Information equity for indigenous knowledge, or, how do you find kūmara in the library? Part 3.

How I felt as a descendant of settlers researching an area of importance to indigenous people

When Manuhiri invited me to write about my experiences as a Pākehā researching Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku / the Māori Subject Headings, she brought back a lot of memories.  During the research process, I felt…

Privileged –

  • To have asked about approaching this research and to have been given consent.
  • To be researching something so important and relevant to real information seekers right now.
  • To have people waiting with interest to see our research results – to know that my writing wasn’t going to disappear into an institutional repository, never to be read by anyone other than my supervisor.
  • To have never once explained the topic of our research to someone at a party and not seen them understand its importance right away, whatever their background.

Lucky –

  • To have had so many very generous and knowledgeable advisors. When I first asked about researching this topic, it seemed that everyone I spoke with recommended more people, until I seemed to be entangled in a whirling ever-expanding snowball of inspiring expertise (How’s that for a metaphor?).  This meant that throughout the research, I received a lot of very good advice, and even better, whenever I was feeling inadequate and wanted to run away, I was even more afraid to stop than to keep going, because I knew I was accountable to some mighty fierce folks.  The only challenge in all this for me was that I wasn’t sure how often to contact all these great people, since I knew that as experts in their fields they were all super-busy, and what I had read and seen showed me that those who were Māori also had the extra workload (which has been described by other bloggers here) of representing, caring for, and interpreting all matters Māori within their organisations.  It was a little like having twenty awesome supervisors (plus one supervisor “officially” recognised by the university, who had a very different perspective in many ways), but feeling shy to bother them – while also worrying about how I might betray their trust with dumb mistakes if I didn’t check in often enough.

Scared –

  • It seemed a big responsibility to research and write about something so worthwhile, from within the context of a famously tauiwi school within a colonial institution, and with a 100% Pākehā/settler family background.  At times, the expectations of the university and the rest of the community involved with the project differed significantly, so sometimes I had to be a little bit strong, and a lot tactful, to do what I thought was right.  But of course I often wasn’t sure what was right! One thing was for sure, though – as a woman, I knew something of what it is to have other people write stuff about my stuff and so not get it, and I didn’t want to – as the saying goes – be that guy.  (I hope I wasn’t.  Or at least, not too much.)

Frustrated –

  • I had so little time and there was so much research waiting to be done.  Negotiating a way to keep the scope manageable was a big project in itself, and even after that, the research I did do was a bigger project than what is expected of students in our school.

Tired –

  • Because see above 🙂

Happy –

  • To have shared my research report with everyone who advised, supported or participated in the research, and to have received such kind feedback from so many of them.
  • To have reached some audiences who hadn’t been aware of the MSH, and to have given forward the gifts I was given, by sharing our results through various publications and presenting a poster about our research at the national librarians’ conference. And even better, the other contributors who hadn’t yet had time to write back came up to me at that conference and gave me hugs and kisses, so that I knew things were alright with them too.  #bigrelief
  • To have had such a great reason to bake cakes and take them around to visit interesting libraries and hear smart committed people talk about the ingenious things they do for/with their research communities.

Really really motivated!

  • Because the MSH are such a great resource, with awesome potential.  I really wanted to support that and I knew that my research questions had been developed through lots of discussion with the excellently experienced people who knew the MSH best of all, so I knew that there were people who were interested in the results and that the knowledge we would generate could be used right away, hei oranga mō tātou, for the benefit of all of us.

Now that I’m reading back over what I’ve just written here, I feel I’ve heard many other researchers say similar things.  Maybe these feelings are common to lots of workers who are accountable to communities.  Maybe some of them are familiar to you, dear reader?  Anyway, it felt good to share it – thanks for listening! J  And thanks, Manuhiri, for asking about it.

How I approached the research

I had read reports, book chapters and articles from research which followed  Kaupapa Māori methodology.  As a solo Pākehā researcher initiating this research from outside the organisations concerned, I was unqualified to attempt this approach.  Instead, I aimed to situate this research within a transformative paradigm – a close cousin to Kaupapa Māori research with connections through the critical theory family.  This required that –

