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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Lee Lusa

Indigenous Perspectives in Research Ethics

Author: Vanessa Lee Lusa

What is ethical research?

The pillars of ethical research involving human participants in Western academia have long been grounded on the basic idea of "do no harm." However, a further look into research ethics and methodology necessitates a much more expansive yet culturally specific set of criteria to ensure the true agency of participants. In this sense, ethical research is an ever-evolving term, and the values upon which the ethics of the researcher are founded vary.

A brief look into my learning journey on this topic

I had the privilege of taking a course on Methodologies and Research Ethics in Indigenous Studies, taught by Pirjo Virtanen in the Indigenous Studies department at the University of Helsinki. The questions in the course challenged my ideas of standard or normal research ethics and helped me grow in perspectives and ways of thinking. Throughout the class, we were prompted to reflect on questions such as:

  • What kind of knowledge production methods are trained or used within your family and home communities? (We all have knowledge production identities)

  • How is knowledge categorized?

  • How can adult learners still incorporate their 5 senses?

  • What does horizontal integration of different ways of knowing look like?

I also came away with some insights from discussions that I felt powerful and important to share.

  • Knowledge is not owned or discovered but may be given visible form.

  • If research doesn’t change you, perhaps you have not done it right.


The big question: How to guarantee that participants in research can effectively articulate for themselves?


While I encourage everyone to take the time to learn from those who are true experts in indigenous and transformative paradigms, I also wish to share my perspectives informed by this course on how to ensure that research participants can effectively articulate for themselves. I will argue that ethical research works to safeguard participants' agency, defining agency here as the participants' ability to effectively articulate for themselves, a form of self-determination. Specifically, when working with and in marginalized and minority communities for research, there are three major areas to consider:

  • The question and purpose of research

  • Relational accountability

  • Culturally relevant and sustaining methods

I will use the example that the participants are members of an indigenous people, and I will argue from an indigenous paradigm. I am not a member of any indigenous peoples, and I will attempt to privilege the voices and perspectives of indigenous researchers already doing this work. In the end, I will make a brief argument about the transferability of some of the questions, though perhaps not the answers, to the ethics and agency of working with other marginalized groups.

The question and purpose of research: who is centered?

Questioning the research question: why me and this topic?

Similarly, there is a difference between an indigenous researcher posing a question that related to their community and is a non-indigenous researcher entering the space. In general, the researcher could pause to consider “Should I be doing this research?” (Kwaymullina, 2016). Curiosity or general gap in research, is a position that centers academia and the researcher, already creating barriers to participant agency. This is not prohibiting non-indigenous researchers from entering the space, only to promote reflectivity when doing so.

Prior to beginning research, the first step to center and establish a successful framework for participant agency is to question the research question and purpose. Depending on the positionality of the researcher, there arises the question of where the research question coming from. A research question originating from an academic working in an institution with a history of extractive and 'Othering' research is quite a different foundation than a research question posed by participants in a community. Similarly, there is a difference between an indigenous researcher posing a question that related to their community and is a non-indigenous researcher entering the space. In general, the researcher could pause to consider “Should I be doing this research?” (Kwaymullina, 2016). Curiosity or general gap in research, is a position that centers academia and the researcher, already creating barriers to participant agency. This is not prohibiting non-indigenous researchers from entering the space, only to promote reflectivity when doing so.

Questioning the research purpose: entering an indigenous paradigm

An indigenous paradigm is based on the pillars of relationship (or relevance), respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. These values are essential if the purpose of the research is to truly value the indigenous participants and their agency (Hoffman, 2013). This is because an indigenous paradigm’s purpose is “to challenge deficit thinking and pathological descriptions of the formerly colonized and reconstruct a body of knowledge that carries hope and promotes transformation and social change among the historically oppressed” (Chilisa, 2012). In short it centers indigenous experiences, epistemologies, and futures.

With an indigenous paradigm, comes the question “How are my actions serving the individuals and Nation that I work with?” (Hoffman, 2013). This requires a great deal of researcher reflexivity. The goal is to analyze if the silence or gap in literature in research is intentional on the part of indigenous community, or if there are indigenous folks already sharing and speaking to this topic, just perhaps a failure of the broader community to see it (Kwaymullina, 2016). This reflexivity requires proper background research into the community’s contributions to the field of research in question and to their research paradigm.

Relational accountability: methodology, paradigm, and ethical values

With regards to methodology, Western/Eurocentric epistemology are not the only ways of knowing, but have been historically privileged, considered most valid or true. To give space for the participant to articulate their knowledge, a researcher must consider how to challenge academia to encompass a wider breath of ways of knowing, perhaps through methodology (Olsen, 2018). When choosing a research methodology, it is not just choosing a method, but also choosing how that method is used. The intentionality of that how can differentiate a method traditionally used in a Western context to a method uplifting an Indigenous way of knowing or world view (Datta, 2018b). Here, the paradigm of the researcher, their ontology and epistemology may be different from the community or participant. There is space for both, yet it is also an essential reflection.

How do concepts of nature, spirituality, time, or collectivity factor into the epistemologies of the research (researcher and participants)? In aboriginal epistemology “the world exists in one reality composed of inseparable weave of secular and sacred dimensions” (Hoffman, 2013). Indigenous ways of knowing might also center on the relationality or webs of perspectives rather than separating the analysis of individual components (Wilson, 2008).

Choosing an indigenous paradigm can be a step towards building a relationship with participants, by decentering the researchers’ epistemology and ensuring equal power relationships (Olsen, 2018).

