Snow, 2018

Snow, K. (2018). What Does Being a Settler Ally in Research Mean? A Graduate Students Experience Learning From and Working Within Indigenous Research Paradigms. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 17(1), 1609406918770485.


Research with Indigenous peoples is fraught with complexity and misunderstandings. The complexity of negotiating historical and current issues as well as the misunderstandings about what the issues really mean for individuals and communities can cause non-Indigenous researchers to shy away from working with Indigenous groups. In conducting research for my doctoral dissertation, I was a novice researcher faced with negotiating two very different sets of social contracts: the Western Canadian university?s and my Indigenous participants?. Through narrative inquiry of my experience, this article explores issues of ethics, institutional expectations, and community relationships. Guided by Kirkness and Barnhardt?s ?Four R?s? framework of respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility, I aimed to meet the needs of both the groups, but it was not without challenges. What do you do when needs collide? This article shares my process of negotiating the research, the decisions made, and how I came to understand my role in the process as a Settler Ally. It closes with some implications for other researchers who are considering their own roles as Settler Allies.


Indigenous research methodologies, qualitative interviews, ethics, settler ally

Key quotes and ideas

Novice non-Indigenous researchers may question their legitimacy in engaging in research with Indigenous communities because of historical and current issues faced by both non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Historically, research by non-Indigenous researchers was conducted on rather than with Indigenous populations.

In particular, in Canada—where the trauma of residential schools and the road to recovery has only just begun—any researcher thinking about working with Indigenous groups in Canada must acknowledge our past and the damage our research has historically done when placed in the hands of colonial thinkers. In the past, many researchers worked from a deficit perspective with the aim of resolving Indigenous problems. This practice endures.

Snow begins with an anecdote about her own experiences growing up in Nunavut (above the treeline) when a southern researcher showed up in town to investigate growing trees. The researcher came, planted his trees, set up fences, and left. Children in the community, in clear view of their bemused parents and other adults, took great delight in devising new ways to circumvent his attempts to keep them from damaging his trees. In the end, the children triumphed and the researcher left without so much as a sniff at any useful data for his project, but with a robust lesson in community-based research.

Snow's sense of duty was grounded in the TRC's call to Settler and Indigenous Canadians to ensure that Indigenous peoples are able to hold their equitable place in Canadian society. But while this call, epitomized by Chief Justice Murray Sinclair's statement

Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem – it involves all of us. (Antoine, Mason, Mason, Palahicky, & Rodriguez de France, 2018)

seems straightforward, the realities of non-Indigenous people researching Indigenous contexts are deeply complex and nuanced. Indigenous peoples have been the objects of research for too long, and the calls from the TRC that all Canadians need to engage in the process of reconciliation has resulted in a flood of funding and interest from Settler Canadians, an outcome that may not be welcomed by Indigenous communities.

Identifying the Complexity and My Position in It

3 main concerns

  • the legitimization of Indigenous research methodologies developed by and for Indigenous people,
  • concerns around the ability for non-Indigenous researchers to work respectfully in Indigenous communities, and
  • the appropriateness of non-Indigenous researchers’ adoption of Indigenous research methods.

Arguing for Legitimacy of Indigenous Research Methods

Indigenous researchers are leading the way by defining research methodologies from Indigenous epistemologies that better reflect cultural norms of Indigenous peoples and disrupt the balance of power in researcher–participant relationships

Despite the continuing work of Indigenous researchers to outline and define methodologies in alignment with Indigenous values and epistemologies, Western academics tend to be reticent to recognize the legitimacy of Indigenous methods and epistemologies for 'serious' academic work.

Some of my approaches were too far removed from the accepted boundaries of “academic research,” and I was not in a position to defend myself: As a non-Indigenous student, I had neither the legitimacy of ancestry nor the experience of polished academics to advocate for my approach.

Questioning My Own Legitimacy and Intentions

Some researchers argue that, due to the history of colonialism and assimilation in North America, that only Indigenous people may legitimately conduct research with Indigenous people.

Literature contains many discussions of 'insider/outsider' Indigenous research:

  • Coburn E. (2013). Indigenous research as Resistance. Socialist Studies, 9, 52–63.
  • Deloria V. (1998). Comfortable fictions and the struggle for turf: an essay review of the Invented Indian: cultural fictions and government policy. In Mihesuah D. (Ed.), Native and Academics: Research and writing about American Indians (pp. 65–83): University of Nebraska.
  • Porsanger J. (2004). An essay about Indigenous methodology. Nordlit, 15 (Special Issue on Northern Minorities), 105–120. Retrieved from
  • Rigney L. (1999). Internationalization of an Indigenous anticolonial cultural critique of research methodologies. Wicazo Sa Review, 14, 109–21.
  • Stover Dale (2002). Postcolonial sun dancing at Wakpamni lake. In Harvey G. (Ed.), Readings in Indigenous religions (pp. 173–19). London, England: Continuum.
  • Smith L.T. (2004). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. London, England: Zed Books.
  • Smith L.T. (1999, 2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples (2nd ed.). London, England: Zed Books.

