Decolonising Research—Storywork

Decolonizing Research: Indigenous Storywork as Methodology (2019), edited by Jo-ann Archibald, Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Jenny Bol Jun Lee-Morgan, and Jason De Santolo, shows how Indigenous Warrior Scholars are using the epistemology of storywork to profoundly change research strategies used in the Academy, and reveal the potential for a transformation in pedagogies and the way in which academic research can find a new way to be connected with community.

Many academics feel that the current model of the University is broken. Scholars frantically try to get published in order to secure their careers, often in obscure journals that nobody other than similar struggling academics read. A process that feels like disappearing up their own orifices.  The university today is primarily seen as a meal ticket into a high paying job, or for those who fall in love with scholarship, the possibility of securing insecure, poorly paid, part time work.  As was revealed during the COVID impact on jobs and overseas student enrolments, the university sector has some of the highest rates of insecure work, including significant cases of wage theft through underpayment to its academic staff. Largely funded by the taxpayer, as well as through student fees, the university has lost its connection to the community that it is meant to serve.  Instead it has become captured by the utilitarian, individualised logic of economism—the triumph of the neo-liberal economic experiment with market forces—and all the failures that have flowed from this.

Jo-ann Archibald, Dorothy Christian, Sara Florence Davidson, Georgina Martin, Cynthia Nicol, Jean William and Joanne Yovanich provide insights from the experience of Indigenous scholars in British Columbia, Canada.  Donna Campbell, Hayley Marama Cavino, Hineitimoana Greensill, Carwyn Jones, Jenny Bol Hun Lee-Morgan, Leonie Pihama and Joeliee Seed-Pihama, share their experiences from the Maori perspective of New Zealand.  The final section of the book draws on the experiences of Australia’s Indigenous scholars: Larissa Behrendt, Evelyn Araluen Corr, Nerida Blair, Victor Steffensen and Jason De Santolo.

In their Introduction, the editors claim: Decolonizing research aspires to re-cover, re-cognise, re-create, re-present and ‘re-search back’ by using our own ontological and epistemological constructs (p.6) This book aims to rekindle pathways back to our home fires. It disentangles us from our entrapment in knowledge institutions. It breathes life into our process of healing and storying, shifting from a reliance on “dead white man theories” towards a clearer and fiercer reclamation of Indigenous meaning-making and lived experience (p.13).

The authors point out that part of a decolonising framework is to map research processes as a journeyed experience into meaning-making. “We need to interrogate unequal power relations within the colonial project, to shift the way we analyse and conceptualise meaning as it exists in the dominant communication paradigm” (p.265) (quoting van Leeuwen, 1999, Speech, Music, Sound, London).

Seven Principles of this approach to research are articulated to guide such research, which takes research from the dominant Anglo-European mode of individualised ownership of knowledge and prestige maximisation that characterises the world of The Academy, into one of accountability to community, to the collective and traditional knowledge holders.

  1. Respect
  2. Responsibility
  3. Reverence
  4. Reciprocity
  5. Holism
  6. Interrelatedness
  7. Synergy

This sort of research is designed to develop a cooperative and dignified strategy that will invigorate and animate Indigenous language, cultures, knowledge, and vision in academic structures. Quoting Taiaike Alfred of the Rotinohshonni people of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory of British Columbia (Canada), the editors state: “If the knowledge, research or stories do not reach the collective consciousness of the wider group, then the person is failing to act in an Indigenous manner.”The Warrior Tradition of Academia

The Western liberal tradition has long championed the university sector, The Academy, as fertile ground for challenging conventional thinking and applying a critical lens to long held assumptions, both in the social sciences and in the so-called hard sciences of chemistry, physics and biology and their various offshoots.

There is now a new Warrior Scholar on the block, shining a powerful torch on the very assumptions of this liberal tradition.  As they say, it’s hard to think outside the square when you don’t even know you are in the square.  The new Indigenous Warrior Scholars are showing us this square of our unexamined and unconscious entrapment.  Thinking outside this square is one of the biggest intellectual challenges facing the whitefella liberal tradition of Academia, while at the same time this tradition is being undermined by the economism of neo-liberal economics.


