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Unspeakable Things: Indigenous Research and Social Science

Choses indicibles : recherches autochtones et sciences sociales
Elaine Coburn, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, George Sefa Dei et Makere Stewart-Harawira
p. 331-348


Historiquement, les peuples autochtones connaissent les sciences sociales comme une forme de violence, faisant partie des processus de dénomination et d’appropriation des peuples, des terres et des histoires autochtones par et pour les colonisateurs. De 1800 à 1958, des dizaines de milliers d’individus autochtones étaient enlevées à leurs foyers et à leurs familles et exposés de façon « scientifique », pendant que la craniométrie était utilisée afin de prouver « scientifiquement » l’infériorité des peuples autochtones, justifiant au passage le génocide et l’assimilation forcée. Aujourd’hui, les connaissances autochtones sont tolérées à l’Université dans la mesure où elles se conforment aux normes de recherche coloniale et, de plus en plus, dans la mesure où ces recherches démontrent leur profitabilité. Contre cette science coloniale, les peuples autochtones font de la recherche avec leurs propres termes, et pour leurs propres communautés, ancrée dans les ontologies et épistémologies autochtones. Leurs relations distinctes avec la Nature et les ancêtres et leurs responsabilités envers les générations à venir façonnent la recherche autochtone et engendrent des pratiques uniques qui ont comme objectif ultime politiquement explicite la décolonisation et la libération.

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1Indigenous peoples have always done research. That is, they have always asked questions that mattered to them and they have always sought to answer them, mobilizing all relevant sources of knowledge. Only recently, however, has Indigenous research moved from Indigenous communities into the academy, challenging the colonial institutional relations and practices that have constituted Indigenous peoples as objects of research rather than as authorities about their own ways of knowing, being and doing. In this article, we make the case for Indigenous research as made up of vital, transformative practices that emerge from and for Indigenous peoples, but that have at the same time profound implications for ‘ordinary’ social science. Moreover, we write with the avowedly political aim of participating in struggles to decolonize the social sciences. Yet despite the emergence of strong Indigenous voices within contemporary research there are both old and new threats to these voices in the academy. This is because Indigenous research is about knowledge production and application and both the philosophical and practical tenets of such knowledge subvert dominant social research. Too often, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2002:189) has argued, Indigenous knowledges are “unspeakable things”, not least because they challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that undergird the ongoing dominance of colonial practices of social science. Here we offer one account of Indigenous research in the academy, explaining the ways that Indigenous research acts as a form of resistance against centuries-old relations of colonization. At the same time, we explain shape shifting yet familiar threats to Indigenous resurgence, including specific attacks on Indigenous research.

Indigenous Perspectives as the Basis for (This) Dialogue

2In this paper, we continue the important conversation about Indigenous research which is taking place in many different forums but which was initiated in the first issue of Socio by Thibault Martin (2013: 135-152). In his contribution, Martin emphasizes the growing presence of Indigenous research within the academy, as well as efforts by Indigenous peoples to control research in Indigenous communities. In particular, he describes the emergence of institutionalized protocols limiting researchers’ access to Indigenous communities and growing Indigenous participation in formalized ethics reviews of research proposals affecting Indigenous peoples. Martin concludes, however, with a broader question. He asks if universities, especially those outside of the Anglo-Saxon polities, will recognize the fundamental ontological challenges that Indigenous research poses to the universality and unity of “normal” social science (Martin, 2013: 149). He suggests that there is an ethical basis to the recognition of Indigenous knowledge claims in the academy, as well as outside of it, since if Indigenous peoples are considered equals (if not yet political equals in fact) then it follows that Indigenous perspectives must be taken seriously.

3We appreciate Martin’s attention to the growing role and importance of Indigenous research in the academy. Moreover, we agree that such research raises critical questions, including for mainstream social sciences, and that there is a moral basis underlying Indigenous claims to have their research taken seriously. In this paper, however, we claim not only the “right to respond” to Martin’s views about Indigenous research but the right to define Indigenous research in terms that make sense to us, both reflecting and responding to concerns in our communities. In other words, we affirm that dominant research no longer sets the terms of debate around Indigenous research. As we explain below, this is part of much broader processes of Indigenous self-determination. Practically, this means we respond to Martin’s arguments and observations against the contours of our own arguments but this response is not our main aim. Rather, Indigenous perspectives and concerns are the bases for our part in the conversation, rooted in our experiences and knowledge of contemporary realities of unequal coexistence between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples, both inside and outside of the university.

