Using the tools of the oppressed – theorizing a beads-based framework for decolonizing methodologies.
Academia, among many wonderful things, was, unfortunately, rigidly formed by Eurocentric approaches to thinking and theory. We all know the big 3 – Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. We often think of these three men when the word ‘theory’ is even mentioned in Sociology. So, my initial question to myself was, how will I make a place for Indigenous epistemologies in my research? I am attempting to use beadwork as the framework for approaching decolonized methodologies, and in doing so, to forge a place for Indigenous creatives to approach their research in. When conceiving of this theory, I worried that my theory was not ‘complex’ enough. Then I realized, that this is not the Indigenous way. So, I need not pressure myself to apply these conventional standards to my work. In thinking about beads as method for decolonizing methodologies, I am inviting you, the reader, to think from an Indigenous perspective because it is not appropriate to approach this from a Eurocentric viewpoint. I am inviting you, the Indigenous reader, to find representation in my words, or to call me in if you do not. I began this project by identifying an issue in my area of interest which is: a) how do we decolonize qualitative methodologies? and b) what are some Indigenous methods of decolonizing qualitative research and how might that look? The following essay situates the concept of decolonizing methodologies historically before turning to Indigenous beadwork practices, explaining their history, their meaning, and their application to this body of scholarship.
Decolonizing Methodologies – The Beginnings:
While there are many folks who are now writing about this topic, many regard Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal work entitled Decolonizing Methodologies, originally published in 1999, to be the major player in bringing this concept to the forefront of academia. Smith’s work calls for academics to critically examine the systems and structures that uphold white, Western academic research. She questions how Eurocentric epistemologies have become synonymous with true knowledge? It may sound like a reasonable line of thought to us now, over 20 years later, but there had not yet been much produced in academia at this point that eschewed Eurocentric norms, so her work was huge in the field of decolonizing methodologies.
From Smith’s work in 1999, I noticed that there is an increasing prevalence of bodies of scholarship that focus on decolonization, or at the very least, Indigenous perspectives. Another key figure in the decolonizing methodologies game came a decade after Tuhiwai Smith. Margaret Kovach, professor at UBC published her “Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts” (2009). Here, Kovach provides concrete examples, rooted in Indigenous ontology and epistemology, for proceeding with Indigenous shaped research methodologies. To me, it’s one of the best examples of how to develop Indigenous Theory for use in academia.
Another example of research practices being Indigenized can be found with Research is Ceremony by Shawn Wilson (2008). Wilson looks at the way that relationships and relationality shape Indigenous ways of being and knowing, positing that this relationality and interconnectedness is integral to conducting research. He argues that research paradigms are made of four entities: ontology, epistemology, methodology and axiology. Rather than viewing them in a linear progression, he suggests viewing these paradigms as circular, moving clockwise and counter-clockwise concurrently, so that all aspects inform each other (Wilson, 2008). In this book he combines Indigenous ways of knowing with research, to propose that research itself is a form of ceremony. It is with a similar framework that I began to approach the concept of using beads for decolonizing methodologies.
After the first iteration of this paper was written, I came across Dr. Tiffany Dionne Prete’s paper entitled “Beadworking as an Indigenous Research Paradigm” (2019) as I was doing research for a different project. I would be remiss to overlook her work in this paper, now that it has been brought to my attention. While I was, initially, disappointed to discover that my idea was not the first of its kind, I recognize that we have much to learn from each other, and Dr. Prete’s work is foundational and vital in the decolonization of Indigenous research. For Prete, beadwork is an act of resistance, a transmission of knowledge, and resiliency (Prete 2019). She then applies these three concepts to two Indigenous scholars, Dr. Cora Weber-Pilwax and Dr. Karen Martin, work in decolonizing research methodology. Their foundations of Indigenous research, according to them, are: “recognition of world views,” “honouring aboriginal social mores,” “emphasizing social, historical and political contexts,” and privileging Indigenous voices (Martin 2002). Many of these are like Margaret Kovach’s guidelines for conducting Indigenous research, which I will employ later in this paper.