Next enters the question of which values are at the centre of the research. By what standards will the quality of the research be assessed? Is the emphasis on valid and reliable research, or on authentic, credible, and relational research (Wilson, 2008)? Prioritizing authentic or relational values may open space for participant agency because of the comfort of this bottom line. Determining the quality of research by checking on how it relates ensures that the relationships in the research take precedence. The precendented relationships can include those with participants, nature, information, and spirituality (Wilson, 2008). This is at the heart of relational accountability. And it should be visible from choosing the topic to the methods of data collection to the analysis of data and through the outcomes and sharing.

Culturally relevant and sustaining methods: meeting participants where they are at

Perhaps most directly essential is the agency of the participants, that is to ask - do participants have the potential for self-determination (Löf & Stinnerbom, 2016). This is inseparably intertwined by the way in which researchers build trust. It involves an acknowledgment of the historically colonial and abusively extractive research done in indigenous communities in which indigenous people were “known but not knowers” (Kwaymullina, 2016). It moves from this acknowledgement to respectful explicit forms of collaboration carefully considering the responsibilities and roles of researcher and the indigenous participants (Löf & Stinnerbom, 2016).

Culturally relevant and sustaining methods begin with clearly sharing research goals and aims or even better co-creating those research aims to receive free, prior, informed consent. This consent process may be communal as opposed to individual. It includes conversations about the ownership and author of information and data, considering the potentially unequal access to resources.

For example, anonymity and confidentiality have been used as tools of oppression, ways to take control, exploit resources and stories (Löf & Stinnerbom, 2016). Providing indigenous participants with collective ownership of data or co-authorship can be a way to open the door to their self-determination particularly with regards to communal or sacred knowledge (Datta, 2018a; Kwaymullina, 2016).

As the global conversation on data governance and sovereignty continues, each researcher should carefully discuss with their research participants the data management decisions. Likewise, language about how the information is presented build trust and respect the relational accountability. For example, using the term “discover” with regards to findings is likely not appropriate and not validating the participants prior relationships to and with this knowledge (Wilson, 2008).

Beyond consent and ownership practices, culturally relevant and sustaining methods for explicit collaboration may also include choosing indigenous methods for example emphasizing oral transmission such as storytelling, land-based learning or experiential learning (Datta, 2018b).

These methods are as vast and diverse as the number of indigenous communities. I must note here that while this blog aims to make generalizations about steps to consider when working with indigenous people, this generalization, in itself, is problematic as it can potentially erase the diversity and context of the many indigenous communities (Olsen, 2018). To close the circle of co-production as a form of explicit collaboration, there should also be the possibility of analyzing the data together (Löf & Stinnerbom, 2016).

What is transferable to other contexts?

Throughout this essay I have discussed the questioning of the question, relational accountability, and the use of culturally relevant and sustaining method as a way towards ensuring participant agency and voice. As I am non-indigenous, I have often argued from the perspective or positionality of a researcher not necessarily from the community looking to build the required relationships for authentic effective participant voice. However, because of transformational research from the past, it is much more common to also see indigenous researchers working in academia and their communities. The definition and inclusivity of researcher is also changing. The fundamentals of conduct are the same, but the difference is the starting positionality, purpose and perhaps trust in the relationships with participants. Similarly, while I have used here the indigenous context and answered with specific values, contexts, and methods relevant to indigenous peoples, some of the questions are transferable to working with other minority groups such as religious or ethnic minorities. I aim to conduct my master’s thesis research on immigrant students in the public education system. As I approach this topic, I have learned from the humanizing and transformational priorities of the indigenous paradigm and think about the same questions in this different context. If participants are to have agency and true voice, then the following questions should be answered in context:

How to bridge the gap between the Ivory Tower and the many ways of knowing?

How is research relevant to participants?

What values do the researcher and participants share?

What trust-building steps and methods led to participant self-determination?

In this way, all of academia has much to learn from the indigenous paradigm, epistemology, and methodology.



Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous Research Methodologies (First). SAGE. indigenous research methodologies 2012&f=false

Datta, R. (2018a). Decolonizing both researcher and research and its effectiveness in Indigenous research. Research Ethics, 14(2).

Datta, R. (2018b). Traditional storytelling: an effective Indigenous research methodology and its implications for environmental research. AlterNative, 14(1), 35–44.

Hoffman, R. (2013). Respecting Aboriginal Knowing in the Academy. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 9(3).

Kwaymullina, A. (2016). Research, ethics and indigenous peoples: An Australian Indigenous perspective on three threshold considerations for respectful engagement. AlterNative, 12(4).

Löf, A., & Stinnerbom, M. (2016). Making collaboration work-Reflections from both sides. In Ethics in Indigenous research: Past experiences, future (pp. 137–155).

Olsen, T. A. (2018). Privilege, Decentring and the Challenge of Being (Non-) Indigenous in the Study of Indigenous Issues. In Australian Journal of Indigenous Education (Vol. 47, Issue 2).

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony. Indigenous Research Methods. Nova Scotia, Canada


Vanessa Lee Lusa is a master's student in Changing Education. Her multicultural background, including Bahamian, American, Black, and White heritage, sparked her passion for exploring diverse cultures. Vanessa's international journey began in southern Spain during her high school exchange year, and her academic path led her to study public policy and education in the United States. She has a keen interest in asset-based narratives for immigrant students in traditional classrooms and the benefits of experiential learning for language acquisition and personal growth. Vanessa's diverse experiences and academic pursuits make her a captivating and adventurous individual.

Key Words: Ethical research, relational accountability, Indigenous paradigm

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