense exist in the abstract,” she writes. “How they are articulated in action or behavior brings this abstractions into praxis; hence a division of epistemological/theoretical versus ontological/praxis” (22). In Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framework, however, “our cosmological frameworks are not an abstraction but rather a literal and animate extension of Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s thoughts; it is impossible to separate theory from praxis if we believe in the original historical events of Sky Woman and First Woman” (22). The complex theories of Indigenous people, then, “are not distinct from place” (22). Watts provides a visual representation of these two separate framings. The Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framing is circular: it moves from Spirit, to Place-Thought, which determines agency within creation; societies and systems become extensions of that agency, creating an obligation to communicate, which leads back to Spirit (22). In contrast, Euro-Western framing is linear. It begins with a divide between epistemology and ontology, between knowing and being; that separates constituents for the world from how the world is understood, limiting agency to humans, and creating an “[e]xclusionary relationship with nature” (22). This representation is “a depiction of the crucial differences between Indigenous and Euro-Western processes” (23). In the Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framing, land is animate. Being animate “goes beyond being alive or acting, it is to be full of thought, desire, contemplation and will,” she writes:

It is the literal embodiment of the feminine, of First Woman, by which many Indigenous origin stories find their inception. When Sky Woman falls from the sky and lies on the back of a turtle, she is not only able to create land but becomes territory herself. Therefore, Place-Thought is an extension of her circumstance, desire, and communication with the water and animals—her agency. Through this communication she is able to become the basis by which all future societies will be built upon—land. (23)

Sky Woman, Watts continues, “becomes the designer of how living beings will organize upon her,” a process that scientists call ecosystems or habitats (23). “However, if we accept the idea that all living things contain spirit, then this extends beyond complex structures within an ecosystem,” she writes. “It means that non-human beings choose how they reside, interact and develop relationships with other non-humans. So, all elements of nature possess agency, and this agency is not limited to innate action or causal relationships” (23). 

For this reason, “habitats and ecosystems are better understood as societies from an Indigenous point of view; meaning that they have ethical structures, inter-species treaties and agreements, and further their ability to interpret, understand and implement” (23). Non-humans are active members os that society, and “they also directly influence how humans organize themselves into that society” (23). “The structure of societies is demarcated by territory, which again, is an extension of Sky Woman’s original circumstance,” Watts writes. “She is present in the relationships between humans and humans, humans and non-humans, and non-humans and non-humans” (23). Thus, human thought and action are “derived from a literal expression of particular places and historical events in Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies,” and places possess agency that is similar to the agency that Euro-Western thinkers locate in human beings (23). Indigenous people are therefore “extensions of the very land we walk upon,” and they “have an obligation to maintain communication with it” (23). If Indigenous peoples do not care for the land, they run the risk of losing who they are as Indigenous peoples: 

When this warning is examined in terms of original Place-Thought, it is not only the threat of lost identity or physical displacement that is risked but our ability to think, act, and govern becomes compromised because this relationship is continuously corrupted with foreign impositions of how agency is organized. Colonization has disrupted our ability to communicate with place and has endangered agency amongst Indigenous peoples. The pre-colonial mind was confronted with a form of diminutive agency, and the process by which we ensured our own ability to act and converse with non-humans and other humans became compromised. (23-24)

The disruptions to this process caused by colonization go beyond “losing a form of Indigenous identity or worldview and how it is practiced”; rather, such disruptions “become a violation of Sky Woman’s intentionality” (24).

The epistemological-ontological divide characteristic of Euro-Western thought understands agency much differently. Epistemology, Watts writes, citing Descartes, is “one’s perception of the world as being distinct from what is in the world, or what constitutes it” (24). Only humans are capable of thinking and perceiving (24). Other things in the world may have an essence, Watts continues, citing Kant and Latour, or have some interconnection with humans, “but their ability to perceive is null or limited to instinctual reactions” (24). “The epistemological-ontological removes the how and why out of the what,” Watts contends. “The what is left empty, readied for inscription” (24). The only theoretical structure that can understand the world and its constituents, according to the division between epistemology and ontology, requires “a separation of not only human and non-human, but a hierarchy of beings in terms of how beings are able to think as well” (24). This distinction between “what and how/why is not an innocent one,” and its consequences can be disastrous, because of the way it elevates humans above or outside of the natural world (24). Whereas an Anishnaabe perspective would state that a river perceives or contemplates its action—the flowing of its water—a Euro-Western perspective would deny the river that ability to perceive or contemplate (24). Colonization and “the imposition of the epistemology-ontology frame” have interrupted, continuously, the capacity of Indigenous peoples to communicate with “other beings in creation,” as well as their obligations to those beings” (24).

