Lessons for research with Indigenous peoples

Written by Kim Reeder on March 29, 2019

Panelists on Research for Piluwitahasuwawsuwakon: A sharing circle with Ntutemok on March 21 at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Photo by Kim Reeder.

Whatever space we are in, personal or professional, how can we actively honour the traditional knowledges and ways of being of Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq nations? Jen Rowett, host of a panel session at the 2019 University of New Brunswick Graduate Research Conference, challenged participants to reflect on this question.

Wolastoqi Elder Lapskahasit Cihkonagc opened the University of New Brunswick (UNB) conference in Fredericton on March 21, attended by graduate students, researchers and other UNB members. PhD candidate Rowett introduced the keynote panel, Research for Piluwitahasuwawsuwakon: A sharing circle with Ntutemok, with Lapskahasit Cihkonagc, Nancy Harn, Stel Raven and Elder Albert Marshall.

Rowett introduced her Ntutemok (a Wolastoqey word meaning clan/family, and in this case, those who are helping with her research; her collaborators and friends). The panel topics included the project, Transformative Learning Through Etuaptmumk: Illuminating Indigenous Knowledges in Counsellor Education Programs, and how the research methodology and process had an impact on the collaborators.

Project collaborator, Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall, shared gratitude for the opening ceremony, explaining it is critical to invite the good spirits to be working with us so that the words we share, and the words we hear as researchers, will always be one. He promised to walk lightly while in Wolastoqey territory, a commitment both actual and a metaphor to remind researchers in attendance that they must also walk lightly while in others’ territory.

Elder Marshall explained that because programming flows from research, researchers must ensure that their work is entirely reflective of Indigenous communities and individuals who participate in research. Marshall described the difficulty of going back after research has been conducted, policies set, and programming initiated to say we want a different outcome. The solution, he suggests, is to develop a relationship at the outset between researchers and communities to advance the possibility of a true exchange. “Without a relationship, without trust, there will be a reluctance to share.”

Marshall also discussed the researchers’ responsibility to verify their understandings before sharing their research. Etuaptmumk, or ‘two-eyed seeing;’ is the understanding that there are many perspectives. Bringing the concept alive for the audience, Elder Marshall relayed, “If you can imagine for a moment when we were very much hunters and gatherers, how important it would be to look at everything from more than one perspective.”

He explained that Etuaptmumk is a very important concept for researchers. “The stories must be truly representative, through the terms of the communities, and only then we will be able to truly reflect who we are. The onus is on all of us to ensure that the stories shared are a reflection of the truth.”

Elder Marshall reminded researchers that knowledge shared for a specific project should remain on that project only and return to the community. “There are so many ways information can be used out of the original context. Knowledge is alive, physically and spiritually, knowledge will transform us, we must share it to keep it alive, but we also have a big, big responsibility to share knowledge appropriately.” He shared three principles that guide exchanges at his home of Eskasoni First Nation that should also guide researchers: authenticity, accuracy and sacredness.

Marshall said we must maintain the collective consciousness developed by the sharing of knowledge. “As humans, we are very vulnerable, but if our communities have a collective consciousness, shared knowledges, the communities can continue beyond the loss of any one individual.” He finished by relaying the message of the Two-row Wampum belt, but, using Etuaptmumk, instead of guiding a visualization of a ship and a canoe, he described a sled. “If the content is to go to your direction, you will do the pulling, because you know where and how to get there, and we the Aboriginal, will do the pushing, so we will all get there together. However, if it has to come to our side, our understanding, our knowledge base, we will do the pulling, we will do the steering, and you will do the pushing. We must establish that relationship.”

Project collaborator Nancy Harn, coordinator of the Ntulsonawt Wellness Centre within the UNB Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre, also highlighted the importance of the application of research. She believes that all their research will “open more doors for others.” Harn emphasized the importance of the trust relationship within the research, which enabled Rowett to share knowledges in a way that will ensure positive outcomes and application.

Wolastoqi Elder Lapskahasit Cihkonagc (Chris Brooks) expressed gratitude for those researchers in the room, noting the improvements that have taken place because of the application of research. However, he also recalled his youth and the impact of the assimilation efforts of the Canadian government and his adulthood experience of intergenerational trauma. The Elder described how his sacred fire (spiritual energy) had burned low for 30 years. While working in the prison system, he was exposed to Elders and traditional people that would come to the prisoners to share their knowledge and inspire healing. Eventually, he stopped a visiting Elder and inquired, “Why are you doing these things? Why are you coming in to help these people, these outcasts of society?” The simple but life-changing answer from the Elder was; “because I care.”

Brooks then embarked on a spiritual, powerful journey guided by Elders willing to share their knowledges. He learned to see with both eyes and accepted the role of ‘servant to the people.’ He said: “Our duty as teachers, as counsellors, as Elders, as research participants, or whatever role you play, is to share knowledge with as many people as you can.” His closing advice to students was to “keep that Two-eyed philosophy in your heart and your thought process,” and when they hit barriers and resistance to keep an open heart and mind and not get distracted.

The final panelist, Stel Raven, a counsellor in private practice in Fredericton, described how after a lengthy formal education, their experience as a project collaborator was “life-giving, as opposed to life-depleting, ” different from their experience in the formal education and research system.” Raven described the sense of community the collaboration provided, and the realization that, “this is a way to do research that just sits so beautifully with my heart and my soul. It has been a gift that I hope we can spread, that more individuals can encounter and that more students can participate.”

Kim Reeder is graduate researcher on the RAVEN project and a Masters student in Environmental Management at UNB in Fredericton.

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