Drawson et al., 2017

Drawson, A., Toombs, E., & Mushquash, C. (2017). Indigenous Research Methods: A Systematic Review. International Indigenous Policy Journal, 8(02). https://doi.org/10.18584/iipj.2017.8.2.5


Indigenous communities and federal funding agencies in Canada have developed policy for ethical research with Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous scholars and communities have begun to expand the body of research regarding their peoples, and novel and innovative methods have begun to appear in the published literature. This review attempts to catalogue the wide array of Indigenous research methods in the peer-reviewed literature and describe commonalities among methods in order to guide researchers and communities in future method development. A total of 64 articles met inclusionary criteria and five themes emerged: General Indigenous Frameworks, Western Methods in an Indigenous Context, Community-Based Participatory Research, Storytelling, and Culture-Specific Methods.


Indigenous research, Indigenous methods, Indigenous research methods

Indigenous research has historically been completed on, rather than with (i.e., in collaboration with) Indigenous Peoples in Canada

The Tri-Council funding agencies (i.e., CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC) have provided ethical guidelines and policy documents designed to promote best practices within Indigenous research.

OCAP™ standards were created to address government and academic self-regulation and to provide guidelines for research that were endorsed by Indigenous communities (FNIGC, 2014). These standards asserted that First Nations communities maintain control over research and recognized community rights as knowledge holders within a research process. Such research principles centered Indigenous communities within the research process, and promoted strategies that ensured research is determined, controlled, and disseminated by Indigenous Peoples. Adhering to ethical standards and community expectations has become mandatory for any researcher engaging in research with Indigenous communities and accessing Tri-Council agency funding. Indigenous communities have increasingly prioritized these approaches (FNIGC, 2014).


The authors did not specify a definition of “Indigenous” prior to selecting studies for review; this was purposeful. Through this method, we were able to employ an inductive approach and allow the researchers immersed in this work to provide a definition rather than prioritizing the authors’ judgment in terms of which methods were deemed “Indigenous” and which were not. The authors are engaged in work with Indigenous communities and peoples, and understand that imposing a Western deductive lens onto the concept of Indigenous research methods may perpetuate colonial ideals that prioritize reductionist science.

Search Terms and Procedures

Academic Search Premier, Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, Bibliography of Native North Americans, CINAHL, ERIC, Indigenous Studies Portal, Native Health Database, NIICHRO, PsycARTICLES, PsycINFO, and Web of Science databases were utilized to examine the available literature. From December 30, 2015 to February 16, 2016, the following individual keywords were used: Indigen method, Indigen research, Aborigin method, Aborigin research, First Nation method, First Nation research, Métis method, Métis research, Inuit method, Inuit research, tribal method, tribal research, Native method, Native research, Indian method, and Indian research.


Following analysis by two researchers, five themes emerged: General Indigenous Frameworks, Western Methods in an Indigenous Context, Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), Storytelling, and Culture-Specific Methods.

General Indigenous Frameworks

A framework is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the basic structure of something: a set of ideas or facts that provide support for something” (“Framework,” n.d.). Within a research setting, this framework provides the abstract structure that guides a researcher in their pursuit of knowledge. A framework, however, does not dictate a specific technique for data collection or analysis.

Generally, authors did not provide a clear definition of Indigenous research methods, with the exception of Makomenaw (2012):

“one where the researcher understands the role of Indigenous history, culture, language, and self-determination in the lives of Indigenous Peoples” (p. 858).

Makomenaw, M. V. A. (2012). Welcome to a new world: experiences of American Indian tribal college and university transfer students at predominantly white institutions. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 25(7), 855–866. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2012.720732

Chinn (2007) described utilizing decolonizing methodologies originally laid out by Smith (1999) to examine secondary school science curriculum “through the lenses of marginalized (traditional, local, indigenous, sustainable) and dominant cultures (capitalistic, consumer oriented)” (p. 1254). They also engaged participants in five of the critical Indigenous research activities proposed by Smith (1999): Indigenizing, connecting, writing, representing, and discovering.

Methods Often Used in a Western Context

Kovach (2010) described a “paradigmatic approach” to research with Indigenous Peoples as influencing “the choice of methods (i.e. why a particular method is chosen), how those methods are employed (i.e. how data are gathered), and how the data will be analyzed and interpreted” (p. 42). Within this Indigenous approach to research, she utilized a conversational method to collect data (Kovach, 2010).

