|Lindsey Te Ata o Tu MacDonald and commentary by Mandy Downing|
As a member and then chair of both a University and a community human research ethics committee in Aotearoa New Zealand, I found often that applicants considered our questions about Māori consultation almost mystical, if not downright mysterious, and had almost no idea what it meant practically. While this is changing, I thought it might be helpful to write up the framing I use to teach researchers how to go about Indigenous consultation. While I write from my experience in the Aotearoa New Zealand experience, I also have recently co-edited a volume on Indigenous experiences of research ethics (George et al., 2020), and consider these basic principles will hold up whatever jurisdiction you may happen to be in.
Researchers tend to know they should consult with Indigenous peoples, but cannot work out with whom, where to start, and how to write it up. Research ethics committees, and thus researchers, tend to explain consultation via a frame set by any number of good principled reasons as to why Indigenous peoples are a ‘special group’ with whom researchers should consult.
The reasons provided are usually some combination of Indigenous peoples being vulnerable, or a minority with unique disparities, or on the basis of a special relationship with government institutions for whom the researcher works. For instance, in New Zealand the Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi, frames the special relationship Māori individuals and organisations have with the Crown. Notwithstanding that these are important ideas, none are particularly helpful in explaining to a researcher the mechanics of working with indigenous peoples.
I suggest that instead of justifying consultation and the resulting dutiful paragraphs by researchers noting Indigenous differences in history, cultural and socio-economics, research ethics committees should attempt to focus the researcher’s mind on the practice of consultation.
That focus on practice can be activated by asking the researcher to think of engagement or consultation with Indigenous peoples as risk mitigation. Focusing on risk management creates an empowered researcher who actively manages their own engagement with the various Indigenous people and organisations who have interests in the research. In turn, that creates better ethics applications, and, given it is a more inclusive and less theoretical approach, better research. That is, I suggest we should empower the researcher to work with Indigenous peoples.
Moreover, imagining consultation is possible with the thing called ‘Māori’ or indeed ‘Indigenous peoples’ is a mistake. It is not ‘Māori’ with which the researcher must consult, but those organisations and people with an interest in the research who are Māori. There will be naturally a myriad of diverse organisations who are Māori. And they may all have an interest in the research. Those organisations have (because of their legal powers, or simply because they represent a set of citizens) the same kind of political power as other institutions in society to impact on a research programme. They might irritate, stop or complain publicly about a research programme and its conduct (e.g. consider the disruptive power on research of trade unions, protesters, hospitals, governments, incorporated societies, local councils etc).
So, when consulting with Indigenous groups, researchers should recognise they are dealing with political entities with political interests, rather than focus on them as cultural or historical icons or, worse, single monolithic ethnic populations. In this way, researchers give agency to Indigenous individuals or groups in all their glorious diversity, rather than asking them to play a role as cultural ciphers or ethnic representatives.
Understanding Indigenous groups as political agents allows researchers to understand that when they meet various Indigenous groups interested in their research, they are meeting with political, and politically powerful, entities. Then the point of research ethics of consultation with Indigenous peoples becomes clear; Indigenous institutions and individuals are owed all the dignity and respect that is owed to any group with political power that has legitimate interests in the research. The interests and powers that accrue to any group that represents participants in research are diverse and useful; whether it be a lawyer representing a participant group (via human rights legislation), or a participant using the code of research conduct set by the researchers’ university. Using a political lens, we simply treat Indigenous groups or individuals as one more set of groups with an interest (and various moral and legal tools at their disposal to leverage that interest) in the research.
This political lens frees the researcher from treating Indigenous individuals (whether as individuals, or as representatives of Indigenous groups) as symbols of the past, of a culture, of a disparity, needing ‘help’. Instead they are people who may decide whether or not to converse with the researcher about the research, and have various ways of ensuring that their voices are considered. On this view, Indigenous peoples are freed from being a tick-box exercise in a researchers or research ethics committee’s deliberations.
This politicisation of consultation may discomfort some focussed on ethics as applied philosophy. However, research ethics only counts when it is enacted. Research ethics is therefore the result of numerous decision-making processes. It is a way of setting the ground rules of conduct for each piece of research, drawing on the law and norms of the society in which the research will be conducted. Consultation with Indigenous individuals and groups is part of those small and numerous political decisions as it arises from a recognition within the law and politics of settler society that their legitimacy rests on the good will of Indigenous polities within their midst. Consultation is the major tool for managing the risk to that legitimacy, since it ensures Indigenous voices are part of the political process. In this model, consideration of indigenous interests during ethics review is part of the new governance arrangements of settler societies that ensure indigenous and non-indigenous have a political relationship that allows the continual renegotiation of the legitimacy of the settler state; in Australian vocabulary, a reconciliation, between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples living side-by-side.
Now that I have laid out the frame, what is the practical picture it presents for researchers?
I suggest research ethics committees should expect that researchers know all the Indigenous institutions that might have an interest in their research and be actively managing relationships with representatives from those institutions. If this sounds onerous, consider that a good researcher will already be doing that with every other possible group that is either a risk to, or has an interest in, the research projects which they have underway. Some examples might help to explain: a national health cohort study that includes a statistically significant Indigenous population would need at least to consider national Indigenous representatives (perhaps a national body, the national representatives at a local level?), and the national professional bodies (Indigenous health professional bodies) for a start. A small geographically discrete study of native fauna would need to consult the iwi (tribe) and hapu (subtribe) in which the fauna is located and perhaps whanau (family), or Indigenous equivalents in other settler-state jurisdictions, of the area that may have an interest.