4Such re-centering of Indigenous perspectives is necessary if something like a genuine dialogue is to be possible among peoples in the radically unequal context of colonialism. Put another way, we cannot wish away the historical and ongoing realities of colonialism that is the common context for both non-Indigenous and Indigenous researchers, even if we are not simply the sum of those colonial relations (La Rocque, 2011, 61). However, we can strive to create, albeit in a delimited way, the conditions for a more or less equal dialogue. To illustrate what this means, concretely, we might observe that Martin begins by situating Indigenous research within non-Indigenous imaginaries, including that of Claude Levi-Strauss (Martin 2013, 135) and considers the consequences of Indigenous social science for mainstream research. We undertake the symmetrical but different task of beginning with Indigenous perspectives and considering the consequences of Indigenous research for Indigenous peoples. This is urgent because the stakes for Indigenous peoples are high and not only within academia. Moreover, since Indigenous perspectives on research are still unfamiliar to many within what Martin calls “institutionalized” or, after Kuhn (1970) “normal” social science, this is arguably the most useful, original contribution we can make to the important debates about Indigenous research and the social sciences.

The View From Somewhere

5Against scholarly traditions that erase place, belonging and identity, but also the power relations attendant to these, we begin by locating ourselves. As co-authors, we speak from quite different communities that stretch worldwide although three of the four of us have connections with Canada. Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a Goenpul woman from Minjerribah, Quandamooka First Nation in Queensland, Australia. George Sefa Dei is African-Canadian and a traditional chief in Ghana. Makere Stewart-Harawira is a member of Waitaha ki Waitaki in Aotearea, New Zealand and is now living in Canada, part of the New Zealand Maori diaspora. Finally, Elaine Coburn is a white Canadian settler, living for the last ten years in France. Hence, our cooperation in writing these reflections on Indigenous research in the academy crosses but does not erase boundaries – since boundaries cannot be erased through acts of reflexivity nor of cooperation, however sincere and thoroughgoing these are – including boundaries across colonial political borders, among Indigenous peoples and between Indigenous peoples and settlers.

6By including both Indigenous and one non-Indigenous researcher, we operate against the historically nightmarish relations between Indigenous peoples and the colonizer/settler. Yet we do not escape the colonial relations that shape both the writing and the reception of our article. This has meant consciously foregrounding Indigenous perspectives and concerns, for instance, so that these lead the arguments, although of course Indigenous perspectives are neither uniform nor hermetically sealed off from developments in mainstream research. Insofar as this foregrounding is successful, we anticipate greater scrutiny of our Indigenous-based and therefore ‘unconventional’ arguments and modes of expression than is typical given articles conforming more closely to dominant, colonial and hence more familiar forms of social science (for crude attacks of Indigenous research along these lines, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, see Widdowson and Howard 2008). At the same time, the participation of three Indigenous researchers from different nations suggests that despite important differences across and within Indigenous communities, there is some shared Indigenous experience that informs Indigenous approaches to research, not least the shared experience of colonialization and survival and struggle against colonization. In addition, as Indigenous individuals, three of us share an ontology of interconnectedness with non-human life and the land, participating in a common life through and with our ancestors and the spiritual world, that fundamentally shapes our approach to research.

