Featured Philosopher: Kyle Whyte


Kyle Whyte holds the Timnick Chair in the Humanities and is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. He is a faculty member of the Environmental Philosophy & Ethics graduate concentration and serves as a faculty affiliate of the American Indian Studies and Environmental Science & Policy programs. His primary research addresses moral and political issues concerning climate policy and Indigenous peoples and the ethics of cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and climate science organizations. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Indigenous Research and Professional Philosophy in the U.S.

Kyle Whyte

I write as an Indigenous philosopher working in a U.S. department of philosophy. One of my goals is to make it possible for more Indigenous persons to be professional philosophers while also living fulfilling lives and careers according to the values of their own communities and nations. Here I would like to introduce the idea of Indigenous research as a way of glimpsing just one of the topics that requires critical reflection for this goal to be advanced.

Indigenous peoples refer to self-determining communities and nations who now live in territories dominated largely by nation state governments, such as New Zealand, corporations, such as Exxon Mobil, and all their subnational and subsidiary organizations, such as the state of Michigan or Dakota Access, LLC. Indigenous peoples continue to exercise cultural and political self-determination across diverse places, including metropolitan areas and treaty lands, though they must reckon with legacies and ongoing practices of capitalist exploitation, colonialism, settlement, and imperialism. For many of us Indigenous persons, our lives are closely tied to the resurgence of our communities and nations across the diverse places in which we live, work, and play.

Indigenous persons with PhD degrees in philosophy from anglophone universities and who work at U.S. institutions of higher education are relatively few in number, roughly less than 20 persons total, including those who are retired and those close to finishing their degrees. They have produced significant work, from Anne Water’s comparative philosophy, to Brian Burkhardt’s epistemology, to David Martinez’ histories of Indigenous philosophy, to Viola Cordova’s ontological and moral philosophy, to Dale Turner’s critical philosophy—and more philosophical projects and writings, of course, than I have the space to reference here.

There have been a range of projects that Indigenous philosophers working at U.S. institutions have been part of, including an anthology, American Indian Thought (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), and The American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Indigenous Philosophers. The committee, currently chaired by Waters, has revived its newsletter under the editorship of Shay Welch, Agnes Curry, and Andrea Sullivan-Clarke.

Indigenous research is a global movement that—at least in my experience—few philosophy PhD holders have really heard of, exceptions being philosophers working in some areas of Indigenous philosophy, decolonial/anti-colonial philosophy, feminist philosophy, and certainly others too. Here I mean a narrow conception of Indigenous research as referring to any investigations produced through Indigenous systems of inquiry and that seek to advance Indigenous peoples’ aspirations.

In this narrow sense, not all Indigenous philosophy research is Indigenous research. This statement is by no means a criticism of the former. For the Indigenous research movement is not recommending a comprehensive agenda for all matters related to Indigenous peoples in philosophy or any other field. Indeed, as I will try to explain in this piece, it is an open question as to whether it is possible for philosophers working in U.S. institutions to do Indigenous research while succeeding in their professional careers.

Though diverse in its intellectual origins, including connections to community-based participatory research and feminist methodologies, one key architect of the Indigenous research movement is the Māori research movement in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Linda Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Zed, 1999) and the Tertiary Education Commission’s funding of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, New Zealand’s Māori Centre of Research Excellence (2002), are two major events that built off of over 30 years of advocacy for Indigenous research by Māori leaders and scholars.

Called Kaupapa Māori research, Smith defines Indigenous research in the Māori context as inquiry that “sets out to make a positive difference for Māori, that incorporates a model of social change or transformation, that privileges Māori knowledge and ways of being, that sees the engagement in theory as well as empirical research as a significant task, and that sets out a framework for organizing, conducting, and evaluating Māori research. It is also an approach that is active in building capacity and research infrastructure in order to sustain a sovereign research agenda that supports community aspirations and development” (pg. 120, On Tricky Ground, 2007).

As a member of the International Advisory Board for Ngā Pae, I have reviewed a range of Kaupapa Māori research projects. One study investigates Māori language revitalization through centering Māori family and social relationships as a research method for finding out more about language learning. The results promise to inform Māori leaders and educators and New Zealand policy-makers too. Another study investigates whether people’s environmental health is related to their participation in community conservation activities. The study is organized using Māori conceptual frameworks that are hard to translate into English, including kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and mauri (holistic cultural, ecological, and community well-being).

Professional philosophers are engaging with Kaupapa Māori research too. Krushil Watene recently received a Marsden Foundation grant to investigate Māori concepts of social justice in comparison to Potawatomi and Ubuntu concepts, instead of using privileged philosophies such as those of Plato or Rawls as the assumed basis for comparison. This project will perhaps be one among many more to come.

In these projects, what is distinctive about Indigenous research is the process of research itself, which, in short, takes place largely outside of academic institutions or at least does not privilege nonindigenous organizational structures, curriculum, and expected qualifications for faculty or expert status. Māori leaders and community members worked with the Māori researchers to develop the goals, approaches to inquiry, and strategies for ensuring the work builds Māori research capacities.

