OSDAI Panel Summaries: Indigenous Research Methods
This document summarizes a December 2018 panel discussion that focused on these questions:
- What do you understand to be the meaning of Indigenous Research Methods and what do they entail for you?
- Where are they applicable in your work, and how you feel your research is informed by that frame? What do Indigenous Research Methods mean to you each in practice?
- What are the critical aspects of IRM that set it apart from other research methods or approaches?
This article summarizes key insights expressed by the four EHHD panelists: Dr. Sweeney
Windchief (Adult & Higher Education); Dr. Christine Stanton (Social Studies Teacher
Preparation); Rae Howe Birdhat (Graduate Student in Community Health); and Dr. Vanessa
Simonds (Community Health).
Sweeney Windchief began his presentation with a land acknowledgement (acknowledging the Indigenous populations that originally inhabited the land we’re standing on) and self-location, positionality statement. These are key opening elements of an Indigenous research approach. Dr. Windchief distinguished between IRM and Indigenous Research which could describe any research done with, on, or for Indigenous communities. Any research that is extractive and/or based in a deficit model is in sharp contrast to Indigenous methodologies.
- Indigenous methodologies are set apart by being mindful of Indigenous ontological spaces and values. They are representative of a set of community values and adhere to the “four Rs” – relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution.
- Relationship is first and foremost in IRM, requiring a real interpersonal relationship between the researcher and the relevant Indigenous community and its members.
- Responsibility is defined within those relationships, as is reciprocity.
- Redistribution refers to how information is made available not only in academic publications, but also for the communities.
- It’s important to hold the tension between academic and community commitments.
Indigenous Methodologies are often couched in story: 1. The story of community-held original knowledge in the context of community and culture. 2. The contemporary story that helps transmit knowledge. 3. The story of how the researcher is serving the community.
Christine Stanton shared her belief that any person with a settler identity (i.e. non-Indigenous) can’t claim to do IRM. She can say that she is constantly learning from and with community partners. Deep hearing is part of the process, paying attention to what the community is asking. Her own work evolved after being asked by Indigenous colleagues to conduct research that could help their causes. Her understanding is that there is no prescriptive example of what IRM looks like – it’s more an orientation, way of thinking and knowing, marked by methodological flexibility. The actual research methods depend on context, content, and community.
In her Digital Storywork project she encounters challenges of IRM and derives these principles:
- Determine what constitutes respectfulness toward the community. An example was that the Digital Storywork team was asked to document commemoration event of the Bear River (also known as the Baker or Marias River) massacre. Some community members were resistant to sharing the event via a film because it could awaken trauma. Others wanted to share the event. She is not moving that project forward until there is a collective determination of the most appropriate way forward.
- Bridge the demands of university life with unique Indigenous community values and needs.
- Be aware: Mainstream researchers (or “settler scholars”) will never be able to fully understand/apply what they learn about Indigenous histories, cultures, etc., given the need for cultural-historical contextualized interpretation.
- Do you have anxiety about applying IRM to practice? A lot of people have a need/interest in a set of procedures, how to follow appropriate protocol. But the most important piece is relationships. For non-Indigenous researchers these have to be organic, not imposed.
- Maintaining relationships is not easy in the context of funder requirements and university publication requirements and expectations.
- Being the non-Indigenous partner sometimes means that she does the grunt work, filing the paperwork, or writing the grants. These may be things community members don’t want to do or can’t do due to time and resources.
- Allow the “Rs” to frame decisions – relationships, relevance, reciprocity, redistribution and responsibility. As noted by Windchief, sharing information from the research project back to the community must be done in a way that’s accessible to it. Responsibility to the community, a 5th “R,” is a huge part of engaging with Indigenous Research Methodologies. It’s critical to let the community make decisions about what is appropriate.
Rae Howe Birdhat, in situating herself, shared that she was raised by her great grandmother in the Apsáalooke homeland, and her name means she always has a good place to be. Having that background means having the ability to operate within IRM. The project she’s engaged with involves working with community members who are managing chronic illnesses.
- The project methods are specific to Apsáalooke culture. Relationships determine behavior. The groups of community members meeting with program mentors eat together and build on their oral tradition by sharing stories about their health, their kids, and other experiences. She feels that sharing stories is part of their blood memory. In the groups they aim to be positive, laugh and encourage each other.
- The research is based on who the Apsáalooke are as a people, creating movement toward health by supporting each other. It is definitively not a deficit or problem-based approach. They strive to revitalize culture with history, and the power of their ancestors.
- An example is they developed a health-promotion strategy by adapting the “counting coup” tradition of meeting fearsome challenges. They apply that aspiration to meeting the challenges of managing their chronic illnesses. Counting coup historically involved humiliating enemies; now bad health is the enemy so participants find their own ways to count coup today. Key to the program’s success is the participants being accountable with each other, meeting and sharing their challenges.
- With over 200 participants, the Apsáalooke have to use diverse methods to engage the participants in the data collection phase. They need to be sensitive to each participant’s personal situation. Sometimes that involves meeting people at their homes. Anywhere they meet requires showing respect, making them not feel like a data point.
- A key focus is how to care for each participant as an individual person, not exploiting them for data but prioritizing being there for them.
Vanessa Simonds shared her experience as an Indigenous scholar with expertise in Western Research Methods. She is committed to using her Western public health training to engage in meaningful research that benefits the Indigenous communities – this is what originally inspired her to get her degree in public health.
- She has found that mainstream health behavior theories don’t always fit or make sense in the Apsáalooke context. But, as one Indigenous elder told her, the solution is to not become paralyzed, but to keep moving forward, being reflective, and engaging with community mentors without having to entirely discount either perspective.
- Part of moving forward is to trust her heart, and the intended purpose of the work she does, which is to focus on addressing health inequities and building on community strengths. IRM is a foundation for what she does and how she does it. She finds it difficult to separate it out. She sees IRM as enacting Indigenous values for all phases of the research from defining the research aims through to sharing results. As noted by the other panelists, relationships and responsibility are key. Her responsibility is to bring to the community her own access to training, skills and resources, which also requires bridging the demands of being a university faculty member and her responsibilities to community.
- In her research, she uses traditional western methods such as pre/post tests, but conducts them in ways that feel comfortable in the context of those relationships and mutual trust.
- When she began the Guardians of the Living Water project the schools were ready for a program before she had all her activities and measures figured out. Yet, she went ahead and provided summer camp activities for children, calling that phase of the work a pre-pilot. She wasn’t able to publish a manuscript from that phase—the gold standard for Academics—but she was able to build relationships and demonstrate commitment to the community which have been key to her continuing success.
- The project entails a contrast between western ideas of water as “non-living” and the Apsáalooke view of water as a living entity. In the youth camps, her team includes sessions where community members talk about these inconsistencies and emphasize the Apsáalooke cultural importance of water.
Simonds echoed other panelists in stating there is no strict IRM prescription to follow. Rather it’s following guiding principles that privilege tribal sovereignty and researcher-community relationships over academic concerns.