Centering Indigenous Epistemologies in Research

In Protecting the promise: Indigenous education between mothers and their children (2021) Timothy San Pedro examines the idea of how Native families are recentering Indigenous knowledge in everyday ways that resist the damages wrought by settler colonialism. This collection of stories re-storied by the author and participants calls on readers to think deeply about the First Nations people who occupied countries such as the United States and Canada prior to white settlement and the inter-generational traumas sustained by colonization and formal educational systems. San Pedro’s book illustrates not only the fruits of centering Indigenous epistemologies for young people and their families but asks challenging questions of educators and community members. This book asks readers to consider the everyday ways in which Native people’s knowledge is invalidated by thoughtlessness and racist practices, and how we might do things differently.

San Pedro explores the stories of five families, asking questions to do with how and what Indigenous Knowledges are transmitted between mothers and their children, how conversations about Indigenous knowledge are initiated, and how teachers, researchers, and community members might engage in work with families to center Indigenous knowledges in ways that value and validate them. San Pedro draws on scholarship on decolonizing methodologies (Smith, 1999) and works on Indigenous epistemologies (Kimmerer, 2013; Kovach, 2018). Commenting that “indigeneity” is difficult to define, San Pedro nevertheless asserts that

Indigeneity is the everyday actions of what it means to be Indigenous, to live in a good way that is connected to the land, to people, to stories that refuse, resist, and deny the spread of colonial paradigms in one’s life, while (re)centering that which makes them distinctly Indigenous (p. 192).

A key purpose of San Pedro’s project was to “amplify the voices of those who were resilient, resistant, and defiant to dominant curricula that did not include them” (p. 3).

After an introductory chapter outlining the purpose of the study and the methods used, the book is organized into five findings chapters in which San Pedro “re-storied” the vivid and poignant narratives shared by the mothers and their children. The findings challenge deficit viewpoints of Native families’ engagement with formal schooling and center Indigenous family and community engagement practices (pp. 14-16). The narrative chapters were deliberately organized to move from stories narrated by mothers of children, ordered from the youngest to the oldest. This provides a narrative arc in which readers learn about the kinds of issues relevant to a family with a baby, through early childhood (children aged 4 and 9), teenagers (aged 15 and 16), and a college student (aged 21).

San Pedro’s year-long study was conducted in 2017-18. He met with each of the mothers and their children using video-based online conference tools in which he audio- and video-recorded conversations. The whole group met in Polson, Montana for a five-day meeting where the group shared their stories (“The Montana Gathering”). San Pedro described his method as involving conversations rather than interviews – since he did not begin with scripted questions or interview guides. Rather, conversations were led by the participants. The co-constructed narratives decentered the researcher’s presence. After the chapters that explore each of the mothers’ stories and those of the older children, San Pedro provides insights into the conversations that took place at the Montana Gathering, where participants laughed, cried, and shared their stories with one another. The book concludes with a 30-page epilogue in which San Pedro, in collaboration with his participants poses “lesson ideas” and “questions forward”. These are organized as a series of quotations from mostly Indigenous scholars, followed by a series of questions that relate to the specific stories included in each chapter. Readers are invited to generate their own questions.

Reading this book reminded me of my own ignorance concerning the Indigenous peoples of my birth country, Australia. Similarly, I suspect that many people of my age are unfamiliar with the Indigenous heritages in the U.S. and Canada. In recent years, a horrifying series of stories have been reported in public media about the discovery of graves of hundreds of Indigenous children in residential schools across North America. In Australia, the sites of massacres of Indigenous peoples continue to be identified through historical research. (See Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930.) Notable among stories of the abuse and maltreatment suffered by Indigenous children reported in media accounts are the complaints from survivors and family members that were not believed or attended to for many years. One of the most shocking stories shared by one of the participants of San Pedro’s study is passed down by one of the participant’s grandmothers about her experiences at a boarding school, and how her brothers did not return.

By centering the Indigenous knowledges of these Native American families, San Pedro provides those of us who share settler colonial ancestry insight into the contemporary lives of Native families. Further, this book points to the considerable body of writing on decolonizing methods that can guide the work of qualitative researchers (e.g., Kovach, 2009, 2018; Smith, 1999; Windchief & San Pedro, 2019).

This is the final post for QualPage for 2022…. I hope you have time for rest and relaxation over the holiday season, and I’ll be back in January 2023.

Kathy Roulston


Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.

Kovach, M. (2009). Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. University of Toronto Press.

Kovach, M. (2018). Doing Indigenous methodologies: A letter to a research class. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincons (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (pp. 214-234). SAGE.

San Pedro, T. (2021). Protecting the promise: Indigenous education between mothers and their children. Teachers College Press.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Limited.

Windchief, S., & San Pedro, T. (2019). Applying Indigenous research methods: Storying with peoples and communities. Routledge.

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