As Larissa Behrendt cogently points out, the Academy’s very ontological and epistemological foundations have been intrinsically shaped by the colonising project of Western civilisation and the 19th century romance with the concept of Social Darwinism. This underpins the whole idea of linear cultural evolution—from Stone Age human cultures to Bronze Age, the Greeks and Romans, the Dark Ages, then the Renaissance, and then the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the grand Imperial Age that brought the Enlightenment to distant lands as the triumph of Western Civilisation.  This story of linear cultural evolution of humans is the basis of the implied superiority of European cultures, especially over the world’s Indigenous cultures, those that never ‘progressed’ out of the Stone Age, where knowledge is held in oral traditions of transmission, not textual, and where the sense of participation IN the natural world challenges the Western tradition of separation FROM the natural world, and masters of it.


The liberal tradition also birthed the feminist movement that led to the revisioning of the humanities and the social sciences as women began to interrogate a world, which had been fundamentally shaped by the male gaze of patriarchy (rule by men), through a new lens, that of the female gaze.  The feminist challenge identified a gendered ‘glass ceiling’ of white male privilege in terms of career structures and opportunities.  They also turned a female gaze on questions of historiography, science, art theory and practice, linguistics, anthropology, sociology—birthing the new field of cultural studies and feminist studies.  This has predictably led to a backlash from those who have benefited, usually unconsciously, from white male privilege, to cry victim of a culture war against them, and to accuse The Academy of being taken over by ‘cultural marxism’, whatever that might mean.


Meanwhile, for those who have valued the liberation tradition, the main contemporary criticism of the Academy is that in the age of the so-called Knowledge Economy, where knowledge is the new primary produce to be developed and exported, the Academy has been subsumed by the ideology of economism. It has become corporatised with its leading Vice Chancellors now CEO’s of multi million dollar enterprises, and paid as such, their salary packages far outstripping mere academic teachers and researchers. Universities are expected to earn export dollars through the commercialisation of research knowledge and knowledge services, and the sales of teaching services to international fee-paying students.

Under these pressures, the liberal tradition has given way to a more utilitarian view of the role of universities in society—that of the education and training of the next generation of professionals to sustain economic growth and prosperity, the future ruling class of corporate Australia and its government structures for governance and regulation of society. As we see in recent changes to the funding of university places, favouring the sciences and professions over the humanities and liberal arts.  Economic pragmatism is now the order of the day. There is increasing hostility to the role of the Academy as social critic, particularly from so-called political conservative voices.  Many of the voices who cry loudest against China for its hostility to critical voices within Chinese society are the same voices who cry foul against domestic critical voices aimed at government policies when it comes to environmental protection, refugees and asylum seekers, racism, and treatment of the most vulnerable members of our society.The New Warrior Scholars of Decolonisation

However the new Warrior Scholars of Indigenous Australia are challenging the Western liberal tradition on an altogether different front. Indigenous people of the Fourth World, the surviving cultures of colonised people who have been subsumed by large settler immigrant populations, have begun to find their voice—to use the liberal warrior tradition of academia to call for the decolonisation of the knowledge systems and pedagogy that have shaped Western academia, and which it has exported to the world as a universalising paradigm for the very idea of knowledge.  This very knowledge paradigm, ‘the invisible square’, is being contested and laid bare.

The terra nullius legal measure to deny Australia’s First Nations people their rights to lands they had occupied and governed for over 65,000 years, and failure to give them citizenship till as late as 1967, together with the White Australia immigration policy (1901-1973), has left a legacy of extreme Anglo-European domination of Australia’s university sector. As recently as 2018, of the 699 governing council roles across Australia’s 41 universities, 94% of the incumbents had Caucasian and British backgrounds. The top tiers of senior executives were 94% Caucasian and British in background, as were 96% of vice-chancellors.  This stands as a mockery of Australia’s claim to be ‘the world’s most successful multicultural nation’. Despite the large influx of foreign fee paying students, this legacy of Anglo-European thought dominance is reflected in curriculum, research strategies and funding, and career opportunities.

