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date: 20 October 2020

Decolonization and Applied Ethnomusicology: “Story-ing” the Personal-Political-Possible in Our Work

Abstract and Keywords

Decolonization is one of the most pressing issues in ethnomusicology for those working with Indigenous peoples, and one that requires taking personal “response-ability” in order to engage epistemologically, methodologically, and ontologically. But what of the “response-ability” of the discipline? If everyone is in agreement that the colonial history pervades past and present practice, is there not a disciplinary need to decolonize, or at least, to begin to dance toward it? Why is it that decolonizing talk in ethnomusicology remains a whispering that many are too afraid to heed? What kind of discipline is ethnomusicology with/out decolonizing talk, and further, is talk alone enough to decolonize? In this chapter the author adopts a critical race theoretical perspective and story-telling writing approach to explore applied ethnomusicology as decolonizing research practice. It is a narrative that speaks to the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological past and present colonial violence in the stories of the discipline.

Keywords: decolonization, Indigenous, critical race theory, colonial history, ethnomusicology

Introduction: Beginnings

This chapter is told as story. It is my personal-is-political story and a narrative that speaks to the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological past and present colonial violence in the her/his stories of our discipline. It gives an account of why I come to be speaking about decolonization and applied ethnomusicology in this moment. I realize before I begin that by speaking a story and engaging in talk about decolonization work, I have already ventured onto dangerous and contested ground. I am a white settler colonial woman, and others like me who occupy a settler position have long laid imperialistic claim to the power to speak the truth about Indigenous others. How is the story I propose to tell any different? I am tempted to justify my storytelling approach by carefully choosing words from the writing of Indigenous scholars Sium and Ritskes, who tell us that in Indigenous epistemologies, stories are theory in action and decolonization demands “personal and relational understanding” and the “richness and creative vitality that storytelling brings” (2012: 11). Yet, here they are referring directly to the authority and authenticity of stories told by Indigenous people in a decolonizing space, and the position of a settler speaking is highly contested in this landscape—indeed, who does the storytelling and from what perspective they enter the story are critical (Siums and Riskes, 2012: 11).

Doing decolonization work as a non-Indigenous narrator is not an easy position to occupy or authenticate—but neither should it be. Engaging in what Pillow terms “uncomfortable reflexivity—a reflexivity that seeks to know while at the same time situates this knowing as tenuous” (2003: 188), I would argue, is an ethical necessity for those who want to interrupt and interrogate colonial ways of being, doing, and (p. 380) knowing, which habitually appropriate the voices we speak of/to (Siums and Ritskes, 2012: 11; cf., Kelsky, 2001). The reflexivity is uncomfortable, and inevitably so is the story, and such narratives might, as Fanon suggests, more “properly be called a literature of combat” (1967: 193) for they evoke dangerous truths about disciplinary history and identity that “won’t stand still” (Denzin, 2006, p. 334). I am aware that storytelling of this kind is not usual or perhaps even readily accepted practice in ethnomusicology; however, I smile and share with you Richardson’s assertion that anyone who thinks the “creative and analytic are contradictory and incompatible” is a dinosaur waiting to be hit by a meteor (Richardson, in Richardson and St. Pierre, 2005: 962). Greene’s voice joins Richardson’s in support of the urgency to challenge dominant modes of researching and writing:

Allowing myself to be carried along by the great conversation initiated by others (and, indeed, maintained by others) I would not have to disrupt. I would not have to begin anything; I would need only to be swept along by what the great ones have said and remain partially submerged by them. But then I think of how much beginnings have to do with freedom, how much disruption has to do with consciousness and the awareness of possibility… we have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again.