On this line of argument, an ethics committee, I suggest, should evaluate the quality of Indigenous consultation not on the basis of its cultural safety (does it comply with a particular world view?), nor its attention of historical injustice (does it comply with some view of constitutional relationships?), but on whether the researcher has paid due attention to the diverse views of Indigenous organisations in the various relevant communities about their research. That is, the committee should look to see the extent of the research projects, and researcher’s relationships with Indigenous people. This is in no way to suggest researchers should necessarily bend their project to the views of that community, but rather that should an Indigenous institution and a researcher disagree, this is properly the domain of ethics review and should be surfaced in the process. At present a researcher avoids such research, or the Indigenous voice is neglected, or the conflict is simply avoided in the documentation.
I have found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that suggesting to researchers that Indigenous consultation is about managing risks to their research project is tremendously empowering for most, and has resulted in significantly better consultation with Indigenous individuals and groups by researchers, and significantly improved attention to Indigenous interests in the research itself. This approach lessens the chances that researchers attempt to make life easier by excluding Indigenous peoples altogether; since they have a rationale for talking with Indigenous peoples – to manage risk. Replacing an idealist ‘should’ with a realist ‘risk’ works to encourage engagement. It allows researchers to engage with Indigenous peoples as ‘people’, rather than abstract nouns. Those who find it most distasteful, oppositely, are all too often interested in ‘othering’ Indigenous peoples for their own ends, and so seek only Indigenous perspectives on their research that agree with their own, which is an oft practiced form of exclusion masquerading as ‘helping’.
Last, but most importantly, the approach suggested here, forces researchers to embrace the principle that Indigenous individuals or institutions are entitled to speak for their own interests, not to be cyphers for the various cultural or historical views that others wish to impose upon them. Moving to act on this principle is a vital step if research institutions and the wider settler society is to start rebuilding the trust of Indigenous peoples
George, L., Tauri, J., & MacDonald, L. T. A. O. T. (Eds.). (2020). Indigenous Research Ethics: Claiming Research Sovereignty Beyond Deficit and the Colonial Legacy. Emerald Publishing Limited.
 For a discussion of these Māori terms see: http://archive.stats.govt.nz/methods/classifications-and-standards/current-classifications-and-standards-review/review-statistical-standard-iwi/nz-lit-review-maori-groupings/maori-identity.aspx#gsc.tab=0
This post may be cited as:
MacDonald, L. (16 September 2020) Reframing Indigenous consultation: engagement and risk management. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/reframing-indigenous-consultation-engagement-and-risk-management/
As a member of Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) for a University and for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and as a former executive officer to a university HREC, I have encountered varying interpretations of what is an appropriate level of engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities about research. Perhaps these interpretations are due to the absence of a mandatory role for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as members of an HREC (National Statement Section 5.1.30).
Like Lindsey, as an Aboriginal member of a HREC I seek a demonstration of congruence by active engagement with Aboriginal people and their communities. Aboriginal people must be involved in the design and conduct of research with our populations (National Statement Section 4.7.11). Frequently, I see ethics applications which are absent of an Indigenous lens. An ‘Indigenous lens’ is open to some interpretation which offers flexibility to the design of the project and the research approach.
AIATSIS leads the way in demanding evidence of community support for research and the National Health and Medical Research Council request this in their guide Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities: Guidelines for researchers and stakeholders 2018 for medical research. The ‘cookie-cutter template’ letter of support is no longer acceptable. The evidence provided by the community must be authentic. These letters must inform HREC members of what engagement has occurred (this should be ongoing) and the outcome (how the community will be involved in and why they are happy to support the project). In some instances, HRECs have requested copies of minutes from community meetings which show a level of engagement where decisions and discussion occur by informed Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Anything less should not be accepted.
AIATSIS guides researchers to enter into formal agreements with communities in line with Principles 8, 9 and 10 of the 2012 Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies. The agreements must address ownership, intellectual property and data sovereignty and extend to detailing authorship, advisory positions and roles within the research design including recompense for stakeholders’ expertise and time invested into the project. An example of how to apply this is in the Collaborative Science on Kimberley Saltwater Country – A Guide for Researchers prepared by the Kimberley Land Council for the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project.
Despite this guidance, I see Australian projects which exclude the Indigenous voice. However, these projects would not occur if it were not for generous Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people volunteering their time and expertise behind the scenes. Although some of us may not have the Western qualifications of the researcher, our people have a lifetime of practising their culture and lore, which offers a unique perspective worthy of respect and recognition.
The new AIATSIS Code of Ethics is due to be released in September 2020. This will offer greater levels of guidance as to how to apply ethical considerations and engage in research discussions effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2012). Guidelines for ethical research in Indigenous Studies. https://aiatsis.gov.au/research/ethical-research/guidelines-ethical-research-australian-indigenous-studies
Lincoln, G., B.J. Austin, R.J. Dobbs, D. Mathews, D. Oades, A. Wiggan, S. Bayley, J. Edgar, T. King, K. George, J. Mansfield, J. Melbourne, T. Vigilante with the Balanggarra, Bardi Jawi, Dambimangari, Karajarri, Nyul Nyul, Wunambal Gaambera & Yawuru Traditional Owners(2017) Collaborative Science on Kimberley Saltwater Country -A Guide for Researchers V17.03. Prepared by the Kimberley Land Council for the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project (KISSP), Western Australian Marine Science Institute (WAMSI). Broome July 2017 https://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/sites/def../kimberley_saltwater_country.pdf
National Health and Medical Research Council. (2018). Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities: Guidelines for researchers and stakeholders https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/resources/ethical-conduct-research-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples-and-communities#block-views-block-file-attachments-content-block-1
 The term Aboriginal in this document means both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.