7Of course, such declarations of belonging and even of being, which for many Indigenous scholars are at once place-based and spiritual, and also speak of peoplehood, are uncomfortable for mainstream social science. In dominant forms of social science, the textual ceremony of identification for authors is typically limited to name and university affiliation. Often such affiliations appear in a footnote, arguably so as not to draw attention to the fact that the authoritative, authorial voice is from somewhere rather than a more all-knowing, omniscient ‘nowhere’. From this perspective, our declaration of belonging and identity as Indigenous scholars appears misguided, even embarrassingly unscholarly. Some may interpret this as an exercise in ‘political correctness’ that threatens to corrupt the frank exchange among researchers who are peers or equals in the pursuit of social scientific truth – not bearers of politicized identities. Moreover, the idea that social identities and inequalities are germane to the social sciences, which informs our declarations of identity and belonging, runs against the assertion that what makes the social sciences ‘sciences’ are safeguards, in the form of rigorous methodologies, against the pollution of identity and politics in the research process. In this view, whether an idea is true or at least useful, depends upon its fit with the real social world, not upon the particular personal and social characteristics of the researcher, which should be bracketed during the social scientific endeavour.

8In insisting that we write from somewhere – and from very specific ‘somewheres’ – we thus challenge still-dominant positivist and post-positivist approaches to science. We claim a place to belonging that is about knowledge and knowledge production. Against what strikes us as naïve positivist traditions, we argue that rigour in the social sciences demands precisely this reflexivity, that is, making explicit the standpoints from which we assert our being and speak our knowledge. We maintain that social location in unequal relations of power shapes what counts as knowledge and as worth knowing. (This position links us closely to certain feminist debates around “standpoint theory”, see Harding, 2004 and Moreton-Robinson 2002). For instance, as we noted earlier, for Thibault Martin, Indigenous research poses critical questions about the unity of mainstream social science research. In contrast, from our perspectives, such concerns are secondary to ensuring the usefulness and relevance of Indigenous research for Indigenous communities in the context of centuries-long struggles for survival and self-determination. We maintain that failure to be reflexive about how social location influences what matters in research does not advance an impartial social science. Instead, such an approach – which is not Martin’s but which is nonetheless quite common in mainstream social science research – merely confuses dominant social science traditions, arising from historically contingent conditions, with the existence of a supposedly universal science good for all of humanity and for all time. But, as we describe below, the social sciences do not stand outside of history.

9Education systems and social science research have long constituted sites of erasure for many subaltern classes and groups. For Indigenous people specifically, education historically has been pursued with the explicit aim of achieving the disappearance of Indigenous peoples through assimilation, simultaneously understood as necessary and for our own good, while research has often been carried out in order to justify genocidal policies by demonstrating the inferiority of Indigenous peoples or in a nostalgic celebration of the aesthetics of the supposedly doomed “Indian” (La Rocque, 2011:26-27). By naming and claiming our Indigenous identities, then, we affirm our ongoing presence against a centuries-old genocidal project and we assert Indigenous voices in an academy that has long sought to silence them. At the same time, as Indigenous authors, we do this in order to honour our ancestors, recognizing that our insights are rooted in our lands and forebears. In sum, as Indigenous researchers, we speak from somewhere, notably from relations with the natural world, our ancestors and other Indigenous peoples. We speak out of histories of colonization and genocide, survival and struggle. Yet we would insist that researchers in mainstream social science likewise speak from specific ‘somewheres’ even if many forget, either intentionally or innocently, the historically contingent, social origins of their own, dominant social scientific traditions.

Social Science as Colonialism

10For Indigenous peoples, the sciences, including the social sciences, have been an important, even critical part of colonizing processes. Thus, Indigenous peoples historically know the social sciences as a form of violence, part of the naming and claiming of Indigenous peoples (Tuhiwai Smith, 2004, especially 80-83) and their lands and histories for the colonizers. Of course, the ways that the social sciences and more broadly, educational institutions, have been implicated in processes of dispossession has varied over the five centuries since colonization began. But in the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of Indigenous men, women and children were ripped from their homelands, many literally exhibited in zoos or in European tours with or without explicit “pedagogical” and “scientific” intent. For instance, at least 35 000 Indigenous persons were “exhibited” worldwide in human zoos from 1800 to 1958, including as many as four hundred individuals at the 1889 Paris World Fair (The Guardian, 2011). Generations of other Indigenous children were sent to the now-infamous residential schools, the last of which closed in the 1990s in the Canadian case, with the explicit and often successful aim of stripping them of their language, cultures and traditions (see Miller 1996). For Indigenous peoples, the residential school experience were both sites of resistance and often one of horrendous physical violence informed by both “scientific” and popular imaginings of Indigenous peoples as inferior. Thus, for instance, colonial scholars engaged in craniometry, measuring Indigenous cranial capacities against those of non-Indigenous heads in an attempt to demonstrate Indigenous intellectual inferiority, even depravity (Tuhiwai Smith, 2004: 1), so “scientifically” legitimating the genocide and assimilation of Indigenous peoples.