(1994: 109)

Indeed, this chapter as story is a provocation to become and remain fully and truly “wide awake” (Greene, 1994: 112) to the issues of colonial power and privilege, which refuse to go away in ethnomusicology. Being “wide awake” to colonialism leads to questioning of a critical kind into the uncomfortable landscape of “race,” and the lens of critical race theory sits on the ground as a signpost in front of us as a place to begin such a discussion. A critical race theory perspective insists that “race [read colonialism] still matters” (Ladson-Billings, 2009: 18) and does not allow us the option to walk away from, deny, or silence the understanding that “race is always already present in every social configuring of our lives” (Ladson-Billings, 2009: 19). Critical race theory confronts us with our complicity in processes of colonization and asks us as ethnomusicologists to see the ways in which we knowingly or unknowingly enact, sustain, and benefit from our white power and privilege. Critical race theory in ethnomusicology might usefully be defined then as a set of basic insights, methods, and practices that seek to “identify, analyze, and transform those structural and cultural aspects of [ethnomusicology] that maintain subordinate and dominant racial positions in and out of the [field]” (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002: 25). Just like decolonizing storytelling, critical race theory as method is often expressed as story and includes “counter-stories” told by racially marginalized and oppressed peoples to talk back to “monovocals, master narratives, standard stories, majoritarian stories” (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002: 25) produced by white settler colonial privilege. Just like decolonizing “story-ing,” the same question about my authority and authenticity to tell stories about colonialism as a white settler colonial woman applies—am I not simply redeploying the same kind of privileged gagging and disempowerment?

(p. 381) The colonizer and the colonized are inextricably in relation—without one there cannot be the other, and in this sense colonization is a “shared culture” (Smith, 1999: 45), or, as Memmi (2013 [1965]) would have it, both colonizer and colonized are “bound” and “chained” in colonial relationship in “relentless reciprocity” and dependence. Both are implicated in the stories of the other; Smith (1999: 45) further explains that what this means is that both colonized peoples and colonizers share a language and knowledge of decolonization. This story is told then in the language and knowledge I have as a white settler colonial woman and the sense of “response-ability” I have that it is time to come clean, to own up, to use my colonial power and privilege to shake, rattle, and roll ethnomusicology into a more ethical way of attending to our colonial complicity. Our “response-ability” as ethnomusicologists, our capacity to respond to the call to decolonize, takes center stage. In the telling of this story, I want both writer and reader to trouble and be troubled by the relationships it invokes (Gandhi, 1998: 4) between who we are as non-Indigenous researchers-as-colonizers in our discipline, the colonizing relationships we have with Indigenous peoples and knowledges we work with, the kinds of colonial violence we embody and perform as ethnomusicologists, the tangled-up colonial past and present in which we find ourselves, and who we might be in the process of becoming once we start talking loudly about decolonization. As I write, I can already sense the resistance that begins to exude from some of you as readers—the direct and indirect privileges and power we hold as colonizers because of the “erasure and assimilation of Indigenous peoples is a difficult reality to accept” (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 9). But I did not promise that this chapter was going be pleasant “feel good” reading; in fact, if it were, it would not be achieving one of its central aims—to unsettle and disrupt. After all, as Fanon reminds us, “decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder… it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding” (1963: 36).

There are three characters in this story, playfully named: Ms. White Settler Colonial, Professor Decolonization, and Dr. A(pplied) Ethnomusicology. Their stories are unique but become intertwined as they realize the inevitable entanglement of relationships, representation, and research in which they find themselves. Literature is reviewed in the dialogue they speak; theory is evoked in the actions they take and the colonial settings in which they find themselves. This story does not intend to survey all that has been written and thereby define applied ethnomusicology—others in this Handbook and elsewhere (e.g., Harrison and Pettan, 2010) have already done this task justice. Decolonization is the setting, the main character, and the plot line. Some readers may have already decided that this chapter is not for them—putting objections or discomfort to the alternative writing style aside, the terms “colonial,” “colonizer,” and “colonized” may seem irrelevant, out of step, and yesterday’s news, for aren’t we already living in a post-colonial world? Listen carefully as you read—to the whispering that asks ethnomusicology to respond to decolonization. How do we as non-Indigenous applied ethnomusicologists read, respond to, and reimagine the multiple ways our white race power and privilege are embedded in our lived experience as non-Indigenous peoples? Do we want and what can we hope to achieve in terms of social justice for Indigenous peoples (p. 382) by adopting a decolonizing framework in applied ethnomusicology? Is decolonization a move we want to make in our discipline, and why might applied ethnomusicology offer the best hope yet?

