The Power of Language in Academia and Indigenous Populations

Language has always been a passion of mine.  The concept that arbitrary utterances possess meaning and shape ideas within the worldviews of those who employ is profound.  The fact that some ideas can only be conveyed within the language they were conceived tantalizes me.  Language is a means of perpetuating social constructs, identities, histories, ideas, and worldviews.  It transforms, shifts, adapts to the ideological, cultural, political, and social needs of those who implement it.  It is a reflection of society and, ultimately, humanity.  This is precisely why Tuhiwai-Smith’s (1999) chapter entitled “Imperialism, History, Writing and Theory” from Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous Peoples immediately captivated me.

The chapter begins by outlining the various forms in which Western imperialism and colonialism have impacted indigenous communities.  Understanding the continual effect and perpetuation of imperialism and colonialism is the critical and initial step in decolonizing research methodologies, as “decolonization is a process which engages with imperialism and colonialism at multiple levels” (Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999, p. 20).  Tuhiwai-Smith explains that the connection between imperialism and colonialism is that colonialism is an extension through which imperialism is exacted.  Western imperialism, which began in the fifteenth century, can be described as economic expansion, subjugation of ‘others’, idea with multiple forms of realization, and discursive field of knowledge.  Imperialism follows a linear chronology of “ ‘discovery’, conquest, exploitation, distribution and appropriation” (p. 21).  Colonialism is the act of economic, political, social, and cultural domination.  One form of colonialism is the determination of which version of history is repeated and, therefore, legitimized by mainstream society.

Tuhiwai-Smith (1999) argues that the standard of determining legitimate history was through the implementation of written language.  Western imperialist researchers perceived written language as an objective criterion for categorizing people as “civilized” or “savages” within racial stratification. This methodology was informed by the notion that written languages separated humans from animals.  The researchers reasoned that written literacy skills required a critical objectivity that animals do not possess.  This myopic ideology was then transferred to the categorization of indigenous populations as their histories, ideologies, cultures, and worldviews were orally transmitted. Therefore, Western researchers, employing the binary of human/animal, classified indigenous peoples as “savages,” as they were perceived to be closer to nature and more animalistic due to their oral traditions and lack of “civilized”, written literacy skills.

Tuhiwai-Smith (1999) contends that indigenous people need to reclaim history by providing their own accounts of it.  “Coming to know the past,” she argues, “has been part of the critical pedagogy of decolonization. To hold alternative histories is to hold alternative knowledges” (p. 34).  While numerous perspectives of how indigenous decolonization should be written, Tuhiwai-Smith (1999) eventually sides with notion that “Academic writing is a way of ‘writing back’ whilst at the same time writing to ourselves” (p. 37).  Basically, indigenous scholars should academically write so that the research and writing is accessible to those within academia but, more importantly, to themselves as indigenous peoples.  Furthermore, the variation of the purpose, perspectives, and intended audience contribute to a more holistic understanding of the complex issues surrounding indigenous populations.

While reading this riveting, albeit dense work, I realized that Tuhiwai-Smith’s (1999) purpose for writing this chapter is two-fold in nature.  Based on her ideas and approach to writing, I gathered that the first purpose is to raise awareness of White, Western scholars of the imperialistic and colonial ideologies and methodologies that inform research and writing about indigenous populations.   The second purpose is to motivate indigenous peoples to be more involved by writing and conducting research that will challenge and decolonize academia.  These ideas have been highlighted in the previous paragraphs.

Tuhiwai-Smith’s (1999) style of writing supports this insight as it draws attention to the challenges that stem from most widely-accepted scholarly work written from White, Western perspectives.  For example, she illuminates this challenge with the statement of, “even the use of pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘we’ can cause difficulties when writing for several audiences, because while it may be acceptable now in academic writing, it is not always acceptable to indigenous audiences” (p. 37).  She contends that the employment of these pronouns excludes indigenous peoples.  After reflecting on this point, and continuing to read, I could not help but notice the her use of first-person singular and plural pronouns.  For instance, she writes, “Any consideration of the ways our origins have been examined, our histories recounted, our arts analyzed, our cultures, dissected, measured, torn apart and distorted back to us will suggest that theories have not looked sympathetically or ethically at us” (p. 38). After rereading sections of the chapter, I realized that it is riddled with first-person singular and plural pronouns.  I just was unaware of it until she explicitly drew my attention to it.  This illustration underscores her purpose of raising awareness of White, Western scholars and the language they use when writing as well demonstrating to indigenous scholars now to academically write to themselves as people.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous Peoples. In Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous People. New York: University of Otago Press.

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Brittani enjoys reading, experiencing and learning about culture, food, language, and travel as well as hiking with her beloved pooch. Her interests revolve around acculturation and educational issues encountered by American Indian students, particularly on reservations.

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