The Effects of Imperialism on Indigenous People

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Linda Tuhiwai Smith illustrates, through the first chapter of the book ‘Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples’, a deconstruction of Western research methods and ways of knowing to understand more deeply the traditionally favored imperialistic ways of knowing and how they impact and negatively effect, both in the past and present indigenous histories, stories of research and of being the study of researcher. Indigenous experience, or the modern experience, Smith argues, is framed by imperialism. Colonialism, which is expressed through imperialism, and its negative effects still continue to plague and harm indigenous people outside of its effects of text and literature. She argues the live experiences of indigenous people can be used to better understand concepts such as imperialism and the impacts it plays on discourse and how we pass on these histories. Smith contextualizes four ways, that are often not visible, the ideas of indigenous peoples are articulated imperialism, history, writing, and theory. She chooses these because of the emotional and historical feelings they envoke that make them problematic for indigenous people, but also because of the ways they underpin the practices of researchers working with indigenous cultures. Her attempt is to highlights the underlying assumptions and motivations of researchers to create a crucial understanding of decolonization processes.

Imperialism can start to be understood early on with Christopher Columbus who acts as the most prominent figure in indigenous histories to represent an imperial “legacy of suffering and destruction”. The experiences of indigenous peoples at the hands of Columbus, James Cook, and other prominent historical figures who are, in imperial literature, looked upon as heroes, or conquerors is much different. They are instead known for bringing disease, capitalism, Christianity, predatory individualism and colonizing. The dehumanizing effects of ‘discovery’ or ‘conquest’ are ignored without this necessary understanding of history that is ignored. She continues to showcase the different ways in which imperialism is used, as a form of economic expansion, as a form of creation and subjection of ‘the other’; as an idea or spirit with various forms of realization; and finally as a discursive field of knowledge, all in which colonize and dehumanize indigenous peoples.

In a historical context, Indigenous peoples have and are more recently working to re-write and re-right their position in history with a particular critique with their position as the ‘other’. With the works of self-determined and restorative efforts, Indigenous peoples are actively telling and recording their versions of their truths, experiences, and stories with their own ways of naming and knowing and conceptualization that work against the historical exclusion, under-representation, and misrepresentation in many historical records. While postmodernism, she argues, has worked to give truthfulness to non-indigenous researchers to questioned account, it is important to remember indigenous truths and experiences and histories are held hostage or suspect in a Western system that holds the traditional way of story-making and story-telling on a pedestal subjecting Indigenous histories to be demoted to oral traditions.

Finally, for writing and theory, “Indigenous peoples have been, in many ways, oppressed by theory”. Traditional historical research theories, and even modern ones we use today suppress and distort Indigenous experience. Smith acknowledges many of the traditional ways of knowing are still valued among indigenous peoples and are used but do not recount a true showing of Indigenous experiences and stories and can often distort the meaning and voices of Indigenous peoples. She supports Grace’s voice, a Maori researcher, that her experience is that she does not recognize her people when they are accounted for in academic writing.

In conclusion, Smith looks to anthropological theories that aim to understand and validate all experiences within a culture and supports beliefs that theoretical tools for understanding Indigenous peoples must be developed by the people who understand what it means to be an Indigenous person. This is a crucial change and process to re-align and challenge the way in which research is conducted, especially pertaining to Indigenous people. Indigenous people must re-gain and hold power over themselves she finishes with a quote that “real power lies with those who design the tools—it always has”.

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