Working With Indigenous Literature

Indigenous methods booksI have been working with Indigenous literature on research methods and ethics for over a year now: reading, annotating, thinking, re-reading, and writing from this literature alongside Euro-Western literature on the same topics. During this process I have been reflecting on how I should, and how I do, work with Indigenous literature.

Working well with any literature requires careful and thorough reading and reflection. Beyond that, though, it seems to me there are some specific requirements for working with Indigenous literature.

To begin with, readers need to understand that although the current body of literature is small, it represents a much longer research tradition than that represented by Euro-Western methods/ethics literature. Indigenous researchers around the world, through their oral history, can trace their research tradition back over 40,000 years (Passingan 2013:361; Steere 2013:388-391). By contrast, in Euro-Western terms, anything over 6,000 years old is pre-history. However, there is also a translation problem. Although the first language of some Indigenous people these days may be English, the community and tribal languages of Indigenous peoples worldwide are very different. The complex concepts people develop when talking and thinking about research and its context may not translate directly between a community or tribal language and English, or vice versa. Even when words can be translated, the ideas those words describe may not be fully translatable to people with different world views. For example, some Indigenous peoples regard their ancestors as involved in the research they conduct. This is an unusual concept for most Euro-Western researchers and it is unlikely that we can understand fully what that involvement means to the Indigenous peoples concerned.

Then readers need an awareness that translating an oral tradition into writing is a big intellectual and emotional challenge. There is evidence within the Indigenous research literature that some of its authors are ambivalent about writing. For example, Shawn Wilson states that ‘A problem with writing down stories is that it makes it very difficult to change them as we gain new learning and insights.’ (2008:22) He solves this problem in his own work by writing, not in the Euro-Western linear style of introduction, methods, findings etc, but in ‘a more cyclical pattern that introduces ideas or themes, then returns to them at intervals with different levels of understanding’ (ibid:42). He also tries to write relationally, in accordance with Indigenous ethical principles, i.e. to build a relationship between himself as author, his readers, and the ideas he puts forward (ibid:6). With this aim in view, he uses a literary device of addressing his three children in sections of the book. He chose to do this because, unlike his unknown readers, he has an existing relationship with his children which enables him to use a more personal ‘voice’ in writing for them (ibid:9). Wilson’s hope is that these sections, alongside the more conventionally written ones, will help his readers to develop their own relationships with the ideas and themes in his book.

Wilson and others (e.g. Lambert 2014) also include stories from other named people in their books. This requires a change in citation practices, as simply citing the name of the person on the cover of the book does not adequately acknowledge the source of information. I have solved this problem by citing this way: ‘Lewis in Wilson 2008:110’ or ‘Leslie Camel in Lambert 2014:167’. (I have yet to find out whether my publisher regards this as OK or not, though I hope they will.)

It seems to me that Indigenous literature should be worked with in its own ethical terms. Indigenous research ethical principles are not the same as Euro-Western research ethical principles. While they are described differently by different writers, there are four key ethical principles that recur in the Indigenous literature: respect, accountability, relationality and reciprocity. For me, Indigenous literature should be treated with respect, such as by not dismissing concepts that seem unusual or even alien to me, but by giving them full consideration. If I can’t embrace a particular concept myself, at the very least I need to acknowledge and respect its significance for some Indigenous peoples.

Accountability comes with putting my name to my writing on these topics, making my views available on my blog and (next year) in a book, and giving anyone the right to comment or reply, whether or not they agree with me. Relationality involves careful reading and thinking and use of the literature, trying to understand the different works and authors in relation to me, and me in relation to them, as well as the relationships between the works and authors themselves. This is very much a work in progress and I hope one day to extend it into actual relationship with individual Indigenous researchers, though whether or not any Indigenous researcher would find value in that remains to be seen.

Reciprocity is the principle I find the most difficult when working only with literature. I hope I can achieve this by writing from the Indigenous literature in a way that its authors will value, and in a way that will enable other Euro-Western researchers and scholars to find and learn from that literature as I myself have done. I have been very concerned that working with the literature could be extractive, i.e. taking ideas and concepts and using them for my benefit alone. It is true that the books I write help me to earn a living, but I am not getting rich from them. Nobody pays me while I write, and my income from writing in 2016-17 was around £1,500 (I don’t have the exact figure yet, but will post it when I do). Also, I don’t write niche academic monographs, but textbooks that have proven to be of interest to postgraduate students and academics around the world. I found comfort in direct requests from some Indigenous writers to include their literature in Euro-Western works (Kovach 2009:13,25; Graham Smith in Kovach 2009:88-89; Chilisa 2012:56), and I hope that raising the profile of this literature within the Euro-Western research world will prove to be a positive act. If it backfires in some unforeseen way, on Indigenous individuals and communities who have already borne too much pain, all I will be able to do is acknowledge and own my responsibility for my part in that process, to remain accountable, learn, and do what I can to right any wrongs.

This post is a starting point rather than a conclusion. I have figured all this out myself, so I may be on the wrong track. If you are working with, or have an interest in, this body of literature, please contribute your views in the comments.

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