Privileging Indigenous Research Methodologies For Dissertation

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1 Cree scholar Shawn Wilson states in Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods:

[O]ne of the great strengths that Indigenous scholars bring with them is the ability to see and work within both Indigenous and dominant worldviews. This becomes of great importance when working with dominant system academics, who are usually not bicultural. As part of their white privilege, there is no requirement for them to be able to see other ways of being and doing, or even to recognize that they exist. Oftentimes then, ideas coming from a different worldview are outside of their entire mindset and way of thinking. The ability to bridge this gap becomes important in order to ease the tension that it creates. (44)

In the field of Performance Studies, Dwight Conquergood points to a similar disjunction when describing the gap separating performance scholars from performance practitioners as a counterproductive “academic apartheid” (153), a practice/theory divide defined by Shannon Jackson as an insidious “division of labor” privileging those who think over those who do (Professing 111). This lack of communication and understanding between theorists and practitioners severely undermines performance research endeavours that require building relationships based on trust, respect, and reciprocity. While Indigenous research principles are designed by and for Indigenous scholars and activists working within their own communities, Wilson states: “So much the better if dominant universities and researchers adopt them as well” (59). In my embodied research on the work of women artists from different cultures and generations who collaborated with Jerzy Grotowski during the theatrical and post-theatrical periods of his practical investigation of performance, I found these principles more pertinent than the methodologies developed by those whom Wilson identifies as “dominant system” academics (58).

2 Reading Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods while conducting fieldwork helped me to address the potentially colonialist dimension of ethnographic praxis. In this book, Wilson posits respect, reciprocity, and relationality as the three R’s of Indigenous methodologies, and cites Evelyn Steinhauer’s statement: “respect is more than just saying please and thank you, and reciprocity is more than giving a gift” (86). Indeed, Indigenous research principles are meant to ensure that the research conducted by Indigenous scholars “will be honoured and respected by their own people” (59). Such research criteria are so fundamental to Indigenous communities that they “will not allow entry by researchers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, until they have met the community’s conditions” (59). According to these principles, researchers must engage in a “deep listening and hearing with more than the ears,” and develop a “reflective, non-judgmental consideration of what is being seen and heard,” as well as “[a]n awareness and connection between logic of mind and the feelings of the heart.” Ultimately, researchers bear the “[r]esponsibility to act with fidelity in relationship to what has been heard, observed, and learnt” (59). In my experience of conducting embodied research on experimental performance practice, fieldwork has been more about doing than talking. Because intuition is inherent to creativity, a deep sense of trust is necessary, yet it takes time to achieve such trust. Investing oneself as fully as possible in this long-term process is an important way of demonstrating commitment, and as time passes, trust increases along with the responsibility that comes with receiving someone’s trust.

3 Wilson goes on to suggest that, from an Indigenous perspective, research is ceremony because it is about making connections and strengthening them, a process that takes “a lot of work, dedication and time” (89–90). The multi-sited fieldwork I conducted from 2008 to 2012 was predicated on establishing and sustaining the type of relationships that Wilson identifies as necessary conditions for conducting research. The ethical research principles advocated by Indigenous scholars have guided me throughout the research and writing process and enabled me to develop a range of writing strategies to engage with questions pertaining to positionality, lived experience, and embodied ways of knowing. Honouring these principles has also required me to strive for reciprocity, relevance, and accessibility as part of the goals that I prioritized in the dissemination of my research through my monograph Grotowski, Women, and Contemporary Performance: Meetings with Remarkable Women (Routledge 2014) and its companion Documentary Film Series (Routledge Performance Archive).

