For researchers: Doing Indigenous research in a good way

This FAQ is a living document and will be updated.

This FAQ is based on questions we, as Indigenous researchers, advisors and administrators, often hear or wish researchers knew more about. When using this guide, keep in mind that “Indigenous groups” and “Indigenous peoples” are terms that cover immense diversity and answers to these questions will be different for each nation, government, governing body and group. In short, this FAQ is not the definitive answer to these questions so much as a guide that can help researchers start the journey to answering them. These questions should always be answered by the specific places, groups and/or governing bodies you wish to work with. There is no universal answer. More information about Memorial's Policy on Research Impacting Indigenous Groups is online.

Q: I want to work with Indigenous groups. Where do I start?
First, you’ll need to know who, where, and what you mean by Indigenous group(s), because this will guide the rest of the process, including which research questions, methodologies, and protocols will be salient, which Nations, governing bodies, or groups you will need permission from, and whether you are well paired with those groups overall.

Generally, working with Indigenous groups or on Indigenous Land in a good way requires plenty of lead time. For instance, you may need to build relationships before your calls or emails are returned or before you can find out how to access certain people or places. This can take years.

If you’re dedicated to working with groups in a good way, then we recommend starting very early in the research process, talking to people, and regularly showing up to public events hosted by or involving the Indigenous group(s) and governments(s) you are interested in, and well as learning about their priorities through texts they’ve created. Doing this, rather than coming to a group with an existing plan based on your own needs and interests are better first steps to building a relationship. Many researchers may want to start with offering their skills, interests, and ideas, but it is even better to start by listening to groups’ interests, priorities, and ideas. Ideally, researchers will be invited to do research, rather than offer to do research.

There are many ways to work well with Indigenous communities, groups, and knowledge. There is a large body of work on respecting Traditional Knowledge, decolonizing methodologies, and what community-based and community-led research looks like. This guide does not go into this kind of depth, but there are many examples of guidelines out there. Instead, this FAQ focuses on the most basic requirement of doing work with Indigenous groups: consent. There is a great variety of ways to do good work with Indigenous groups, but all require formal consent, and most Indigenous governments and Nations have a formal or informal process for research and engagement consent.

Q: I have a research question I want to work on that concerns Indigenous people, land, or concerns. How do I invite people into it?
Many researchers would agree that being invited into a research project that is already determined is not as attractive as being part of planning the research project. The same holds for many Indigenous groups. Rather than leading with an idea or project, it is best to be invited by Indigenous groups to do research they have identified as a priority, thereby respecting self-determination in research. Proposing a funded workshop or gathering to have key members of an Indigenous group involved in shaping a project from the beginning is a stronger first step than asking for consultation, input, or involvement on an existing plan.

Q: Are there existing principles or best practices for doing research with Indigenous groups respectfully?
Absolutely. See the documents below. Many are specific to certain Indigenous groups, yet their principles often overlap:

Q: I really want to act as respectfully as possible as a researcher and be part of reconciliation through research. What are the best ways to do that?
That is a beautiful question. This takes concerted learning and listening. One excellent set of lessons available for free is through an online course offered by an Indigenous educator called “Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education.” Even though it is about education, many of the same lessons apply to research.

For an example of what structural change for reconciliation and strong settler-Indigenous within a lab, research program, business, or other formal group might look like, see the example of JKL Law’s Reconciliation Action Plan.

Finally, a simple primer on respect in Indigenous-settler partnerships is available from Reconciliation Australia.

These are just a few tools for independent learning, but reconciliation will never be a solo process. It will involve being part of conversations led by Indigenous people.

Q: How can I tell if I am doing research on Indigenous land?
A: Below is a map of customary and traditional land use, which roughly corresponds to language groups and dialects. It is not a Land claims map, because there is no agree-upon land claim map for all the Indigenous governments in the province since many are still being worked out. Since Memorial supports self-determination, we consider Indigenous land all land where an Indigenous group is self-determining a claim, regardless of whether and when that claim is recognized by the settler government. When in doubt about whether your research is on Indigenous land, call the Indigenous governing body. A list of contacts is here.

Q: How do I know what research priorities exist for Indigenous peoples?
Some groups will publicly post or publish their research priorities, such as those outlined by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s National Inuit Strategy on Research. But most of the time these are known to Indigenous governments, groups, and individuals. This is one of many reasons why building relationships over time is a crucial part of doing research with Indigenous groups well. You can contact research advisors or point people in specific communities listed in our  Research Contacts resource to get some of these conversations going.

Q: How does intellectual property work with Indigenous peoples?
This is a very important question, and does not have a single answer. One way to start is to look at the First Nations OCAP® Principles, which differentiates between which parties have ownership, control, access, and possession of data.