  • Photovoice
  • Autoethnography
  • Mixed methods

    Botha (2012) has proposed that, within Indigenous research, the term reflects a synthesis of the qualitative approaches that typify research with Indigenous Peoples and also unique Indigenous methods or ways of knowing. He argued that while qualitative methods are often utilized to obtain data when working with Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous methods go further (Botha, 2012).

Chilisa and Tsheko (2014) utilized a mixed methods approach across multiple phases of data collection in a study that examined beliefs about HIV amongst adolescents in Botswana. Initially, they combined Western and Indigenous qualitative methods (proverbs, metaphors, stories, myths, and traditional songs) that resonated with the culture in which they were conducting research. Their second and third phases were in line with method utilized by Hill et al. (2010): quantitative-qualitative-Indigenous (Chilisa & Tsheko, 2014). This process began by utilizing Indigenous knowledge on sex and sexuality and the qualitative data generated in the first phase to create a questionnaire. This survey was reviewed by a community advisory board (often suggested within a CBPR framework), distributed to local adolescents, and then the data were analyzed using Western quantitative methods. Indigenous and quantitative methods were combined in the final phase, which included a control group. The authors noted that imparting helpful knowledge upon all participants was an important value for the Indigenous Peoples and thus a health promotion intervention (not related to HIV) was provided for control participants (Chilisa & Tsheko, 2014).

  • Self-location
  • Emic-etic approach

    This method entails the researchers focusing on independently uncovering both universal (emic) and specific Indigenous (etic) factors related to the construct in question; this approach ensures that the final data includes both majority culture factors and also Indigenous factors.

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR)

CBPR is regarded as an acceptable approach to Indigenous research. The policy document created by the First Nations Information Governance Centre (2014) that outlines principles related to data Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP™) recommended that community-based and participatory approaches be the predominant approaches within Indigenous research (FNIGC, 2014).

CBPR creates necessary partnerships within a research team that prioritizes the needs of those directly affected by the issue of interest. Results are derived with direct supervision from those that need the knowledge the most, and those that can make the best use of them. Although there are many levels of involvement of the researcher within such CBPR partnerships, the model promoted for Indigenous research prioritizes the community’s needs and makes space for the researcher when necessary, recognizing the importance of reciprocity. Rather than a researcher addressing their own professional needs within projects, communities control all aspects of the project and assume all decision-making responsibilities.

CBPR is often situated as a framework used to complement an Indigenous method, as both a philosophy to research and as an approach (Castleden et al., 2008).

CBPR, as an Indigenous research method, is not a form of data collection, but embeds other Indigenous methods within it.


Storytelling is a qualitative research method, in that participants describe their answers orally rather than on questionnaires, although the relationship and co-creation between the researcher and participant or a group of participants is also considered

Storytelling can also be useful in the dissemination of knowledge uncovered in the data collection and/or analysis phases.

  • yarning

    The name “yarning” is said to come from modern Indigenous people, who use the term to describe a culture-specific type of conversation (Fredericks et al., 2011).

Storytelling was also modernized through a digital storytelling method (Willox et al., 2013). The purpose of this digitalization was to avoid the limitations of typical interview-based narrative research, mainly that the participants’ narratives are still processed through the lens of the researcher, a process that holds the potential for bias and skewing of the participants’ meaning. This digital process removed the researcher from any step from data collection to dissemination (Willox et al., 2013).

Culture-Specific Methods

A large number of studies utilized a specific Indigenous method—one that originates from the Indigenous group that is collaborating on the study and is unlikely to be translatable to another context.

Māori culture
Indigenous North American cultures

Wilson and Restoule (2010) reflected on the changes brought about in research with First Nations people of Canada when tobacco is offered as part of the process (i.e., Tobacco Ties).

Another Indigenous approach to focus groups is the talking circle (Haozous, Eschiti, Lauderdale, Hill, & Amos, 2010). The talking circle is a tribal method of group information sharing and discussion, with a focus on cooperation within the group.

Lavallée (2009) differentiated the more Western focus group from the Indigenous Sharing Circle through “the sacred meaning [Sharing Circles] have in many Indigenous cultures and in the growth and transformation bases for the participants” and the “acts of sharing all aspects of the individual—heart, mind, body, and spirit” (p. 29). The Sharing Circle method also rebalances the power dynamic in the researcher–participant relationship—the participants grant the researcher permission to use the dialogue generated in the Circle for research purposes (Lavallée, 2009).

Anishnaabe symbol-based reflection was defined by Lavallée (2009) as a participatory action research method, but a culture-specific one.

The Anishinaabe mino-bimaadiziwin (the Good Life) research methodology was presented by Debassige (2010).