4 Within the discipline of anthropology, Indigenous and feminist ethnographers have compellingly articulated alternative ethnographic models that account for the lived experience of researchers and research participants. In the Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, Luke Eric Lassiter notes that American Indian scholars were among the first to produce a radical critique of ethnographic fieldwork and to “call for models that more assertively attend to community concerns, models that would finally put to rest the lingering reverberations of anthropology’s colonial past” (6). Indigenous and feminist anthropologists raise related epistemological and methodological questions about ethnographic authority and the politics of representation because they share similar concerns about the ways in which conventional methodologies enable researchers working from within the academy to authoritatively speak for the Other (56, 59). A particularly challenging aspect of my project was that the women whose creative work I was investigating often anchor their artistic research in traditional cultural practices that can provide access to embodied experiences of spirituality. Such practices have existed throughout the world for thousands of years, yet their spiritual dimension, when not simply dismissed as a form of false consciousness, has been left entirely unexamined by post-structuralist analyses of cultural processes. By contrast, I have found in Indigenous research methodologies alternative theoretical frameworks that are inclusive of spirituality. Although the women involved in my project have developed diverse perspectives, the latter are often situated at the intersection of theatre, tradition, and ritual. Moreover, spirituality in their work often entails a connection to nature, and their teaching promotes a search for balance between human and non-human life that privileges experiential ways of knowing, which I relate in the third chapter of my book to an ecology of the body-in-life grounded in the organic processes of the natural world.

5 Embodied experience, spirituality, and relationship to the natural world are fundamental to Indigenous conceptions of knowledge, and for Indigenous scholars the purpose of research is “not the production of new knowledge per se” (Denzin et al., 14), but the development of pedagogical, artistic, political, and ethical perspectives guided by Indigenous principles and informed by the conviction that “[t]he central tensions in the world today go beyond the crises in capitalism and neoliberalism’s version of democracy” (13). For according to Native Canadian, Hawaiian, Maori, and American Indian pedagogy, “[t]he central crisis [. . .] is spiritual, ‘rooted in the increasingly virulent relationship between human beings and the rest of nature’” (Grande, qtd. in Denzin 13). In response to this crisis, Indigenous activists propose a “respectful performance pedagogy” that “works to construct a vision of the person, ecology, and environment” compatible with Indigenous worldviews (Denzin 13). There are important parallels between such a conception of pedagogy and the teachings of the women involved in my project, especially since experience as a way of knowing is central to their post-theatrical approaches to performance, which often cross the boundaries of aesthetic and ritual performance.

6 Linking experiential ways of knowing to cultural practice and spirituality has significant implications for research itself: in her book Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know, Kathleen E. Absolon (Minogiizhigokwe) describes Indigenous ways of searching for knowledge by stating: “[W]e journey, we search, we converse, we process, we gather, we harvest, we make meaning, we do, we create, we transform, and we share what we know. Our Spirit walks with us on these journeys. Our ancestors accompany us” (168). Absolon relates hunting for knowledge to ethics instilled in the land and transmitted across generations, and points out that “Indigenous ethics are implied in life itself and exercised through the teachings” (25). During my interview with Cree performer, director, and writer Floyd Favel, who worked with Rena Mirecka, a key founding member of Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, we discussed Western cultural constructions of the Indian Warrior, which Favel contrasted with the Native American warrior ethic as a commitment to taking care of others within a communal society.

7 Substituting the actions of searching, gathering, harvesting, creating, transforming, and sharing for the notions of fieldwork, informants, data collection, and the dissemination of research outcomes simultaneously foregrounds the embodied dimension of the research process and the researcher’s responsibility for practicing her craft and developing her expertise ethically. From this perspective, the researcher is cast in the role of the ethical warrior/care-giver, which is inevitably more demanding than playing the stock character of the academic. Since the call of Indigenous scholars to change research from within the academy can be perceived as an impossible task, it is helpful to be reminded by Bagele Chilisa that it is precisely because “all research is appropriation” that the way in which it is conducted always has consequences. She points out that when “benefits accrue to both the communities researched and the researcher,” conducting research can be reconfigured as a two-way transformative process that she identifies as “reciprocal appropriation” (22). More productive collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers might thus be on the horizon if we can learn from each other how to respectfully engage in reciprocal appropriation. Absolon stresses that “[t]he academy is being pressured to create space for Indigenous forms of knowledge production, and change is occurring,” which leads her to contend: “Without a doubt we continue to establish channels to have an impact on making Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing a solid methodological choice within the academy” (166- 67). Creating space for such epistemological and methodological possibilities will entail resisting dominant theoretical frameworks that pre-determine research outcomes, and acknowledging that each step of the research process is part of a larger collective journey. How we come to know might then perhaps no longer be experienced as a competition for knowledge between individuals striving for academic recognition, but as a relational process dependent on mutual trust, collaboration, and healing.

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