How will I contribute to this with beads?:
What are beads?:
What beads are is as multifarious as the many things that they can be used to make. I offer here an explanation of the many meanings they can hold for myself, as a member of the Indigenous beading community. I speak relationally to situate myself and my expertise within the beading community. It should be noted that I do not speak for all Indigenous people, and I wish to avoid treating the entire Indigenous community as a monolith. There are many aspects of beadwork traditions that do overlap, but protocol can and does vary from group to group. To start with, beads are medicine. They are art. They are connection to ancestors both through their knowledge forms that are passed down to us, but also by the gifts that they impart to us in dreams and messages. The act of beading and the products that we produce with beads is our ancestors speaking to us today. More to this point, is the fact that we too will one day be ancestors, so it is us speaking to our future relations. This speaks to the clockwise and counter-clockwise flow that Shaun Wilson speaks of in his work mentioned earlier. Time is cyclical and concurrent – not linear. This cyclical nature of time, counter to Eurocentric versions of time, is what allows us to simultaneously be ancestors while being among our ancestors.
Beadwork is being created, displayed, traded, and bought with growing popularity. Beadwork is beginning to see recognition as an art form, with the Beaded Nostalgia Exhibit running at Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery this year from May to October of this year (2022). Beaders from all over Turtle Island were given the opportunity to display their beaded pieces, and items ranged from hand-woven shopping bags and shop rags to exquisite and intricate pairs of beaded earrings, from over 50 contemporary bead-artists (Bill Reid Gallery). Beads can be a political statement. It is an art form that is not meant to be in existence because of persistent and violent forms of colonial assimilation, an art form that exists against the odds. With beadwork we are developing foundations for the future generations. Beading is a social activity. In-person and virtual beading circles happen all over turtle island. Beading is ceremony. There are protocols that one can follow when beading, including smudging, sobriety, and prayer. I have heard people proclaim that beads are also armour. Many Indigenous people exist in a colonial world – a world that was meant to kill them. This world is hostile to us, even now. So, in donning a pair of ancestral creations, I have heard people say that it gives them strength to face the day. They are a reminder of who they are and where they came from as they move through a world that is designed to eradicate them.
I would also like to take a moment within this paper and note that we have always been artists and beaders. I make this known where and when I can, because this is one of the criticisms I have heard over the course of my lifetime, and as a member of the beading community. Glass beads were introduced by colonizers; however, this creative expression has been practiced since time immemorial; use glass beads are an adaptation to external influences, which is vital to the continuation of cultures.
Ultimately, beading is a multidimensional, temporally, and spatially transcendental art form that can lend itself as a tool for decolonizing research, and particularly my field of interest: qualitative methodologies.
Individually, a bead is not much. It is a glass singularity. However, configured together, many beads are a meaningful conglomerate that convey Indigenous epistemologies in a culturally relevant way. These beads configured together to create meaning that mimic ways that we live Indigenously. Community over individuality is very important to living in a good way for many of us. Like beads, we group together to form a strong foundation and create meaning, and rules we use to live by.
Beads, as mentioned above, are temporally transcendental, because of the cyclical nature of time for Indigenous people. Eurocentric viewpoints posit that time is linear, yet Indigenous people know that it is cyclical. This disparity in epistemologies has, no doubt, had bearing on research conducted on Indigenous communities. The way that beads are our ancestors speaking to us, and us speaking to our future generations can inform the research process, findings, and dissemination. Rather than thinking of time as linear, viewing research as something to conduct, analyse and disseminate in that order only, a beaded framework of decolonized methodologies can offer a mutually informed framework, much like Margaret Kovach shows in her works. In Kovach’s works, Indigenous theorizing is also cyclical, and informs each aspect of research, and each aspect of research informs one another. “This is congruent with an animate epistemology that does not sever the relationship between the doer, the doing, and that what is done” (Kovach 2022, p. 183). At its meeting points, this doer-doing-done hyphenation accurately mimics Indigenous epistemologies around beadwork and the various teachings therein.
Examples of how this can look:
Beading theory can inform all aspects of one’s qualitative research. It can inform the methodologies, research process, the shaping of the findings and the dissemination. As Margaret Kovach outlines in her seminal piece, Indigenous Theorizing involves the following ways. I add to this, using examples of how beads are used to Indigenously Theorize research practices and methodologies:
1. An Indigenous Epistemology (beliefs about knowledge creation)
How this translates to bead-informed research: the researcher must understand that our ways are holistic, that we do not divide science and nature, and that time is cyclical, for example.
2. Community Collectivist Social Mores (ethical beliefs and axiological conditions)
How this translates to bead-informed research: it involves, but is not limited to understanding protocol, Indigenous ethics, and Indigenous social formations. To conduct beading circles and to understand how beads inform the research, the researcher must understand the above.
