Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, Māori) is a scholar of education and critic of persistent colonialism in academic teaching and research. She is best known for her groundbreaking 1999 book, Decolonizing Methodologies. Here, Smith traces the history of scientific knowledge as it developed through racist practices and the exploitation of indigenous peoples, and asserts a challenging vision for how research and education can be used to confront colonialism and oppression. Re-released in 2012, this book launched a wave of indigenous-led critiques of academic power and proposals for indigenized methodological interventions.
One of Smith’s most important efforts is to link the history of European conquest and colonisation to the development of scientific thought, hinged on the dehumanisation of and appropriation from indigenous peoples around the world. She connects disciplines such as biology and anthropology to now discredited practices such as phrenology as examples of fields of study that evolved through the exploitation of indigenous people. Smith explains how researchers would steal the bodies of indigenous dead and experiment on them, including filling the skulls of indigenous peoples with beans to ‘prove’ their smaller cranial capacity. Rooted in practices such as these, Smith traces the evolution of the scientific process along a trajectory premised on indigenous peoples being less than human, which rendered indigenous bodies as raw materials for scientific discovery, as well as indigenous lands as open for exploration and exploitation. Deeply rooted in these racist and colonial ideologies, the findings of much scholarly research on or involving indigenous peoples have served to support the dehumanisation of indigenous life.
Smith’s analysis is not simply historical, though, as she traces how scientific racism has remained foundational to academic knowledge and research practices. Combining analyses of colonialism and the academic process, Smith shows how indigenous communities continue to be exploited by mainstream scholarship. From extractive research like bio-prospecting that appropriates and commodifies the knowledges of indigenous communities, to the structural and specific marginalisation of indigenous knowledge and processes and protocols of indigenous knowledge production, to actual bodily appropriations by medical researchers in a position of power with respect to indigenous individuals, exploitation and exclusion remain startlingly common. In response, Smith calls for ‘decolonising methodologies’: a demand that research with indigenous peoples and communities should both serve the needs of those communities and also be directed by those communities.
Smith has demonstrated that, although indigenous epistemologies do not follow the ‘scientific method,’ they are no less rigorous and worthy of respect. As a consequence, she has called for the academy to recognise that indigenous knowledges should not be subordinate to scholarly knowledges, but rather must be respected as parallel ways of knowing. Similarly, academic research and teaching has a long way to go in making up for the dehumanisation and scientific racism that has marked its relationships with indigenous communities. This requires indigenous scholars and supportive non-indigenous academics taking up an openly activist, anticolonial stance with respect to research design and delivery. Smith argues that the first steps in that process require academics to approach research with indigenous peoples as partnerships, with indigenous leaders and knowledge keepers driving the planning and design, fully participating in the delivery of the project, and deciding on the framing and use of the results. More fully, Smith calls for academics to relinquish control of research with indigenous people, and support the ownership of knowledge – and research results – by indigenous communities rather than the academy.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith has continued to expand her work, most recently linking critiques of scientific authority to analyses of colonialism and anti-Māori bias in the Aotearoa (New Zealand) health care system. Decolonizing Methodologies remains the essential text in confronting colonialism in the academy and indigenising research methodologies and has sparked a major turn in methodological scholarship and perspectives on colonialism and research. Important works building on Decolonizing Methodologies including excellent works including (but certainly not limited to) Indigenizing the Academy by Devon Abbot Mihesuah and Angela Cavender Wilson (2004), Indigenous Methodologies by Margaret Kovach (2009), and Research is Ceremony by Shawn Wilson (2009). In 2013, she was named a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) for her work in support of Māori education.
Smith, L.T. (2012). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. London: Zed Books.
Denzin, N.K., Lincoln, Y.S., Smith, L.T. (2008). Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Research Methodologies. London: SAGE Publications.
Smith, L.T. (2007). ‘Getting the Story Right – Telling the Story Well: Indigenous activism – Indigenous research.’ In Mead and Ratuva (eds.), Pacific Genes and Life Patents: Pacific Indigenous Experiences & Analysis of the Commodification and Ownership of Life. Wellington, NZ: Call of the Earth Llamado de la Tierra, pp.74-81.
Smith, L.T. (2006). ‘Researching in the margins: Issues for māori researchers – a discussion paper,’ AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 2(1).
How did colonial power structure the research and teaching process of the university in the past, and how does this continue in a different form in the present?
What role did imperial exploration, mapping, and the collection of cultural and historical ‘artefacts’ for museums and private collectors play in generating racialized perspectives on indigenous peoples?
How do disciplines such as anthropology, history, and medical science contribute to a modern-primitive dichotomy of knowledge?
What ethical, legal, and personal responsibilities do academics have for confronting ongoing colonialism and racism in scholarly discourses?
How are indigenous scholars asserting an indigenized research agenda in and against the colonial academy?
Submitted by Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker