Ethical Research, or Lessons I Have Learned

I will begin by pointing out that this is as much a way of clarifying my thoughts for my own benefit as it is to open a discussion about ethical research and Native peoples for anyone else.
During the entire research & writing process of my biography of Clyde Warrior, from Masters thesis, to dissertation, to book, I kept as my guiding principle, Donald Fixico’s ideal in “Ethics in Writing American Indian History” that all ethical researchers of American Indian peoples should keep cultural relevancy as the foremost issue in mind. Specifically he argues that “introspective analysis of how Indians perceive history with regard to tribal language, values, kinship relations, infrastructure, societal norms, tribal beliefs, and worldview” should be the prominent concern of any ethical writing of American Indian history. I have to admit that it was this theoretical framework of ethical research, more than the institutional instructions of the IRB forms and exams I had to wade through as a graduate student, that “kept me honest” in how I wrote Clyde Warrior’s life. And also how I researched him, always making sure that I took a small ‘gift’ of sage to my interviews to thank the source for their stories.
The reason Fixico’s words struck me so profoundly was that once I applied this research framework to Warrior’s life I saw how completely culture, language, and worldview informed his relationship with the dominant western culture around him, at a level that signaled his activism as being so much more than purely political theatre. Hence the book earning the title Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power. It also made me stop and think about how much we historians just leave ‘that stuff” to the anthropologists, rather than incorporate it into our telling of history. Rather naively though, I figured that once the book was written, with Warrior’s culture and worldview as prominent throughout as he himself was, this ethical research/scholarship responsibility would be over until my next project. I know Warrior will remain with me forever more, the lessons he taught me through my research and writing will forever inform my teaching and future research, and the friendships I made through my research will always remain intact, but the actual physical relationship with the project was now over, bar a few promotional appearances or conference papers. Or so I thought.
It was during a visit to Ponca City in May that I was quickly disabused of that little notion. Having been invited to be honored by the Poncas, and especially the Gives Water clan, for writing the book, I was feeling quite proud of myself. Until I met one of Warrior’s aunts. She had been ill during the majority of my research period so I’d never gotten the chance to talk to her before. She reminded me that although I had accomplished something special in writing Warrior’s story, I had also taken from the Ponca in the process – memories, emotions, cherished stories. Rather than memorializing them for time immemorial, I had borrowed them, and needed to maintain the reciprocal balance – even after the book was published. Having already decided to discuss the creation of small scholarship in Warrior’s name for future Ponca college students, however, I felt satisfied that this requirement was still being met, although her words did make me think about the research process in a new light.
And then in August something happened which made me realize that this ethical responsibility to the research and its contents will remain with me for the rest of my days, asking to be honored in odd and unexpected ways. That what I had written was not just a biography of Clyde Warrior but also a promise to him to try to maintain as much integrity in my work as he had shown in his life. And also how wonderfully social media can be in helping to keep that promise. (And I cannot help but keep wondering how much more of a storm he would have been able to brew up if social media had been available in his day.) Anyway, I received an email from one of the press officers at University of Oklahoma Press asking me to telephone a lady who’d heard about my book and wanted to mail me a photograph of Clyde Warrior that her husband had taken at Ponca Powwow in the mid-1960s. I had to call her as she did not use computers, and after a brief and very sweet conversation about how much they had admired Warrior as a dancer (there’s that culture thing again) she agreed to send me the picture. Once the picture arrived, it was obvious that neither of the dancers featured was actually Clyde Warrior. A quick scan and post to Facebook later revealed that the men featured were Elmer Brown and Rudy Newmoon/Newman. A bit more pushing and I found contact info for Elmer Brown’s niece, who now has a copy of the picture to share with her mom, Elmer’s only living relative. I’m still hoping to do the same for relatives of Rudy.
And so how does any of this relate to Fixico’s words in my opening paragraph? In short, events following the publication of the book have taught me that the ethical approach lies not just in the writing, but also in maintaining the relationships and responsibility of that writing long after the fact. It is not just enough to recognize cultural motifs in order to ensure that the written telling follows correct protocol. As the author I need to remain as faithful to the ethical spirit of the story I have told as I was to the telling of it in the first place. As academics, once we finish these projects our primary concern is quite often about how the scholarly journal reviews will treat the book and our writing. These small moments reiterated to me, however, that our concern should always be how would the subject of our scholarship react to our telling of their story? And how have their remaining friends and relatives received it? And how are we representing the legacy of that story in our own actions? (I now understand a little more why writing the distance past is a preferred option of many scholars). I am sure that going forward that I will make many mistakes, but I can also say that Clyde Warrior taught me many more invaluable lessons than made it onto the pages of his biography. And I hope to keep the cycle of reciprocity going forward by heeding those lessons in my future projects.