Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People

I had the opportunity to read a book over the summer that my mom had let me borrow. Surprisingly, parts of this book is also being used in some of my women’s studies courses. This is my first time taking a women’s studies course but this is not the first time I have practiced feminism or worked with feminist theories. I like to identify myself as an Indigenous feminist which happened recently (around the beginning of my first year of university). In college, I resisted the term feminism because there was nothing within “mainstream” feminism that I could relate to as an Indigenous person/woman.

This book is a really interesting book and for me, it was empowering. This book was written by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, an Indigenous woman herself. In the beginning of the book, she sets out the tone of the book and her position in relation to writing it, and also her position in relation to talking about research. It is empowering because she writes from her voice as if she is speaking to you from one Indigenous woman to another. This is not to say that those who are not Indigenous women should not read it or that they won’t gain anything from reading this book. That is in fact the opposite.

She spends a great deal of time talking about colonialism, imperialism and how it is intricately connected to the Enlightenment era. As an Indigenous person, I never felt comfortable with the Enlightenment era but I could never figure out why. Briefly speaking, Smith discusses how the Enlightenment era had from challenging the systems of the time (religion/king & queen) to create more opposing systems. In that, the Enlightenment era created time, space, and the Other. The creation of time, space, and the Other is important to Colonialism and Imperialism (for what seems like obvious reasons to me as an Indigenous person but I could never explain so easily until I read this book) because it starts to document history as seen through the eyes of the Colonizer and that the search for truth had to be met with discovery of lands and the creation of the Other in order to conquer those lands.

After writing about the history of how Western research is related to imperialism and colonialism, Smith goes onto talk about other forms of colonization. I recommend that other types of feminists read this book as well because I feel as an Indigenous feminist, my voice and my experiences which are also a collective experience can sometimes be silenced by the voices of other more privileged feminists especially those who come from a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual, Christian, educated background. Smith talks about how in various Indigenous cultures women are seen equal to men and she talks about how both groups work together with their male counterparts; males are not always oppressive.

She ends the book of discussing various types of Indigenous research and how research can avoid being oppressive and colonizing to Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, some of these practices are not always accepted by all institutions universally. Smith concludes her book on various critiques of Western research, discusses feminist analyses, and the validity and extension of knowledge (ie-whose knowledge is it once the research is done and Indigenous knowledge belongs to Indigenous peoples).

Overall this book is a must read for anyone involved in feminism, research, or would like to be empowered by the voice of another Indigenous speaking to you as an Indigenous person. This is a book that speaks to examples of lived experiences of Indigenous peoples and how research can be oppressive and colonizing. In my new journey of obtaining a minor in women’s studies and for the first time having decolonization conceptualized for me in an institutionalized manner, all I have to say is that for Indigenous peoples, decolonization is nothing new; we’ve been attempting to decolonize since colonization.

Western Medicine versus Traditional Medicine

This past summer I had the opportunity to work on a research team. I learned quite a bit. There was a lot of things that I had learned about the research process and the time and effort that goes into such a thing. I remember I was asked my input on a particular document. I read it over and I realized that the one thing that was not included was “Traditional Medicine.”

Growing up, I had seen both my pediatrician and also a traditional healer. One day, I had this pain in my arm and did not know what it was from (okay, well actually it was from the tiny temporary tattoo that I put on over the weekend). I woke up in the middle of the night and told my mom that my arm hurt. She took a look at my arm and then decided to literally scrub off the tattoo–right then and there, I was told not to put on another temporary tattoo.

A couple of days later I woke up and my arm was swollen and red and we did not know what was wrong. I then went with my dad to go see a traditional healer. The healer gave me some medicine and sent me on my way. By the time I got home, it was worse. We called the traditional healer and he immediately told us what to do: Go to the hospital emergency and ask for this particular medication (I cannot remember what type of medication because I was just so scared at the site of my arm). The healer told us, “She is allergic to the glue in the tattoo and the medicine.” Who would have known?

By the time we go to the hospital, we were rushed into a bed and blood work was drawn, tests were done and then I was put up in the pediatric wing of the hospital; I stayed there for almost a week. I remember my mom asking my pediatrician when he saw me that this was the medication she needed and she kept trying to tell him I was allergic to the glue in the tattoo I had on my arm. The pediatrician didn’t listen. I continued to stay in the hospital. From those days that I stayed in the hospital, my mom continued to ask the pediatrician and the nurses for this medication and trying to tell them that this is what I was allergic to. Nobody listened. I had to wear this dressing over my arm and medicated cream was applied to my arm almost every 4 hours. I missed school, didn’t sleep very well and just hated being at the hospital.

At the end of my stay, the pediatrician walks in with his little clipboard and announces to my mom, “Well she is allergic to something but we don’t know what she is allergic to.” My mom looked at the doctor and said, “I told you so.” He gave me the medication she asked for and told her that I shouldn’t be wearing any more temporary tattoos.

The lesson I learned, some Western medicine practitioners will always view it self as the only option. Some of you might ask, well why would you go to a pediatrician if your traditional healer has all the answers? Our traditional healers are great but I also remember one day that I was told that “Sometimes we need outside help and it is okay to ask for help from those Western doctors.”

It is strange how the traditional side will tell us that it is okay to ask for help and even recommend us going to the hospital or to the specialist. But if an Aboriginal person chooses to go the traditional route they are ignored when it comes to trying to get the referral or the proper care from the Western side. When I was working on this team, I tried to tell them the importance of traditional healers. It wasn’t that they recognized that the healers existed, it was just that the importance of it all was not put in their “language.” In other words, it was not put in a research report. Then that one day as I was browsing the net, I found this report:

Assessing the Institutionalization of Traditional Aboriginal Medicine

Yes there are some downsides but the overall outcome of allowing better access to traditional healers and keeping that tradition alive is much greater than it is by not acknowledging it for Aboriginal people. When I read over this report, there was one thing that stuck out,

The issue of education and community outreach is important and complex. Health providers are not entirely cognizant of the healing methods and the effectiveness of traditional Aboriginal medicine (though there are exceptions). One clinical provider admitted to knowing nothing of the program upon arrival at Noojmowin and best described the encounter as ―mysterious. This despite a genuine interest of the clinician to learn and understand the program and only a year later became familiar with the program. This also relates to the issue of referrals—one cannot refer to something that is not understood. Outside of this example, there is some indication an informal separation between clinical and the traditional medicine exists evidenced by the ―silo comments. This is not entirely problematic since the program is functioning and communication does take place. Again, this is an issue that can be addressed more effectively. A possible option is the creation of a traditional healing ―handbook designed for clinical providers to serve as a basic reference for traditional healing. If this is pursued, it must be done in a way that ensures there is adequate education while at the same time protecting Indigenous knowledge.

This report only dealt with the health care providers that worked in the same building as the traditional healers. I think that if health care is being provided in such a culturally diverse country then at least one should not be afraid to go either the traditional route and/or the Westernized route and not be fearful to be ostracized or ignored by the more dominant group.

Traditional medicine is something that is very close to me and that I value as an Aboriginal person, but so is Western medicine. Because as the traditional healer said to me that day, “We sometimes need that extra help.”