Centring Māori in research: Journeying beyond the checklist

Dr Rachel Martin (University of Otago) & Dr Amanda Denston (Massey University)

Nobody would argue against wanting the best educational outcomes for mokopuna in Aotearoa me Te Waipounamu. But what does this look, sound, and feel like in research relating to mokopuna within bilingual spaces and the teaching and learning of te reo Māori, the Indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand? Research has the potential to produce benefits for Māori, but the risk of harm is real. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2021) writes,

“The surface story [is] not as important as the underlying examples of cultural protocols broken, values negated, small tests failed, and key people ignored.”

What assumptions do we take with us when we develop and work towards our research outcomes within educational spaces? How do you check on the experiences of the research participants as you engage in the research process? Through this blog post, we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss our own research experiences and the need to go beyond a checklist to embody culture, language, and identity in Indigenous research.

Our research identities

I (Amanda) worked and researched within the English-medium educational context. I mainly focused on the area of literacy in the English language including how literacy skills develop and how we can develop these skills in learners, as well as focusing on socio-emotional learning and wellbeing. Suddenly, I was, at the same time, working within bilingual educational spaces, taking with me Westernised assumptions of literacy development and wellbeing and the assumptions I held around culture, language, and identity that included being raised as Pākehā and having whānau Māori whakapapa.

I (Rachel) worked and researched within Indigenous spaces while also working within an educational space often dominated by Western notions and ideologies, which presents tension. As a hapū and iwi member, it was expected that I would also represent hapū and iwi views when working with local kura within te Tiriti o Waitangi partnerships. In relation to research, this was expected regardless of your level of expertise in specific areas of research, which for me had primarily included qualitative research. I hold long-standing concerns about transferring English-medium teaching practices to Māori-centred educational environments. It was also fundamental to ensure the safety of all Māori involved when working and researching within Māori and English-medium contexts. It is fundamental that the research process was safe for all Māori involved.

Some of the fundamental questions we both ask ourselves when researching are related to:

  • Are we the right people to be researching within these spaces?
  • How does our research enact the articles of te Tiriti o Waitangi?
  • How do our assumptions and existing cultural identities influence how we engage in the research process?

Positionality situates research

According to Elabour-Idemudia (2011), the positionality of the research members is fundamental to the research process. Positionality situates researchers in terms of their identity, thus reflecting tikanga Māori and knowledge existing within hapū and iwi, as well as, situating Māori research practices at the fore (see Hetaraka, 2023). However, positionality can be reflective of assumptions made within the research process. Assumptions influence who are viewed as key people and the perception that these key people are the right people for the specific Indigenous space and can respond to, embody, and represent Mātauranga Māori, hapū, iwi, and whānau.

When we deconstructed our own research experiences within Indigenous spaces, we noticed that assumptions underpinning the research methodology had significant flow-on effects. Tensions developed when on one hand the research process placed Māori practices at the fore, but on the other hand the research process was itself underpinned by Eurocentric beliefs that, in reality, undermine te ao Māori. Such tension reflects the need to decolonise the research process. Within the literacy and wellbeing spaces, for example, this includes challenging the assumptions of what literacy and wellbeing mean for Indigenous groups; whether the research process has the capacity to shift between Indigenous and Eurocentric approaches; and how these shifting power relations would silence Māori. It is fundamental to let go of existing assumptions when researching within a te Tiriti o Waitangi partnership and relationship approaches, even when this leads to a pedagogy of discomfort. To be successful within a bilingual space, it is fundamental that the research process (and methodology) was underpinned by tikanga Māori.

Power imbalances and Eurocentric research ideals

Power imbalances that situate and thus prioritise Eurocentric research ideals decentre te ao Māori from the research process. Deconstructing the research process to understand tensions and assumptions can recentre research within te ao Māori. Discomfort may ensue all around. Māori may not see themselves within the research process. In their effort to meet the prescribed ideals of the research, Māori as collaborative researchers or participants may not (be able to) honour their obligations to local iwi and hapū or their rights and responsibilities as iwi or hapū members. Tauiwi may feel discomfort as participants, researchers, and treaty partners when the research process and the prescribed funding, timelines, and ideals do not reflect a te Tiriti o Waitangi. Discomfort can be compounded by assumptions around the relationship between Māori collaborators or participants, research groups, and funding groups and how these relationships work. How can Māori participants and collaborators extend rangatiratanga and their Indigenous knowledge within the research process when their voices are silenced? Silencing means that research with Māori fails to reflect the articles of te Tiriti o Waitangi, and thus, silences culture, language, identity, and the context in which the research occurs. A loss of representation for Māori reinforces Eurocentric ways of being while further silencing te ao Māori.

Reconstructing power imbalances is fundamental to restructuring understandings and awareness when researching with Māori. When tikanga Māori is extended to the activities and texts, the voices, knowledge, and experiences of Māori are included, and power is reconstructed. We observed that, when researching within a bilingual space, participants (kaiako and mokopuna) actively sought to reconstruct power differentials. They actively integrated their cultural and linguistic identities to create experiences that enabled meaning-making to occur for them when developing new knowledge.Mokopuna and kaiako embodied te ao Māori and te reo Māori within their environment when creating these experiences. This meant kaiako, and mokopuna consciously and unconsciously challenged the English-medium underpinnings of the programme and the Eurocentric research ideals as they moved between te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā.

Beyond the checklist: How aware are you?

What is your intent and purpose when engaging with Māori in research? We argue that research needs to contain more than a surface story for the inclusion of Māori and/or what ends up as essentially a checklist noting culturally appropriate actions. Researchers must understand and be aware of te ao Māori and how to be responsive within cultural relationships and practices. Otherwise, research runs the risk of reinforcing Eurocentric ways of working and silencing Māori voices by not recognising valid ways of being. Research needs to work towards embodying tikanga Māori and understanding the knowledge and worldviews of Māori (for example, tairongo). From the outset of the research, those involved must be consciously aware of their assumptions and the conditions this creates within the research space. This is not to say that all is lost; if it is identified that Eurocentric research practices are dominant, acknowledge this and move to reconstruct the research relationship. Only then will we work towards honouring and actioning the articles of te Tiriti o Waitangi within research.

Challenging the checklist: Some provocations

  • How have the key constructs in your research been defined?
  • Whose voices were heard, silenced, or privileged in forming these definitions?
  • How do the selected definitions silence or privilege particular values and practices?
  • Whose values and practices do these definitions belong to?
  • How do we ensure equitable practices within the research process?
  • What beliefs and values underpin your research process or that of your group or institution?
  • How are you positioned within the research process?
  • How are participants positioned?
  • Does this positioning reflect identity, tikanga Māori, and knowledges held by hapū and iwi?
  • How have Māori been situated within the research process?
  • What needs to change to ensure that Mātauranga-a-iwi, Mātauranga-a-hapū, and Mātauranga-a-whānau are at the fore?

Dr Rachel Martin is Senior Lecturer at the College of Education, University of Otago. She affiliates with Ngāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe iwi. Rachel’s research interests include re-indigenisation, bilingual and Māori education, and indigenous social and emotional wellbeing.

Dr Amanda Denston is Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education, Massey University. Her whānau whakapapa affiliates with Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, and Ngāi Tahu iwi. Amanda’s research interests include literacy and psychosocial development within bilingual and English-medium settings, and student wellbeing.

Cover image: Aoraki | Mt Cook. Provided by Rachel Martin and used by permission.

One comment

  1. Kia ora Rachel and Amanda, thank you for your honest, reflective and challenging blog. It is an extremely useful addition to the field for all researchers in Aotearoa. Nga mihi Richard


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