Learning from — not about — Aboriginal peoples

“We do not want scientists interpreting our knowledge, when it has been removed from the values and spiritual foundations that give it meaning. The processes of documenting and integrating remove knowledge from our people. When the knowledge is removed from our people, the power of our knowledge is lost. Our knowledge becomes assimilated and it is of very little use to those who are trying to advance their interests. When our knowledge becomes a commodity it can be used at will by the power structures of the dominant society to support existing doctrines and the status quo. It can be appropriated, marginalized and even used against us.” Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.  

In brief

For the past ten years, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has been a booming area of interest for non-Aboriginal researchers interested in studying indigenous communities. Aboriginal communities initially perceived the boom to be a positive step towards the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge in research. But it became apparent that researchers were using information about Aboriginal peoples in their research without learning from them. TEK wasn’t really informing the research agenda.

Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a well-known Aboriginal scholar, writer and advocate, spent a great deal of time with her own Anishinaabeg people, learning from the Elders in her community. From her Anishinaabeg perspective, Dr. Simpson studied those who were researching TEK, writing about TEK, and documenting Aboriginal knowledge.

EENet is pleased to feature a Research Snapshot on the article, “Aboriginal Peoples and Knowledge: Decolonizing our Processes,” by Dr. Simpson. The article appeared in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. 21, no. 1 (2001).  Research Snapshots are brief, clear language summaries of research articles, presented in a user-friendly format.

Read it below or download the PDF.

What you need to know

Aboriginal knowledge is not a commodity to be used for integration into Western research paradigms. Efforts by researchers interested in learning from Aboriginal communities need to be focused on self-reflection, open-mindedness and supporting Aboriginals to reach their aspirations in the use and sharing of their knowledge.

What is this research about?

For the past ten years, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has been a booming area of interest for non-Aboriginal researchers interested in studying indigenous communities.

Aboriginal communities initially perceived the boom to be a positive step towards the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge in research. However, it became apparent that researchers were using information about Aboriginal peoples in their research without learning from them. Traditional ecological knowledge wasn’t really informing the research agenda. 

What did the researcher do?

Dr. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a well-known Aboriginal scholar, writer and advocate, spent a great deal of time with her own Anishinaabeg people, learning from the Elders in her community. From her Anishinaabeg perspective, Dr. Simpson studied those who were researching TEK, writing about TEK, and documenting Aboriginal knowledge.

What did the researcher find?

In the past, researchers were typically interested in obtaining knowledge that fit with Western studies of the environment. They often thought they could use Aboriginal knowledge to propose solutions to environmental issues by integrating it into their research. Non-Aboriginal researchers converted oral, Aboriginal knowledge into research papers for the consumption of Euro-Canadian society. In essence, the very definition of TEK was driven by non-Aboriginal people. There has recently been a shift, however, in Aboriginal communities to retain this knowledge. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson sums it up by saying,

“We do not want scientists interpreting our knowledge, when it has been removed from the values and spiritual foundations that give it meaning. The processes of documenting and integrating remove knowledge from our people. When the knowledge is removed from our people, the power of our knowledge is lost. Our knowledge becomes assimilated and it is of very little use to those who are trying to advance their interests. When our knowledge becomes a commodity it can be used at will by the power structures of the dominant society to support existing doctrines and the status quo. It can be appropriated, marginalized and even used against us” (Betasamosake Simpson, 2001).  

How can you use this research?

These findings can help researchers develop an understanding of the historically repressive nature of research within Aboriginal communities. They can be used as a foundation for further learning and relationship building with Aboriginal researchers. The findings can also be used to gain greater understandings and development of clearer more respectful processes for supporting Aboriginal knowledge.

Limitations and next steps

Researchers must be willing to learn from Aboriginal peoples and must support Aboriginal peoples through open-mindedness and self-reflection. It is crucial for all researchers planning to work with Aboriginal communities to gain an understanding of the progression of TEK and its development as a primarily Western concept. There is also an identified need for Aboriginal researchers to work with their communities to redefine the way research about Aboriginal knowledge is conducted and shared.  

About the researchers

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a writer, scholar, storyteller and spoken word artist of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg ancestry and is a member of Alderville First Nation. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba, is an instructor at the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge, Athabasca University. indigenous [at] athabascau [dot] ca

This Research Snapshot is based on the article, “Aboriginal Peoples and Knowledge: Decolonizing our Processes,” which was published in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. 21, no. 1 (2001): 137-48.

Keywords

Aboriginal peoples, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), knowledge.

This Research Snapshot is based on an article that has been critically appraised for quality and susceptibility to bias.

EENet has partnered with the Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York University to produce Research Snapshots in the field of mental health and addictions in Ontario. This summary was written by Shauna MacEachern.

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