It is against this legacy that today’s Indigenous Warrior Scholars are mounting their profound and far-reaching epistemological and pedagogical challenge. This promises to not only give voice to an entirely different worldview and purpose for knowledge as an act of Indigenous sovereignty. It also offers an opportunity to liberate the whitefella from the blindfolds that have trapped us in an objectified worldview, an epistemology of profound alienation from our world and one another on ways that have been invisible to us.  And yet, which have brought us inexorably to where we now find ourselves: facing catastrophic climate change and environmental destruction on a global scale and levels of technological control and intrusion into our lives that fill us with secret dread, while at the same time they seduce us with convenience and entrancement.

As Victor Steffensen of the Firesticks Alliance points out: It is not only Aboriginal people who need to decolonise but non-Aboriginal people as well.  Non-Indigenous people will never learn from Indigenous knowledge systems and landscapes if they do not decolonise from control and conquer (p.233)—the prevailing ethos of the emergency focused rural fire services.Storywork

As the editors point out, storywork is integral to Indigenous ways of knowing. Stories are part of articulating our world, understanding our knowledge systems, naming our experiences, guiding our relationships, and most importantly, identifying ourselves. Indigenous storywork seeks to rectify the damage and reclaim our ability to story-talk, story-listen, story-learn and story-teach. Quoting groundbreaking work by Archibald in 2008, the editors assert that Storywork is designed to educate and heal the heart, mind, body, and spirit, weaving new synergies of transformational change through deep inter-relational understanding of story, people and place.

Storywork is seen as creating the opportunity for specific Indigenous methodologies embedded in Indigenous communities – embodied and realised through a holistic framework of action – deeply connected to Indigenisation, revitalisation and a return to reverence for Mother Earth and the ceremony of living relational knowledge.  In this way Indigenous storywork traverses new theoretical, methodological and pedagogical realms where Indigenous stories, experiences, and understandings are the core of the meaning-making processes in the super-privileged spaces of higher education, when dealing with the fourth world suffering of Indigenous Peoples and our communities (p.11).From the Hunted to the Hunters

Research, imbued with the imperialist imperative to know and control the empire in order to reap a rich harvest of economic benefit and cultural curiosities, can be thought of as a form of ‘hunting’—the search, find and capture mentality, leading to both the intrinsic reward of being the ‘first’ to get there, and the career and monetary reward that it might bring.  Western cultural institutions are replete with the captured trophies from the colonised world.  It is the same epistmological imperative we see critiqued by feminist historians of science, whereby science was conceived of as the ‘masculinised’ rape of nature to render ‘her’ secrets, which led feminist scholars like Carolyn Merchant to write her groundbreaking book, ‘Death of Nature’.

It was this feminist critique of the masculinised paradigm of scientific ‘hunting’ that first alerted me to the deep consequences of world views, the way we frame things, and their inexorable results in attitudes and actions.

The editors of Decolonising Research point out how the previously ‘hunted’, the Indigenous peoples of the world whose cultures were ‘researched to death’ as Western scholars sought to use them to uncover a Social Darwinist conceived window into early human cultures of the stone age, have now become the hunters.  Using an entirely different approach and methodology to discuss their own knowledge systems, the Indigenous hunter Warrior Scholars have now turned their sights on the epistemological fault lines of whitefella culture.

As the editors and contributors to this book point out: Research was an intellectual cultural and spiritual invasion that cast Indigenous characters in particular roles, framed from the vantage point of the ‘hunter’. A critical tool of colonisation was research on the colonised—used to define, destroy and deter the valuing of indigenous knowledge, people and practices, while assuming an objective façade under the umbrella of an assumed position of racial and cultural superiority of Social Darwinism.

