A Turning Point: Solstice Thoughts on Believing What We Know

In a 2013 meeting on “Decolonizing Knowledge,” Maori researcher Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith addressed the disempowering role of Western academia and its methods of research on the knowledge and knowledge systems of Indigenous people. She pointed to the colonizers’ “. . . powerful use of discourse — the use of words like savage, and barbaric, and illiterate. And the connection of those words to particular sets of behavior, and therefore the fact that [the colonizers believed of Indigenous people that] ‘they need to be colonized; they need to be tamed; they need to be civilized.’”[i] She’s speaking here about the relationship between the culture of Western research and communities of Indigenous peoples. But it’s important to realize that the academic culture of “Native Studies” is cast in the mold of Western research for practical reasons. And this means it has the same potential for disempowering Indigenous communities and individuals.

Academic programs of Native Studies have necessarily had to pattern themselves after the Western academic system in order to be accredited and funded. Peer-reviewed Native Studies journals have had no choice but to buy into the methods and values of Western academic culture; the choice is that or disenfranchisement. The chilling result of this is that Native Studies academic culture is too often a colonialized and acculturating system that can and does silence Indigenous voices that lie outside the system of practice and method commonly called the Academy. The problem is difficult to address because Method is what defines academic research and discourse in Western culture.

Using Western academic methods to describe and document Indigenous knowledge systems is a powerful tool for legitimizing the information held by Indigenous peoples. This is accepted practice. However, using non-Western Indigenous methods to describe, document, and legitimize Indigenous knowledge is an exercise in self-immolation. While there are now many scholars writing about the methods of Indigenous research and knowledge-acquisition, the simple fact remains that it’s still extremely difficult for them to use those methods in their publications. To do so risks loss of academic credibility.

I will pause to acknowledge that others have probably addressed this issue already, either in print or from a podium, and done a far better job of laying it out than I just did. But my ignorance of the literature on this subject does not nullify my own experience or render my opinions on this matter invalid. It simply makes my opinion non-academic according to the standards of Western culture. And that’s fine by me, for reasons that will become clear in this essay.

In the same 2013 presentation I cited earlier, Linda Tuhiwai Smith validated the power of what Indigenous people know. Immediately after making her comments about the disparaging and disempowering language of colonialist discourse, she went on to say, “. . . one of the questions [to be addressed in the conference] was ‘how do we use research to transform? How do we use Indigenous community knowledge?’ And I really start from a simple base: Every one of you has knowledge. Every member of a community knows something special. Every Indigenous person has knowledge. That knowledge is important. It is important to believe you have knowledge. It is important to believe that your knowledge is important and unique. It is important to value that you know, to understand what it means to know something. And then it is important to share what you know.”

These words have echoed inside me since I first heard them a few days ago. They are what prompted this blog post and, very soon, the first of a series of Occasional Papers we will publish through Tapestry Institute so that I can share what I know outside the peer-reviewed process of Western academic discourse that has shaped our own Indigenous journals.

A little over a year ago, I was asked to deliver a keynote address to the first meeting of the American Indigenous Research Association. I wrote the presentation specifically to affirm the Indigenous researchers and graduate students who would be at this meeting, and who I knew – from my own personal experience – were walking a road marked by a profound sense of complete isolation and personal devaluation. My goal for the talk was to make them feel a deep sense of glad recognition of shared experience and to feel affirmation as an individual and solidarity with a larger group. In fact after the meeting, people came up to me and said, “YES, that is just exactly what I have experienced that I could not put a name to! Now I know I am not alone! Now I know I am not crazy!” So I felt the presentation was very successful.[ii] And I was therefore pleased when an editor from the journal Wicazo Sa Review who was at the meeting approached me, gave me her card, and said that she wanted to see my paper in their annual review. She asked me to submit it for publication to the journal first so it could be included in that volume. I felt very glad that maybe the affirmation and encouragement I had been able to offer the people at the meeting might be able to reach more Indigenous students struggling through graduate research programs with little support.

But when I went home, I had second thoughts. I had left formal academia 15 years earlier because I realized I could no longer submit myself to the rules of that system without losing who I am at the deepest core of my being. I know how the peer-reviewed journal system works, and I understand how it connects to an authoritative attempt to define what is and is not “valid” knowledge. I know first-hand how this marginalizes voices outside the particular community that calls itself the Academy – which, of course, is precisely the issue Linda Tuhiwai Smith addresses in her work.[iii]

What worried me about submitting my paper to Wicazo Sa Review is that Indigenous academic journals have to follow the standards and practices of Western academic peer-reviewed journals in order to provide a legitimized forum for publication to Native scholars. Only peer-reviewed articles in such journals generally “count” in tenure decisions, for example. So if Indigenous journals did not follow Western guidelines, the papers they published would not advance the professional standing of the authors who publish there. That means those authors would be unlikely to get tenure in a university system that evaluates their academic merit by the Western academic systems of inquiry and dissemination that it established to begin with and still actively perpetuates.

