Review of ‘Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods’ by Shawn Wilson

Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2008. 144 pp.
$18.95 CAD paper.
Paperback ISBN: 9781552662816
Emma Battell Lowman
University of Warwick

In Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, Opaskwayak Cree scholar Shawn Wilson sets out to describe and explain an Indigenous approach to research, and to demonstrate how this research paradigm can be put into practice. What Wilson contends is that “the shared aspect of an Indigenous ontology and epistemology is relationality” and that the “shared aspect of an Indigenous axiology and methodology is accountability to relationships.” (7)  While these principles are simply stated, understanding the implications and challenges for researching in accordance with them is a complex undertaking.  Drawing on “a combination of methods, including participant observation, interviews with individual participants and focus group discussions” (40) and working in relationship with others investigating similar questions and issues in Indigenous research (and whose voices play major roles in the text), Wilson has created a comprehensive study of the theory, history and practice of Indigenous research.

Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred has called for ‘means ends consistency’ in approaches to Indigenous political and social liberation, and this ethic helps to describe Research is Ceremony – this is not just a book about Indigenous research methodologies, this is a book that embodies this practice. To do so, Wilson employs a creative textual solution to help make the book accessible to a wide spectrum of readers – Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, academics and other researchers, experts and amateurs.  Two distinct writing styles/voices are used throughout the text, distinguished by different typeset. One is a more familiarly academic and is used to lay out the abstract/theoretical and academic context of the book. This ‘voice’ describes the structure of the research, provides definitions of key terms (such as research paradigm, ontology, epistemology, methodology, axiology, Indigenous, and Dominant – p33-35), discusses dominant research paradigms (positivism, post-positivism, critical theory, and constructivism – p35-37), and the chronology of research about, with and by Indigenous peoples from 1770 to the present (p45-54). The other voice is more personal, and takes the form of a letter to Wilson’s three sons.

The intent here is to communicate in a more direct way with the reader in order to help develop a relationship between the reader, Wilson, and the ideas discussed. This is the voice that lays out the personal/intimate context of the research including the stories of how Wilson came to this work, and the relationships and people that supported and generated this research. As the book progresses, the voices become less distinct as the readers have developed enough familiarity with the intent, context and ideas being discussed so as to no longer require the distinction.  And there is great gentleness in the care Wilson takes to situate readers unfamiliar with Indigenous ways of knowing, and to practice respect towards the Indigenous individuals and contexts with which he has learned. Such bi-cultural work carries risks of incompleteness, omission or inadvertently causing offense (both by what is said and what is unsaid), but Wilson approaches this project “with a good heart” (7) and with humility and respect, explains or apologizes for any possible gaps in communication.

One of the strengths of Research is Ceremony is what Sean Wilson deliberately chooses not to do: he acknowledges the important role of Indigenous critiques of Western research paradigms and processes, and the harm they have and continue to do to Indigenous individuals and communities (Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 1999 Decolonizing Methodologies is, perhaps, the most well-known of this movement) by ‘standing on the shoulders’ of these scholars, his intent is to focus explicitly on describing and practising Indigenous research and methodologies.  In this way, he deliberately avoids the trap of wasting time and energy justifying the need for Indigenous research paradigms and the validity and value of Indigenous approaches to research.  Wilson asserts that this work has been done, and it is critical that we go beyond tendencies to compare Indigenous research paradigms to mainstream research “in order to develop theory, practice and methods that are uniquely Indigenous.” (16)

Wilson defines “Indigenous” as a term “inclusive of all first peoples – unique in our own cultures – but common in our experiences of colonialism and our understanding of the world” (16) and suggests that examining the aspects of an Indigenous research paradigm can help to address “the bigger question of what it is to be Indigenous.” (13) It has been recognized for some time that Indigenous ontologies or “ways of knowing and being” are both fundamentally different from common, Western understandings (especially in the academy) as well as key to valuable insights into the human condition, the relations between people(s), and the relationship between humans and the earth itself.  Following a uniquely Indigenous research paradigm contributes to the rearticulation of these insights, otherwise potentially lost through the interference of colonization.

Readers familiar with some debates and discussions about Indigenous research methodologies and the rise of Indigenous approaches in the academy may be surprised to see some scholars/works not represented in the bibliography – Susan Hill and Angela Cavender Wilson for example, are conspicuous by their absence.  However, Wilson makes no grandiose claim to have written the definitive work on Indigenous research methodolgies.  Rather, he works explicitly from his involvement and embededness in a network of relationships with researchers and practitioners who work primarily in the area of Indigenous education, and does generate examples and conclusions applicable to Indigenous and Indigenized research across a broad spectrum of inquiry.

Reading Research is Ceremony is no passive exercise: in accordance with the principle and practice of relationality, the reader is called to develop a relationship, via the text, with both the author as storyteller, and the ideas presented.  And this is the crux of Wilson’s argument: the purpose of a ceremony is “to build stronger relationships or bridge the distance between aspects of our cosmos and ourselves,” (137) and this is exactly what research does. As we work together and think together, we come into relationship with each other and each other’s ideas.  Once in relationship, there are responsibilities, and also new arrays of possibilities. In accordance with relational accountability, the role of the reader engaging with Research is Ceremony carries responsibilities: to listen respectfully and not to judge, to internalize the information presented, and to form our own conclusions.  Further, Wilson asks us to be willing to change our conclusions as new relationships develop that permit us different points of view, and different experiences. (134) As we read this book on methodologies, being called upon to uphold such explicit responsibilities and relationships may be an unsettling experience especially for those of us rooted in traditional, academic practice.  But do not worry!  We’ve just become part of an Indigenous research paradigm!

Readers need to walk away from (or with!) this book with an understanding of the centrality of relationality and relational accountability to Indigenous research paradigms and practices.  However, the biggest gift is of possibilities.  Wilson rises to the challenge of explaining and practicing an Indigenous research paradigm in a thoughtful, kind, and comprehensive way.  No matter your geographic location, area of study, or previous familiarity, Research is Ceremony is an excellent resource for those seeking to understand the considerable benefits and challenges inherent in engaging with Indigenous thought and practice.

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