In North America, Indigenous research is growing too, and features thousands of notable examples. The College of Menominee Nation (Keshena, WI) developed its own research institute in 1994, the Sustainable Development Institute, which is “dedicated to examining sustainability issues and applying them to the Menominee model of sustainable development.” Through observing research processes that involve spending large amounts of time in the Menominee’s sustainable forest, some scientific collaborators begin to grasp how Menominee’s protocols of respect for the agency of the forest as a living, spiritual ecosystem translate into stewardship practices that continue to support the Tribe’s continuance in the face of U.S. settler colonialism.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Department of Natural Resources organize their environmental and climate change research through following the processes and protocols of their comprehensive social and ecological system, difficult to translate, called Tamanwit. While many scientists consider such processes and protocols highly unusual for research, investigating the world this way not only has improved understanding of ecological indicators other scientists would miss, but promoted awareness of gender justice in the Tribal community.

The Indigenous research movement is active within U.S. and Canadian institutions to of higher education. Indigenous Studies programs, such as at Trent University, have elders as faculty members, require students to engage with the languages and philosophies of the Tribes in the region (Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee), and offer spaces and peer review options for students to engage in research according to their own traditional learning and research practices (or those of the nations and communities they work with). They have redesigned everything about the organizational structure of the program to reflect, as best possible, learning and research processes associated with Indigenous systems of inquiry.

I reference these examples because they involve both the production of processes of inquiry but also the capacity building that Smith discusses. They produce knowledge at the same time they rebuild Indigenous peoples’ capacities to create and govern their own research. The processes of research generate different questions and insights; at the same time, they produce benefits for Indigenous peoples and strengthen Indigenous capacities to facilitate further beneficial research in the future.

Even though, since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have always engaged in inquiry, like most other societies, Indigenous research must be articulated as a movement because U.S., New Zealand, Canadian and other settlers suppress Indigenous systems of inquiry and exploit Indigenous persons in settler research, which has given “research” a bad name among many Native people. Settlers rejected Indigenous systems of inquiry as nonscientific, subjected Indigenous persons to brutal research practices, forcibly divested Indigenous peoples through boarding schools of the building blocks of Indigenous systems of inquiry, including language, skill sets, and kinship relations, and created theories of genetics or history that relegate Indigenous persons to positions of inferiority, among other wrongs.

While the field of philosophy does not have some of the riskier research methods of other fields, there are nonetheless quite blatant problems of settler colonial erasure in the U.S. philosophy profession. Indigenous people typically only garner mention in teaching and research as cases or illustrations that factor into settler and other philosophers’ debates as evidence or counterexamples. Despite there being thousands of Indigenous philosophical traditions in North America, few if any philosophy departments offer more than a single class (if that) on any of these traditions, even the ones of the peoples on whose lands particular colleges or universities stand. Departments and professional organizations have also not engaged in reconciliation efforts as have occurred in other fields, such as geography.

More insidiously, philosophical topics are sometimes organized conceptually to convey falsehoods about Indigenous peoples, e.g. the debate over whether Indigenous peoples are justified in making “special rights” claims against “states.” It is also just troubling to be in a profession, at least in the U.S. context, in which you know that many of your colleagues were not raised to have any awareness of the thousands of Indigenous nations and communities living today—so many complex and diverse cultural, political, social, legal, economic Indigenous worlds that are erased from the perceptions, memories, and experiences of so many colleagues working in U.S. institutions.

Is it possible for a professional philosopher at a U.S. institution of higher education to pursue Indigenous research? If something like Indigenous research is possible for philosophers, we first have to start with the idea that Indigenous peoples already have institutions and contexts where philosophizing—broadly construed—occurs and matters to Indigenous aspirations.

For example, Anishinaabe/Neshnabé peoples have rich philosophical practices, from the more esoteric societies, such as the Midewiwin lodges, to the formal consensus processes and informal everyday dialogue protocols used to deliberate about the reasonableness of competing theories for how people should respond to pressing cultural, political, social, ethical and economic issues. These processes and protocols are fora for debating topics as diverse as the meaning of environmental stewardship, the nature and existence of Indigenous rights, the legitimacy of traditions (e.g. gender traditions), and the nature of political authority, among many other topics.

The conventions of philosophizing are likely to be different in these contexts than in U.S. philosophy departments. For example, the environment is not cordoned off from any philosophical concepts, the Anishinaabemowin language is invoked to clarify concepts that can’t be expressed in English, having a PhD in philosophy is not privileged, and there is no expectation to persuade anyone that one’s philosophical ideas are “new” or the pure products of one’s individual intellectual labor—and many more differences. Anishinaabe conventions for philosophizing promote the possibility of different philosophical questions, connections, insights, debates, and solutions than may get raised elsewhere.

If, again, Indigenous research involves making investigations through Indigenous systems of inquiry that advance Indigenous aspirations, then “Indigenous research” by professional philosophers would mean actually philosophizing in the type of Indigenous context such as the one I described—which is just one of many.

While I am hopeful for the future, I have serious concerns in the present in the U.S. as to whether it is possible to meet the research, teaching, and service requirements of our departments while at the same time engaging in Indigenous research processes designed collaboratively with Indigenous communities and nations and that benefit their aspirations. Indigenous research approaches, such as Kaupapa Māori, require researchers to ask demanding questions before they begin their work.

Consider just a few of these questions. Can philosophical research in U.S. philosophy departments really benefit Indigenous peoples? Would a department ever change its own organizational structure, curriculum, and expected qualifications for faculty appointments as an attempt to decenter colonial power from the pursuit of philosophy? Suffice it to say, Indigenous persons and others creating paths for advancing Indigenous research in relation to their appointments in U.S. anglophone institutions navigate, as Smith would say, tricky ground.




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