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Partnerships in Research

This afternoon I participated in a panel on research collaboration between universities and First Nations communities. The panel was part of a two day research workshop hosted by UBC’s Indigenous / Science research cluster at the Musqueam Cultural Pavilion.

What follows are my speaking notes.

A few years ago there was a young student who wanted to study Indigenous Archaeology. He came up to me and asked if he could join in on my community’s project.

I felt worried though. Was what we were doing really archaeology?

How was what we were doing was Indigenous?

We were using our Nation’s commercial seine boat to travel through our territories, stopping at old villages, harvesting places, fishing sites, old trails, boat launches, all these social spaces that have names and histories.

At each place, once we had dropped anchor, we would go set a couple of crab traps. Sometimes we would jig a few fish, pick some seaweed and other shellfish.

Oh. We also did some percussion coring and some auger tests. Occasionally we had folks on board who could operate a 3d surveying tool and we mapped these places. Once and awhile we even dug a small hole or two. –One of the most interesting such holes was a shallow trench across a small island that revealed an old campfire, flint stones, and other evidence of European and Gitxaala use.

But I was left wondering whether the student would be cheated since we really weren’t doing archaeology. It was as though we were just out fishing. The crew consisted of an uncle a couple of nephews, a close friend and then some university colleagues and students. What we were doing struck me more like the way we go on a fishing trip; I guess that’s what made our archaeology Indigenous.

This gets at a perspective on collaboration that is rather different than most of these projects that originated from non-Indigenous researchers approaching a First Nation community. As an Indigenous researcher at a university my relations are the same yet different than my non-Indigenous colleagues. As our youth gain greater access to post-secondary education there will be more researchers like me and more projects wherein the researcher is of the community.

The medium term goals of project such as this Research Cluster is to make the non-Indigenous researcher dispensable, not indispensable.

Our Gitxaała/UBC collaborative program began more than two decades ago. Our first projects were in collaboration with the former treaty office. Then, working with band administration, an environmental monitoring agency was set up to regulate research access and external referrals. The objective was to shift the control away from outside forces and bring it under community leadership and control.

This isn’t a call for researchers to mute their voices. It is recognition that research needs to be controlled and regulated locally. It is also a call for a return to rigorous and precise work that doesn’t make over claims or unfounded assertions in any paper of the academic product.

This research cluster can make a difference. What will be important is for the coordinators to clearly identify what they want to do, what their capacities might be, and then allow us to decide if we want to engage.

This photo shows our field site from the south east. See those ridge lines tipped in snow in the center of the frame? That’s where we are heading this coming week. Most of snow from the winter has melted away, but there will be some left.  This time of year is amazing in the coastal alpine. The upland meadows will be in bloom. The local goats will have moved into their summer range with newborn kids.

Our objective this trip is to harvest enough shed wool for a weaving workshop in the fall.  Goats shed their winter wool starting in late spring into the summer. Picking the wool from bushes, rubbing spots, and along trails is the traditional harvesting method. This trip will focus on harvesting wool. But we will also be collecting DNA samples from goat dung and guard hairs!

Also on the agenda – collecting moss and plant samples.

June 18-20, 2018. Unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation 


CICADA is a research centre based at McGill designed to spark collaborative research between universities, First Nations, and NGOs that rests upon rests on “a foundation of relationships of partnered knowledge coproduction with indigenous partners” (Scott 2018). Organizationally CICADA has a set of core research themes, each with a triumvirate of leaders. I was a participant in the recent CICADA Leaders meeting as a co-leader (along with John Galaty and Ismael Vaccaro) of the Customary Tenure and Territorial Rights research axis.

For reference here are the current research and methodological axis:

  • Life project, and relational ontologies.
  • Customary tenure and territorial rights.
  • Livelihoods, food sovereignty and neoliberal growth.
  • Violence, criminalization, and conflict transformation in resource extractive contexts.
  • Community based protected areas and conservation governance.
  • Cultural heritage in conservation and territorial identity.
  • Indigenous rights and inter-legalities.
  • Community mapping.
  • Community video.

