Decolonizing Research: Engaging Undergraduates in Community-Based Inquiry with Tribal Partners

This guest post on pedagogy informed by Radical Indigenism is one of a series of posts on subjects discussed at the 2015 AHA annual meeting. The authors, Jennifer O’Neal, University Historian and Archivist, and Kevin Hatfield, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History,  presented lessons learned and questions raised by their ongoing research course at the session  “The Northern Paiute History Project: Engaging Undergraduates in Decolonizing Research with Tribal Community Members.”

“We don’t care what you know, until we know that you care.” Visiting indigenous scholars and students echoed this maxim repeatedly when reflecting on their research collaborations with settler-society allies and academic institutions during the third annual Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples Conference, which we recently co-organized at the University of Oregon. This conviction exemplifies the ethical framework guiding our annual Clark Honors College research colloquium, “Decolonizing Research: The Northern Paiute History Project,” and the overarching partnership with tribal elders and community members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Burns Paiute Tribe in the Northern Great Basin of central and eastern Oregon. In this course we partner with tribal members who mentor students as they engage in original research projects and practice appropriate ethics and protocols.

”Decolonizing Research” positions undergraduates to create new knowledge within a structure of formal research protocols for shared decision-making about research agendas, modes of inquiry, categories of analysis, dissemination of knowledge, and philosophies of scholarship. The course and its research protocols are structured by indigenous scholar Eva Marie Garroute’s concept of “Radical Indigenism”:

By asking scholars to enter (rather than merely study) tribal philosophies, Radical Indigenism asks them to abandon any notion that mainstream academic philosophies, interpretations, and approaches based upon them are, in principle, superior. … Entering tribal relations implies maintaining respect for community values in the search for knowledge. This respect is much more than an attitude, it requires real commitments and real sacrifices on the part of those who practice it.[1]

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Class field research trip, Warm Springs tribal museum, Oregon, October 2014

The transformative centerpiece of the course is a two-day field research trip to the Warm Springs Reservation. The trip challenges students to think critically about the way they have traditionally learned history by physically and intellectually immersing the students in the culture and history they are studying and placing them in dialogue with tribal community course partners. According to one student, “this trip is an essential part of truly understanding the process of decolonizing history … engaging and interacting with the tribal community and writing about what matters to them.” Another student noted that the experience “made the relevance and importance of our projects come to light. … I now feel encouraged to work even more diligently on the research because we have met those whom it is very important to.”

The group dialogues between students and tribal members also generate new questions such as how to incorporate the multiple viewpoints and truths presented from tribal members, and how to negotiate differences and contradictions among documentary primary sources, oral history testimony, and living memory. According to Wilson Wewa, Warm Springs tribal elder, spiritual leader, and course partner:

[The class] is an opportunity for me to enlighten non-native students about Native American history. The work has been a long time coming for the university community to reach out to the tribal communities, to get our perspective on the history that’s been written about us because most of the books and history that has been written that are in libraries … is not our own history, it has been a diluted history based on writings from the military, from the federal government, from the state government, and the Indian agents. With dedicated researchers and students, they are the ones that want to know the truth, they are the ones that are unlocking those doors of change. The more that we realize that there is a true history out there that needs to be unlocked, the more opportunities we have to go in a positive direction of helping one another and understanding one another.

Myra Johnson Orange, Warm Springs tribal member, indigenous language instructor, and course partner, similarly reflected:

[Northern Paiute history] is a hidden history. We have history about Native American people, but none of it is really pertinent to our tribes here or to the Northern Paiute. There’s bits here, bits there. … [T]he puzzle’s coming together now based on the [student-written] research that I’ve been reading. Ah, now I understand why, or now I see things that I never really understood before. So I think it’s important for me at this age to finally put puzzles of my history together, based on the research done by this class; and the students just give me thrills and chills.

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Warm Springs tribal community course partners, Shayleen Macy, Myra Johnson Orange, and Wilson Wewa, UO Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples Conference, Eugene, Oregon, December 2014

Through continuous interaction in and out of the classroom with community partners, the students confront the dichotomy between the authorized “academic expert” and the “subordinated subject.” They also develop a metacognitive consciousness of how the process and products of their research projects can avoid functioning as acts of appropriation or academic neo-colonialism extracting, alienating, and distributing knowledge for purposes external to the indigenous source and knowledge community. Students work closely with the community partners and receive feedback and mentorship on each step of their research papers through field research trips to the Warm Springs Reservation and adjacent cultural sites, as well as course partner class visits on campus, conference calls, and written correspondence. Ultimately, all student papers are shared back with the communities as a form of reciprocity.

As a result of the course, students, instructors, and tribal partners have collected and digitized archival sources to facilitate their eventual digital return and repatriation. The archival research and oral interviews contribute to the ongoing development of an annotated bibliography and creation of a Northern Paiute oral history collection. Students have also engaged in restoration history work with central Oregon’s tribal, regional, and local history museums and historical societies, using lessons from the course to ensure the Northern Paiute voice, knowledge, and perspective is incorporated into the narrative of their past and present in museum exhibits, historical signage, and other popular culture expressions in the region. We also aim to incorporate this work into K-12 curriculum.

Throughout the course, we aspire to immerse students in a historian’s apprenticeship designed to offer an inquiry-based intellectual space fostering discovery, curiosity, empathy, and reciprocity. For many learners of history this experience represents an instructional reorientation from the primacy of “content mastery” toward the hands-on practice of the craft of the discipline—posing questions, asserting arguments, interpreting sources, interrogating historiography, performing interviews, constructing narratives, and applying history as a “way of thinking” and “way of knowing.”We will teach this course again in fall 2015 and anticipate expanding our cohort of course partners, scope of research, and tangible product outcomes to contribute back to the indigenous communities of central Oregon.

Watch for our forthcoming article in Perspectives on History, where we will be exploring this class, the methodologies, protocols, and outcomes in further detail.

[1] Garroute, Real Indians: Identity and Survival of Native America (University of California Press, 2003)

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