O’Reilly-Scanlon, Crowe, and Weenie (2004) detailed the inclusion of the Cree word “wahkohtowin” (kinship/relatedness) in a research methodology. Wahkohtowin represented a combination of the Indigenous concept that research is story and the Western theory of memory-work.

Hall et al. (2015) discussed the application of Two-Eyed Seeing in research.

Indigenous Australian culture

Pathway is an Indigenous research method and metaphor that was developed with Aboriginal Peoples of Australia. It utilizes concepts of the mountains, winds, and orientation (Fredericks, 2007). In this framework, the Path provides the structure that the research study will follow and the Way refers to the process of carrying out this research (Fredericks, 2007).

Indigenous Filipino culture.
Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Islands.
Muslim culture


In Western approaches, research is understood as knowledge creation (CIHR, 2006)—if a researcher is interested in understanding more about a specific phenomenon, they select an appropriate method to explore with as much scientific rigor as possible. One distinction between Western and Indigenous research methods lies in this purpose: research done in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples cannot only reveal knowledge, but also decolonize, rebalance power, and provide healing (Brewer et al., 2014; Debassige, 2010; Ghys & Gray, 2012; Hall et al., 2015; Le & Gobert, 2015; Walker et al., 2014). McIvor (2010) even argued that self-determination and decolonization serve as the connection amongst all Indigenous research methods. Broadly, Indigenous methods should include methods that are culturally relevant and can serve beyond data collection to create relationships and support autonomy (Cueva et al., 2012; Lavallée, 2009).

Developing a positive relationship with the community in which the research is taking place is a requirement for the majority of Indigenous research methods laid out in this review (Lavallée, 2009).

Many of these Indigenous research methods can also transform qualitative research from a deficit-based perspective to a resilience perspective (Roe et al., 2012).

Chilisa and Tsheko (2014) concluded, “there cannot be an indigenous research without mixed methods” (p. 224); in other words, when Indigenous Peoples contribute to the research in a meaningful way, this constitutes a mixed methods approach.

Another theme that emerged in the analysis of the literature was that Indigenous research methods prevent the prioritization of Western ways of knowing, which is common in most scientific pursuits.

Naming the research method or methodology using Indigenous language is also beneficial for participants and those who will receive the knowledge resulting from the research process (Elder & Kersten, 2015).

One of the explicit benefits of choosing an Indigenous research method is that situating yourself in the context is inherent in the process. As Cameron et al. (2014) stated, “For non-Indigenous researchers, an Indigenous methodology allows the researcher to enter into the world alongside Indigenous experience rather than framing the Indigenous world-view from a distance” (p. E5).

A crucial consideration for researchers engaged in Indigenous research methods and frameworks is context. The importance of context when working with Indigenous Peoples and communities has been discussed in the literature before (King, 2015); however, this is amplified when utilizing Indigenous research methods and frameworks. An important component of all Indigenous research methods is situating the research within the context of the data source(s).

Many of the studies that utilized an Indigenous research method also employed a qualitative method for data collection

Storytelling was noted as helpful in decolonizing through the research process. Relationality is inherent in storytelling and this component can help to ensure that the participants are respected as equal partners in the uncovering of knowledge (Dyll-Mykelbust, 2014).

Storytelling was also the only method used in knowledge translation (Christensen, 2012). This researcher evaluated her knowledge translation efforts and received positive feedback regarding ease of understanding and relatability (Christensen, 2012).

The principal benefit in choosing a culture-specific method is that many of the limitations inherent in imposing a Western method on an Indigenous group are nullified

Across all five themes, each Indigenous research method had the following components:

  • Contextual reflection, in that the researchers must situate themselves and the Indigenous Peoples with whom they are collaborating in the research process.
  • Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the research process in a way that is respectful and reciprocal as well as decolonizing and preserves self-determination
  • Prioritization of Indigenous ways of knowing.

Lessons Learned

Researchers interested in pursuing a program that includes Indigenous research methods should incorporate this perspective in every step of the process—from the conception of the research question through knowledge translation and exchange. Unlike Western research methods, Indigenous research methods require that all components in the process embody the values of the Indigenous group involved. After reviewing the methods and methodologies presented in the literature, the authors also concluded that using an Indigenous method necessitates an Indigenous methodology, but that an Indigenous methodology could be utilized with strictly Western methods. For example, if a researcher was planning to use a talking circle method, then they must approach the entirety of their research with an Indigenous methodology, but a researcher employing an overall Indigenous methodology could do so while using Western methods, such as surveys. What is important is that the Indigenous community involved has the ability to determine the direction and approaches that are preferred.