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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 6 | Jun. 3, 2004

Respectful Research Paramount to First Nations Studies

By Brian Lin

Traditional research methodologies often fall short in their approaches to First Nations issues, according to the director of UBC’s new First Nations Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts.

“University researchers tend to deal with First Nations communities from a position of expert privilege,” says Linc Kesler, who joined UBC to help launch the program in January 2003. “That’s not always the most productive approach.”

First Nations have a strong oral history tradition, says Kesler. But researchers aren’t always aware of community concerns regarding the sharing of information.

“Most First Nations cultures believe that as the mode of transmission changes, the way knowledge functions also changes,” says Kesler, whose family comes from the Lakota Nation in South Dakota. “Some information is also considered very private, so there is a reluctance to having it published in the public domain.”

Kesler says there have been instances where researchers identified locations of natural resources on First Nations land as part of an academic study, which resulted in the resources being exploited commercially, putting the community at risk of losing its livelihood.

That’s why the program is focused on building relationships that emphasize reciprocity and respect.

“Students are not only taught the research skills but challenged to consider the implications of their approach and its impact on the community’s cultural integrity,” says Kesler.

In order to receive a major designation in First Nations Studies, students are required to complete a core curriculum and a year-long practicum in which they collaborate with First Nations communities and organizations to identify their needs and design projects that address the challenges while building on the opportunities.

This year, student practicum projects ranged from needs assessment of Aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside to increasing accessibility to important political and historical documents through modern technology such as digital videography and the Internet.

“Undergraduate research can have immediate and practical benefits for First Nations communities and organizations. And our first class of students have -- through their practicum -- demonstrated what university researchers have to offer if their capabilities are matched by their respect for the needs and wishes of the community.”

Where possible students also work to develop further tools that will sustain the project beyond the term of the internship.

“Students have the opportunity to see the theories they learn in class at work,” says Kesler.

The program will also increase Aboriginal content and discussion on Aboriginal issues in other UBC departments to the benefit of all students. Through collaboration in faculty recruitment and curriculum design, says Kesler, both students and instructors will become more aware of the Aboriginal perspective and how issues are presented in areas such as history, politics, art and culture.

Kesler admits it’s a balancing act satisfying the needs of a diverse group of students, including Aboriginal students who are seeking knowledge about their own heritage -- perhaps for the first time in their lives; non-Aboriginals who want to work in the First Nations community, and those who come with a strong Aboriginal background.

“By identifying critical issues that are universal to minority groups and addressing individual needs through a flexible assignment structure, we’re ready to meet the challenge head on.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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