The new tools of this hunting are storywork, for these Indigenous scholar warriors recognise that “it is time for us to go deeper into our own knowledge systems, deeper into our storyworlds. We must go beyond what has been ‘discovered’; we must go beyond the colonising constraints of Western theories and paradigms” (p.11)

In this way, Indigenous storywork traverses new theoretical, methodological and pedagogical realms where Indigenous stories, experiences, and understandings are the core of the meaning-making processes (p.11). As Larissa Behrendt points out, the most dangerous trap for these new Warrior Scholars is to move away from the strong grounding in their culture, to be co-opted into the existing system of Academia, and the seduction of title and accolade, the career currency of modern academia (p.184).Indigenous Storywork in Australia

Edited by Jason De Santolo of UTS, the contributing authors to the use of storywork in the Australian context are: legal scholar, film maker and novelist, Professor Larissa Behrendt; Literary theorist, poet, co-cordinator of Black Rhymes Aboriginal Poetry Nights in Redfern and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, Evelyn Araluen Corr; Educationalist and Ethicist, Nerida Blair; cultural burning expert, Victor Steffensen; and multimedia researcher in the School of Design at UTS, Jason De Santolo.

For these warrior scholars, they point out that Indigenous storytelling is a profound form of resistance for the heart, mind, body and spirit. From sacred songlines as law to the revitalisation of traditional fire practices, they claim we are witnessing new forms of theoretical warfare—from challenging the foundations of literary theory to breaking down ethical protocols of higher education. Story is a way forward in the decolonising movement of deep meaning-making encounters, an expansive creative collaboration.  It is this spirit and practice of collaboration as fundamental to research that is seen as breaking down imperialistic (knowledge) boundaries and reimagines collective will according to Indigenous-inspired strategies of transformation.

They show how such research strategies and ways of meaning-making are revealing an expansive relational way of being in Country and as such it resonates strongly across transdisciplinary and decolonising research realms.


Larissa Behrendt, who has long grappled with the consequences of the whitefella legal system for her people, points out: “Ours is an oral system of storytelling while colonial legal systems are written. Our storytelling is not linear but cyclical, whereas the colonial legal system is linear. . .Aboriginal laws recognise the interconnectedness of people in the community – disputes are negotiated with that understanding that a broad range of people have an interest in the outcomes. At the heart of the process is the understanding that relationships are critical and must be protected and preserved as we go forward” (p.179).

Behrendt points out that unlike the fiction of ‘objectivity’ that Western researchers assume, “we do not assume to be objective. We know there is no such thing… We place ourselves in the world as an act of sovereignty and it reinforces our worldview” (p.185). For scholars such as her, this is their most powerful tool, to take an unapologetic stance that “our Aboriginal culture, our philosophies, our values are the things that define us as we work in the institutions of the coloniser—whether that is within the courts, within the bureaucracy, or within the academy” (p.185).


Evelyn Corr, in her overview of literary theory, points out that critics have claimed that: “at worst literary and poetic theory is elitist, ahistorical, esoteric and universalising” (p.189). Corr confesses that: “I have struggled to discover and apply any relevant literary theory to Aboriginal texts that dos not erase political or cultural forms of difference” (p.190). Quoting Justice, ‘Why Indigenous Literature Matter’ (2018), Corr proposes there are four questions that concern Indigenous authors:

  1. How do we learn to be human?
  2. How do we behave as good relatives?
  3. How do we become good ancestors?
  4. How do we learn to live together?

Corr posits: The object of Indigenous literary studies is not simply to unsettle colonial literary practices and assumptions, but rather to produce constructive and generative sites of inquiry and interrogation, which can accommodate and encourage new stories, and new ways of understanding and engaging with these stories. She suggests that “the language and principles of storywork theory and practice provide dynamic and culturally adaptive frameworks with which to progress these studies and empower communities to guide the terms with which their literatures should be approached (p.201).


Nerida Blair’s imaginative development of Lilyology, as a knowledge system framework deserves a post all of its own, and this can be found through her own website and Facebook page.  Using the images and properties of water lillies, sweet potatoes, spiders and brick walls, Blair proposes a pedagogical and epistemological framework that shows a reverence for privileging Indigenous Knowings as holistic, synergised and interrelational elements of story that interact and impact on each other.  Developed across the long years of her work as an educationalist and policy maker, and her role on the Higher Education Research Ethics Committee (HREC), for Blair Lilyology is grounded in Country and reflects the organic and dynamic space that is Indigenous Knowings, the cyclic and holistic patterning of life. It presents a storytelling practice for strategic interventions into operational spaces within academia (the brick wall as metaphor)—a transforming framework and practice to decolonise critical ethical spaces for research within academia (p.203).