The value of these kinds of coordination meetings is always debatable – it costs a lot of time and money and comes with a high carbon footprint. At the same time humans are gregarious creatures and these types of opportunities creates space for sparking novel ideas, effective collaborations, and new constellations of effort. I marvel at the institutional fortitude of the CICADA Director, Colin Scott, and his support team – putting something like this together is a Herculean task. They did an amazing job and, at least from my vantage point, it went smoothly.

The meeting consisted of short presentations by axis leaders and presentations of individual projects followed by longer periods of discussion. The idea behind of these presentations was to explore the range and form of research action to be undertaken by CICADA members, partners, and collaborators. I always feel that when I am able to attend an event like this its rather like a special seminar or advanced workshop. For these kinds of meetings I try to sit back and allow myself to follow the passion of each speaker. While not always successful in setting aside my critiques, I find appreciating the presentations from the presenter’s vantage point is an effective approach to learning. Though some things do require critical reflection and comment.

Of the 30 or so presenters only five were Indigenous (which is actually pretty good for this kind of meeting, normally the ratio would is more like 30:1). At one point during the meeting I commented that by rights at least half of the people in the room should be Indigenous; especially so, given CICADA’s research focus. I understand the difficulty that settler organizations have, irrespective of their good intentions and hard work, finding enough of us to meet the various criteria often imposed. For example, just how many Indigenous faculty members are at McGill, how many are members of McGill’s anthropology department? UBC likes to boast about the 25 (or so) of us they have on faculty: but, out 3500 odd fulltime faculty 25 seems rather paltry. So I get it that there aren’t a lot of us yet on faculty. Just the same, there are things that could be done and one of them would be to start replacing some of the experts on Indigenous people with Indigenous experts. Another would be to make a commitment to ensure 50% of graduate students attached to and funded by CICADA are Indigenous.

Back to the presentations

Some of the presentations were more technical in nature – the community mapping and video sessions, for example. Here the speakers shared a range of things that they had done. We are past the point were mapping and video are novelties, but there is still much to learn through listening and observing other people’s experiences. The usual discussion of whether one should or shouldn’t map or film came up, as did the standard let’s make it better by putting the tools into the hands of the people. For me, these remain useful questions when implementing, but I would rather move beyond to more detailed case-to-case comparisons. Most of us have heard variations of this set of presentations before which led me to wonder if it might be more interesting and useful in the future to do some cross-case comparisons rather than revisiting of individual projects. As a dabbler in digital documentaries I am interested in seeing where things are going in the form as opposed to what we have been doing.

The life project and relation ontologies session is always a challenge for me as I take issue with the entirety of the ontological turn. I’ve recently penned a critique of one variant of the approach, which I term “defensive essentialism” (forthcoming Dialectical Anthropology). It also strikes me as yet another extraction of data from Indigenous communities wherein our ideas, worldviews, and intellectual traditions become yet again the fodder for externally imposed theories and models. That said, I can appreciate the delight in which the presenters take in learning about indigenous ways of life and in how we relate to all our relations.

The most engaging presentation was by Dr. Treena Wasonti:io Delormier, is Kanienke’há:ka (Mohawk) from the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawá:ke and an associate professor at McGill. Her presentation touched on the life course of her research from community health worker (in nutrition) to graduate research with the Cree and then ongoing work linked to her own community. Currently a member of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, she talked about the importance of the wider social connections between colonialism, foodways, and the possibility for health Indigenous futures. It was an inspiring talk that resonated with concerns, hopes, and issues back home on BC’s north coast. I look forward to learning more about her work and projects she is engaged with.

CICADA is a big idea with big intentions, directed by people with big hearts. The approach they take is exemplary. As with all things human there is always room for growth. But the growth that CICADA will spark is one built on a solid foundation, with strong partners, and individuals dedicated to putting their words into action.

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