3. Colonial History (marginalization of Indigenous peoples), which involves the analysis and awareness of power relations.
How this translates to bead-informed research: for methodologies to be decolonized, ideally, there will be an Indigenous person leading or working on the project. The community can be involved in this, like in participatory action research. Being aware of the how’s and why’s that Indigenous people need to be on research times, and need to be the ones pioneering the ways in conducting decolonial research involves an acknowledgement and understanding of power relations that necessitate these actions.
4. Experiential Knowledge (self-relation)
How this translates to bead-informed research: conducting research in this way, there is an emphasis on the importance of lived experience, relationality, and community participation.
Now I would like to turn to how this looks using beads and beadwork as a theoretical framework for conducting qualitative research:
By using the concept of beads as a singularity, how this singularity supports, one by one, the structure of the amalgamation, the researcher is being instructed on how to approach their research subjects, how to shape the context in which the research is occurring, and is using or familiarizing themselves with Indigenous values and epistemologies – a vital step to be taken when researching Indigenous communities.
The Beading Circle.
Beading circles, which are culturally relevant social circles that are a valid means of sharing Indigenous knowledge, can be conducted instead of interviews, semi-structured in-depth interviews, walking interviews, or questionnaires. As Jeffrey Ansloos notes in his work on beading circles in the digital age: The holistic healing offered through beading is made tangible by the profound act of gathering in a shared space, which occurs through beading circles, and in the relationships that develop and are nourished in this act of gathering” (Ansloos et al, 2022 p. 2). In an event organized the student-led, university-based organization out of former Ryerson University, now referred to as XUniversity, called XU Pow Wow, there is a deep and meaningful discussion of the impact of beading circles in the colonial institution. Speaker Justine Woods argues that beading circles strengthen and “deepen kinship ties amongst Indigenous people through conversations that beaders have together as they bead in circle, which shape and become interwoven within the beadwork itself” (Woods in RU PowWow, 2020, min. 15:14–15:34). It is in this way that beading circles are a form of sharing knowledge.
Other ways that knowledge can be shared for meaningful interactions include knowledge shared from those who hold the knowledge to those who do not. For those who do not know how to bead, there can be teachings provided from those who do know. Other art forms can be used if participants do not wish to bead specifically. In beading circles, conversation is fluid, and the beading circle as a form of data collection for research purposes should maintain the fluid nature. There may be questions that focus on the research question at hand, and questions about sharing knowledge in beadwork, combined with the ease and flow of Indigenous style of conversation. The researcher can provide the materials for beading. Cost is a huge impediment to those who want to learn how to bead.
Because of the fluid nature of a beading circle, there will be a shift from traditional, question and answer-based interview formats to the researcher listening for answers among the conversation. While this may present challenges to the researcher trained in traditional qualitative research methods, it is feasible. Dr. Paulina Johnson has stated that she conducts her research in this way (P. Johnson, personal communication, November 16th). Further, Smith notes, in Decolonizing Methodologies, “new stories contribute to a collective story in which every Indigenous person has a place” (2021, p. 166). Indigenous storytelling and oral traditions have always been important to many Indigenous groups, serving to “connect the past with the future, one generation with the other, the land with the people, and the people with the story” (166). Storytelling is multifarious a culturally relevant tool to Indigenous researchers and Indigenous research participants as beads are. These circles can open the door for oral tradition to be made relevant in qualitative research. Oral stories have long been used in Indigenous communities to pass down a variety of histories. Story telling is a medium that is still used today. It is familiar and comfortable to many.
This is not a fast method. It takes much learning and many steps on behalf of researchers, but, I ask, why shouldn’t it? There is no more room for fast-paced, neoliberal informed, in-and-out research approaches in Indigenous communities. It is time to start repairing the damage that these approaches have caused.
Some questions that remain to be explored: Can beads be used in the analysis of data collection? If so, how? Can beads be used to disseminate findings?
