Indigenous knowledge transfer – First Voices First transcript

Iram Satti: In this episode, we speak with Erica Valenti, Deborah Lee and Suzy Bear about the new partnership between Emerald Publishing and the Council of Prairie and Pacific Libraries (COPPUL) which has launched a pilot project called First Voices First. This project will open up access to research to a selection of indigenous post-secondary institutions and communities.

Hi Suzy, Deborah and Erika, thank you for joining us today to chat about the First Voices First pilot. So, I thought we'd get straight to it, and I was wondering if Erika, you could tell us more about the partnership between Emerald and COPPUL, and sort of how it all came about?

Erika Valenti: Sure, I'm happy to. Thank you Iram. I think it was late last fall, and I was speaking with our COPPUL licensing partner, Carol Stevenson, and I was updating her on our work in the equity and inclusion space, both at Emerald sort of writ large, and in North America. And fortuitously, she told me about COPPUL’s Indigenous Knowledge Committee, and how they were focused on through fostering opportunities for collaborative action and partnership initiatives. So, when I heard about that, I knew that there was something there, some sort of shared space that we could establish. Our first idea, we came up with extending research content access to a selection of indigenous post-secondary institutions. And then really looking to underscore Emerald’s commitment to pushing access to scholarship and research out into the real world. We wanted to also focus on indigenous communities, and by extending, again, free access to a selection of Emerald research. And our hope is that in doing that, opening up access to communities, that we might support innovations within certain communities, strengthen the ability to foster business entrepreneurship for example. So that's really how the partnership came about, and I would say quickly evolved from there.

Iram: That's brilliant and I think it sounds incredibly interesting, and from what I can gather, it's one of the first types of partnership work with a publisher in indigenous communities. Is that correct?

Erika: I would like to think we're first in this space. But I think as a publisher, who is the stewardship of knowledge transfer, it's really an important step for Emerald and just to find any ways we can support that access.

Iram: Suzy, Deborah, I want to bring you in on this next question that I've got. So obviously, there is a status quo within academia and access to research. I'm just wondering how you would describe the status quo in terms of where we are currently, in terms of academia and how indigenous communities are or are not engaging?

Deborah Lee: I know that many of the listeners will probably be familiar with the book Indigenous Methodologies or Decolonizing Methodologies (Linda Tuhiwai Smith), and she has spoken quite eloquently on the fact that there were many researchers in the 1800s, 1900s and even the 21st Century, that they would be interviewing indigenous people about their culture, their ways of knowing, all of that sort of thing, and sometimes even about their indigenous science knowledge. And then this information would go to pharmaceutical companies and they would make a big profit out of this information and the indigenous communities got nothing out of it. You know not just that kind of knowledge, but other kinds of knowledge that indigenous peoples have, that academics would build their careers on. You know, they would be published, they would get tenure and promotion, and all of that sort of thing, and the indigenous communities that were studied, received no benefits for all of this. And they didn't even get a copy of the publication, no report, nothing like that. And so, they didn't even have access to the published book, because they didn't have access to libraries even. There has been this extractive kind of mentality that has been very predominant in Western society, in terms of doing the research, and it was not for the benefit of the communities, and this has been changing a lot. In the last 10 years, I'd say, and anyone applying for federal government grants to do research now has to involve indigenous communities in the research process so that they aren't left out of the results.

Iram: I'm just thinking about all of these big issues that are really coming to the fore in today's context, especially where, you know, we talk about decolonizing the curriculum, for example. What you've mentioned about, you know, pharmaceutical companies basically taking credit and claiming knowledge for themselves, when actually that's not how it should have ever been, just to add to what you've said, there is definitely a shift in the attitudes and the behaviours. I wonder if Suzy, have you got anything that you'd like to add in regards to the status quo of how things are currently?

