Section 1: Setting the Context

Research with Rather than Research on Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous knowledge holders, wisdom keepers, Elders and scholars come to the academy with a worldview that has been 10,000 years in the making, and continues to grow and evolve.

– Michael Bopp, Lee Brown, Jonathan Robb, 2017, p. 6

Indigenous cultures, knowledge systems, and worldviews grew out of relationships with the land, from observation of cycles and patterns on the land, in the skies, and on the water to learning the behaviour of animals and recognizing how humans interact and build experiences. Observation and experimentation enabled a set of principles and practices that manifest as stories, laws, protocols, and approved practices, which provide a way to coexist in holistic and sustainable ways. As Gregory Cajete, a Tewa scholar, stated at a 2015 Banff Centre event, “The focus of native science … [is] finding ways to resonate with the natural world and the natural order.” These processes exist today in spite of contact and colonial legacies.

As a country, we have much to learn from Indigenous Peoples. However, the colonial mindset has viewed Indigenous Peoples as “the other,” as almost-humans with knowledge and physical resources to be extracted and used to build a new world. This mindset allowed settler researchers to research Indigenous Peoples without recognition of responsibility, conditions imposed on Indigenous Peoples by colonization. The marginalization of Canada’s Indigenous population was systematic and deliberate, resulting in catastrophic health conditions for people living on reserves across Canada (Daschuk, 2013). Poor health conditions, systemic assimilation, and general racism gave rise to new policies to remove Indigenous children from reserves for their education in residential schools. The poor health conditions on reserves coupled with poor educational experiences in the residential school system led to “new ‘unnatural’ pathologies, such as AIDS, diabetes, and suicide emerging under physical and social constraints experienced by Aboriginal communities today” (Daschuk, 2013, p. 186). Deficit-based research into these pathologies often involved unethical research practices on Indigenous peoples’ bodies, their cultures, and their knowledge. These research practices allowed such atrocities as:

  • Nutritional experiments on children in residential schools during the 1940s and 1950s (Mosby, 2013)
  • Appropriation of cultural objects as a form of “collecting” artifacts (Benson, 2013)
  • Genetic material acquisition and use without informed consent (Wichar, 2004)

While research on Indigenous Peoples has occurred since contact, recent geopolitical and societal shifts have influenced researchers and research disciplines to better consider how to work with and for Indigenous Peoples. Diligent, groundbreaking Indigenous scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Sean Wilson, Margaret Kovach, and Kathy Absolon have shared perspectives, knowledge, and Indigenous research pathways. Furthermore, since the 1970s, Indigenous leaders have demanded rights and access to responsible and collaborative research. Research protocols and guidelines began to shift in the 1990s in Canada and across the globe. Many protocols developed to date are within the health field and were steered by Indigenous organizations such as the National Aboriginal Health Organization (ceased operations in 2012) and the First Nations Information Governance Centre. Other protocols developed relate to environmental sciences and biosecurity research – organizations such as the Inuit Knowledge Centre ensure research in Nunavut is co-developed, led, and supported by Inuit communities.

The Indigenous Research Protocols, Policies, and Declarations Timeline provides a snapshot of key pieces of policy and legislation that have shifted ethical research practice with Indigenous Peoples.

Note: If you are not using the online version of this guide, you can find the timeline in Appendix A: Indigenous Research Protocols, Policies, and Declarations Timeline


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Pulling Together: A Guide for Researchers, Hiłḵ̓ala Copyright © 2021 by Dianne Biin; Deborah Canada; John Chenoweth; and Lou-ann Neel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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