Ms. White Settler Colonial Becomes an Ethnomusicologist

Ms. White Settler Colonial sat down on her most comfortable couch, shoes off, cup of coffee in hand, ready and primed for some reminiscing. Her photo albums lay on the floor next to her, a large pile of black-covered books with plastic pockets keeping her memories safe. She sits still and the albums remain unopened, lost in the historical moment of remembering how she became an ethnomusicologist. In her first-year introduction to ethnomusicology class at university, Ms. White Settler Colonial had watched an Aboriginal song man and song woman from the remote Pitjantjatjara community at Indulkana in the Western Desert of Australia perform, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a tiered lecture room and singing several song verses from a Dreaming song called Inma nyi nyi (A. Ellis, 1982; C. Ellis, 1985). While she can see their faces clearly in her memory, Ms. White Settler Colonial cannot remember their names. They were “objects” that she gazed at, their songs were transcribed and analyzed later in tutorials, their voices and identities distanced, disembodied, and therefore ultimately “captured” in her own imperial understanding. With a university music degree in hand, Ms. White Settler Colonial eagerly set forth on an Honours research project in ethnomusicology to return to that moment when she was first introduced to Indigenous Australian Dreaming songs. With no thought about her right to know, she enrolled in Pitjantjatjara tribal [sic] singing classes at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM; Tunstill, 1989) and found herself the only White Settler Colonial woman in the room. During the first week of classes, the other students variously glared and whispered at her, “Don’t you know, you’re not Aboriginal—you’re white! And you think you have a right to be hear/here!” Ms. White Settler Colonial put her head down, got on with her role as participant/observer/researcher, and sat alone with her as yet unrecognized colonial complicity. One Aboriginal woman, Robin, was watching her closely and waiting to find out—what kind of white settler colonial woman was she? Two, three, and four weeks passed until one day Robin caught her eye and casually asked, “Where you from sis?” The question opened up the possibility of a different kind of encounter, one that began with a gesture of generosity and hospitality from the “colonized” to the “colonizer” and continued with cups of tea in the local café, gigs at art galleries, conversations in lounge rooms late at night, and a burgeoning friendship across that which might divide them—here a friend, there a researcher, but what of the in-between? This question remained unanswered. At the end of the year Ms. White Settler Colonial handed in her Honours thesis and felt duly entitled to call herself an ethnomusicologist.

(p. 383) Ms. White Settler Colonial picked up one of the albums and flicked quickly to the memory she was searching for. She saw herself, a year later, sitting in the “field” in the remote town of Burrulula in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory of Australia as a doctoral student with the tools of her trade—a notebook, a camera, a tape recorder, and stark white skin she had not yet noticed. She is surrounded by people, performers, and a community of Aboriginal people making songs and ceremony in the photo; but Ms. White Settler Colonial sits with her head down once more, trying to “capture” in black ink on white pages that which she calls “music” but which Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara, and Gudanji people call something else completely (see Bradley and Mackinlay, 2000, for a discussion of Yanyuwa terms for music). Aside from a short visit to Burrulula in the mid-1960s by Alice Moyle (1988), Ms. White Settler Colonial was the first music researcher to focus attention on Aboriginal performance at Burrulula. She believed proudly and completely in her mission to fill this gap in the musicological record; after all, Ms. White Settler Colonial carried with her a research legacy that must be sustained. No sooner had she thought this, than the whispering returned, “And you think that gives you the right to be hear/here? Who gives you the power and the privilege to be hear/here White girl?” Ms. White Settler Colonial felt the sting of settler naiveté, innocence, and arrogance reach forward from her memory to sharply slap her face and angrily pushed the albums from her lap onto the floor.

