[How Do We “Know” The World Series] Part XIII: The Problem of Postcolonial Historical Research within Colonial Epistemologies and Methodologies

by Rachel Huber

In postcolonial historical research conducted from a Eurocentric perspective, a contradiction has prevailed so far: the majority of research projects are conducted in colonial language and follow partial colonial logic.

In general, the Western academic institutionalized space and scientific thought structures are based on a colonial genealogy that not only perpetuates a cognitive imperialism, but also apostrophizes the sovereignty of interpretation over the provenance of knowledge and determines which knowledge has priority. According to Olaf Kaltmeier, this “ego-centric perspective merges into a Euro-centrism in which all other knowledge systems are devalued as irrational or superstitious”. (Kaltmeier, 2016, p.49) The fact that there is still one-sided research on Indigenous history represents an epistemological problem for quite a few Indigenous scientists, which the researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes as tautology: “The globalization of knowledge and Western culture permanently confirms the self-image of the West as the center of legitimate knowledge, as arbitrator of what is recognized as knowledge (…) In the face of this ‘epistemological violence’, the point is to decolonize and democratize the way knowledge is acquired in order to multiply history.” (Smith, 1999, p.63) In this formulation lies implicitly not only a serious imperative for Western scientific confrontations with Indigenous history, it also represents an explicit critique of Western research that marginalizes Indigenous knowledge systems and values.

Multiplication of history from a Eurocentric perspective can mean breaking down metanarratives of different nations, which in most cases focus on the history of white male power, in order to integrate the various “counter-stories” (Jay Winter) and thus to work out the multilateralism interwoven in global history. In a postcolonial context, the “counter-stories” are mostly Indigenous history, but, as mentioned above, they are developed within a methodology that follows mostly colonial logic.

Within the framework of the theoretical critique outlined above, one possibility is to attempt to proceed as epistemologically decolonizing as possible – especially in view of the circumstance, that language alone must partially follow colonial logic. This can be achieved through a catalogue of premises which initiates a change of perspective (away from the Western to the Indigenous perspective) through the following research prerequisites:

  • A sensitive selection of terms that establish a narrative more in keeping with the Indigenous perspective: from an Indigenous perspective, Columbus is an invader, not a discoverer. From the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples of North America, the first Anglo-Europeans did not populate the land, they occupied it.
  • Instead of another victim narrative that perpetuates the invisibility of the Indigenous side of American history and thereby weakens Indigenous societies, a success story in the sense of “We’re still here” is to be written. The researcher Andrea Smith sees in the traditional scientific emphasis on the decimation of Indigenous societies a devaluation and second classification of Indigenous history: “Even within feminist circles, the colonial logic prevails that women of color, indigenous women, and women from Global South countries are only victims of oppression rather than organizers in their own right” (Smith, 2005, p.25).
  • The question of compatibility of traditional knowledge and science: “Can we extend traditional Indigenous ways of knowing to scholarly endeavors?” (David Newhouse, 2016)
  • The focus of the research literature is on the titles of both Indigenous and Western researchers.
  • Oral history represents the core of knowledge production.
  • Because quite a few Indigenous societies still feel that they are in a colonial state, the research category “Postcolonial Studies” should be reconsidered. Here, the question of another (theoretical, conceptual etc.) approach has to be raised.
  • Focus on digital history: This relatively new field of research can make visible the suppressed and invisible history of subalterns and formerly colonized societies.

Of course, it is problematic to analyze a research problem in postcolonial historical research with the generalizing term “Indigenous”, since according to Tuhiwai Smith very different indigenous groups are collectivized, which not only differ culturally, but have also had diverging experiences with colonialism. A more positive connotation is the relatively new creation of the term “Indigenous Peoples.” Smith sees the “S” in “Peoples” as a signum that respects the differences of the most diverse Indigenous population groups and at the same time this expression has established a supraethnic collective that can raise a common voice in the process of self-determination in a global political arena (Smith, 2012, p.6).

The example of the Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty movement in the USA, which is subsumed under the – also problematic – term “Red Power”, shows that many could and had to identify with the supraethnic identity of “Indigenous Peoples” in order to successfully stand up against centuries of oppression by the U.S. government and the white majority society, which was painful for all Indigenous nations. Only a pan-Indigenous resistance movement could provide the impetus for an at least partial process of emancipation (between 1975 and 1978, various important laws were passed to preserve the particularities of Indigenous culture. Among them for example the American Indian Religious Freedom Act) and a positively connotated collective identity of the “Indigenous Peoples” in the USA which went beyond ethnic affiliations (Johnson, Champagne, Nagel, 1997, S.9).

Ramona Bennett (1938, Puyallup) described the occupation of Alcatraz in California in 1969, initiated by Indigenous students (LaNada Means, 1944 ca., Shoshone-Bannock), as an initial spark for various Indigenous societies that was motivating for many and at least partially overcame ethnocentrism: “During that period of time we closely followed the events at Alcatraz, and all kinds of light bulbs started flashing.” (Bennet in Philips, 1995, p.236).

In this sociopolitical sphere there is consequently also the one Indigenous idea, namely the idea of self-determination. According to many Indigenous scientists from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and South America, self-determination can only be achieved through decolonization. If research is based in this socio-political Indigenous space, it should deal with how to write a decolonized Indigenous history. Therefore researchers, Indigenous and Western, should work towards the production of Indigenous epistemologies, methodologies and ontologies that are also commonly accepted in Western academia. While a code of conduct for researchers who work with Indigenous history should be established, maybe the focus on a supraethnic identity (“Indigenous Peoples”) could also help within the global fight towards decolonization and self-determination.

Rachel Huber is a researcher at the history department of the University of Lucerne, Switzerland, currently writing her PhD dissertation on: “War Women, Peace Women, Beloved Women. Hidden Narratives within the Red Power, 1960-1980–Can Digital History make the Histories of Suppressed Minorities Visible?”

Rachel’s research focusses on Global History, Digital History, Entangled History (Transatlantic History), and Decolonization of Science.

She is on the editorial board of the Swiss journal “Traverse. Zeitschrift für Geschichte” and of the international open access multilingual blogjournal “Public History Weekly”


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