Native wisdom is retained by wise natives

August 29, 2003

A first-nations group is taking control of academic studies of its people. Philip Fine reports from Canada.

Researchers specialising in aboriginal issues have gained access to rich cultural resources thanks to a research protocol that has given Canada's Nisga'a a final say over the academic study of their people.

Mary Ellen Kelm, a health historian and professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, had access to the northwest coastal community's elders and others who could detail the healthcare history of the Nass Valley, a lush area that stretches to the Alaskan panhandle. She also questioned health workers about their thoughts on whether the decolonising process that Canadian natives were experiencing was harmed by government cutbacks in healthcare spending.

To gain access to the community, known for its self-sufficiency, she had to submit a proposal that was approved by a board from the Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a (the Nisga'a House of Knowledge), made up of academics and non-academics who lived in the community.

She had to make sure the work showed no disrespect to the people and, once her research was complete, was expected to leave all materials and reports in the community.

The nine-year-old protocol does allow the Nisga'a to veto work, something that might ruffle the feathers of many academics. But those The THES spoke to were not bothered by the restrictions, saying university scholars had a chequered history among indigenous peoples. They believe the first-nations group needs to assert control by keeping the research in the community, demanding full disclosure and vetting the work.

Nisga'a Deanna Nyce, the WWN's chief executive officer, helps to orient researchers through what she refers to as a "living laboratory". She acts as guide, introducing researchers to members of the community with specialised knowledge, giving them help in the intricacies of the language and sometimes providing housing to a visiting scholar.

Vancouver architect Nancy Mackin had worked with first-nations communities before, but wanted to study Nisga'a architecture in depth. From her work, visiting abandoned sites, studying carvings or going through hours of oral histories that had been recorded 30 years earlier, she was able to recognise key points in Nisga'a history, such as the arrival of the cedar tree or how architecture would bear information about family gatherings.

Nisga'a success has also been measured by an increase in its people's university enrolment, and other countries' first nations have been impressed by the programme. The Confederation of Amazon Nationalities of Peru, which represents 200,000 people, signed an agreement recently with the Nisga'a, to help develop a post-secondary educational programme.

Nyce and Kelm agree that the research protocols have brought the Nisga'a scholarly research to help them to grow as a nation. And with Kelm's research about to be published in an A-list British journal, academia will begin to learn more about the Nisga'a.

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