Two books on indigenous methods

I am a late adopter of Twitter (r3x0r — feel free to follow me), and one of the nice things about being late to the party is that all of your old friends have already arrived and had a few drinks by the time you find a place to park. I’ve been trading tweets lately with Tad McIlwraith about some books on methods — particularly books on anthropological-y methods by indigenous scholars and activists who have better things to do than be anthropologists.

For many years the gold standard for those of us living and working in the Pacific has been Linda Tuhawai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies. Smith’s book has been trailblazing, but it is also in many ways a first step — like Lassiter’s volume on collaborative anthropology, a lot of the book is taken up not so much with a discussion of methods per se as groundclearing: building a genealogy for your study (Lassiter) or thinking through what it means to decolonize one’s self (Smith) (although more recently she has hooked up with the Denzin/Lincoln crowd to produce a Handbook on Critical and Indigenous Methodologies I’d like to read if ever appears at a non-ridiculous price).

In comparison, Research Is Ceremony seems focused on how, concretely, one could do ethnographic research with a distinctive indigenous twist. At times, this sort of thing can become too New Agey for my taste, but as far as I can tell (having not read the whole thing yet) Wilson does a good job of wearing his heart on his sleeve and providing good insights on how to do research.

The other volume — which Tad is promoting heavily — is Living Proof: The Essential Data Collection Guide for Use-And-Occupancy Map Surveys. This volume, published by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, basically outlines a method for people map their land and make their claims to it ‘legible’ on their own terms. Again, I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but it looks really interesting and useful.

Even though most anthropologists are not indigenous, I think it is really important that we keep up date with work being done on indigenous methods for several reasons: to make sure our discipline is a place indigenous people want to come study, to make sure we understand what is going on with other people who are committed to ethnographic and qualitative methods, and finally (of course) to learn something new. It would be great if in the future anthropologists working in indigenous communities (or pretty much anywhere) could learn to use and spread these methods, not as yet another case of appropriating indigenous culture for our own ends, but as a way of learning from people who are our equals and perhaps even, methodologically, our superiors.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

8 thoughts on “Two books on indigenous methods

  1. Thanks for this post! Can’t wait to see Living Proof. I’ve taught with Chief Kerry’s Moose ( before and it worked well with methods students. Doing the same with an applied anthropology course next week. This sort of work seems much more productive than Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, although your take on her book as groundclearing may be a very useful way to approach it. That said, when reading Smith, I felt like anthropology had already cleared much of this particular ground. That was a long time ago, though, so I can’t offer concrete examples in support of that statement.

  2. Thanks. This is useful. Smith’s book is a standard text at our program, but I’ve never been satisfied with it as a methodology book – for the reasons you state so eloquently. Perhaps her new book is more useful?

  3. Thanks for the hat tip, Rex. As someone in the planning stages for a field school in a First Nations community, I appreciate your help in sorting through these methods books. Further, I am currently reviewing of Living Proof for BC Studies. It won’t be out for a few months but I will alert your readers to its publication. For now, readers might want to check out Mark Hume’s comments in the Globe and Mail:

    And yes, I’d add enthusiastically Eldon Yellowhorn’s name to a list of indigenous scholars working in indigenous communities and reflecting on research in those places.


  4. Sol Tax is one of the best and most forgotton example of someone who successfullly put into practice the methodologies we label today as Community Based Participatory Research, Action Research and Indigenous Methodologies. He didnt have the discourses we have today, but in practice, his politics and methods were, in many cases, more radical and exemplary than what is going on today. Together with many of his students, especially Robert Thomas and Nancy Lurie, Tax’s legacy of collaborative anthropology and contribution to Indigenous struggles for self-determination and sovereignty is quite unrecognized today. There is much to learn from him as an ancestor of anthropology and someone who committed to the principles of collaboration beyond what is often thought possible. Many of his projects- the Summer Youth Workshops for Indigneous Students, the organization of the American Indian Chicago Conference (linked to the fight for Tribal Recognition), his work with Deloria fighting against Udall and the ongoing attempts to eradict Indigenous recognition and tribal homes, the Carnegie Cross-Cultural Project that helped revive Cherokee educational/language programs, and more. Certainly, he left behind an immense theoreitcal and methodological contribution for those of us interested in collaborative research, action research and Indigenous Methodologies. While ‘new’ materials are always exciting, it is important to revisit and honour the work that our elders, like Tax, left for us to pick up on.

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