Suzy Bear: Long ago, in another life, I used to work for First Nations University of Canada as a librarian in Northern Campus Prince Albert (we had three campuses). And I go back to my first experiences of working with Indigenous students and it was like beating my head against a brick wall, because they had very poor internet connections, and we would try to work in their computer labs and we were lucky out of 20 computers, if two worked. So, we would use these two computers and get the students logging into the UofR library or the UofS, depending on which program or which degree they were taking. And so I did that for 13 years, maybe 15, because I was a consultant for two years before I became faculty. I had a very difficult time, I would go back, back and back and back to the communities and try to instill this way of researching to them because it was all new to them. And some of them were mature students, having just a grade eight, and trying to take academic studies, academic programs, so it was really difficult. But by the time I finished with them, or they finished taking their degree or whatever they could take off campus then they would have to move on campus, at least they were armed with a bit of knowing how to do their own research. And it was really great to see because towards the end of my tenure there, they would come into the library and say ‘hi Suzy’ and sit down and start doing their own research and there was nothing greater than that. It was a happy day when that started to happen. Deb and I had a few conversations, and I was just telling her how I might go approach this community, like the people that can actually say something, like have the power to help me get this information on the Emerald database going. That will be my next project, is to get people interested, and they're going to find out what our pest I am *laughing*.

Iram: That's never a bad thing when it's a good cause, I think. We love that spirit of determination. It was really interesting what you just said then about how there were certain barriers, such as you could have 20 computers, and only two of them might work. What are the other barriers to engaging students and people who can continue on with education and research? Are there any other barriers that are really explicit? And, you know, how do we tackle that? What else could potentially be done?

Suzy: Today is a lot different than like 20 years ago, when I first started out. Everybody has computers in their home now, in their homes, and everybody's got access to the internet, you know, there's different internet companies that will solicit our community, and so it's up to us which internet company we choose to go with. And some of the internet will go faster or a little slower than the next was, you know, but eventually, when it comes down to it, we all have access to internet. And so I think that's one big barrier that's been broken or fallen down, however you want to express it. And some of them are, you know, there may be some in the community, who are working at the band office, who are working at the health center, who are who are working at our community school, and a lot of those people at least have one degree working in those areas. So they know what it's like to be a student, they know what it's like to access resources, and so they may want to start on a graduate degree some of them, or they may want to take a class out of interest to keep their to keep their minds busy, and that's where the Emerald database will really coming in handy. Deborah just sent me a list of the 120 databases that they'll have access to, and I think that's going to be a big help to them, because they're going to be able to see, okay, maybe I can get into this journal and that journal, you know, and that's going to make it interesting for them. It's going to be interesting, interest a lot.

Iram: In terms of this pilot, the First Voices Pilot, what are you hoping the impact will be within the short-term and the long-term? What are you hoping will change as a result of this pilot?

Suzy: Short-term, I want to pique as much interest in the community as I can get, like I said, I have a lot of determination, and I know I can get some of the members going on the project on the databases. And then what I'm hoping for is that some of them will further their education. And as a result of their interest being peaked by Emerald Publishing, by using the Emerald database that are our members become more educated and more willing to work outside of the community, because that's where you get a lot of experience: a lot of experience is working outside the community.

Deborah: I also think it can help the students in the school, especially the upper years in high school. For them to become experienced at using a database before they go on to university, I think that's a really valuable thing that can come from this project. So that when they arrive on a campus, they're not so overwhelmed with the range of library resources that academic libraries have. And also, I think, you know, it's good for those people working in the communities, because once they leave their program, once they graduate, the access that they have to databases is very poor. They're alumni, but they don't get much access to databases after that. So, it doesn't really help them in their professional development after they leave the university. So, you know, having access to Emerald’s I think will be something new for them and something that can give them hope about, you know, becoming more informed about what the new research is, right?

Iram: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, yeah. It’s all a question of access really isn't it, because if you don't have the means to that information, and obviously, like we've touched on before, we've all got the internet, but a lot of this content that would help in terms of future career isn't always readily available or accessible. So, yeah, I think it sounds brilliant. And Erika, I wonder if you've got anything to add?