11Even today, attempts by Indigenous peoples to repatriate their Indigenous ancestors, including bodies and body parts, and sacred as well as everyday objects belonging to Indigenous peoples, are met with strong resistance – whether these are housed in museums, in universities or in private “collections”. For instance, in April 2013, the Drouot auction house in Paris, France sold sacred Hopi masks despite the formal objections of the Hopi people, arguing that since the masks were in private collections, they had been desacralized (The Guardian, 2013). In such ways, Indigenous peoples and their sacred belongings have been and continue to be constructed as mere objects and commodities for the learned and expert interpretation, consumption and benefit of mostly non-Indigenous others.

12In short, in the same processes by which Indigenous lands were renamed and reclaimed by colonizers, Indigenous ancestors and men, women and children were named and claimed as objects of science. At the same time, educational institutions have historically been places where Indigenous peoples were forcibly incorporated into alien languages, cultures and traditions. This contrasts sharply with dominant colonial traditions that associate science and education with enlightenment. In his article, briefly evoking this history of education and science as sites for assimilation, Martin speaks of consequent Indigenous “antagonism” towards research (Martin, 2013, 137). To this, we might add suspicion, anger and hostility towards colonial institutions, including universities, that house such research and that have been experienced as sites of violent repression rather than learning. Indeed, “antagonism” is, in our view, an inadequate term given the Indigenous experience of research and formal education as a particular, often horrific form of colonial violence and dispossession. In fact, Indigenous survival has often depended precisely upon a refusal to participate in and engage with colonial educational institutions and their scientific projects. Now, of course, there is significant Indigenous engagement with the social sciences and the academy but to be meaningful this involvement must be undertaken on quite different terms than have historically prevailed under colonialism: that is, on the terms of Indigenous peoples rather than those of their colonizers.

13Today, there is a growing, if uneven recognition that Indigenous peoples can no longer be treated simply as objects of research. This reflects the increasingly significant Indigenous presence in universities and movements of Indigenous resurgence outside of the academy. Yet, if Indigenous peoples are no longer always related to simply as objects of research or for consumption as commodities, they are not equals either. Rather, they are unequal ‘Others’, whose claims are subject to the authoritative adjudication of colonial expertise. For instance, in lands-claims cases, in which colonial governments are at once party and judge, Indigenous peoples must still rely on ‘white expert’ anthropologists to testify on their behalf since Indigenous peoples’ own accounts of their histories do not carry weight within colonial courts. Of course, such anthropological witnesses frequently participate at the explicit request of Indigenous peoples and do so out of solidarity with Indigenous claims to sovereignty and self-determination. Yet, this participation is only necessary because Indigenous claims to know their own histories and geographies are not considered receivable as expert knowledge in colonial courts. Even in instances when white social scientists are motivated by solidarity with Indigenous peoples and participate at their request, this solidarity is only a necessity because of the failure of colonial state institutions, among others, to take Indigenous peoples and hence Indigenous knowledges seriously. If white colonizers have had carte blanche to write Indigenous histories for centuries (Deloria, 1998:65), Indigenous peoples are still unrecognized today by colonial society, and within the colonial academy, as authorities concerning their own histories. This scepticism around Indigenous knowledges often creates considerable strain for Indigenous scholars, who frequently face contradictory demands that they represent all Indigenous peoples in the university, for instance on ‘diversity’ committees, all whilst defending their research questions, theories, methods and outcomes against charges that this is not scholarship but merely Indigenous ‘bias’ or ‘activism’, this last supposedly incompatible with the scholarly endeavour (for one description of this see Corntassel 2003).