Too long have Indigenous people been represented in ways that are foreign to us. The tools and words of academia illicit confusion to those outside of Eurocentric academia. So why would these be the tools that Indigenous people are studied by and explained with? We need to move forth in academia, and subvert the norms that have previously allowed pale, male, stale scholars to extract Indigenous knowledges to little or no benefit to Indigenous groups being studied. There has been a great power imbalance that is only now, coming to be reckoned with. Of course, Indigenous groups are not the only group that is overstudied and underserved, and in beginning to think critically about these imbalances, perhaps there can be a ripple effect that sees folks looking critically at all areas that academia has previously tainted. Further, the effects of colonialism are ongoing. They need to be addressed by the institution, and now. Paulina Johnson argues: “confronting ideologies of oppression is essential in order to decolonize our minds and our disciplines because we are not in postcolonial times” (2016, p. 54).
Who can do this, how and why?:
As Margaret Kovach asks, can non-Indigenous people employ these techniques? (Kovach 2021) I do not have a concrete yes or no to offer. What I will say is this:
It is important for those who do hold power to use those voices to uplift marginalized people, those who do not have the same strength of voice in our society. I offer beading theory as a framework for decolonizing methodologies because it requires a two-way interaction. The researcher must wade into Indigenous epistemologies and truly understand protocol to use this method.
If there are no Indigenous people on the team, and the research must be undertaken, there can be training of Indigenous people to work alongside researchers. This is not dissimilar to Participatory Action Research. AT all times, the non-Indigenous researcher must be aware of the risk of cultural appropriation and ask themselves if they are using Indigenous methods solely to their benefit, or if there is someone they could train to be in their position. Jefferey Ansloos, in his work on beading circles in art therapy spaces declares: “we call on non-Indigenous people working in therapeutic spaces to be in better relations with Indigenous people and to be accountable to the ongoing systemic oppressions and colonial violence embedded in mainstream therapeutic practices” (10). Like Ansloos, I implore non-Indigenous researchers to be cognizant of their position, and actively work to find solutions to colonial violence embedded within academia.
Finally, make room for Indigenous voices. Researchers need to make sure that Indigenous voices are being heard. Get them to help you write your findings, look over your work and make sure it is in line with the needs and understanding of the community. More importantly, can they understand it? Using language that is out of the vernacular of those being studied only reifies the power imbalances between academia and Indigenous communities.
This is, by no means, a comprehensive approach to using beadwork as theory for decolonizing methodology. This is a start towards considering such things and it is my hope that it is something that I can expand on as I make my way through university.
Ansloos, J., Morford, A. C., Dunn, N. S., DuPré, L., & Kucheran, R. (2022). Beading Native
Twitter: Indigenous arts-based approaches to healing and resurgence. The Arts in
Psychotherapy, 79, 101914.
Bill Reid Galley – Beaded nostalgia exhibit https://www.billreidgallery.ca/blogs/exhibitions-
Johnson, P. (2016). Indigenous knowledge within academia: Exploring the tensions that exist
between Indigenous, decolonizing, and Nêhiyawak methodologies. The University of
Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, 24(1).
Kovach, M. (2021). Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts.
University of Toronto press.
Martin, K. (2002). Ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of doing: Developing a theoretical
framework and methods for Indigenous re-search and Indigenist research. Unpublished
Prete, T. D. (2019). Beadworking as an indigenous research paradigm. Art/Research
International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, 4(1), 28-57.
RU PowWow. (2020). Beading Circles in Colonial Institutions. 〈https://www.youtube.
Smith, L. T. (2021). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples.
Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony. Indigenous research methods. Winnipeg: Fernwood.
Works for further consideration:
Allaire, Christian. 2020. “How Virtual Beading Circles Are Empowering Indigenous
Women.” Vogue, 24 March. https://www.vogue.com/article/indigenous-virtual-
beadwork-circles-tania-larsson. Accessed 27 May 2020.
Gray, M. J. (2017). Beads: Symbols of Indigenous cultural resilience and value (Doctoral
dissertation, University of Toronto (Canada)).
Hemsworth, K., Greer, K., Paulin, M., Sutherland, K., & Shabogesic, J. M. L. (2021).
Maada’oonidiwag gete-dibaajimowen (“sharing old stories”): reflections on a place-based
reparatory research partnership in Nbisiing Anishinaabeg Territory. GeoJournal.
Lana Whiskeyjack https://lanawhiskeyjack.ca
Virtual beading circle provides space for Indigenous artists to meet, collaborate.(News). (2020,
November 13). The Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario), NA.
Wenzel, A. (2021). Circling COVID: Making in the Time of a Pandemic. Anthropologica, 63(1),
My website: www.waawaatebeads.com