Part 2: Working in Indigenous Research – Defining Indigenous Research

A few weeks ago I was able to attend the Indigenous writing retreat held at Kanatsiohareke located near Fonda, New York.  Kanatsiohareke is the Kaniekehaka (or Mohawk) word for “the clean pot”. This area and land was purchased and repatriated to the Mohawk people, as it is a sacred site. Kanatsiohareke has operated as a place for learning, culture and language for over 20 years.

My reason for going is the week-long retreat which was geared towards Indigenous graduate students. Most of the students were in their PhD’s or finishing up master’s thesis. I felt a little out of place because of this. Almost felt as if I was too amateur, or I had nothing as important to work on while I was there. But I put that to the side of my mind, and instead focused on being present during the week and absorbing the information we were given, and the knowledge shared with us.

During the week we had a chance to meet, sit with and share with elders and knowledge keepers, Tom Porter and Jan Longboat. Given the stature of their work and literature, it was amazing to be surrounded by such renowned people within Indigenous research and scholarship.

When I started getting more involved in Indigenous research, conceptually what I struggled with is something as simple as defining Indigenous research.

Firstly, Indigenous as an umbrella term used for identity is important and useful in order to acknowledge shared experiences and worldviews. However, it is still important to uniquely identify and highlight Indigenous identity where appropriate. For example, in Canada, “aboriginal” or Indigenous people can be legally defined as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit. I am a First Nations person, and the band that I am registered in is the Oneida Nation of the Thames. This is all defined by the state, and by the imposed by euro-western legal legislation via the band council system.

If I were to identify myself, within an Indigenous method unique to my people, I would say that I am a Onkwehonwe person. I belong to the Oneida Nation, the people of the standing stone and we are part of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, comprised of six different nations. For us this is who we are. What is unfortunate is the state does not see this cultural uniqueness, similarly to the Canadian public. In some ways we are clumped together in a pan-Indigenous identity.

How I understand my indigeneity is belonging to an interconnected system of creation between the land, water, people, animals, plants and all that exists on the earth. It is part of my knowledge system, teachings, and identity to care for the environment. In addition to this, I have a responsibility to my nation and to my people and where I come from. Our societies have operated for thousands of years with various roles and responsibilities. As time moves on, these roles and responsibilities may change. This is my understanding of being Indigenous.

Secondly research. Research has a long and complicated history with Indigenous people. Research from a purely euro-western perspective, research can be defined as: “investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws” (source: How we begin to understand research historically comes from a very European notion of discovery and experimentation. For example, in my education, I understood the discovery of mathematical and scientific theories to be the only form of research I was aware of. Dominant discourse on research revolves around scientific and mathematic study in the 17th and 18th century.

But if we boil something like research down to the scientific method. Observation, measurement, experiment, formulation, testing, and modification of hypothesis. A key component of research is the observation and hypothesis creation. Observation requires critical thinking and hypothesizing requires original thinking to present new solutions and ideas. Because of this, research inherently is a rigorous process of observation and thinking. As mentioned, research historically has been understood through the context of mathematical and scientific theorizing. This is still a dominant notion within research, that quantitative pursuits are much more valued than qualitative research.

However, I would say that we all do research in our day to day lives. We observe our natural world, dissect possible problems, find some solutions and test these in an experimental way. We do this over and over again until we find something that “works”. The way that I view research from an Indigenous lens comes from stories and traditional knowledge.

For us as Onkwehonwe, our creation story is how we come to understand the world and our existence within creation.

In our creation story, how the earth came to be is connected to another world. The Skyworld is where many beings lived, they lived in peace and harmony, with their traditions and beliefs. One day a pregnant woman fell from Skyworld. She had a curious nature about her and wanted to investigate the bushes that existed around a deep hole. She fell into this hole and as she was falling from Skyworld, she grabbed onto tobacco and strawberry plants. She was not able to pull herself up, so she kept falling, with these two plants in her hands. She fell for a long time until she reached water. When she fell in the water a turtle swam to her and asked if she wanted to sit on the turtles back. She agreed and soon many animals began to gather around her. She had realized her only surroundings were water, and she needed some land to stand on. She asked the animals to find her some dirt, so many of them swam to the bottom of the water to find dirt to give to Skywoman. Unfortunately, many of the animals drowned before they could reach the bottom. It was lastly the muskrat that told Skywoman they would get dirt for her. The muskrat floated to the surface of the water and had drowned, but in the palm of their hand, was a small gathering of dirt. Skywoman took the dirt and put it on the turtles back. She danced and sang as she spread the dirt across the turtle. It grew and it grew as she danced along the turtles back. She planted the tobacco and strawberry plants as she went along. Eventually the turtles back became so big, and she created Turtle Island. .