In the Christian creation story, humans became outside of their surroundings by being expelled from the garden. This separation has two significant consequences: “Firstly, humans were positioned into a world in which they were able to reside over nature. Secondly, and interdependently, humans resolved that communication with nature held disastrous effects (Tree of Knowledge, the Serpent) and so inter-species communication became quite limited if not profane” (24-25). Agency became associated only with human actions, and humans were seen as dominant over nature (25).(In the first book of Genesis, before the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God gives humans “dominion” over all other forms of life.) However, 

in many Indigenous origin stories the idea that humans were the last species to arrive on earth was central; it also meant that humans arrived in a state of dependence on an already-functioning society with particular values, ethics, etc. The inclusion of humans into this society meant that certain agreements, arrangements, etc. had to be made with the animal world, plant world, sky world, mineral world and other non-human species. Therefore, being associated with animals, whether it be through clan systems, ceremonies, or beings that acted as advisors, transpired from a place of reverence. (25)

“Both the story of Genesis and the story of Sky Woman tell of a world that existed before humans,” Watts writes, although the differences between the stories are crucial to understanding the different understandings of the world those stories represent. Whereas in the Sky Woman story “the relationship between animals and this female is regarded as sacred and ritualized over generations,” the “interaction of Eve and the Serpent results in shame and excommunication from nature,” creating a “point of conflict where thought, perception, and action are separated from the supposed inertia of nature” (25).

“If we begin from the premise that land is female and further, that she thinks—then she is alive,” Watts continues. However, if “the most elemental female is conceived of as being responsible for pain, shame and excommunication,” as in the Christian origin story, “then doing destruction upon her does not seem that bad,” and might even seem deserved (25). “It is no surprise then, that amidst a Euro-Christian construct, land and its designations are silenced,” she writes. “Many Indigenous peoples wonder at how much destruction has persisted throughout the decades by the colonizer without any significant attempt at stopping it. If you belong to a structure where land and the feminine are not only less-than, but knowingly irresponsible, violations against her would seem warranted” (25-26). 

Where is agency in Place-Thought located? Watts asks. “I find it in animals, in humans, in plants, in rocks, etc.,” she responds. “How did I come to think that these different entities and beings had agency in the first place? From stories/histories” (26). In those stories, listeners (or readers) learn of “historical events that took place in a particular location, at a particular time, where consciousness, thought, desire, and the imagination of all individuals is in action” (26). These stories, Watts argues, such as the story of how the Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, and Squash) came to live together, must be understood literally:

In an epistemological-ontological frame, Indigenous cosmologies would be examples of a symbolic interconnectedness—an abstraction of a moral code. It would be a way in which to view the world—the basis for an epistemological stance. From a Haudenosaunee worldview, this is what happened. Further, Haudenosaunee systems, peoples, territories, etc. are affected by this relationship between the Three Sisters. It is more than a lesson, a teaching, or even an historical account. Their conscious and knowing agreement directly extends to our philosophies, thoughts and actions as Haudenosaunee peoples. (26)

Such “historical Indigenous events,” Watts continues, “are increasingly becoming not only accepted by Western frameworks of understanding, but sought after in terms of non-oppressive and provocative or interesting interfaces of accessing the real. This traces Indigenous peoples not only as epistemologically distinct but also as a gateway for non-Indigenous thinkers to re-imagine their world” (26). That’s very true; I am convinced that the climate emergency would not be taking place if non-Indigenous people possessed a way of thinking about the world that was like the Indigenous one Watts is describing. However, Watts argues that Indigenous stories “are often distilled to simply that—words, principles, morals to imagine the world and imagine ourselves in the world. In reading stories that way, non-Indigenous peoples also keep control over what agency is and how it is dispersed in the hands of humans” (26). In other words, she seems to be suggesting, those stories must be understood as literal events.