Colonial Science as Universal Science

14In short, the evidence is that research and universities are still sites of colonial dominance. That is, they are spaces where colonial ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies are reproduced as ‘best practices’ and where the priorities of colonial states and capitalist social relations, including the need to show that research is profit-making, motivate research and teaching. At best, the priorities and concerns of the Indigenous peoples on whose lands these institutions are built are marginal to what Dorothy Smith has called the “main business” (2004:37-44) of the academy and of the colonial-capitalist society in which the academy is embedded. This means that in practice, Indigenous research is measured against the colonial sciences, which are taken for granted as the research standard – and then against this standard Indigenous research is found wanting. Indeed, Indigenous approaches may be dismissed with two seemingly opposed arguments (Andeotti, Anenakew and Cooper 2011). On the one hand, efforts to present Indigenous perspectives to mainstream audiences – like this exchange in the form of an article in a peer-reviewed journal – are taken as proof that Indigenous research is “too similar” to mainstream research to be described as specifically Indigenous, hence confirming the view that there is no such thing as Indigenous research. On the other hand, when Indigenous researchers use perspectives and methodologies outside of mainstream techniques, for instance, by engaging in ceremonial practices used to encourage the spiritual right-mindedness for research, these are considered “too different” to be part of the social scientific process. Yet such seemingly opposed arguments both take for granted Western scientific traditions as the standards against which Indigenous research and researchers must be measured and to which they must answer.

15Arguably, in his article, Thibault Martin repeats some of these arguments. In particular, he maintains that Indigenous research “processes” – especially the circulation of scholarly texts, and the ways that this circulation favours debates and exchanges around innovations, hypotheses, methods and theoretical constructions among Indigenous researchers – are “in no way different from institutionalized science” (2013, 141), although he does recognize that Indigenous epistemologies may be distinctive. Of course, we would agree that some Indigenous researchers sometimes do carry out research in ways identical to mainstream, colonial traditions, including for the strategic purposes of communicating outside of Indigenous communities. But we observe that such an assertion ignores Indigenous research done in ways that are unconventional from the perspective of colonial social sciences. For instance, research may include the sharing of traditional knowledges about the healing powers of certain plants and this sharing may take place in specific, personalized relationships through concrete demonstrations of when, where and how these plants must be picked and treated. This oral and demonstrative communication may be an important form of sharing research in Indigenous communities – but this is unlikely to be recognized as such by mainstream researchers. As many Indigenous peoples have observed, this misrecognition of much Indigenous research is in many ways fortunate, since it then is less likely to be appropriated by mainstream researchers, including as ‘intellectual property’ (Monture-Angus, 1995:11). Nonetheless, by failing to recognize such processes as ‘research’, Indigenous scholarship may be dismissed as distinctive if diverse sets of practices. This has consequences for the career development and employment security of Indigenous scholars, too, since insofar as Indigenous research practices are not considered to be research, career development may be slowed, tenure applications denied and so on.

16Another kind of misrecognition may lead researchers to conclude that Indigenous methodologies are ‘no different’ from non-Indigenous methods. Specifically, Indigenous methods may be radically decontextualized and then reinterpreted using non-Indigenous frameworks, leading to the conclusion that Indigenous scholarship is ‘identical’ to mainstream research approaches. For instance, Martin characterizes Indigenous protocols that seek to control research access to our communities as “contractual understandings” (2013, 138) between the Indigenous community and the researcher prior to the undertaking of any research in that community. In practice, of course, we would agree that too often such protocols are interpreted precisely in this way. Thus, an initiative meant to defend Indigenous interests and wellbeing effectively becomes a quasi-legal contract that protects the researcher from challenges, potentially including legal challenges, by Indigenous communities concerning research done ‘on’, ‘about’ or ‘with’ them (for a wide-ranging discussion about research ethics boards and research in Indigenous communities see Glass and Kaufert 2007). Yet, for many Indigenous peoples, such protocols are often interpreted as an expression of an ongoing, long-term and even sacred relationship, premised upon and respecting Indigenous self-determination throughout the entire research process (for one interpretation of Treaty along these lines, see Kovach 2013a). Our point here is not simply that colonial and Indig-enous scholars have incommensurable approaches to research, although these examples are suggestive of fundamental differences. Rather it is that these differences are bound up with ongoing relations of colonial power so that the different interpretations carry unequal weight: in a colonial context, the narrower, fixed, liberal contractual and legalistic approach to the research relationship is self-evident. Of course, such self-evidence both reflects and reproduces Indigenous ways of knowing as marginal, both within and outside of the academy.

