Section 2: Ways to Indigenize Research

Using Indigenous Metaphors in Research: Appropriating or Engaging?

Using Indigenous cultural objects as metaphors (for example, a basket weaving or a totem pole) may seem like an effective way to visually relate a research idea, but it is important to first consult with the First Nations, Métis, or Inuit communities that hold the intellectual property rights – that is, the traditions from which you are creating a metaphor from – and seek guidance and permission to do so. Not seeking permission and guidance on the appropriate use of an Indigenous cultural object or practice is cultural appropriation. Misappropriation is a one-sided process in which one entity benefits from using another group’s intellectual and cultural property without that group’s permission or giving something in return.

To avoid misappropriation, it is important to connect with the First Nations, Métis, or Inuit community from which the metaphor originates, as the cultural reference may be considered sacred to that community, or it may be owned by specific families and not appropriate for use as a research metaphor. It is also important to ensure the metaphor is used correctly. Inaccurate information about many Indigenous metaphors has developed over time among non-Indigenous people. For example, the totem pole has frequently been used as a metaphor for order, with the bottom referencing a less important concept, but this is wrong. Many First Nations communities that have created totem poles for countless generations consider the bottom figure as important as all other figures, because it is regarded as the figure that holds all of the others up.

The Medicine Wheel is another metaphor that is often used inaccurately. There is a tendency to assume that there is only one model for the Medicine Wheel, when in fact there are many models. Medicine Wheels may have different colours, which may be seen in a different sequence around the circle, and different animals may also be represented on different Medicine Wheels. Relevance and place are important to consider when using this research metaphor. If you use a Medicine Wheel that represents Dakota beliefs in a Cree community research project, you are not respecting the Cree community, as the colours and meaning of each realm are different. To ensure you are using a metaphor that represents the beliefs of the Indigenous community you are working with, approach people who belong to the community and ask them to direct you to the community’s cultural stewards, who can guide you on the appropriate use of images and meanings.

Incorrectly using a metaphor has the potential of negatively impacting the research project and the relationship with community. Think Before You Appropriate: Things to Know and Questions to Ask in Order to Avoid Misappropriating Indigenous Cultures [PDF] is a guide created through Simon Fraser University’s multi-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) project, Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project, that explores responsible and ethical collaborations.


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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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