Erika: I think in the short-term, the intention and the hope is that this pilot is a very small step in righting the historical wrongs and addressing the barriers to post-secondary education for indigenous communities. Education also, I think, is a vital piece in the reconciliation process. And we really want to help students achieve their potential through higher education that they can then take into the real world and ensure governance representation and just sort of debunk the power structures that have been in place for so long. And that's the short-term hope, is this will be a small shift in that righting the historical wrongs.

Iram: Again, I can only say it sounds brilliant to be honest with you. I guess it is, like I mentioned earlier, you know, the whole decolonizing the curriculum and whatever that means to whoever is engaging with the curriculum, it's knowing that there is one version that you've had to absorb, and actually, it's lifting the lid on different perspectives and different angles. And you know, and that's the world that we live in, isn't it? And even with the rise of the internet, and access to all sorts of information, the lid has already been lifted, but I guess doing it in this way just makes it all that more important, and it makes it viable, really. But yeah, I guess that was a short-term impact Erika; what do you think, in terms of long-term, this could bring?

Erika: The hope, and what I think we should action and realise is lifting indigenous voices within the scholarly canon, which is very white, very male, and that's how you really decolonise what knowledge means, looks like within the scholarship apparatus. So that is, to me the bigger goal, and the more important one. The first step was giving access to communities that historically have not had access to research. The big piece is elevating those voices, publishing indigenous research by indigenous peoples, not just research about indigenous communities. That, to me is the ultimate goal. And as a publisher if we can play a teeny, tiny part in decolonizing the literature, then hopefully others will pick up that mantle and then there could be, you know nothing moves fast in academia, but at some point, we've got to recirculate the blood flow of what of what research looks like. And people need to see themselves in it and equal representation is ethically, morally, what everyone should be doing, I think.

Iram: That leads me on to my next question, so I guess Suzy and Deborah, you feel free to take this. What I wanted to ask was, you know, what more can publishers do? I guess Erika has mentioned the fact that, you know, a lot of publishers do publish work about indigenous communities, but actually it's the authorship that needs to shift. So, I wonder if you've got anything that you want to add to that?

Deborah: Yeah, I was thinking a lot about this question earlier because of a book that I had co-edited with a colleague of mine at the University of Saskatchewan, and it was essays by indigenous librarians in Canada and by librarians of colour in Canada. You know, I had approached a Canadian publisher, actually one that was in Saskatchewan, but they felt that their readership would be too low so they didn't take the project on. This was really disappointing. So, then I approached another company in the US who had published other books by indigenous and visible minority librarians, and I felt that, you know, I wouldn't run into this problem then because there's a bigger readership in the US, right? Yeah, anyway, I found that there was a lot of arrogance, adversarial interactions between myself and the editor. And it really took away from the enjoyment that I should have experienced in getting a book published. That arrogance, that attitude of knowing it all and not listening really to our voices was very problematic. And, you know, it really puts an indigenous author or editor, co-editor of a, you know, collection of essays, it puts us off. Right? And, you know, this was quite some time ago- I think people have learned a little bit since then. Although I'm not sure if that publisher has. I did encounter a similar attitude when I was trying to get an article published in the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship and it was very similar. There was a group of guest editors who were accepting publications, or, like submissions for publication, and they were fine with my manuscript, and they did ask for certain changes, they wanted me to expand on certain ideas and that sort of thing. But when it came down to the actual co-editor of that journal, going through my manuscript before publication, I could hardly recognise, you know, some of the passages that she was rewriting for me. So, this is really something that has to stop. I was really frustrated, the amount of work that it took to get that article the way I wanted it, and arguing with that editor was horrendous, and it took me a week of my time to do that. That's how red-inked my manuscript was. I always want to recommend to people that they should read a book that was written by an indigenous scholar and who was editor at a publishing house in Western Canada. His name is Gregory Younging, he has passed on at this point, but he did publish a book, Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous Peoples. I think every publisher should read that, every editor should read that book, and it would make life so much easier for indigenous authors and editors, you know, trying to get a book published.

