Indigenous knowledges and intersectionality

a blog conversation between Helen Moewaka Barnes and Rosalind Edwards


Ros Edwards, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton will speak to Standing at the Intersection of Western and Indigenous Knowledges. Ros will discuss her positioning alongside Indigenous colleagues in a project they collaborated on about Indigenous and non-Indigenous researcher partnerships, and consider the intersection between intersectionality and Indigenous knowledges.

Helen Moewaka Barnes, (Te Kapotai te hapu, Ngāpuhi te iwi): Co-Director SHORE & Whariki Research Centre, Director Whariki, College of Health, Massey University, Aotearoa New Zealand will speak to Colonizing and marginalizing families: resistance, internalization and determination.


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The Centre for Research on Families and Relationships is holding its seminar, ‘Intersectionality Families and Relationships – Colonisation, Climate Change, Children’s Rights: Has Covid-19 changed the agenda?’ on the 11th and 12th of November 2020. In this short blog, two of our guest speakers Helen Moewaka Barnes and Ros Edwards, talk together about the overlaps and tensions between indigenous approaches and intersectionality.

ROS: We’re participating in the CRFR online international seminar on ‘Intersectionality, families and relationships’ which has prompted me to think about the relationship between indigenous knowledges and intersectionality. I’ve learnt a lot from our discussions about decolonisation, kaupapa Māori approaches to knowledge, and our indigenous/non-indigenous research partnership project, including the importance of knowing who you are and where you are located. So it seems to me that while we may see some overlaps between indigenous approaches and intersectionality, there also may be some tensions. I think that quite what constitutes the relationship between the two depends on where you are standing. If you are an intersectionality researcher then you may view indigenous approaches as one of the elements of a resistory and transformative intersectional endeavour. But if the ground that you stand on is indigenous, then maybe that could feel like indigenous knowledge becomes a handmaiden for intersectionality? Maybe intersectionality could serve to find a space for and welcoming of indigenous approaches in mainstream universalising western thought?

HELEN: Firstly, I have to confess that I have only a passing acquaintance with intersectionality. My relatively shallow understanding is that it is an implicit part of how we, as the ‘other’ understand our lives. It might also provide a useful lens through which to understand colonial history and its interconnectedness with poverty, racism and gender, to name a few. While its origins lie in discrimination in relation to race and gender, the gaze can equally be turned on privilege, power and the maintenance of these. This means looking at the identity and positions of dominant cultures, how these are experienced, maintained and reproduced. As an indigenous woman, intersectionality is one way of naming what we, as the ‘other’, understand and work at every day. In Aotearoa (New Zealand) our naming and claiming of these spaces is more usually framed within our worldviews as Māori.

ROS: Dialogue between various marginalised knowledge projects such as decolonialisation is a feature of intersectional methodology and the generation of a resistory transformative intersectionality. This takes me back to Patricia Hill Collins’ ideas about dialogue and pivoting the centre[1] in the Afrocentric call-and-response tradition, where we work towards challenging dominant power dynamics: everyone has a voice, but everyone must listen and respond to other voices. I was very struck by this idea when I first read about it two decades ago (eek!), and I hope that our partnership work has managed that. I’m interested to know how you might see the notion of dialogue from a kaupapa Māori point of view.

HELEN: Kaupapa Maori is one space where we can defend our right to centre our experiences and practice within our scholarly traditions and matauranga (knowledge systems). From here, many of us form alliances (or draw battle lines). My position then might be one of allegiance and dialogue with those located within intersectionality.

ROS: One issue that I find both fundamental and challenging about indigenous approaches and kaupapa Māori specifically is the issue of accountability. And it seems to me that this might be a point of difference with intersectionality. As I understand it, as a Māori researcher, you are accountable to your research subjects in a very different way to me. If you act in a way that harms your community, then it is not just your reputation that will suffer, but your extended family will be involved in that currently and into the future. While I can see that, like me, intersectionality researchers can be self-reflexive about their location and feel strongly accountable to marginalised peoples through research and activism, I am not sure that there is the deep sense of accountability investment, generationally and communally, in the same way.

HELEN: We are a small country and connections (whakapapa) are a central part of who we are as Māori and how we see ourselves in relation to all things; not just people. I carry my whakapapa with me and my actions aren’t just my own. If I go into a space that makes me uncomfortable or I need courage, I often tell myself beforehand that I can’t let my tupuna (ancestors) down, that I stand with them and for them. This gives me strength, but it also makes me accountable. What my tupuna did they did for future generations. Our ‘intersectionality’ covers time, space, place and relationships between all things and I take my place within that.


[1] Black Feminist Thought, 1990, Unwin Hyman.