Research Adventures on Indigenous Land

A critical analysis of Decolonizing Methodologies’ chapter entitled “Research Adventures on Indigenous Lands”

Research Adventures on Indigenous Lands

The experiences of Indigenous people in research have not always been positive. Even though Linda Tuhiwai Smith focuses on the history of the Maori people, it is evident that the experiences of the Maori people are also the experiences of many Indigenous peoples around the world. In this particular chapter of her book, Decolonizing Methodologies, research is defined as a quest for knowledge in the new world (78). Smith outlines how research problematizes Indigenous peoples and how within a historical context research deployed differential power relations over Indigenous peoples, their culture, and their land. Being an Indigenous woman herself, Smith understands these differences in power relations from her lived experiences. Even though Smith discusses research and how early European settlers exploited Indigenous peoples for their own benefit within a historical context, this exploitation is not a thing of the distance the past. This theme of exploitation along with tokenism, accessibility, and the invisibility of Indigenous peoples specifically Indigenous women from research and its publications is evident in Smith’s piece. I will discuss these themes and access their strengths/weaknesses in relation to other feminists’ thought and practice.

The theme of exploitation is the most prominent within Smith’s chapter. At the heart of this exploitation is colonization. While research has progressed in many ways, some of the colonial practices within research are still practiced today. Smith highlights the fact that the Maori people considered themselves to be the “most researched people in the world” (88). This statement holds true even for Indigenous people in Canada. However, some might argue that Indigenous people have a say when it comes to research being done on their bodies, culture, or land, and that many improvements have been made to include their voices and experiences in a non-exploitative way. However, that is far from the truth. Smith describes how research into Maori life was published under only the investigators’ names with no credit to the chiefs who provided Indigenous knowledge. Unfortunately, this is a practice that still happens today. In Canada, partnerships are claimed to be formed with these Indigenous populations; yet, Indigenous populations have very little say into how the research is to be conducted. Investigators will reach out to communities and will recruits the ones that agree to the process even after it is has been designed with very little input from Indigenous populations. This hierarchal, top-down way of conducting research indicates a continuous exploitative relationship with Indigenous populations all in the name of research. One could highlight, counter to this argument, the fact that some First Nations are even coming up with their research policies and practices. This is good for those investigators who wish to abide by those First Nations’ policies and practices. However, not every investigator or research team is willing to do just that. The question that presents itself then is who benefits from the research that is being done?

Existing alongside of this theme of exploitation is the theme of tokenism. In the section titled “Organizing Research,” Smith describes the composition of certain scholarly societies that had limited membership. One such example is the Polynesian Society that was established in 1892 after settlers saw a need to build a community of scientists and “system of communication which allowed for the production of ideas” (87). Even though both Indigenous people and Indigenous women were a part of this society, one could say that their presence was simply a false image of inclusion because the systems of communication did not include their Indigenous languages. In other words, the Indigenous representatives had to learn the settlers’ language in order to communicate with them and with scientists. As suggested by Lugones in “Have We Got a Theory for You!”, she suggests that “non-imperialist feminism requires that you make a real space for our articulating, interpreting, theorizing and reflecting about the connections among [the motive of friendship]” (p. 21). This could similarly be applied to the world of research and creating partnerships between Indigenous communities and research teams.

With my personal experiences of working on a research team that conducted research on diabetes and Indigenous populations, I witnessed this tokenism first hand after I had been hired and was the only Indigenous person present on this team. This could have been a rewarding and educational experience for me. Instead the only thing I learned was how to deal with discrimination, racism, and human rights/equity issues while working in a team-setting. My personal experiences can be compared to the experience of Audre Lorde in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” where she poses the questions, “Why were two phone calls to me considered a consultation? Am I the only possible source of names of Black Feminists?” (50). The questions Lorde poses are similar to the ones I had for the research team I worked on as a part-time student: Why was I the only Indigenous person hired? A counter-argument to this could be that research institutions do allow for the space for adequate Indigenous representation and consultation when it comes to research that affects them. This could be seen with the development of programs like First Nations studies or with the development of Indigenous centres at these same institutions, and the reservations of a certain number of seats within the institutions. Yet by making these opportunities available only to those who have admission to these institution creates issues of accessibility both within a theoretical and practical context.

The third theme presented by Smith in this chapter is one of accessibility. Historically, often the status of the scholar was afforded to certain segments of the population. Smith (1999) writes, “Access to the status of gentlemen and scholar was based on class divisions and wealth” (86). This issue of accessibility to the status of scholar can be contrasted with the exorbitant tuition rates of many post-secondary institutions where much of the research produced in Canada is conducted (aside from government and other social agencies). Much of the discourse on Indigenous populations that is presented to all populations in Canada is one that is set out by these scholars and for many years these discourses have been demonizing towards Indigenous peoples. Smith also writes about the two major myths of the origins of Maori people. She describes the first myth as one where the Maori arrived to the New Zealand area via canoes and the second myth as one depicting the Maori as “naturally more aggressive [as] they conquered and wiped out the Moriori” who were a more peaceful, pre-existing group (87). Similar myths are applied to Indigenous people in Canada with the Bering Strait theory which theorize that Indigenous peoples migrated over from Asia to settle here. These myths create the image of Indigenous populations as being as settlers themselves which follows the colonizers’ argument that they too have the right to conquer Indigenous populations since the land does not inherently belong to Indigenous peoples. Smith (1999) writes, “The greater ideological significance of the myths, however, is, that they support and give legitimacy to the role of conquest. . .” (87). The trouble with these theories and accessibility is that they are all too common in lower levels of education. The only institution and individuals available to change elementary or high school curricula is the government.