Ms. White Settler Colonial sighed—her life and work as an ethnomusicologist has “always-already” been complicated, confused, and conflicted. When she sat down at CASM to learn tribal [sic] singing, she found herself next to the Yanyuwa man who became her husband. She went to Burrulula as his wife and was introduced to the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Mara, and Gudanji community by her mother-in-law and husband’s grandmother as family (see Muir, 2004). “Meet my grandson’s wife,” her husband’s grandmother had said with a smile, as she took Ms. White Settler Colonial by the hand and heart to meet her Yanyuwa family. Soon after arriving at Burrulula she was called Nungarrima, the right way “skin” or female kinship name in relation to her husband. No one called her by her first name after that, and she reciprocated; she and they were variously now baba (sister), marruwarra (cousin), manjikarra (sister-in-law), kujaka (mother), kulhakulha (daughter), ngabuji (paternal grandmother), and kukurdi (maternal grandmother). Many years later, she would be given a “bush” name linking her to the traditional country of Manankurra and the Tiger Shark Dreaming (see Bradley, 1988), of her husband’s grandmother. She became a non-Aboriginal mother to Aboriginal children and kundiyarra, a partner in song (Mackinlay, 2000). Despite her sense of belonging to her Yanyuwa family, every so often Ms. White Settler Colonial would turn around and notice her white shadow, and with that recognition came the whispering once more, “Don’t forget, you are still white, white girl! Can you are you here/hear yet white girl?”

As Ms. White Settler Colonial’s personal, professional, political, and performative lives became inextricably entangled, she could no longer see herself clearly in her role as ethnomusicologist, at least not in the way she had been traditionally trained. When she went to Burrulula in 1994, Ms. White Settler Colonial entered a community ravaged by the ongoing effects of colonization, and she idealistically and paternalistically (p. 384) thought her work as an ethnomusicologist would—and could—make a difference. Ms. White Settler Colonial has told this story in other places before (e.g., Mackinlay, 2009, 2010) and she finds it hard, just like every other telling, to find the right words. In this moment of standing still, the “truth” would seem to suggest that nothing has changed. The Burrulula she met 20 years ago is in many ways very much the same Burrulula today, and for her, that is simply not good enough. Her breath catches in her throat as Ms. White Settler Colonial realizes that perhaps it is also that ethnomusicology, at least as she knows it, is no longer good enough. From the corner of her eye she spies her white shadow lurking in the corner and nodding in agreement. She wants her academic work to somehow translate into “something better” for the women, men, and children whom she calls family. Better homes, a fair education, an end to racism, and the reinstatement of Indigenous Australians as a sovereign people—all of these things she feels are more important than black dots on a white page and any fancy analytical account she might be able to give of them. Ms. White Settler Colonial knows that the PhD she completed and the journal papers she subsequently wrote about the social and musical lives of Aboriginal women and men at Burrulula did not change anything for her family, despite how well she wrote them and the prestige of the publications in which they appeared. She realized that while people might be hearing the words she spoke at conferences and reading those that appeared in her writing (e.g., Mackinlay, 2005), they were not listening—not with their hearts. Ms. White Settler Colonial knew that there was more, and indeed that she had to do more, to engage the thinking hearts of her colleagues, students, and friends. In this moment of “wide-awakeness,” she found herself at odds with the disciplinary flow of ethnomusicology, and once again she heard the whispering, “Well hello there white girl, perhaps you are beginning to be hear/here!” Now that Ms. White Settler Colonial has begun to hear the whispering, she finds that she cannot ignore it. It plays around in her head constantly. She does not know what else to do except return to her fallback position of researcher to try to find its source.

Whispering in Ethnomusicology about Decolonization

While there are many ethnomusicological discussions that discuss the colonial contexts and the colonial repositories of our work (Emoff, 2002; Seeger, 1986; Waterman, 1990), “decolonization” is a term that remains largely unfamiliar to ethnomusicological vocabulary. In step with anthropological debates in the 1970s sparked by the work of Geertz (1973) and feminist thinkers such as Rosaldo and Lamphere (1974) about the nature of fieldwork, the power and authority of researchers, and texts as representation acts, Gourlay (1978) provactively challenged the concept of the ethnomusicologist as both “ominsicent and non-existent” in the writings of colleagues such as Merriam (1967) and Nettl (1964). Gourlay (1978: 3) was critical of the insistence, on the one hand, (p. 385) that ethnomusicologists become fully immersed in fieldwork if they are to truly learn, understand, and interpret the music of another culture, and yet on the other hand, completely silence the performers and their own subjectivities in the texts which result from participatory observation research. He questioned the relevancy and ethics of neutrality and objectivity in ethnomusicological work and called for the “missing ethnomusicologist” to become visible in recognition of the messy reality of the subject-object relationship (1978: 4) inherent in social science research. Indeed, Gourlay (1982) called for a “humanizing ethnomusicology” that would simultaneously resist ethnocentric and dominant Western ways of knowing, doing, and being in relation to music, and seek to bring the worldviews of Self and Other “into an interpenetrating dialectical relationship through which the investigator is himself investigated” (1982: 416). Alongside Gourlay’s provocation, feminist thinkers in the discipline (e.g., Herndon and Ziegler, 1990; Koskoff, 1987) had also begun to question ideologies of dominance, and specific attention was given by them to exploring the status of women in music cultures globally, the nature of gender relationships and gender structures on musical roles, and the positioning of the gendered fieldworker in ethnomusicological settings.

