The Promise of Encounter: Recent Research in "Native Studies" from University of British Columbia Press

By Anker, Kirsten | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Promise of Encounter: Recent Research in "Native Studies" from University of British Columbia Press


Anker, Kirsten, Journal of Canadian Studies


The Promise of Encounter: Recent Research in "Native Studies" from University of British Columbia Press Indigenous Legal Traditions. Ed. Law Commission of Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 192 pp. $85.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-7748-1370-9. $29.95 (paper) ISBN 978-0-7748-1371-6.

Let Right Be Done: Aboriginal Title, the Calder Case, and the Future of Indigenous Rights. Ed. Hamar Foster, Heather Raven and Jeremy Webber. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 352 pp. $90.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-7748-1403-4. $32.95 (paper) ISBN 978-0-7748-1404-1.

New Histories for Old: Changing Perspectives on Canada's Native Pasts. Ed. Ted Binnema and Susan Neylan. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007. 304 pp. $85.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-7748-1413-3. $34.95 (paper) ISBN 978-0-7748-1414-0.

Before the 1967 referendum in Australia, Indigenous Australians were not counted in the census as people but, as common wisdom has it, were classified with flora and fauna. Although somewhat apocryphal in formal terms,1 the classification does broadly reflect attitudes of the scientific community throughout the colonial world until the later decades of the twentieth century. In Canada and Australia, as elsewhere, Indigenous peoples were the objects of research rather than themselves theorists, thinkers, and agents of scientific knowledge. In disciplinary terms, they fell on the other side of the divide between history and anthropology, between science and myth, or between law and custom (Attwood 1996; Fitzpatrick 1992; Scott 1996; Trigger 1982).

The emergence of fields like ethnohistory, Native science, and legal pluralism from the 1970s on have brought Indigenous perspectives on processes of cultural change, knowledge construction, and social regulation or governance into mainstream history, science, and law so as to challenge their disciplinary boundaries, foundational assumptions, and methodologies. This movement has had an ethical as well as an epistemological component, one that seeks to redress the passive, colonizing role accorded to Indigenous individuals and communities in research. Reflecting this, contemporary guidelines for research in Aboriginal communities from bodies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council have moved beyond the narrow, individualistic, and essentially medical model of informed consent protocols that dominated earlier ethics standards. Guidelines created by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2005) now suggest that not only are Indigenous perspectives and knowledges to be respected through consultation that recognizes relevant expertise of community members, but also that such research projects ought to be partnerships in which communities are to be encouraged to collaborate in project design and execution. That is, an ethical research practice in Indigenous studies is not simply one that includes diverse voices and perspectives, but one that commits to a mutual engagement over the very paradigm of research.

These guidelines seem limited to empirical research - that is, research that involves Aboriginal peoples as human subjects - rather than embracing a broader ethics of responsible research in Indigenous studies. Perhaps this explains the lack of explicit attention to matters of research ethics in three edited collections recently published by University of British Columbia Press in its Native Studies section. I will argue in this review essay, however, that each volume, in its own way, has taken an ethical stance commensurate with the need to recognize Indigenous peoples' agency in academic research. This stance is nicely encapsulated by a phrase evoked by Christina Godlewska and Jeremy Webber in Let Right Be Done: the promise, indeed the privilege, of encounter (2007, 33). The "ethics of encounter" has a specific connotation in philosophical discourse that I will not engage directly here (Lévinas 1969, 1998; Althusser 2006), but I will note that the contingency and proximity of encounter are suggested as an alternative to the primacy of ontology in Western philosophy in which relations between self and other are either inclusive (and assimilated to the same terms) or exclusive (and incommensurably different).

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