There are also many documented challenges, as follows:

  • Misinterpretation Archibald J. (Ed.) (1992). Giving voice to our ancestors. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 19, 141–44.
  • Fragmentation of knowledge Kawagley O. (1995). A Yupiaq Worldview: A pathway to ecology and spirit. New York, NY: Waveland Press.
  • Safety and power of relationship Harrison B. (2001). Collaborative programs in Indigenous communities from fieldwork to practice. Lanham, MD: Altamria Press. Stover Dale (2002). Postcolonial sun dancing at Wakpamni lake. In Harvey G. (Ed.), Readings in Indigenous religions (pp. 173–19). London, England: Continuum.
  • Accountability Champagne D. (1998). American Indian studies I for everyone. In Miheusuah D. (Ed.). Natives and Academics: researching and writing about American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
  • Absence of tangible benefit for communities and Treatment of Indigenous partners as subjects Smith L.T. (2004). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. London, England: Zed Books.

Negotiating the Space Between Legitimacy and Appropriation Toward a Research Question

Snow writes about approaching her friend and colleague, the Director of Indigenous programming at her school, for advice and finding that their dialogues in the context of a real friendship was foundational to her research. It was the director who introduced her to members of the campus community and set the direction for her research with her knowledge of the challenges faced by their 1-year Pre-Nursing Transitions (PNT) program designed to support Indigenous students.

They co-developed a research question:

What aspects of the 1-year PNT Program were effective in supporting student persistence, and what, from a student perspective, could be changed to support student success?

The university had lots of quan data related to retention, attrition and graduation rates, but a more holistic approach was necessary to honour student persistence and success.

Developing a Methodological Approach

There aren't any 'how-to' manuals for Indigenous research methodologies. Wilson (2008) describes research as 'ceremony and a journey of self-discovery and reflection'.

[Wilson] offered some hope for me, as I considered my own questions about personal legitimacy; he stated that one does not have to be Indigenous to adopt an Indigenous research paradigm, but that one does have to shift one’s ontology and practice, focusing on local and contextually derived knowledge rather than on published literature.

Snow needed to acknowledge the role of Canadian history on Settler and Indigenous relationships, so the program director suggested she begin to develop relationships with the students by offering a workshop on research. She noticed some skepticism and mistrust, so when she came with her own research proposal, it was tentative and negotiable.

Battiste (2013) suggests at minimum, researchers acknowledge the power differential between non-Indigenous researchers and Indigenous populations.

Western Indigenous
objectivity through separation btwn R and P shared story, continuously negotiated
data are commodified and owned mutually beneficial to all

Operationalizing Methodological Bricolage

Snow adopted a methodological bricolage of sorts in that she combined aspects of narrative and participatory action research into an exploratory case study. The case study has the advantage of being a more well-established method which was good for helping to ensure that her dissertation would be acceptable for an academic degree.

Ethics Versus Participants’ Rights

3 levels of ethics approvals required

  • university REB
  • Provincial or territorial approval, usually run by Indigenous groups
  • local community or band council

This can lead to a catch-22 because the university REB will not approve a proposal without local community or band council permission, and the local community won't approve a project without university approval. This is because if there is no prior relationship between the researcher and the community, it is unethical to talk about or solicit a research partnership without institutional approval.

4 parts of the proceses of building an authentic research relationship:

  • consultation
  • cooperation
  • communication
  • consent

Bull J. (2011). Research with aboriginal peoples: Authentic relationships as a precursor to ethical research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 5, 13–22.

These have been further outlined by the First Nations Information Governance Centre as OCAP®3 principles of ownership, control, access, and possession.

The PNT Program student community itself was in its formative stages when I met them and was brought together based on motivation and need, with students from across the province gathered together with the aim of becoming nurses, all with varied backgrounds and experiences. This raised a question of ethics: Who had the right to speak for or represent the community? In geographically defined communities, there is often an established group of elders and community leaders who are supported by community members to make decisions on behalf of the community (Arbour & Cook, 2006; Brunger & Bull, 2011). This was not so in my research project. In this case, through negotiation with the ethics board, the university, and the university community, the Director of Programming and the Program Lead both vetted and guided the research development and provided the letter of approval needed to evidence the consultation and approval process required by the ethics board.

Relationship Building Through Data Collection

one of the data collection methods became observing online activities through the use of the reporting system provided by the online learning management system (LMS). The LMS recorded data on the frequency of access and types of items accessed. I also planned to develop field notes related to students’ discussions in the LMS discussion forums. These three aforementioned methods have been documented for use in describing online learning (Alowayer & Badii, 2014; Lock, 2002; Yin, 2009). However, these procedures were minimally useful for this project and may have been detrimental to participation. In early conversations with students who chose to participate in the research, the knowledge that someone was watching made them somewhat uncomfortable.

The discussion forums in the course were not used at all by students. Students cited both a shortage of time and fears about public sharing of questions/privacy as reasons they avoided the forums.

the second data collection tool aimed to gather insights about the nature of relationships within the community and how they changed over time. Using DeLaat, Laly, Lipponon, and Simmons’ (2007) “contact map” tool, students were asked to map out the people within the PNT Program they spoke to daily, weekly, monthly, or infrequently using the contact map a diagrammatic tool consisting of concentric rings.