17But the marginalization of Indigenous perspectives takes other forms, too. For instance, if there is a new appreciation of Indigenous ecological knowledge as ‘traditional environmental knowledge’ (TEK), the pursuit of TEK often fundamentally denatures such knowledge. Too often, in practice, TEK means extracting Indigenous ecological understanding from its meaning-making contextual and personalized relations, including relations with ancestral spirits, and then reabsorbing that knowledge into dominant social scientific traditions, including in commodity form as ‘intellectual property’ (Simpson, 2001). Indeed, Indigenous programmes may be shut down within the context of declining public funding for universities. In such cases, the rationale is not a more or less ostensible effort to erase the troubling Indigenous presence within the academy but rather simply that Indigenous research practices do not meet criteria of profitability. Indigenous willingness to accept the commodification of Indigenous knowledge is thus the price of admission to the academy given ‘cost-effective’ criteria in the context of austerity politics and declining public funding for universities (Stewart-Harawira, 2013). Such pressures may be particularly acute with respect to Indigenous arts and literature programmes but likewise affect Indigenous social sciences. This is not only a case of marginalization, but a new form of dispossession, no less damaging than the early-colonial ‘naming and claiming’ of Indigenous lands, ancestors and ceremonial and sacred objects for the colonizers.

Indigenous Research and Resistance

18Against such arguments, we might seek to flip the taken-for-granted standards for social science research. Following Margaret Kovach, for instance, we might observe that from many Indigenous perspectives Western research is peculiarly limited with its strong and nearly-exclusive emphasis on cognitive processes and tightly-controlled material experiments, so eliminating other sources of knowledge, even when these provide critical insights. From this viewpoint, to use an analogy, standard research practices are like an attempt to hunt while relying exclusively on information provided by the intellect, excluding all other forms of knowing (Kovach 2013b). Moreover, the social sciences are bound by disciplinary and other conventions that limit the flexible incorporation of different kinds of knowledge and that constrain the ways that knowledge is shared (especially outside the academy), so limiting their usefulness in everyday life. Indeed, the radical binaries that institutionalized research poses between human beings and the rest of natural life and spirituality, combined with the rigid exclusion of certain types of knowing and the limited range of ‘legitimate’ ways of sharing that knowledge, has had disastrous practical consequences, in many instances, as even mainstream science is beginning to realize with respect to ecological disasters including global warming. Of course, the social sciences themselves are shaped by a broader context, particularly worldwide social relations that privilege knowledge that contributes to immediate profit-making over and above meeting the immediate and long-term needs of human and other life forms. In this sense, Indigenous knowledge challenges both mainstream social science and the broader capitalist relations in which these sciences and research practices are embedded.

19Not unrelatedly, mainstream social sciences have a particular relation to time, that might be referred to as a compressed sense of the present. This is undoubtedly linked to pressures, especially in the contemporary historical moment, to quickly demonstrate that research is profitable ‘intellectual property’ but also to the bureaucratic fractioning of time motivated by modern concerns around efficiency, themselves not unconnected with imperatives of capitalist competition to produce more in less time. Of course, this ‘productivist’ bias applies to research as well, for instance, in the pressures to demonstrate scholarly performance through the prolific publication of articles often regardless of their quality or relevance to critical concerns for human beings and nature. Against this, we would argue that many Indigenous understandings of time better contextualize the present, with consequences for social science and research practices, whilst at the same time privileging research that promotes harmonious relations with the natural and spiritual worlds over other motivations, including profit-seeking and enhanced ‘productivity’. Hence, Indigenous scholars typically insist on rooting current research practices in knowledge of and in communication with the natural world, as well as through specific, often spiritual attention to past generations. At the same time, many Indigenous peoples insist upon a moral responsibility for future generations both human and non-human, an idea that has partially penetrated non-Indigenous ecological consciousness, in particular, as a responsibility towards the ‘seven generations’ to come (see, for instance, Clarkson, Morrisette and Régallet 1992, written for an environmental organization). Without wanting to present an overly homogenous characterization of diverse Indigenous peoples, we would argue that this expanded understanding of the present and related emphasis on responsibilities to generations before and after, creates moral dispositions that might inform a more healthy approach to mainstream social sciences, were such perspectives to be taken seriously. Moreover, such approaches displace profit-centered and productivist motivations focused on the immediate present with a concern for the long-term survival and wellbeing of humans and the natural world.

