Researching with Indigenous communities is a complex and sensitive process that requires ethical principles and practices to ensure respect, reciprocity, and mutual benefit.
Challenges and positionality
As a white, cis researcher and academic working on Indigenous peoples’ rights, I am aware of the challenges and responsibilities that come with my positionality. In this blog post, I will reflect on how I approach my work with respect, humility and accountability. In my academic career, we were guided by the AAA research guidelines.
The AAA research guidelines are a set of ethical principles and best practices for conducting anthropological research, especially with Indigenous communities. They emphasize the importance of informed consent, collaborative relationships, cultural sensitivity, reciprocity and social justice. They also acknowledge the power dynamics and historical legacies that shape the interactions between researchers and Indigenous peoples.
AAA stands for the American Anthropological Association, Positionality is a term that refers to how one’s social identity, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, etc., influences one’s perspective and worldview. Positionality is important because it affects how one conducts research, interprets data, and communicates findings – it also guides how one engages with partners and communities.
One of the goals of AAA is to promote ethical and responsible engagement that respects the dignity and rights of all. Although the AAA provided their guidelines as a resource for anthropologists to address issues of power, privilege, bias, and representation in their research – it is nonetheless relevant to all aspects of how we work and engage with different communities and identities.
Throughout my studies and now in my professional work, it has been critical to acknowledge and address my own biases and privileges. At times I have succeeded in being aware and open, and at times I have failed to live up to my own standards and expectations. I understand that my identity and background influence how I see and interpret the world, and how I relate to others. I also recognize that I benefit from a system that has historically oppressed and marginalized many other groups – among them Indigenous Peoples.
I can only hope to strive to be sufficiently self-critical and reflexive in my work, and to challenge the structures and discourses that perpetuate inequality and injustice.
With this in mind, I wanted to share some of my reflections on the last year.
As a programme coordinator, and as an academic and researcher, I must acknowledge the history and context of Indigenous Peoples and their relationship with research. Indigenous peoples have often been subjected to research that was exploitative, harmful, or irrelevant to their needs and aspirations. Research involving Indigenous peoples has also been dominated by non-Indigenous perspectives and methods that did not reflect or respect Indigenous worldviews, knowledge systems, or cultures.
In our conversations over the last year, it has been clearly communicated that Indigenous communities, rightly, are experiencing and reacting to research fatigue. Research fatigue is a sense of exhaustion and frustration from communities when they are constantly asked to participate in research studies that have little relevance or value for them – and worse, studies which often extract from them without bringing any tangible benefits back to the community. Projects that serve the researcher and their priorities and not the community. Taking into account the paragraph above it is also important to reflect on the issue that for centuries research studies have been conducted without the consent or meaningful involvement of Indigenous communities and were used to justify policies and practices that actively harmed them.
Data – but for who?
For over a decade I have been following the development of mobile technologies, and attempting to understand and realize the benefits the data they collect and transmit can provide to marginalized communities. Over the last two years, I have also been getting more involved in understanding the principles of OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession) and the concept of Indigenous Data Sovereignty.
OCAP is an acronym that stands for four key principles: Ownership, Control, Access and Possession. These principles were established in 1998 by Canadian First Nations leadership and are a trademark of the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC). While OCAP principles are a key set of standards for indigenous data sovereignty and governance, they also are meant to ensure that indigenous data and information are respected, protected, and used for their benefit.
In reading more about Indigenous Data Sovereignty and better understanding the Indigenous Navigator’s tools, framework and approach, it is also crystal clear, without reservation, that any project working with Indigenous communities must center them at its core. In my nascent understanding of OCAP and Indigenous Data Sovereignty, they are clear expressions of the rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The UNDRIP affirms the right of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination, free, prior, and informed, consent (FPIC), and meaningful participation. When working with Indigenous communities, we must engage honestly and in good time to ensure that the research design, methods, outcomes, and dissemination are aligned with the community’s values and interests. In the end, the data is for indigenous peoples themselves. They are the final decision makers.
Closing the circle
Any project that engages with community data and priorities and gathers data in those contexts must ensure that it also brings something back. It must share the benefits of that data collection with the community. Whether through providing feedback, reports which can inform evidenced based advocacy, enabling training opportunities, or other forms of capacity-enhancement.
I am only beginning my journey in engaging and understanding the nuance and contexts of these issues and of working in these spaces. What I share here are my own thoughts and reflections based on conversations and research I am doing in my daily work, and are not exhaustive or prescriptive. Each community and each project is unique and diverse. We must always hold up the mirror and look at the reflection, acknowledging and always keeping our hearts and minds open to learn from and adapt to the specific needs and preferences of those we partner with.