The final and most critical data collection method was a series of semistructured interviews. In truth, to call them interviews diminishes some of their function because for me the interviews became conversations among friends.

Chilisa (2012) highlighted the critical role of telling stories through relational experiences in Indigenous research investigations. Further, she suggested that relationship building over an extended period of time allows participants the opportunity to share more personal interpretations of events rather than simply offer what they percieve to be appropriate social responses to a given situation. Until I gave of myself, our conversation was stilted.

Returning to Participants

At some point—either during each meeting or following the last scheduled research meeting—I asked students to verify my understanding of their stories as well as their own interpretations. For example, I shared the minimal observational data from the LMS with the individuals concerned, asking questions such as, “What was happening here, when you accessed X?” or, “I noticed you never accessed Y. What is it about Y that prevents you from using it?” I did this to gain insight into the factors of the online materials that impacted student persistence.

I also transcribed and coded interviews using the method that Saldana (2013) referred to as in vivo coding, using the participants’ own words for codes. I shared these initial codes with the participants and asked them if my assumptions about possible themes were correct or if I was missing details.

The very nature of qualitative research produces a scholarly concern for establishing the credibility of a researcher’s results. However, credibility becomes even more critical in work conducted with Indigenous participants by a non-Indigenous researcher. Kovach (2009) suggested the use of a mix of Western and Indigenous approaches to analysis. Using a combination of approaches is one way to identify and circumvent biases (Kovach, 2009; Lowan-Trudeau, 2012). However, from an Indigenous perspective, Lowan-Trudeau (2012) stated that trustworthiness is established by the researcher making clear his or her own biases and positioning himself or herself in the work.

The Final Report: A Test of Responsibility

I shared and discussed every quote, theme, or paragraph in which a participant’s information was used with that individual participant prior to release. Once each individual indicated they felt comfortable with their story, the composite of all of the stories was also circulated among participants.

Nonetheless, 2 days after the dissertation was given to the examining committee, one of my participants changed her mind and asked to have all of her data removed.5 And so began the scramble to determine how to proceed.

All participants had been informed both verbally and in writing of their optional involvement in the study, had signed consent forms, and had been informed of their right to withdraw from the study at any time. It was this last statement—“at any time”—that became the controversial point. What does “at any time” actually mean?

Bull (2011) highlighted the critical need for authenticity in research, which meant for me in this case shifting values around ownership. I had grounded my relationship with participants in consensus building and consultation. Although the formal (written) contract had been met, the informal (understood) contract was, in my mind and in the minds of the students I worked with, very different. The understood contract had to be honored first.

From a Western perspective, I had completed all of the tasks for responsible ethics compliance and I could use the abovementioned participant’s data in my final article. ...However, from a personal perspective, anything other than full removal would have been wrong.

Reflections and Conclusions

My research process was far from perfect. My aim was to follow Kirkness and Barnhardt’s (1991) Four R’s—to be respectful, relevant, reciprocal, and responsible—but each observer would analyze and evaluate my effectiveness at achieving that aim differently. History has taught us very well that motivation to help and do right by communities can often cause more harm than good. Following the protocols laid out by university ethics boards to minimize harm is not a true test of authenticity; it is only a beginning.

I notice that while I tried to follow the original Four R’s, my practice shows that another Four R’s also emerge from my commitment to do research with Indigenous communities in a meaningful and respectful way: rights, relationships, returning, and reflection. These new Four R’s have become my personal guidelines for becoming a Settler Ally, and I use them regularly to check my intentions and actions in ongoing research.

From the outset of entering the contested space of Settler Ally working with an Indigenous community, I have reflected on my motivations, my process, and my role in shaping and telling the story of the research. This kind of ongoing critical reflection is essential to avoiding some of the pitfalls of our well-meaning predecessors.

Just as Indigenous researchers are blazing new paths in research institutions, teaching non-Indigenous scholars to recognize and appreciate new ways of gaining and communicating knowledge, so too Settler Allies have their work cut out for them as regards educating scholarly gatekeepers about ways of being effective researchers, even if those methods may not fit established evaluation measures for tenure, promotion, and even publication.

We need to stay mindful of the power and privilege at play, as we negotiate our place in the retelling of the stories we are entrusted with. Most importantly, we need to commit to the time, energy, and resources that are required to develop sustaining relationships with the people involved in our research.

Finally, as an Elder advised me, working in this contested space, we need honest mirrors—that is, we need people who can help us in this critical reflection, show us blind spots, check our biases, and keep us grounded.


Antoine, A., Mason, R., Mason, R., Palahicky, S., & Rodriguez de France, C. (2018). Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers. BCcampus.

Battiste, M. A. (2013). Decolonizing education: nourishing the learning spirit. Saskatoon, SK, Canada: Purich Publishing Limited.

Bull, J. R. (2010). Research with Aboriginal Peoples: Authentic Relationships as a Precursor to Ethical Research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 5(4), 13–22.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Black Point, N.S: Fernwood Pub.