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Op-ed: Dr. Lisa Rankin

Ethical and inclusive research a required part of decolonizing the academy

By Dr. Lisa Rankin

Recent discussions led by Memorial’s vice-president (research), the formation of the President’s Advisory Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and the university’s support of the Tradition and Transition Research Partnership between the Nunatsiavut Government and Memorial suggest the university is beginning to engage with decolonization.

Thinking about this, I was struck by the contrast to the situation 30 years ago, when I got involved in archaeology.

Strained relations

As an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s, it was obvious to me that relations between archaeologists and Indigenous communities were strained.

Archaeological investigations were at that time an “ivory tower” pursuit, carried out with an assurance of its intrinsic worth and seldom with concern for the needs, values and opinions of descendant communities.

I hoped that archaeologists would find ways to repair this relationship, and in building my own career I have made this a priority. Back then, I didn’t have a framework to understand this disconnect.

Now I understand what I was thinking about: ethical and inclusive archaeology.

Accessible and applicable

In developing a career at Memorial University, I have been guided by our special obligation to the people of this province.

This tenet has made this university a leader in community-based research for decades and set the tone for my work to be accessible and applicable to the Indigenous communities I work with.

But learning how to do this without training hasn’t been easy.

When I began research in Labrador, I focused on being present in Inuit communities and listening to the concerns and interests of the people.

“An inclusive and culturally relevant agenda has . . . made me a better archaeologist.”

As trust was built, I was asked to contribute to projects that had local or regional value.

Most recently, the Social Sciences and Humanities and Research Council-funded Tradition and Transition Research Partnership has allowed me the opportunity to be part of a project in which the community sets the agenda and research questions, and which is inclusive of local epistemologies and experience.

Far from tainting the goals of academic inquiry, an inclusive and culturally relevant agenda has reinvigorated both theoretical and methodological aspects of my work and made me a better archaeologist.

But, decolonization is a process and much more needs to change, not only in my own work, but in academia generally.

Learning side by side

When discussing my research with academics, they frequently express concerns that community-based projects are adverse to promotion and tenure because relationship-building and consultation are time consuming, and the products of meaningful engagement are not highly ranked in reviews.

The Tradition and Transition Research Partnership approached this by involving undergraduate and graduate students with communities from the project’s inception so that the next generation has a chance to develop relationships early, and strengthen them throughout their careers.

More importantly, we are engaging with Indigenous youth so that university and community students work side by side, learning together.

“Decolonization makes these new outcomes an essential part of the research process: knowledge belongs with the communities.”

Not surprisingly, it is those students that are developing the most innovative, and socially relevant projects: using archaeology to support Indigenous connections to the land, and developing best practices concerning the intellectual property rights of traditional knowledge-bearers.

However, academia continues to struggle with the evaluation of community-engaged research dissemination such as film, social media, general-language publications and community-based co-authoring, which accompany traditional academic output.

Like traditional academic output, these modes of dissemination require a time commitment, but unlike traditional dissemination they involve review through community-consultation.

Well positioned

Decolonization makes these new outcomes an essential part of the research process: knowledge belongs with the communities.

The tri-council funding agencies recognize this, and Memorial University, with its history of community-based research, is in a better position than most institutions to recognize the value of this work.

Thirty years later, I am still working to make my archaeology more inclusive and equitable.

The guidance, knowledge and friendship provided by my research partners from Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut are essential parts of that process, as are Memorial’s recent initiatives.

I am optimistic that my students, some of whom are Indigenous, will transform the discipline in ways I never imagined.

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