Blair has used Lilyology in her own work to explore the ‘ space in-between’, the space between Indigenous Knowings and Western Knowledge—where no single Knowing or Knowledge is more powerful or superior to the other; a space where both co-exist. Through co-existence they can create powerful and dynamic dialogue and discourse leading to transformational learnings, teachings and knowings (p.207).

For Blair, Lilyology is a transformative framework, decolonizing and crafting a sense of belonging not only to the Country that the HREC meets on, but belonging to a community of scholars engaging in a practice that is required of such a Committee by law and through policy (p.204).Yarnbar Jarngjurr

In this chapter of Australian storywork, Jason De Santolo talks about his work with his Garrwa community and their long struggle to deal with the impacts of the mining industry on their land in the Northern Territory.  For him, using a range of creative technologies, the Yarnbar Jarnkurr study offered up a creative Indigenous methodology for community researchers, creatives, activists and water protectors operating in complex Indigenous knowledge spaces (p.240).

De Santolo draws attention to the importance of language, and how recovery of his Garrwa language was part of his own decolonising knowledge journey, for as we know language encodes knowledge and ways of experiencing reality in very different ways, opening up different avenues of inner experience.  Essential to his project was the transformative power of ancient song renewal, drawn from the Yigan (the Dreaming) incorporating video practice.

This was demonstrated in Songlines on Screen, a collaboration between National Indigenous TV (NITV) and Screen Australia Indigenous Unit, which funded eight songline film project that were aired from remote regions across Australia in 2016 (p.244).  De Santolo agrees that Indigenous warrior scholars need to shift the way they analyse and conceptualise meaning as it exists in dominant communication paradigms, and use the new media to engage with the younger generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to create powerful new meaning-making ecologies.

For him, Yarnbar Jarnkurr is a spiralling process, reflecting the Elders’ ways of teaching through story and action.  It takes up the challenge of innovating Indigenous self-determination discourses by creating expression through media as enactments of visual and aural sovereignty (p.255)Cultural Burning as Lore, not Bushfire Control

Victor Steffensen has fought a long battle to get the ancient Aboriginal art of cultural burning to care for Country adopted as the preferred method for Australians to learn to live with fire as part of Australia’s environment.  As we know, Aboriginal people used fire to manage Country for many thousands of years so that the Australian landscape is shaped by fire.   Victor locates fire management within a larger knowledge map of how to be part of Country.

“When we look at the sky, the sea, the land and all its resources, every single living thing contains its own categories of knowledge… The Old people have a lore that says every living thing is to be respected and considered to be as important as any other. Everything has a special role and useful purpose that crates one living system.  When all  of the categories of knowledge are laid out into their fields, they create the form of a knowledge map” (p.228).

Victor is especially incensed by the tendency of whitefella environmental scientists to learn from Aboriginal fire experts and then publish it as their knowledge expertise, blending it with the language of environmental science. “Scientists and their chosen institutions apply for large sums of funding to further exploit their new findings.  They take charge of the process and run the programmes the way they want to run them… which colonises the whole process.. the worst part is that people are colonising without even realising that they are doing so” (p.233).

Victor’s experience points to one of the central problems for whitefella professionals and the whole western construction of knowledge systems.  Our way of knowing and research legitimises this process of capturing knowledge from various sources, synthesising it into ‘unique’ ways and building reputations, careers and knowledge management products from it as a knowledge business model.  We might footnote the value of Indigenous knowledge and consultation in the process, but we determinedly strip it away from their control and its philosophical underpinnings to fit into our dominant mode of operation linked to funding models and their objectives.  For Aboriginal people, it is not just about bushfire control.  They recognise that after 250 years of whitefella approaches to managing the land, in many parts of Australia the land is very sick—weed infestation, choked waterways, wetlands deprived of season water, salt encrustation of soils from irrigation, loss of topsoil from large scale agribusiness land clearing and monoculture cropping, the impact of hoofed animals (cattle, sheep, goats, horses) on fragile soils, and so forth.  Steffensen points out that “what indigenous fire work has demonstrated is that healing people and culture goes hand in hand with healing the landscape” (p.235).