Iram: I mean, obviously, I can't talk on behalf of anyone else, but it feels like when, you know, we're entering spaces where there are really hard topics and hard truths, I believe that, you know, it's not uncommon to face that kind of defensiveness. But yeah, I'm really sorry to hear about that experience. I hope things are changing. As within my role at Emerald, for example, I'm looking at a lot of equality, diversity and inclusion topics and I think the key is to always be sensitive to the fact that, you know, whoever is writing, it is their writing, it's their work, it's their project, and to always treat it with respect. Suzy, have you got anything that you wanted to add?

Suzy: I haven't got the experience that Deborah has, when it comes to writing. I always pay close attention when she's speaking, because I also learned from her and everyone else that's in this podcast today.

Iram: I guess my last question is engagement with indigenous communities. So we've talked a bit about how publishers can interact and you know, what they can do to cater for indigenous communities, but in terms of actual engagement, what do you think could change there?

Erika: You know following on from your story, Deborah, about frustrations (which I think it's safe to say come from a sort of imperious Western perspective on what research should look like) I mean, it's way overdue to acknowledge different modes and methods of knowledge transfer. And I do think, I hope, that brave conversations, thinking about the ones that you might have had that were frustrating Deborah, are finding safer spaces to explore. And listen, I think Suzy really hit on something that is important: taking a backseat, simply listening, is the first step on making some shifts that feel palpable and are evidenced by different voices, different types of scholarship and knowledge exchange.

Iram: Similarly to you, I would like to think that things are changing and obviously with this pilot and this collaboration, it definitely feels like there is a shift in working relationships and the support on both sides as well, it has to be a two way thing. Have any of you got anything else that you wanted to talk about or anything that we didn't touch on?

Deborah: Yeah, I just like to add something, mostly about my experience with working with Emerald on this pilot. And, you know, it has been really refreshing for me to be working with Erika in particular, and her open attitude and supportive attitude to ideas that I have about the pilot, how things could maybe roll out, how things could be improved. You know, sometimes there are issues that are brand new to publishers, that they haven't heard about before and, you know, if we have a receptive response to that, that really gives us hope for the future.

Erika: Oh, yay! Like Suzy said, I've learned so much from you, Deborah, mostly by being present and mindful that your perspective is probably the most important one for us as a company, as our signpost so that it feels in is delivered authentically. I've learned a lot from you. We've had a lot of laughs, too, so it's been my pleasure.

Deborah: I agree. I would really like to thank Carol Stevenson for all her work on this project as well. And she was the one that approached Erika about this pilot after hearing what I had to say at the fall directors meeting of COPPUL in 2020. Thank goodness she was listening and thank goodness that she thought to act on it and thought that there was a publisher out there who would take this project on. Because, you know, I had talked about how, when I had worked on the IFIKA SNR study on improving academic library collections and services for Indigenous Studies faculty, this was a project that happened at 11 different institutions across Turtle Island or North America, one of the people that I interviewed said “academic libraries are seen as very elitist, because indigenous communities don't have access to the resources.” And there it was, like a light bulb went off for Carol, you know, and she contacted Erika, and the rest is history…

Erika: …or history in the making. *laughter*. Let's just help other publishing houses pick up the call. And I hope that with regard to indigenous persons in Canada, the reconciliation process is transparent and approached with a lot of sensitivity and honesty. There's a lot of conversation here in the States about rereading history, because there are so many things within a nation that have been historically omitted for so long. And that's really the perspective I'm trying to bring to any work that I can evince around inclusion. What have I missed, wrapped in my Western white framework that I need to read, and I need to know about? So, I've learned so much during this pilot.

Iram: Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find a transcript of my conversations on our website as well as more information about our guests. I'd like to thank Erica Valenti, Deborah Lee and Suzy Bear for their help with today's episode, and Alex Jungius from This is Distorted.