When we share this story, it is our understanding of how the humans came to be in the world. Skywoman represents the importance of woman in our culture, and how we give thanks to the women who are givers of life. Not only are women the givers of life, but so is the earth, who we also understand to be our mother. So, we give thanks to the animal and plant world for keeping us safe and protected. Our plant world consists of our medicines, and some our very first medicines are the strawberries and tobacco. We give thanks using the tobacco and we pray with it. The strawberry plant is medicine, and we use this for cleaning our bodies, and ceremonies. When it comes to Skywoman’s journey to earth, her observation of the natural world is a form of Indigenous research. In Deborah Doxtator’s Godinigoha‘: The Women’s Mind, she recites this story as a foundational methodology and framework on approaching Indigenous research. She reminds us all that research did not exist in a vacuum, nor become introduced through colonialism. But observation and theorizing is something our people have always done.

Conceptually, how to understand this is observation and knowledge mobilization/production has been an inherent part of Indigenous culture. We are natural observers as it has always been required of us to view and look at our environments, and to then interpret this knowledge and share our findings through story, song, dance and so on. For me, this is my understanding of Indigenous research. It is communicating our knowledge through Indigenous methods – in which these methods vary from nation to nation.

Over the week at the writing retreat it was a good and positive experience to be immersed in this thinking, and to have conversations, dialogue, story-telling about how as individuals we are each pursuing our paths in Indigenous research.

As I mentioned in my last blog, Indigenous research in the euro-western sense has been historically and currently violent for Indigenous people. Much of this is due to the ethical considerations in research, and the exploitation and theft of Indigenous knowledge. In many ways, colonization and extractive research have worked part and parcel to dispossess Indigenous people from their lands and their culture/way of life. While colonial legislation worked to remove lands and traditional governance systems from Indigenous people, research worked to exploit/steal/appropriate knowledge from Indigenous people.

How I see my role in Indigenous research now is speaking back to the discipline and the archaic, colonial ideas that have been written about Indigenous people. The way I see my role and my work is speaking as an Indigenous person, and creating space, room, dialogue, a future for Indigenous self-determination.

Over the last 20-30 years, Indigenous research globally has created a network of knowledge and people to come together and share their work as a collective. Spaces like the Indigenous writing retreat also serves this purpose of people to connect and share.

I really never knew where I would land career wise when it came to my studies. In a lot of ways, I still am unsure about where exactly I fit. When I started studying health policy and cultural anthropology in my undergraduate education, I honestly just wanted to get a degree as fast and as easy as possible. What I found is that social science studies allowed me to pursue the topics I was passionate about, community, equity and social justice. Studying policy gave me experience in understanding the provincial and federal legislation behind governance. Sometimes I saw myself working in Indigenous health policy, but from my own observation of colleagues and friends experience working in government, it seems to be a dead end. Although policy and advocacy are important, I am unsure about pursuing this just yet as a career. Alas, I found myself in research. It’s funny how it all started with interviewing my grandfathering.

In the majority of my anthropology courses, I was able to complete primary research like interviewing for many of my papers. This is really what started my passion about researching. It felt like a journey to collect my data, code my interviews, identify themes, and write about how it all happened and ultimately the findings.

This process reminds me of my ancestors and how they observed their natural world. The method in which they choose to share and interpret the knowledge might come through a variety of mechanisms. In the current, Indigenous researchers have this choice as well with their work.

Some of the contention that still sits with me is about pan-indigeneity. By this, Indigenous research as a term does not specify the locality of Indigenous identity. For example, my teachings and history vary from other nations teachings and history. Although we are both Indigenous, we carry different sets of gifts and knowledge in our bundles. We have a shared experience of colonization and intergenerational effects and face collective issues in the current. Not only this, but we also share similar aspects in our worldview, being connected to land and water; understanding the interconnected aspects of creation and humanity. Although we share many things, we must also acknowledge our distinctions. Because it still is different from community to community and nation to nation.

Another point of contention for me is the whole concept of Indigenous research as a whole. A comment that was made to me this week made me truly think about my positionality but also the purpose behind all this work. A person had said to me, “so you actually grew up in community”. By this, they were referring to my lived experience growing up on the reserve, in addition to the retained and historical ties I have to my community. For me, something I think I can take for granted is my connection to community. Although I didn’t grow up in a “traditional” way, I was still surrounded by our knowledge, and grew up with a strong sense of who I was. It doesn’t mean to say there were still challenges along the way finding my identity but having that understanding really helped.


What is sad to find out is that this is not the norm for many of our people. Through forced adoption policies, residential schools, the 60s scoop, and the current state of Indigenous children in the child welfare system many of us do not know where we come from, or who we are.

An elder told me once, that a question as simple as “who are you?” can be the hardest thing to figure out. But life is a journey, and this is why we are here, to find those answers.

It is still a little while before I start my graduate studies, and I have less than a week left at my job. I am a little anxious to start grad school, as I am unsure what to expect. But at the same time, I am excited for what’s to come.


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