Researchers should be absolutely sure to have an MOU or contract that outlines how data is owned, controlled, accessed, and stored. This is particularly crucial if graduate students are involved. There are many different models available for sharing data, and for ensuring sensitive, sacred, or other non-public data are protected. Note that for many Indigenous groups, what counts as “‘Information’ in Indigenous communities is not facts to be known; information or knowledge is the experiences of communities, and thus along with knowing comes responsibilities shaped by complex systems of kinship, age, and gender, among other social dimensions.” [1]

Some resources for models about data and IP that maintain Indigenous sovereignty over their knowledge while also allowing researchers to use and share data include:

  • Kukutai, T., and Taylor, J. (Eds.). (2016). Indigenous data sovereignty: Toward an agenda (Vol. 38). Anu Press.
  • Rainie, Stephanie Carroll, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, and Andrew Martinez. 2017. Policy Brief (Version 2): Data Governance for Native Nation Rebuilding. Tucson: Native Nations Institute.
  • First Nations Assembly of Canada. “First Nations Principles of OCAPTM (ownership, control, access, and possession)” 

[1] Bang, Megan, Ananda Marin, Lori Faber, and Eli S. Suzukovich III. 2013. "Repatriating indigenous technologies in an urban Indian community." Urban Education 48(5): 710.

Q: How do I deal with different stakeholders in a project that includes Indigenous peoples?
Attending to the different—and sometimes conflicting—needs, desires, and goals of different parties within a project is complex. One thing to bear in mind is that Indigenous peoples are rightsholders, not stakeholders, in many aspects of research. Some of these rights are articulated in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), among other places. UNDRIP is one of the broadest documents that covers Indigenous groups around the world, but local groups will also have treaties, laws, land claims, charters, and other ways of articulating rights that distinguish them from other types of stakeholders.

Q: What is the balance between academic freedom and the desires of Indigenous groups?
Academic freedom means a scholar's freedom to express ideas without risk of official interference or professional disadvantage. This freedom can and must be exercised without curtailing the rights of others, including the rights of Indigenous groups (this is outlined in MUNFA’s collective agreement, section 2.05). The rights of Indigenous peoples are varied. One of the most comprehensive documents that outlines these rights is the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP is one of the broadest documents that cover Indigenous groups around the world, but local groups will also have treaties, laws, land claims, charters, and other ways of articulating rights that distinguish them from other types of stakeholders, including researchers. Note that sometimes something that looks like a desire is in fact a right, such as the “right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests.”

Q: How do I avoid research fatigue or over-researching a group of people?
The process of getting consent for research should alleviate this concern, as the Indigenous group consents to the research process. Overall, we’ve heard in consultations and from some governing bodies that groups are tired of shallow consultations and research projects that do not use results to act in ways that benefit communities (consultations and projects that “go nowhere” and “just check a box”), but are still interested in meaningful research and consultations based in good relations and a commitment to concretely addressing local needs.

Q: What do I do about the problem of gaps in Indigenous community capacity for my form of research?
Just like the island of Newfoundland isn’t in deficit because it can’t grow pomegranates, Indigenous communities are not in deficit because they are not modeled after Western research institutions. Indigenous communities have Traditional forms of knowledge and other strengths, many of which are not legible to or available for academic communities. Do not assume a deficit because of difference.

If your goal is to contribute to specific forms of research capacity in Indigenous communities because they’ve asked you to, then we recommend investing time, money, and training in those places so that the skills, tools, and infrastructures stay in those locations. This means hiring research assistants, graduate students and field managers from those places. If done to the fullest extent possible, Indigenous communities will no longer need settler researchers because they will have the type of training and knowledge they need to carry out an array of research. This is already happening in many communities.

Q: I feel like I need a degree in Indigenous studies to do this well! How do I gain all the required skills?
A: While gaining all the skills of respectful, meaningful research collaborations with Indigenous groups is an important goal, it also requires years of training, listening, and participating. In the meantime, researchers can hire Indigenous people or work with intermediary groups who specialize in Indigenous-settler relationships (such as the Assembly of First Nations, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre, and many others) who already know many of these things and can act as guides or intermediaries.

Q: I have some data, artifacts, samples, or remains that belong to Indigenous peoples or Lands. How do I give them back?
A: Repatriating data, artifacts, and samples, including environmental samples, is an excellent act of reconciliation. The first step is to know to whom you need to repatriate. If you know this, you can contact them directly. While there are no standard protocols or ethics for repatriation in Canada, certain groups have best practices that can ask as a guide. See the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology’s Repatriation Guidelines here, for example.

You can also contact the Vice-President (Research) office for support.

Q: I’ve read a lot of texts on Decolonizing research and Indigenous methodologies and it just doesn’t seem to apply to my work. What role do these processes have in settler-led Indigenous research?
They might not be for you. Many texts on decolonizing research and Indigenous methodologies are for Indigenous researchers who are working out of Indigenous worldviews, laws, and relations. They are not always for appropriation as research tools for settlers, or even for Indigenous researchers from other groups. Sometimes they might just help you understand where others are coming from when you review grants, articles, have Indigenous graduate students, or otherwise encounter Indigenous-led research. They might also be useful to help think about the assumed ethics, perspectives, and values of non-Indigenous methods that you are fluent in. For instance, the excellent text Indigenous Statistics is specifically for Indigenous researchers working on Indigenous topics, but it has an excellent section on the values and cultural biases built into census data that applies to a range of researchers.