Decolonizing Methodologies

Brook Thorndycraft

Dear UTA,

I had some comments about and concerns with the article “Six Nations and the Politics of Solidarity” by Tom Keefer in UTA 4. Since I’ve only been briefly and superficially involved in solidarity work with Six Nations, my comments are not so much about the specific content of the article as they are about some ethical concerns I have with the article itself. I recognize that Keefer made a potentially important contribution to the discussion of what solidarity should look like. While I don’t agree with every point he made, he did raise important points about the complexities of solidarity work, including whether the notion of “taking leadership” is helpful and whether there are links to other social movements that have been overlooked or underestimated.

That being said, I have some concerns about methodology that I think are worth mentioning, given that Upping the Anti advocates an anti-oppression standpoint. My initial reaction was that it was ethically questionable to publish this article in a public venue. The whole point of at least two decades of attempts by indigenous peoples to decolonize methodologies was to contest the long history of white people airing dirty laundry, studying and writing about indigenous cultures and oral traditions, and using their positions of power to claim an authoritative knowledge of indigenous peoples. While I usually question the supposed ethics of universities, I actually think they have gone a long way in ensuring the protection of indigenous communities through rigorous ethics processes that require researchers to demonstrate a long relationship with communities and to situate themselves in reflexive and open ways to ensure that the knowledge they produce is not taken out of context. With this in mind, there are a couple of comments I have in relation to the article.

First, I feel the article could have been more explicit as to Keefer’s connection to people in Six Nations and why he feels he has the right or the knowledge to speak about Six Nations, their culture, and divisions within the community. In a context like this, it is important that outsiders situate themselves very explicitly for a number of reasons: 1) to ensure that non-native people reading their account don’t give them too much authority – something that is all too common after five centuries of colonizers writing history; 2) to ensure that First Nations peoples across Canada who do not know Keefer have some sense of why he feels justified in writing yet another article that puts them under the lens; and 3) to explain to everyone the source and limitations of his knowledge. Keefer did mention discussing his ideas with members of Six Nations as well as solidarity activists. However, it was not clear how he did this, or whether he spoke to people who were likely to disagree with his perspective. It was not entirely clear whether the conclusions he came to were his own, or whether the people he spoke to agreed with him. I feel that not offering this context runs the risk that those who are not critical of the way research is colonized (a group that includes many activists) will see the writer as an “expert” on this topic. Many well-meaning researchers have done this in the spirit of “helping” indigenous peoples only to discover that they have actually caused harm. I’m not saying I think this article will cause harm, but I do think it would have been good to state its limits and biases more explicitly.

Second, at times the article seems like a persuasion piece designed to push a particular perspective on how solidarity work should be done. This perspective may have merit and may even be supported by many people within Six Nations. But there is no way for the reader to know that, since it’s presented as the argument of an outsider to the community who does not report on what the people at Six Nations would like to see happen. At times it feels like it uses their particular internal and external struggles to promote the writer’s own political perspective. Are there people within Six Nations who would agree with the comparison to the SNCC? Are there others who would disagree with this position? Instead the article seems to be the perspective of one white man attempting to apply a political discussion arising from one time, place, and marginalized group to an entirely different situation. I’m not arguing for or against the notion of organizing in white communities but, to play devil’s advocate, a lot has changed in anti-racist thought since the days of the SNCC. This is partly because many people of colour have seen the ways that white solidarity activists organizing in their own communities have too often reproduced the very oppression they try to fight. You can see this in countless situations ranging from male activists talking about liberating women to international solidarity activists jumping into complex struggles they don’t understand with rhetorical guns blazing. I don’t mean to imply that I think the idea of organizing workers in Caledonia is a bad one since I don’t feel like I have enough information or knowledge to form a solid opinion. But I don’t think that, just because Stokeley Carmichael made an argument about what whites should do back in the 1960s, we can assume the same to be true for an entirely different group of people in our current political and social climate.

As a way of looking at the complexities of solidarity work, the article was very informative. However, centuries of colonization and failed – even damaging – attempts on the part of white settlers to “help” have created a situation in which we should “take leadership” when it comes to producing knowledge about First Nations peoples. Indigenous peoples all over the world have made it clear that they are tired of whites taking credit for, creating, or otherwise dominating the information that is produced about them. Another way to write this article would have been to interview a wide array of Six Nations people to discover what they thought of the relationship with solidarity activists. It may have been interesting to do the same sorts of interviews with people who have been involved in solidarity work over the long term to learn about the struggles and issues they’ve confronted. The article would not have been as assertive as to what to do next, but I think it would have been a much stronger way of starting a dialogue. As it was, I felt it was one person’s perspective, presented as authoritative, on an issue for which there is no easy answer.

This letter is not intended as an attack or recrimination. I recognize that this is a very complex issue, and that the writer is deeply involved in solidarity work with Six Nations. The point is not to argue with his position, but rather to maintain an open dialogue about anti-colonial research and writing and what they mean for UTA as a journal.

In solidarity,
Brook Thorndycraft Toronto