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Op-ed: Dr. Nicholas Welch

Indigenous contributors to research should be co-authors, says Canada Research Chair

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.

By Dr. Nicholas Welch

Author’s field data.

This phrase often appears in my discipline, linguistics, to cite sentences from one or more languages to illustrate the author’s arguments. It is a phrase that never fails to cause me instant irritation.

For me it raises the stereotypical Hollywood image of the intrepid scientist plunging into the wilderness in search of “the Truth,” and simultaneously, the question of how many other people’s contributions are erased by that banal phrase.

Thoughts, knowledge and choices

A key difference between the humanistic disciplines and the natural sciences is that the former’s data invariably originate largely in the lives, thoughts, knowledge and choices of  human beings.

In linguistics — which I will use as my example simply because I know it best — fieldwork usually means having speakers of the language under study translate sentences from the linguist’s language to theirs, and vice versa. There is more to it than that, but that’s the core.

Some assume that any speaker of a language can work as such a linguistic consultant. This is emphatically not true. Unless the language under study is one the linguist is fluent in, the consultant must be fluently bilingual.

“Indigenous (and other) consultants are possessors of rare and specialized knowledge that enables us, frankly, to do our jobs.”

Secondly, in my experience, consultants who have insight into the structure of their language are by far the most effective. Being a linguistic consultant thus requires skills that are at least uncommon among people in general.

When one studies, as I do, Indigenous languages of North America, the fact that the majority of these languages are severely endangered makes the knowledge possessed by a linguistic consultant even rarer. I’ve spent most of my time studying Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı’, spoken by around 2,000 people in the Northwest Territories.

Speaking this language at all is a skill possessed by about half of one per cent of one percent of Canadians. Most of the speakers I’ve worked with are experienced interpreters and translators; the knowledge that they possess makes each of them quite literally one in a million.

New model: co-authorship

At the 2018 annual meeting of the Canadian Linguistic Association, a panel discussion explored how to acknowledge contributions of Indigenous language consultants, beyond the typical paragraph of thanks.

After considerable deliberation, the consensus was unanimous that the new model should be co-authorship.

Indigenous (and other) consultants are possessors of rare and specialized knowledge that enables us, frankly, to do our jobs. It is only just that as we take our first baby steps toward an Indigenized, equitable academic society, these experts should be given the respect and the agency that they deserve.

Nothing about us without us.

That’s the moral argument. After the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it should be uncontroversial.

Indigenous co-authors keep researchers honest

But beyond courtesy, common decency, and gratitude for the knowledge that helped many of us establish our careers, co-authorship recognizes that Indigenous consultants often contribute essential research ideas.

A current research stream that I am pursuing originated in the comment in 2015 by Bruce Starlight of the Ts’úùt’ínà Nation in Alberta that plural verbs in his language are less common in more formal speech. (This resulted in two co-authored conference talks and is now a multi-author investigation.) Several other linguists I know have started lines of inquiry in similar circumstances.

But finally, for those of us who work with Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous co-authors help keep us honest. It’s easy to fool ourselves into seeing results through the lens of our ideas, into interpreting data in the most favourable way for our hypotheses.

Additional authors can be an invaluable check on such thinking — and how much more so when they are intimately familiar with the data because it comes from their own cultural knowledge.

And so for the sake of equity, decency and common good manners, and for the good name of scholarship, I have to acknowledge that it isn’t my field data — it’s theirs.

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