And the fact is I am not a “Native Studies” Scholar. The first conceptual plan for a program in Native Studies was floated out just as I graduated from high school, in the spring of 1970.[iv]  To put the timing of my professional life in context, the first tribal college, then called Navajo Community College, had been established a little over a year earlier, in 1968,[v] and it was a number of years before it was possible to get a four-year science degree from a tribal college anywhere in the country. The school we now know as Haskell Indian Nations University did not even become an institution capable of awarding a four-year college degree until 1993[vi] – and by that time I had already earned my doctorate in vertebrate paleobiology from the University of California at Berkeley (in 1989). During the time I went to school in Lawrence at the University of Kansas (1973-1977), for instance, Haskell was still a two-year junior college. When I went to college, the only way to get a degree in science was to attend a mainstream university, which necessarily meant you worked in a community completely isolated from any of the developing programs of Native Studies. So I never studied “Indigenous Science” or “Native Science” in a Native Studies program. Instead, I simply lived the experience and practice of Indigenous Science as a Choctaw woman with traditional ways of relating to and understanding the natural world, who went through the hellaceous experience of getting a graduate education in the sciences at major research universities.

The problem with this was that my educational experience was not accepted as valid by some important people in the Native Science community. For example, in 2003 a Native man who was faculty in a tribal college Native Science program told me, to my face, that there was no way I could possibly understand what “Native Science” is or means because I am not a Native Studies scholar. He said this without knowing anything about me or my life experience, and without ever having talked with me about those things in any way. That was the first experience I had of having my voice marginalized by the academic community of my own people. It was not to be the last. In the years since, I have encountered person after person – all males as it happened, which may be significant given the role of males in the knowledge and authority systems of Western academia[vii] —  who insisted that merely being a scientist and an Indian who brings that identity to her research is not enough to qualify my experience-based knowledge in Indigenous science as meaningful or valid.

The territorial imperative of “I define Indigenous Science and you are not it” is far too similar to the territorial imperative of Western science that “I define Science and you are not it” for me to misunderstand its origin. I had already fought that battle for too many years in mainstream science to have any desire to fight it in a community that had been created by my own people in order to advance the legitimacy of Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing, and to defend our political autonomy and sovereignty. Those were good goals. And I didn’t need publications any more at that point in time, as I had already opted out of the tenure rat-race and quit the professoriate. So in 2004 I simply backed out of the academic discourse on Indigenous Science and quietly went about my business elsewhere – continuing to simply be, as I still insist is a valid experience, an Indigenous scientist.

Until my old friend Dr. Lori Lambert of Salish Kootenai College asked me to speak at the inaugural AIRA meeting.

When I thought about why it was important to speak to this particular group of people, what came to my heart is that I knew there were going to be Indigenous graduate students in mainstream university research programs there, and that they were experiencing a sense of isolation and devaluation that I knew first-hand. Frankly, I hated to think about what they were going through because I knew how painful it was. At the same time, I know how vitally important these students are to the future we all share. So I chose to present a paper that would, I hoped, affirm their experiences and help them not feel so isolated. I decided to talk about the experience I know we share, and to put it in a context that could help them feel an empowered sense of solidarity. To do this, I spoke from my own experience as a Choctaw woman with a science doctorate who had been a graduate faculty member, who had struggled with the peer-review process, who had long years of experience dealing with people in the National Science Foundation and similar organizations, and who had years of experience in various kinds of research communities that spanned a fairly eclectic gamut of disciplines because of the typically Indigenous interdisciplinary way I approached research with my own graduate students.

Relevant to this story is the fact that one of the fields in which I’d worked for a time was trauma research, specifically in the discipline generally called “mind-body” at the time I was working in the field, which was from 1992 to 1998. I won’t go into what I did or who I worked with in detail, but I think it speaks to my proficiency in the field that during this time I was made a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress by nomination. This is important because a central tenet of the AIRA paper I presented was the conceptual term “crazy-making” that was in wide use at that time among trauma therapists specializing in sexual and physical abuse. The explanatory power of this term provided abuse victims in therapists’ offices around the country with a highly meaningful way of recontextualizing their own experiences – specifically their ability to believe that the things they’d experienced had really happened.[viii]

However, the term is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), a publication of the American Psychiatric Association that is considered the diagnostic bible for mental health professionals.”[ix] Furthermore, it is not in the literature commonly available to the public about trauma or sexual abuse. [Original text at this point modified 3.11.16 in light of note added to ix, below.]