  • The research problem and definitions arose from the community of concern. In planning this research, I consulted Te Whakakaokao/the Māori Subject Headings Working Group, the Māori Subject Headings Governance Group, and the Te Ūpoko o te Ika regional rōpū of Te Rōpū Whakahau.
  • The strengths, agency and experiences of participants were recognised. I aimed to document and celebrate some of the diversity of ways in which organisations and librarians are engaging with the MSH, creatively circumventing barriers and playing to their own strengths.
  • Differing ways of understanding reality were respected, as in an interpretive-constructionist paradigm; but furthermore, these multiple viewpoints were examined within the context of social, economic and political power relationships, and with consideration of the consequences of accepting each perspective. I recognised that in a complex world of limited resources and competing priorities, the full potential of the MSH might not yet be realised.  I encouraged participants to raise any matters they wished during interviews, accepting the relevance of many inter-related issues.
  • The results were reported with the aim of facilitating action and social change. I openly affirmed that I believe the MSH have huge potential for improving information equity in Aotearoa New Zealand.  My exploratory data analysis had indicated the power of the MSH to improve access to information for those, like me, for whom New Zealand English is their first language, as well as information seekers who are strong in te reo Māori, and even international researchers seeking information on Māoritanga or any Aotearoa New Zealand topics.
  • Researchers declare their biases and reveal their backgrounds. When meeting with participants and informants, I explained that although I now live in Wellington, I was raised in the South Island, with strong connections to Christchurch, Dunedin, Motueka and Greymouth.  However, my family is Pākehā and my great-great- and great-great-great-grandparents are all from what is now Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom.  I learned early on to communicate this clearly, as perhaps in light of the kaupapa/purpose of this study, it was possible for others to assume that I was Māori, and that this misunderstanding could be difficult to undo.  My motivations in asking to approach this topic for research are expressed by the following words.
  • “Access to Māori information is the responsibility of both Treaty partners”
    (Māori Subject Headings Working Party, 2000).
  • “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  [The elder and academic Lilla Watson asks that these words be credited to “Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s”.]

Following the advice set out by experienced Māori researchers such as Hirini Moko Mead, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Russell Bishop, Nan Wehipeihana, Tui Macdonald, Kataraina Pipi, and many others, I aspired to apply what principles of Kaupapa Māori research I could, in the following interconnected ways –

  • Responsiveness
    • I constructed and defined the research problem and research plan alongside informants with context-specific expertise.
    • I asked participants’ preferences regarding such matters as whether communication is written or oral, whether interviews involved individuals or groups, and what was their preferred environment to meet.
    • I offered to meet kanohi ki te kanohi / face-to-face, especially in initial interactions.
  • Reciprocity
    • I asked participants what koha/gift/contribution they expected in return for their contribution. (If they said they didn’t know, I baked them cake.)
    • I offered to return research results to participants in a format preferred by them, accepting their mana to do whatever they choose with this information, even if that was nothing.
  • Respect
    • I aimed to act as a guest in others’ spaces and organisations, not presuming to offer advice, and following their kawa/etiquette.
    • I assured contributors that they retained rangatiratanga/sovereignty and mana motuhake / autonomy regarding their comments, and therefore could amend or withdraw them at any time.
    • I aimed to show recognition and appreciation of positive achievements, strengths and efforts.
    • I tried to observe and listen well before speaking.
  • Integrity
    • I honestly described what could be achieved with the resources and time available, explaining that this small research project was conducted as just one six-month part-time paper within a taught Masters, and therefore could not encompass such extensive research as a Masters by thesis.
    • I considered the implications of my actions for others connected with participants – for example, being tactful in reporting any information about intra-organisational controversies.
    • I aimed to communicate clearly, and where possible, privileged Māori terms, as English translations are not always fully equivalent. English language approximations of some terms are provided here to assist any international readers, or those who feel less fluent in te reo, to understand words as they are used in this context.
  • Competency
    • I strove to avoid overburdening contributors.
    • I consulted communities of concern – in this case, libraries and professional organisations – to identify key contacts recommended by the community members.
    • I checked summaries and quotations from interviews with participants, to maximise construct validity, asrecommended also by researchers from outside Kaupapa Māori practice.

I was fortunate that these signposts had been laid out for me to follow, and many of these principles resonate with my own upbringing – I know my mother, grandmother and aunties taught me to take food with me when I go visiting! – but there were challenges for me in following this clear advice – for example, aiming for adequate consultation while respecting my colleagues’ time limitations, translating words between languages, and remembering to shut up and listen when I’m so excited about the topic.

Now, whenever anyone asks me to write about this topic, I feel scared, inadequate, exhausted, privileged, excited and motivated, all over again.

But although I feel shy to be a mouthpiece for this good news, I’m really glad that people are interested to hear that this resource, Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku / the Māori Subject Headings, exists to help us all find indigenous information using indigenous words and concepts, that some librarians are applying the resource, and that library users are benefiting from it.  And I’m more than happy to support that however I can.

Mā te hē ka tika.

By making mistakes we learn.

(Image of Pīngao (Ficinia spiralis) on Kaitorete Spit in the South Island of New Zealand by Alan Liefting (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – just the thing for weaving a lovely golden colour into tukutuku – )

One Comment

  1. Nimbus A. Staniland

    Ka rawe Melissa “Now, whenever anyone asks me to write about this topic, I feel scared, inadequate, exhausted, privileged, excited and motivated, all over again” — this sums up the doctoral journey for many of us I believe. Thank you for your contribution – and to Manuhiri for finding you.

    Liked by 1 person

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