Indigenous Criminology

The longstanding neglect of colonialism in mainstream criminology has resulted in ahistorical and decontextualised accounts of crime and criminal justice system. This is arguably most evident in mainstream criminological accounts of Indigenous criminality and victimisation in white settler colonial societies. As well as acknowledging its complicity in obfuscating Indigenous peoples’ experiences of dispossession, genocide and social control, it is imperative that mainstream criminology recognises the value of using colonialism and Indigeneity as part of its theoretical and conceptual frameworks when trying to understand contemporary crime and justice issues.


Published in 2017, Indigenous Criminology by Chris Cunneen and Juan Marcellus Tauri questions whether American and European criminological traditions are capable of providing an adequate starting point for understanding Indigenous peoples’ contact with the criminal justice system in white settler colonial societies. In part, this stems from the use of conceptual and theoretical frameworks that essentialise, pathologise and disempower Indigenous groups, while also problematising Indigenous beliefs and cultural practices.


Indigenous Criminology is also a response to positivistic and Eurocentric strands of authoritarian and administrative criminology, which have demonstrated a tendency to undertake research on, rather than with, Indigenous peoples (see Tauri, 2013). As a result, Indigenous peoples’ demand that their customs, laws and alterity to the West have been marginalised. Interestingly, Cunneen and Tauri also argue that ‘despite some common concerns around a focus on race and prioritising the voices of the oppressed, the work of many postcolonial and Critical race theory advocates has largely sidelined the Indigenous experience’ (2017: 9).


In sharp contrast to American and European criminological traditions, not to mention administrative and authoritarian criminology, Cunneen and Tauri’s Indigenous framework is underpinned by three interconnected principles. First, Cunneen and Tauri stress the importance of ‘committed objectivity’. For Cunneen and Tauri, this means adopting an ‘objective outsider’ role underpinned by ‘a belief in the ability of Indigenous peoples to carry out empirical research that will result in meaningful outcomes for their communities’ (2017: 10). Second, and relatedly, Cunneen and Tauri are committed to the principle of ‘giving back’ to Indigenous peoples by ‘speaking truth to power’ in ways that are not detached from understanding both the hegemony and impact of settler colonial state apparatuses on Indigenous peoples’ lives: namely, the education system, the police, the courts, government policies and legislation (see also Tauri, 2014). Third, Cunneen and Tauri propose that Indigenous criminological research should be ‘real’. That is, instead of being something that is done on Indigenous peoples and communities, Indigenous criminology work should be something that comes from within Indigenous peoples and communities.


Taking up the aforementioned principles, Cunneen and Tauri endeavour to stretch criminological theory and practice by foregrounding Indigenous knowledge and methodologies. At its core, this involves being attentive to the ‘historical, structural and biographical appreciation of the experiences of colonialism and settler colonialism’ (2017: 20). This allows Cunneen and Tauri to map the similarities and differences between ‘colonial strategies in settler colonial societies and the enduring effects of colonialism on crime, criminal justice and Indigenous resistance’ (2017: 20). In direct contrast to mainstream/ traditional criminology, Cunneen and Tauri chart different Indigenous approaches to questions of order, social control and policing. In doing so, they focus on the differences between such approaches and hegemonic Western criminal justice institutions. What is more, Cunneen and Tauri also contrast Indigenous conceptions of healing and Western concepts of deterrence and rehabilitation.


Attention to Indigenous rights and claims to self-determination are also central to Indigenous Criminology. As part of their wider efforts to overcome the depiction of the Indigenes as ‘problem populations’, Cunneen and Tauri see Indigenous approaches to the question of justice as raising the prospect of progressive reform, rather than being a threat to existing state-based criminal justice systems. Here Cunneen and Tauri also use empirical research to explore how the globalisation of crime control has impacted on Indigenous peoples, while also exploring Indigenous agency in pursuit of greater jurisdictional autonomy and self-determination.


Lastly, Indigenous Criminology is attentive to the commonalities and considerable differences in the experiences of Indigenous men and women that have come into contact with settler colonial criminal justice systems. Focusing on the experiences of Indigenous women, Cunneen and Tauri (2017: 12) argue that Western forms of penalty have been underpinned by ‘infantalisation’ and ‘sequestration’, thus resulting in the disproportionate sentencing, and over-representation of Indigenous women.


Cunneen, C. (2008) ‘Criminology, Criminal Justice and Indigenous People: A Dysfunctional Relationship? The John Barry Memorial Lecture’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 20 (3), pp. 323-336.
Cunneen, C. and Tauri, J. (2016) Indigenous criminology. Bristol: Policy Press.
Cunneen, C. and Tauri, J. M. (2019)  ‘Indigenous Peoples, Criminology, and Criminal Justice’, Annual Review of Criminology, 2, pp. 359-381.
Tauri, J. M. (2013) ‘Indigenous Critique of Authoritarian Criminology’ in Carrington, K., Ball, M., O’Brien, E. and Tauri, J. M. (eds.) Crime, Justice and Social Democracy: International Persepctives. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.
Tauri, J. M. (Date) ‘Imagining an indigenous criminological future’, in Deckert, A. and Sarre, R. (eds). The Palgrave Handbook of Australian and New Zealand Criminology, Crime and Justice. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.


Readings & Resources
Boyd, A. (2020) ‘Can we defund the police in Australia? – Interview with Professor of Criminology, Chris Cunneen’ – Podcast.
Community Research (2020) The Indigenous Criminologist: Inequities of the NZ justice system – Video.
Criminology TV (2013) Crime Control, Politics and Policy Production — Critical Reflections on the Demonisation of Indigenous Youth, Australasian Youth justice conference 20-22 May 2013 Canberra – Video.
Cunneen, C. (2020) ‘Defunding the police could bring positive change in Australia. These communities are showing the way’, The Conversation, 10th June 2020.
Porter, A. (2019) ‘Aboriginal sovereignty, ‘crime’ and criminology’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 31(1), pp.122-142.


In what ways has colonialism shaped mainstream criminological traditions?
What are the core principles underpinning Cunneen and Tauri’s approach to Indigenous Criminology?
In what ways does Indigenous Criminology provide an alternative framework for understanding Indigenous peoples’ contact with the criminal justice systems?
Compare and contrast Indigenous and settler colonial conceptions of the punishment, sentencing, deterrence and rehabilitation.
Are there any similarities and/or differences in terms of the way in which Cunneen and Tauri seek to foreground Indigenous methodologies and Linda Tuhiwai Smith work on decolonising methodologies?


Submitted by Stephen D. Ashe 




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