However, it would be another 15 years before the first in-depth and sustained critique of the colonial past and present of the discipline arrived on the scene with publication of the edited text Shadows in the Field, edited by Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley. The first edition of Shadows (1997) attempts to bring into open space discussion of the “crisis of representation” that categorizes postmodern social science, and Barz and Cooley clearly acknowledge the linking of “ethnographic fieldwork, as well as representation, to colonial, imperial, and other repressive power structures” (1997: 4). The need to recognize that being in the field and being with/out Others, being out of the field and being with/out Others, being in the business of representation with/out Others in and with/out of the field is ultimately an exercise of power takes center stage in this text. I use the hyphenated phrase with/out to signify and question the capacity of ethnomusicologists to ever really leave the field. If the field really is an intersubjective and intercorporeal shared moment of performativity and experience, then the field never really leaves us—we are never with/out the field and the shadows we cast are with/out the field at the same time because, on the one hand, they never really leave us, and on the other, they remain elusive and incapable of erasure.

In relation to the thinking about decolonization, then, our shadows are shaped by colonialism, and recent work by Vass (2013) would suggest that they are indeed white. White bodies mark the colonial history and disciplinary performance of ethnomusicology, and pale imperial shadows take center stage in talk about decolonization. The second edition of Shadows reached audiences in 2008, and what is at once surprising and distressing about this revised text is the silence of talk about decolonization. Yazzie laments, “while the world decolonization process is almost complete, it has not yet begun for Indigenous peoples” (2000: 39) and if Shadows is representative of current disciplinary thinking about decolonization, it remains a sharply closed door on an open moment of possibility. “Decolonializing” [sic] processes are referred to by Meizel (in Cooley, Meizel, and Syed, 2008: 96) as relevant only to studies where issues of power (p. 386) and cultural Otherness appear “outstanding,” and although she does not explicitly state so, here we can read her words as referring to ethnomusicological studies that engage directly with Indigenous and colonized peoples. In this context, Meizel suggests, the onus is on the researcher to “understand his or her responsibilities in the way others experience their musical worlds” (Meizel in Cooley, Meizel, and Syed, 2008: 96). Certainly, decolonization is one of the most pressing issues for those of us working with Indigenous peoples today, and one that we must take personal response-ability to engage with epistemologically, methodologically, and ontologically, but what of the response-ability of the discipline? If everyone is in agreement that the colonial history pervades past and present practice, do we not have a disciplinary response-ability to decolonize, or at the very least, to begin to dance toward it? Why is it that decolonizing talk in ethnomusicology remains a whispering that many are too afraid to heed? Why do we assume that it’s up to Indigenous people alone to decolonize? What kind of discipline is ethnomusicology with/out decolonizing talk, and further, is talk alone enough to decolonize?

Dr. A(pplied) Ethnomusicology Meets Professor Decolonization

Ms. White Settler Colonial found herself a job working in a university teaching ethnomusicology within the context of Indigenous Australian Studies. She decided that she would add the word “applied” to her title and began calling herself Dr. A(pplied) Ethnomusicology—Dr. A. for short. She felt this new term better reflected her personal-is-political agenda. One morning, she was halfway through a lecture on applied and advocacy work in ethnomusicology, when Dr. A. was interrupted by a loud knock at the door.

“Just hold on a moment,” she said, and excused herself to see who was there. “Oh my goodness it’s you! Prof. D.! I didn’t think you were coming! Look everyone; it’s my good friend Professor Decolonization! You know, the one I promised to talk to you about before?”