20If this is a romanticization of Indigenous research, we would defend this romanticization as necessary given the relentless tendency to delegitimize Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing. In that sense, these affirmations should be read “contrapuntally” against the contemporary context of ongoing colonization (LaRocque 2011, 32), a form of resistance to the centuries-long stigmatization of Indigenous ways of knowing. Certainly, our affirmations are no more romantic than a naïve celebration of the often-dubious ‘achievements’ made possible by Western social science, ranging from the atomic bomb to species-threatening climate change. Moreover, the charge of romanticization is not an equal one, since romanticizing the dominant social science paradigm does not have the same political effect as idealizing Indigenous knowledges that historically and up to the present day have been excluded and stigmatized. In fact, given widespread belief in the impoverished nature of Indigenous knowledge claims, any claims that Indigenous research is a useful, even powerful way of doing social science may appear ‘romantic’, while romanticism about mainstream research paradigms appears as commonsense rather than idealism.

21If such Indigenous perspectives are far from central to the contemporary social sciences, they are of growing importance and significance, not least to Indigenous communities. Yet, this development cannot be understood apart from broader struggles of Indigenous resistance and resurgence. To take just one instance, it is easier to assert the relevance of communicating research in Indigenous languages within university settings if these languages are widely practiced outside the university. Insofar as language critically shapes perspectives, moreover, the revitalization of Indigenous languages is a central question for Indigenous scholarship. In such ways, the fate of Indigenous scholarship depends upon Indigenous resurgence and vitality outside the university.

22However, the current intensification of colonial-capitalist dynamics of dispossession mean Indigenous peoples, whose ways of being, knowing and doing are intimately bound up with the natural world, face acute threats to their survival outside and so within universities. In particular, resource extraction in Indigenous lands and seas worldwide currently ranges from the opening up of the tar sands in what is now Canada, directly affecting more than thirty Indigenous peoples, to the mining of traditional fishing seas in Maori territory off the shores of New Zealand. This is the renewal of processes of colonial-capitalist dispossession that have never entirely stopped, echoing the original colonial dispossessions when plant and animal life was extracted as ‘resources’ in the so-called ‘new world’ and then transformed into wealth that was repatriated back to what would now be called transnational corporations headquartered in metropolitan centres. The outcomes of these contemporary processes of dispossession will have an immeasurable impact on Indigenous survival and wellbeing. This will inevitably affect the Indigenous presence in social science research, which depends intimately and ultimately upon a strong Indigenous presence outside of the academy. Moreover, this creates new urgencies but also strain for Indigenous scholars who seek to use their work to foreground Indigenous resistance to these threats in academic settings that neither prioritize nor reward such mobilization.

23In short, Indigenous research is part of much broader struggles for decolonization; a decolonization that has only been partially and precariously achieved and is therefore still ongoing. If this decolonization is a struggle, however, it is also a social fact. Indigenous peoples are no longer simply the objects of other peoples’ research and gaze. Rather, we are acting as self-determining subjects, in all spheres including in research, in universities and other institutions of higher education. If this is a partial, revocable victory, we have still come some way to fulfilling the task that Chief Dan George (2001) set before Indigenous peoples, over thirty years ago. In his words, Indigenous scholarship matters because it is one way of proclaiming our cultural worth – both to a colonial society that has sought our deaths as peoples and to ourselves as we reclaim and renew specifically Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing:

It is harder to find somebody who will listen, but everybody reads. Therefore we must write about our ways, our beliefs, our customs, our morals, how we look at things and why how we lived, and how we live now…. To those who believe in the power of the written word these books will proclaim our cultural worth. (George, 2001:8)

24Ultimately, however, our work as Indigenous researchers is not primarily a matter of convincing non-Indigenous peoples of our right to exist as Indigenous peoples nor of convincing them of the worth of our ways and of our scholarship, although such resistance to colonialism certainly matters. Rather, our task is to produce knowledge that makes sense in terms of our lived realities, experiences and challenges. Research must be of practical value first and foremost to our communities. Any other considerations of research are simply secondary to this primary concern for us. In other words, we are not ‘doing’ social science for the sake of doing social science but as part of our struggles to decolonize our existence and move towards liberation.

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Elaine Coburn, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, George Sefa Dei et Makere Stewart-Harawira, « Unspeakable Things: Indigenous Research and Social Science »Socio, 2 | 2013, 331-348.

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Elaine Coburn, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, George Sefa Dei et Makere Stewart-Harawira, « Unspeakable Things: Indigenous Research and Social Science »Socio [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2014, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Elaine Coburn

Sociologue. Elle enseigne à l’American University of Paris et elle est chercheure au CADIS (Centre d’analyse et d’intervention sociologiques), École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). Rédactrice de la revue Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes, ses principaux travaux portent sur la mondialisation néolibérale et postnéolibérale, les mouvements « altermondialistes » et les théories de l’économie politique issues du matérialisme historique. Depuis deux ans, elle participe avec des chercheurs autochtones à la recherche et à la résistance autochtones au Canada et ailleurs.

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Aileen Moreton-Robinson

Goenpuul, de la première nation Quandamooka, elle est professeure d’études autochtones à la Queensland University of Technology où elle est actuellement directrice du Réseau national des recherches et connaissances autochtones. Elle est notamment l’auteur de Talkin’ up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, University of Queensland Press, 2000, de Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, Australia Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004 et de Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, Allen & Unwin, 2007. Ses recherches sont consacrées aux études critiques de race et de la blancheur, aux études autochtones et au féminisme.

George Sefa Dei

Professeur en humanités, sciences sociales et éducation à la justice sociale à l’Institut pour les études sur l’éducation de l’université de Toronto. Ses intérêts dans l’enseignement et la recherche concernent les domaines des philosophies autochtones, de l’antiracisme, de l’éducation des minorités, du développement international et des théories anticoloniales. Il est l’auteur de plusieurs livres parmi lesquels Anti-Racism Education: Theory and Practice, Fernwood Publishing, 1996 ; Anti-Colonialism and Education: The Politics of Resistance, codirigé avec Arlo Kempf, Sense Publishers, 2006 ; Teaching Africa: Towards Transgressive Pedagogy, Springer Publishers, 2010 ; Fanon and the Counterinsurgency of Education, Sense Publishers, 2010 ; Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education, Peter Lang, 2011. En Juin 2007, il a été nommé chef traditionnel au Ghana, en tant que Adumakwaahene de la ville d’Asokore, près de Koforidua dans le district du nouveau Juaben sous le nom de Sefa Tweneboah I.

Makere Stewart-Harawira

D’origine māori (waitaha) et écossaise. Elle a été élevée en Nouvelle-Zélande et enseigne à l’université d’Alberta, Canada, depuis 2004. Elle est notamment l’auteur de The New Imperial Order. Indigenous Responses to Globalization, Zed Books, 2005. Ses recherches portent sur les connaissances autochtones et les mouvements globaux autochtones, la gestion /conservation de l’environnement, la gouvernance globale et la triple crise de l’écologie. Elle s’intéresse également aux questions d’autodétermination des autochtones et aux situations de paix et de conflit. Elle développe un programme de recherche qui analyse l’intersection entre les connaissances traditionnelles des communautés autochtones et la triple crise écologique avec la perspective d’une meilleure intégration de connaissances autochtones et locales dans le domaine des politiques de limitation des impacts.

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