Another way in which accessibility becomes a theme is with the creation of the systematic note taking by researchers identified as Smith as part of the “most significant early work on Maori” (84) because of its likening to the conventions of present day social science. Again the issue of language presents itself as researchers took notes in their own language and relayed information in their own language. The information collected by researchers both past and present is always presented back to Indigenous people in the researchers’ languages. This exclusion of the Indigenous language from research echoes Lugones’ statement:

“When we talk to you we use your language: the language of your experience and of your theories. We try to use it to communicate our world of experience. But since your language and your theories are inadequate in expressing our experiences, we only succeed in communicating our experience of exclusion. We cannot talk to you in our language because you do not understand it” (20).

The importance of the above statement is that the language barrier and inability to communicate experiences effectively to non-Indigenous populations existed in the past and it still holds true in the present day. Fortunately, today, some institutions are allowing Indigenous scholars to present their research in their own language. In addition to this, PhD programs at Canadian institutions require a second language test and many Indigenous students are opting to learn their Indigenous language to meet this requirement.

Even though some steps in the right direction to address accessibility issues and barriers to language have been taken, there remains a big issue with respect to Indigenous people and specifically Indigenous women, and that is the theme of invisibility. This theme is presented by Smith when she describes the relationships between the colonizer, Sir George Grey, and the Maori chiefs when all that mattered was the knowledge that was made available to Grey through the chiefs. Yet, the chiefs were almost invisible to the non-Maori audience with the absence of their names in Grey’s materials (Smith, 1999, 82). Critical to this theme of invisibility are the experiences of Indigenous women.

My major critique to Smith’s chapter is the absence of the experiences of Indigenous women. She does make an effort in mentioning Indigenous women. However, it is done so only briefly in mentioning the relationships that Indigenous women and colonizers usually formed. At the heart of colonization is not only the conquering of Indigenous land but also Indigenous people’s bodies, especially Indigenous women’s bodies. Within a historical context, many social policies, like eugenic movements, targeted Indigenous women’s bodies by limiting their rights to reproductive health and reproductive justice. Today, some research teams continue to focus on the health of Indigenous women and their bodies. Again this raises the question of who benefits from the development of these present day research questions.

These question of who benefit is similar to the question that is raised by Faith Wilding in “NeMe: Knowing Bodies – Feminist issues in health, medicine, and biotechnology.” Talking about the Feminist Women’s Health Movement (FWHM) in influencing change with respect to the treatment of women in health centres, Wilding writes, “one cannot lose sight of the important question of who is benefiting from this most, and point out that the medical establishment has not reciprocated what it gained from the FWHM…” (2). Yet even within the FWHM, the contributions of the Indigenous feminist movement become invisible. Before settlers arrived Indigenous women had roles within their communities as midwives and healers. These roles were lost with the creation of patriarchal government relations. In addition to this, Wilding fails to acknowledge the Indigenous feminist movement when she writes, “To the great loss of women everywhere, there has been an erosion of the activist women’s health movement [and] currently, all areas of the female life cycle have been re-colonized and staked out as medical territory” (2). This is disheartening to read because of the fact there are Indigenous women who are active various Indigenous health activist organizations that work directly with Indigenous women in a localized and globalized context. Even as both Indigenous scholars, Wilding being from South America and Smith being from New Zealand, try to identify the absence of women and Indigenous people respectively from the world of research, they are contributing to the very invisibility of Indigenous women’s experiences by eliminating Indigenous women’s contributions both within a historical and present day context. It could be said that their mere presence within the world of academia is a step forward in the right direction and that they are respecting their community and culture by paying attention to the collective Indigenous identity instead of the individual Indigenous identity within their research. Unfortunately, I believe this is just recreating the tokenism that appears historically many times over and over again.

This particular chapter of the book presented several themes: exploitation, tokenism, accessibility, and invisibility of Indigenous people, specifically Indigenous women from the world of academia. In comparison to the treatment of Indigenous people as research participants, it appears that positive strides have been made to include Indigenous people more actively. As mentioned earlier, some institutions have set up programs specifically relating to Indigenous studies, reservations of a certain number of seats for Indigenous students in certain programs, or the development of Indigenous centres. However, the way institutions conduct research in a top-down, hierarchal fashion where investigators decide how the research is to be conducted with almost little to no input from Indigenous participants, and recruit only those participants who are willing to participate in the already-designed research study indicates a continuous exploitive relationship between investigators and Indigenous peoples. The way in which research is to be conducted should allow Indigenous people to have a more active role. In addition to this, Indigenous women scholars should also be more active in eliminating the invisibility of Indigenous women contributions to society either in a historical or present day context. By focusing on the collective, Indigenous women scholars are contributing to the invisibility of Indigenous women was once a major problem of the past. Indigenous women today are just as strong as they were historically. It is time that scholars, either Indigenous or non-Indigenous, begin to recognize the contributions that Indigenous women have made and continue make within their own lives and the lives of others in the communities they situate themselves in.


Lugones, M., & Spelman, E.”Have we got a theory for you!”.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Reserach adventures on indigenous land. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous people (pp. 78-94). Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

Wilding, F. (2006). “Knowing bodies: Feminist issues in health care, medicine, and biotechnology.” (


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