Indigenous evaluation and its challenges to the evaluation field: does participative evaluation has a word to say?

By Larry K. Bremner (*)

I would like to commend Evalparticipativa in establishing a community for professional dialogue and learning – well done! I would also like to thank you for asking me to contribute to this important dialogue.

I am Métis which is one of the three recognized Indigenous groups in Canada, the other two groups are First Nations and Inuit.  As an evaluator I have had the privilege to work with dedicated people across Canada and internationally who are trying to improve and empower their communities. I believe evaluation is a tool for use in the empowerment of communities and peoples. For too long evaluation has been used as a tool to help maintain and justify a colonial and paternalistic approach to Indigenous communities. Transient evaluators, not familiar with the cultural, political, and social histories of the communities, have arrived in Indigenous communities to evaluate programs about which they are unfamiliar. Furthermore, they do not understand or follow community protocols. For too long evaluation has been an extractive process which has taken from the communities often giving nothing back in return. This has led me to advocate for Indigenous communities to take control of their evaluation agenda.  I have outlined some things I have found that helps me when undertaking evaluation with Indigenous peoples and communities.

Indigenous peoples are not a homogenous group; for example in Canada there are more than 630 First Nations communities, representing more than 50 First Nations, many of which have experienced different political and contextual realities. UNESCO estimates there are approximately 90 Indigenous languages in Canada. These differences make it extremely hard to generalize from one community to another. Therefore, evaluation efforts need to be as diverse as the populations with whom we are privileged to work.

Indigenous evaluation takes time because there is a need to re-build meaningful, respectful and trusting relationships.

Relationship building is viewed as being an important ethical aspect of Indigenous evaluation and is the foundation for Indigenous inquiry. Evaluators, need to respect, appreciate, and understand Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing and how they apply in evaluation. Indigenous knowledge is based on the collective wisdom of ancestors and built through careful observation and experiences of natural patterns of life. It is often learned, transmitted, and retained through the telling of stories. Evaluators should learn, understand and practise community protocols, listen to the stories and build on community cultural, social, and spiritual values.

The importance of culture and context cannot be overstated. Indigenous evaluation should build on the communities’ cultural, social and spiritual values, and support cultural resurgence. To better understand the current context, the past cannot be ignored, as it is necessary to put into perspective the realities of today to create the vision for tomorrow. The evaluation approaches developed must support the improvement of community well-being in terms of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development of individuals, and families.

Understanding our origin stories, the importance of time and community in Indigenous evaluation is mentioned throughout the literature. The past cannot be ignored; it is necessary to put into context the realities of today and the visions for tomorrow. We need to acknowledge, own, and understand our history, in order to better understand the present and move positively into the future. Regardless of whether we are Indigenous or non-Indigenous evaluators, knowing our origin stories – finding one’s self – is critically important as it will allow us to better understand how and why we view the world and those around us in a particular way. Our origin stories give us insights into what is happening today, helping us to move into the future in a positive way. We were told that the further back we look, the better we will understand today.

We need for more holistic approaches; as evaluators we have been undertaking our work in silos. Funders, for the most part, fund evaluations of individual initiatives – an education initiative or a health initiative or a justice initiative – however, in the communities in which I work, these are interconnected. For example, sometimes you have to address health and wellness before you can look at education. There is a need to move toward a more holistic approach, one that better reflects the relationality of Indigenous world views in which the human and natural systems are one system composed of relationships with the land, culture, community, people, ancestors, and spirituality.

There is a need for evaluation to become insurgent.

What is insurgent evaluation?

  • It is grounded in, respects, and seeks to validate Indigenous worldviews
  • It produces output for use by Indigenous peoples and Indigenous communities
  • Its processes and final products are responsible to Indigenous communities, who are the final judges of the validity and effectiveness
  • It is action oriented; it works as a motivating factor for practical and direct action among Indigenous peoples/communities.

In conclusion, evaluation should be directed by the community. Indigenous approaches must take into account historical trauma and cultural repression and how the work will benefit the community and its peoples. The evaluation should build on the communities’ cultural, social and spiritual values and support cultural resurgence. The focus of an Indigenous approach should not be on individuals and independence, but on relationships and the community/collective. An Indigenous approach is one of relationality; relationships with the land, culture, community, people, ancestors and spirituality. While there are many different methods that can be utilized, they must be based on an Indigenous evaluation paradigm.



Literature on the topic

Allan and Smylie (2015). First Peoples Second Class Treatment. The role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Well Living House Action Research Centre for Indigenous Infant, Child, and Family Health and Wellbeing, St. Michael’s Hospital.

Alfred, T. (2009). Peace, Power, Righteousness. An Indigenous Manifesto. Don Mills Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press.

Chalmers, J. (2017). The Transformation of Academic Knowledges: Understanding the Relationship Between Decolonizing and Indigenous Research Methodologies. The Journal of the Society for Socialist Studies, 12 (1) 97-116.

Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous Research Methodologies. Sage Publications.

Chouinard, J., and Cousins, B. (2007). Culturally Competent Evaluation for Aboriginal Communities: A Review of the Empirical Literature. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 4 (8), 40-57.

Easby, A. (2016) Global Thematic Review on Training in Community-Based Research; Indigenous Research Methodologies: Final Report. UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher education (The Next Gen Project)

Gaudry, A. J. P., (2011). Insurgent Research. Wicazo SA Review. Spring, 113-136

Kovach, M. (2009). Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts. Toronto, Canada. University of Toronto Press.

LaFrance, J. and Nichols, R. (2009). Indigenous Evaluation Framework/Telling Our Story in Our Place and Time. Alexandria, USA: American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

NCAI Policy Research Centre and MSU Centre for Native Health Partnerships. (2012). Walk softly and listen carefully: Building research relationships with tribal communities. Washington, DC, and Bozeman, MT: Authors.

Leave a Reply