“Over time and through processes of colonization, the corporeal and theoretical borders of the epistemological-ontological divide contribute to colonial interpretations of nature/creation that act to centre the human and peripherate nature into an exclusionary relationship,” Watts writes. “Land becomes scaled and modified in terms of progress and advancement. The measure of colonial interaction with land has historically been one of violence and bordered individuations where land is to be accessed, not learned from or part of” (26). Land is something that can be owned, bought and sold, and exploited or extracted from, rather than something we are part of or belong to (26-27). “Our truth, not only Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee people but in a majority of Indigenous societies, conceives that we (humans) are made from the land; our flesh is literally an extension of the soil,” Watts continues. “The land is understood to be female: First Woman designates the beginning of the animal world, the plant world and human beings. It is the femininity of earth itself that institutes all beings as literal embodiments of localized meanings” (27). “Could Place-Thought be the network in which humans and non-humans relate, translate and articulate their agency?” she asks. “If I, as a human, am made of the stuff of soil and spirit, do I not extend to the non-human world beyond causal interactions? And what of the non-human—non-human relationships that demarcate various roles and responsibilities of human beings?” (27). Her answer is straightforward: “If we begin from the premise that we are in fact made of soil, then our principles of governance are reflected in nature” (27). “The female earth or the feminine is intrinsically tied to the notion of sovereignty and how humans interact with non-human creatures in the formation of governance,” she continues (27). Humans are responsible and obligated “to original instructions from the earth,” and because the earth is female, this suggests “that the feminine is not only to be respected but is looked upon as a source of power and knowledge” (27-28). What happens, then, “when the all-powerful centre”—and I think she is referring to “Western categorizations of hierarchy” here—“attempts to create a de-subjugated space via non-human reactions” (28)?

Here Watts turns to the way that land “is traced in terms of agency by non-Indigenous thinkers” (28). She cites Donna Haraway’s essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” as an attempt “to implode the centre where knowledge production (epistemology) is generally grounded in heteropatriarchy” (28). “However, Haraway resists essentialist notions of the earth as mother or matter and chooses instead to utilize products of localized knowledges (i.e. Coyote or the Trickster) as a process of boundary implosion” (28)—as a metaphor, as “‘coyote discourse’” (qtd. 28). “This is a level of abstracted engagement once again,” Watts argues. “While it may serve to change the imperialistic tendencies in Euro-Western knowledge production, Indigenous histories are still regarded as story and process—an abstracted tool of the West” (28). “It is not my contention that Euro-Western thinkers are inherently colonial,” she continues. “Rather, the epistemological-ontological distinction is oftentimes the assumptive basis by which Euro-Western arguments are presented upon. It is this assumption that, I argue, creates spaces for colonial practices to occur” (28). As long as agency is reserved for humans, “this epistemological-ontological divide” remains intact (28).

Watts then quotes Stacy Alaimo, who argues that “dirt acts” (28). But the agency Alaimo assigns to dirt is hierarchical, because in her argument it neither thinks, wants, nor desires, although “it is constantly fulfilling its intention” (28). In other words, Watts, writes, the agency Alaimo accords to dirt “is dependent on the belief that humans are different based on our ability of will and purpose. Dirt is acknowledged as an actant at best, no longer an afterthought but still limited with regard to ability” (28-29). Vicky Kirby’s understanding of dirt and agency goes further than Alaimo’s, because she argues that nature preexists intellectual abstraction, that flesh precedes thought (29). However, Kirby also argues “that intellect or what constitutes culture is beyond the body and is therefore distinctly apart form the primordial:

This taken-for-granted conceptualization of nature and culture is a problematic that has been re-coded in discourse time and time again—that humans are uniquely distinct from nature in their capacities. Interconnectivity is permitted, but only insofar as distinction from the thinking human and the acting natural world. True, the borders of flesh and soil rub up against each other but this does not mean one is guided by the other. The border where human-as-the-centre begins still exists and continues to determine the bounds for capacity and action. (29)

“Kirby’s claim of the special-ness of humans apart from natural determinations disregards Indigenous conceptions of human and nature,” Watts continues, “while at the same time implying that natural cause and determinism are random and therefore unintentional” (30). Other scholars—Bruno Latour, Linda Nash, and Stewart Lockie—“have begun to redefine agency to solve the problem of the man/nature dichotomy,” Watts writes, but even though they locate agency “in an interconnected web of cause and effect, where the plane of action is equalized amongst all elements,” they still contend that agency “acts outside, within, and in between this web through carefully re-designed definitions where humans possess something more or special” (30). 

“These levels of agency are a product of the epistemology-ontology paradigm,” Watts writes, which carries within it “the idea of human ownership over non-human things, beings, etc. The inclusion of the non-human, in this case dirt/soil, has been causal or instinctual in nature,” and so “although the dirt/soil has been granted entrance into the human web of action, it is still relegated to a mere unwitting player in the game of human understandings” (30). “However, if we think of agency as being tied to spirit, and spirit exists in all things, then all things possess agency,” she continues—and that sacred agency is “contained within all elements of nature,” and therefore as humans we “know our actions are intrinsically and inseparably tied to land’s intentionality—quite a counter position from notions of diluted formulations of agency” (30).

