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Indigenous Research and Ethics

a guide to reading, researching, and studying topics related to Indigenous Peoples and Communities

Indigenous Knowledge in Academic Contexts

Researchers that only use academic markers of authority (peer review, academic credentials, etc.) to evaluate information will find a one-sided perspective because academic sources are most often written about Indigenous communities rather than by them. Reliance on academic authority effectively silences many of the voices of Indigenous people on their own culture. Under this colonialist construction of knowledge, interpretation of Indigenous cultures is denied to members of that culture and reserved for those with academic authority. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) so searingly recounts in the introduction to her book, the Western monopoly on interpretation is incredibly painful to Indigenous cultures:

"It galls us that Western researchers and intellectuals can assume to know all that is possible to know of us... It appalls us that the West can desire, extract, and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas....”

Western systems of knowledge appropriate and at the same time devalue information created by Indigenous ways of knowing. When working with Indigenous Knowledge in an academic context, it is vital to respect Indigenous Knowledge's authority, agency, and voice. Do not treat Indigenous authorities as mere "informants," but rather as equals in the knowledge creation process.

What is Indigenous Knowledge?

There are many definitions of Indigenous knowledge, sometimes called Traditional Knowledge. Here are two:

“Local and Indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and Indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life. This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality. These unique ways of knowing are important facets of the world’s cultural diversity, and provide a foundation for locally-appropriate sustainable development.” (UNESCO, n.d.)

“Traditional Indigenous knowledge can be defined as a network of knowledges, beliefs, and traditions intended to preserve, communicate, and contextualize Indigenous relationships with culture and landscape over time...they include: oral narratives that recount human histories; cosmological observations and modes of reckoning time; symbolic and decorative modes of communication; techniques for planting and harvesting; hunting and gathering skills; specialized understandings of local ecosystems; and the manufacture of specialized tools and technologies...” (Bruchac, 2014)

Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Knowledge

Indigenous Knowledge systems are diverse and multifarious, though they often share practices based on long histories of accumulated experiences with the world. The particulars and specifics of this knowledge are related to the whole as Indigenous Knowledge is often holistic and interrelated (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2005). This knowledge is passed on through stories, demonstrations, and trial. Mastery depends on practical application of knowledge and indeed is tested through everyday survival: 

“Knowledge is something you do; not a pre-existing tool independent of the person holding it, nor of the uses it might be put” (Doxtator, 1996).


Western knowledge is typically compartmentalized, taught in detached and decontextualized settings, and indirectly measured with tests rather than judged based on one’s ability to put that knowledge into practice. 

In traditional Indigenous Knowledge systems there is respect and trust for inherited wisdom, often communicated through an Oral Tradition, and for knowledge that has proved its utility in everyday practices. There is respect for stories that connect the particulars of knowledge to holistic worldviews, values, and life ways. Knowledge is often collective, evolving in a community of users, knowers, and actors. Authority is not conferred via systematic processes of Western bureaucracy, but rather through community decision making and respect for the knowledge and authority of elders (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2005).


Traditional Indigenous Knowledge Systems compared to Western Knowledge Systems

Used with permission from Stephens (2000)


Indigenous Research Methods

Citation Justice

It is vital for students and scholars to consider their practices of citing sources, as these practices are part of how we attribute knowledge and ideas. These practices reflect whose voices are heard and prioritized, what counts as "knowledge," and who can be creators and holders of knowledge. There is growing movement around citational justice or citation politics, to #CiteIndigenousAuthors, a parallel to #CiteBlackWomen. For a list of readings and resources, please see this citation politics guide for First Nations and Indigenous Studies from the University of British Columbia.

Sources and Attribution


Barnhardt, R., & Angayuqaq, O. K. (2005). Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska Native ways of knowingAnthropology and Education          Quarterly, 36(1), 8-23.

Bruchac, M. (2014). Indigenous knowledge and traditional knowledge. In Smith, C. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of global archaeology, 3814-3824. Springer.

Doxtator, D., and Clark J.E. (1996). Basket, bead and quill. Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

Smith, L.T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. Zed Books.

Stephens, S. (2000). Handbook for culturally responsive science curriculum. Alaska Science Consortium and the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (n.d.). What is local and indigenous knowledge. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from


Content on this page used and adapted with permission from University Libraries at University of Colorado Boulder.