Nevertheless, as someone who’d circulated in the trauma research community for six years, I knew first-hand that the term “crazy-making” was in common use and also what it meant. I had realized from the moment I first encountered it that the term and the concept it embodied applied extremely well to the experiences of Indigenous people in Western culture. And I knew, further, that it provided a meaningful context to the problems the Indigenous graduate students at the AIRA meeting were probably having in their graduate programs. So I put the term “crazy-making” in my talk. And then, when I finally decided to submit my paper to Wicazo Sa Review, I used it there too.

At this point, you may wonder what made me decide to submit that paper to a peer-reviewed journal, given all my reservations about the processes of Academia. The answer is: the graduate students themselves. They kept emailing me for quite a while after the meeting, telling me that my words had helped to put their experiences in a context that renewed their determination to keep going instead of giving up. Basically, they kept the issue in my inbox long enough that I finally decided to try publishing in a peer-reviewed journal one last time.

But hammering that presentation into acceptable publication format was an exercise of fitting a size-ten foot into a size-three shoe. I knew from the start it wasn’t going to work. To begin with, I had not cited major Native Studies or Indigenous Science scholars, or even done a thorough literature review. Instead, I was simply bringing some new knowledge to the conversation – knowledge I had acquired through my own personal experience over 30 years of professional activity. Added to that, my talk relied as much on image as on word. Journals are not set up to print images; they are expensive to reproduce and can generally only be reproduced in a “line cut” format that is pure black and pure white. In print publications, there are generally no shades of gray and no color. I actually find this a meaningful metaphor for academic discourse and the publication culture that fuels it. Nevertheless, having been a scientific illustrator for many years, I understand the technical issues that restrict the use of illustrations in publications.[x] But that didn’t make it any easier to convert the information contained in, and expressed by, the images in my talk to a narrative format. But I tried.

My paper was not accepted for publication. The very thorough comments and critiques of the reviewers were returned to me with the suggestion that I could heavily revise the manuscript and resubmit it.

At first, my response was precisely what it had been when this had happened while I was in academia as a professor. It left me feeling stupid and ignorant, ashamed for having been told that I had nothing important to say, and that I was in fact a fool for even having had the temerity to speak up at all. I had felt that way again and again over the years as I battled to get my work into print in mainstream science journals, and I had finally quit academia over it. And now it had landed in my lap all over again – at the hands of a Native journal that had asked me to submit my work. I faced all over again the very situation I’d written this paper to help protect our Indigenous graduate students from being destroyed by. And I wondered what my response should be. Initially, as always, the deep sense of ignorance and shame created by the reviewers’ comments made me resolve to read all the papers they had listed for me, to revise my premises in the format they’d outlined, and to thank them for taking the time to stoop low enough to teach me The Truth about Indigenous Research.

And then suddenly a single reviewer comment rose up off the page like a bear on its hind legs, and I saw for the first time what was really going on here. It wasn’t about me or the value of my knowledge. It was about the Western academic system these Indigenous reviewers occupied without realizing it.

The comment in question was about the term “crazy-making” — specifically the way I had explained its source and usage. The reviewer had written: “I feel like this could probably use a more concrete source for the footnote. Right now, the source is basically, I spoke to some professionals about it. I’m sure there’s a diagnosis manual or scholarly article on this. Since it’s the central concept in the paper, it needs to be on firm ground.” In other words: what I knew from personal experience was not sufficient. It was not real knowledge unless I could cite a diagnostic manual or scholarly article. My knowledge did not count. My knowledge was not real.

This is what mainstream science had been saying to me for 35 years because I insisted on bringing Indigenous methods into my research.  And I had learned in that time that there is no way to fight such an authoritative appropriation of knowledge. There would be no pleasing these reviewers unless and until I became a scholar as they defined scholarship. And I am not, as I already said, a “Native Studies” scholar. At 62 years old, with degrees in three different sciences and interdisciplinary work that spans both science education and integrated scholarship, I really don’t care to start over in a new field just to satisfy their requirements. I have something to say that is mine. I cannot make it fit their criteria in order to be heard any more than I could fit the criteria of Western science in order to be printed in the pages of the Journal of Mammalogy. For better or worse, I am what I am – the product of more than three decades of research, scholarship, and experience in the sciences as a Choctaw woman. If that’s not good enough for the people who control the power of access to journals, then I will walk away. I had certainly done it before and now I did it again. I withdrew my paper.

Then Jess Venable, one of my graduate student friends – in fact, one of the people I met at the very AIRA meeting to which I presented the paper I’ve been describing – sent me the link to the video I’ve cited in this essay, in which Linda Tuhiwai Smith paused, looked at her audience, and carefully and succinctly enunciated each of those deeply empowering words: “Every one of you has knowledge. Every member of a community knows something special. Every Indigenous person has knowledge. That knowledge is important. It is important to believe you have knowledge. It is important to believe that your knowledge is important and unique. It is important to value that you know, to understand what it means to know something. And then it is important to share what you know.”

What I know is important even if I learned it in closed-door sessions of therapeutic practitioners who specialize in the trauma caused by sexual and physical abuse, rather than from psychology publications. My experience is no less valid than that of any Elder – and I am 62 years old so I am at least elder, lower case “e”, even if I am not an Elder. We Indigenous people learn through our experience of the world, and that is where my knowledge comes from. It comes from my experiences doing scientific research and from my experiences advising and teaching the mostly White and some Indigenous graduate students in departments of biology and geology. It comes from my struggles to get my voice in print in the mainstream scientific publications that told me what I did wasn’t really Science. Of course it wasn’t “really Science”; it was Indigenous Science and I am damned proud of that. Because more than anything else, my experience of Indigenous Science comes from walking through the world of science, uphill and against a headwind, as a Choctaw woman who simply refused to acculturate far enough to please the men who’d put themselves in positions of authority over this body of knowledge. And Linda Smith reminded me how important my struggle really is, and how necessary it is for me to share what I’ve learned in the process. Until this morning, I didn’t know how.

Before there were scientific or academic journals, scientists wrote letters to one another about what they were doing and what they’d observed. Even as late as the early 20th century, the “letters” sections of major scientific publications were still primarily records of original observations and research. Even now, the letters section of medical journals such as JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) often contain original research results and conclusions. In the 19th century, scientific organizations modeled in the image of the “gentlemen’s’ clubs” so common in Europe at that time began to present their work to one another during meetings and then to publish the notes. “Proceedings,” “Transactions,” and “Occasional Papers” constituted the dissemination methods for these early scientific societies and clubs. The peer-review part of the process took place at the physical door of the club’s building. With rare exceptions, only invited gentlemen – certainly not women or people of the working class – could attend. But once admitted, anything a member had to say was accepted as worth hearing. Current methods of peer-review that screen work by insisting it adhere to specific research protocols are no less exclusive and elitist than the system that screened admittance based on adherence to specific protocols of social class and “good breeding.” We need a new system.

I am therefore announcing creation of a Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers series that can be cited in research. Its purpose is to disseminate the knowledge I have gained over the last 35 years to the younger Indigenous people going into research today in the various scientific research institutions that are as poised to destroy them now as they were poised to destroy me in 1970. In time, the Occasional Papers series will accept and publish manuscripts from other individuals. But we have to work out the protocol and process for such a thing, since we don’t have a working model right now. Yet: “It is important to share what you know,” said Linda Smith. Our new Occasional Papers series will let me do that. And because it is online, it will let me do it using images, videos, and stories to convey information, not text alone. This is, I think, more in keeping with Indigenous ways of knowing and gives me a more powerful venue for sharing the information I’ve received and the experiences in which that information was first shared with me.

I will add one final story to this essay. Margaret Kovach has said that an essential part of Indigenous research is sharing your personal story with others on the same journey.[xi] Last night I fell asleep pondered the galvanizing assertions I’d heard Linda Smith make in her video presentation, and then I dreamed. My dream was a memory – the real memory of being severely beaten as a child by a group of high school boys when we moved to a rough neighborhood in a city we did not understand. When they turned and left me, I began to crawl away. When they saw this, they ridiculed me for not even being able to stand up and walk, for having to crawl “like an animal.” Dreaming, I remembered the shame I felt then. Waking, I understood for the first time that the shame belonged to these bullies, not to me. It took courage and strength to crawl away from them and then to go on living my life. I cannot think how many Indigenous women and Indigenous graduate students have had similar experiences. It is bad enough that Western culture beats us up and then ridicules us for being unable to stand up and do or be “the thing everyone else is.” For our own people to do it to us is inexcusable – and yet it happens. We know it’s a measure of our own people’s acculturation, that those who have been abused too often tend to become abusers. But that doesn’t excuse it. We who have been abused, oppressed, disenfranchised, and silenced need to have the courage to crawl and then to stand, to walk and then to run, and to share what we know with one another.

It is all the hope we have.


— written in Longmont, Colorado on Winter Solstice, 2014


[i] Decolonizing Knowledge: A Night to Remember. Video of presentation by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Published online by DataCenter, May 20, 2013. http://www.datacenter.org/decolonizing-knowledge-a-night-to-remember. Accessed December 21, 2014. The quote I have cited begins at about the one hour mark.

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGuxcJa5-tw&feature=youtu.be.  If you watch this video, be forewarned that I’ve been told I was “not careful enough” to avoid accidentally wounding the sensibilities of non-Indigenous persons who might hear my words. And I confess it’s possible someone might take umbrage at some of the things I say.  But I also did not go out of my way to be offensive – and that’s because I genuinely care about all people, regardless of culture or color. But I have found that people in Western culture seldom worry about whether or not they hurt my feelings, particularly in academic settings. I have also found that it doesn’t matter how careful I am, there are people who are offended and even threatened merely by the notion that an Indigenous woman dares to state that there is something of value in a system that lies outside Western cultural boundaries. In that regard, I have learned that it doesn’t matter how careful or diplomatic I am, these people still get mad. So I have quit worrying about their sensibilities and simply try to speak plainly.

[iii] See, for example, her seminal book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, 7th Edition, 1999.

[iv] “During the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars in March 1970 at Princeton University, indigenous scholars drafted a plan to develop ‘Native American Studies as an Academic Discipline,’ which would defend indigenous control of their lands and indigenous rights and would ultimately reform US Indian Policy.This discipline would be informed by traditional indigenous knowledge, especially oral history, and would ‘defend indigenous nationhood in America.’” Wikipedia entry “Native American Studies,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_studies. Accessed December 21, 2014.

[v] “A Modern History Timeline of Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs)” on the American Indian College Fund website. http://www.collegefund.org/content/tcu_timeline. Accessed December 21, 2014.

[vi] “School History” on the Haskell Indian Nations University website. http://www.haskell.edu/about/history.php. Accessed December 21, 2014.

[vii] If you are unaware of the large body of scholarship relating males and a male-dominant culture with the practices of Western academia, look up the term “feminist science” and read some of the works by its major scholars. The feminist science critique of Western science applies to the larger realm of Academia because of the way the humanities have increasingly patterned their research methods after those of science in an effort to legitimize their work. If you are unfamiliar with this historical development, a review of the philosophies that inform scholarship in the humanities may be useful. Richard Rorty’s work presents an accessible point of entry to this subject to many, though it must be approached with the understanding that he assumes his readers are already familiar with the way logical positivism has influenced scholarship in the humanities.

[viii] This is a fairly vague explanation of both the term “crazy-making” and its application, but both will be addressed more fully in a forth-coming Occasional Paper publication on this website. Note added 3.11.16: I have since learned that “gaslighting” has become the more accepted term for the behavior that was called “crazy-making” when I worked in the field. The fact that there is now a different term in common usage I didn’t know, and that the older term has fallen out of favor, does not invalidate the point my paper originally made. The importance of the concept was (and still is) in the behavior described and its impact on Indigenous research students. Terminology facilitates communication but is not meant to limit it. A subsequent paper by another author could easily have updated the term and contributed to a discussion that, as it happened, did not get to take place.

[ix] See http://www.psyweb.com/content/main-pages/dsm-5-fifth-edition-of-the-diagnostic-and-statistical-manual-of-mental-disorders. Accessed December 21, 2014.

[x] Many online publications now have high-quality illustrations, though still in more limited amounts than in the print versions of the same article. The issue is still one of reproduction cost. It is also true, however, that illustrations are generally more common in scientific publications than in humanities journals. There are some potentially significant reasons for the difference in use of visual information presentation in the disciplines of science compared to the humanities. Suffice it to say for now that the primary source of information in the sciences is (or is supposed to be) the natural world itself. The primary source of information in the humanities is prior humanities publications. This idea is not mine, but circulates quite freely in interdisciplinary forums – a statement that can be taken at face value or investigated by attending the meetings in which scientists, theologians, philosophers, historians, and so on discuss their methods with one another. The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (ctns.org), which is networked to the larger community, is one entry point for this type of interdisciplinary dialogue. It is probably significant that the primary source of information for Indigenous peoples is also the natural world and that Indigenous knowledge is often traditionally encoded in visual information systems. In that regard, it stands to reason that journals of Indigenous thought should have at least as many high-quality color illustrations as do science publications.

[xi] Margaret Kovachs presentation to the 2013 meeting of the American Indigenous Research Association. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejkPjJo3aXE&feature=youtu.be.