“What happens when soil is removed from territory? What happens when flesh is taken from the body? More importantly, what happens to the territory after its resources are excavated?” Watts asks (30). The “literal excavation of thoughts are forcibly transformed into objects of the colonial imperative” (30). Once the voices of creation—“the feminine and the land”—are “silenced and then corrupted, the acquisition and destruction of land becomes all the more realized” (31). Moreover, “[f]rom a theoretical standpoint, the material (body/land) becomes abstracted into epistemological spaces as a resource for non-Indigenous scholars to implode their hegemonic borders,” and the teachings, ontologies, and actions of First Woman “are interpreted as sexy lore and points of theoretical jump-offs to dismantle and dissect that which oppresses” (31). Those teachings and actions become extracted, excavated, in other words: they are used the way that trees are used to make paper. And the violence enacted against the (feminine) land is the same violence that is enacted against Indigenous women.

“Euro-Western discourses have often attempted to remedy historical mistakes of biological essentialisms (i.e. scientific racism) by rejecting what are considered to be essentialist arguments,” Watts continues. “However, essentializing categories of Indigenous cosmologies should not be measured against the products of Euro-Western mistakes. Nor should Indigenous peoples be the inheritors of those mistakes” (31-32). Instead, “to decolonize or access the pre-colonial mind, our histories (not our lore) should be understood as if they were intended in order for us to be truly agent beings. To disengage with essentialism means we run the risk of disengaging from the land” (32). 

“As Indigenous peoples, it is not only an obligation to communicate with Place-Thought (ceremonies with land, territory, the four directions, etc.), but it ensures our continued ability to act and think according to our cosmologies,” Watts contends. “To prevent these practices”—as the Indian Act tried to do for almost a century—“deafens us. It is not that the non-human world no longer speaks but that we begin to understand less and less” (32). Despite the corruption of the agency of Indigenous peoples within the colonial frame, the continued existence of Indigenous cosmologies is the reason why, after 500 years of colonization, Indigenous peoples continue to resist (32). If Indigenous peoples operationalize the distinction between Indigenous cosmology and Euro-Western epistemology-ontology—if they operationalize the distinction “between place and thought”—then, Watts writes, “Indigenous peoples risk standing in disbelief of ourselves” (32):

Even amongst ourselves it can be easy to forget that our ability to speak to the land is not just an echo of a mythic tale or part of a moral code, but a reality. Whether this forgetting has been forced upon us, or our ears have become dull to the sounds of the land speaking up through our feet, it is now incumbent upon us to remember. This is not a question of “going backwards,” for this implies there is a static place to return to. However, given that the concept of time for us was never linear, we possess the ability to access the pre-colonial mind through the ability to travel in dreams, to shapeshift, to understand what might happen tomorrow, etc. Our teachings tell us that we travel through, under, above. So it is not a question of accessing something, which has already come and gone, but simply to listen. To act. (32)

Obligation and responsibility “denote a commitment to the land,” she continues, “not just because it is a part of me (or you) but also because it continues to be removed, cemented, or ignored” (32). Listening to what the land tells us “is not only about a philosophical understanding of life and the social realm,” but “it is about a tangible and tacit violence being done to her—and therefore to us” (32). “I hope that this discussion will lead to conversations about bodies in action and how gritty flesh is elementally moved to protect and reclaim territories,” she states (32). “Only if the land decides to stop speaking to us will we enter the world of dislocation where agency is lost and our histories become provocative Indian lore in an ongoing settler mistake. Luckily for us, First Woman has shown herself to be much more intelligent than this by writing herself into our flesh,” she concludes (33).

Watts’s essay is challenging, not least because it demands both a literal understanding of Indigenous creation stories and an essentialized notion of the land as female. Both are very difficult for someone, like me, educated in a Western (and colonizing) academic context. And her  argument also suggests how difficult it would be for a Settler to come to a different understanding of the land, as I would hope to do by walking. Difficult? Perhaps impossible. I don’t think that the idea of Place-Thought advanced in this essay can be adopted simply or easily, on a short walk or a long one, and the idea that it could be would represent a complete misunderstanding of Watts’s argument and the challenge it presents. As Settlers, we need to tread very carefully (pun intended) when we consider thinking about the world through Indigenous cosmologies, because we might, as Watts argues, end up engaging in just another form of extraction.

Works Cited

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.