Several students nodded their head in agreement. They thought they recognized her from the discussion earlier but were not quite prepared for the reality.

“What are you doing in town, Prof. D.? I didn’t realize you were even in Australia!” Dr. A. was surprised to see her colleague and friend.

“Well, you know how it is, Dr. A., I’m never quite sure if I’m going to be welcome at this kind of gig, but I could see that this was a conversation you needed to have with someone like me by your side—the colonizer and the colonized are bound together, you know, we are both implicated in colonization and decolonization. Don’t forget Phillips and Whatman (2007: 6) who contend, ‘because we are all products of a shared colonial history, we are all subjects of the enquiry.’ The only problem is that you, Dr. A.—a.k.a. Ms. White Settler Colonial—have dominated that conversation for far too long!” Prof. (p. 387) D. winked at the class and settled herself into a spare chair. “So, how far have you got with your class discussions on applied ethnomusicology and decolonization? Has anyone walked out yet? Raised a hand in objection? Wrinkled up their noses or—and I wonder about this response—smiled with empathy?”

Dr. A. grimaced. “Actually, no—well, not yet anyway. We were just about…”

Prof. D. interrupted, “Oh, you must have only just started then… I know where you’re at sister. You haven’t told them yet have you?”

Dr. A. hesitated.

“Oh no, don’t tell me! You’re not nervous, are you, Dr. A.? After all this time?” Prof. D. let out a loud sigh. “Remember, Dr. A. ‘everything is in danger of colonizing—everything is suspicious’ (Cary, 2004: 77), and that includes your unwillingness to begin the discussion—so go on, off you go. I can hold your hand if you need me to.”

Dr. A. swallowed deeply and reached for a sip of cool water to moisten her lips and throat. She realized that the silence between her voice and Prof. D.’s was becoming thick and heavy, you could cut the tension with a knife; the class was expecting her to speak. She began with a safe response.

“Let’s start with what we mean when we use terms like ‘applied.’ In anthropological discourse, the term ‘applied’ refers to research practices that use theory and method to solve practical human problems. ‘Applied’ is about ‘the dynamics of “partnership” between the scholar and the social subjects involved in ethnomusicological research’ (Hofman, 2010: 22). Many applied ethnomusicological projects run on a collaborative field research and epistemological approach whereby the researched actively participates in the research process alongside the researcher (Hofman, 2010: 23)—as co-researchers, co-authors, and co-constructors of knowledge. Border crossing and shape shifting happens a lot in our work, and many traditional divisions are broken down in such an interactive and dialogic way of working. Sheehy tells us that applied ethnomusicology emphasises the tendency to see ‘opportunities for a better life through… musical knowledge’ (1992: 324) by asking ‘to what end?’ (1992: 323).” Dr. A. looked at Prof. D., hoping that maybe this was enough to set the context. Prof. D. didn’t need to say a word; she simply reversed the gaze. Dr. A. took a deep breath and continued.

“Sheehy’s work put the consequences of our work high on the agenda and challenged us to think about ethnomusicological work as ‘strategy guided by a sense of social purpose’ (1992: 335). Certainly, there is often a social justice agenda rippling beneath the surface or displayed boldly on a billboard at the front of much applied work in ethnomusicology today, and words like ‘benefit,’ ‘reciprocity,’ and ‘relationships’ figure prominently in these discussions. Ethnomusicologists continue to grapple with the ethical response-abilities they hold toward the communities from whom they collect and gather musical knowledge, a dilemma that becomes even more complex as they shift in and out of academic fields of play. In many ways, applied ethnomusicology represents an attempt to bring this tension to the front and center of our practice so that it can no longer be ignored, but rather demands an active response.” Dr. A. finished speaking and looked expectantly at Prof. D.

(p. 388) Prof. D. shook her head in frustration. “To what? What are applied ethnomusicologists responding to? Oh come on Dr. A., you can do better than that! Now’s the time to practice what you preach—where’s your heart in all of this? Why don’t you really tell them about decolonization? All of this is just appeasing white settler colonial guilt and pandering to a claim to innocence of the same kind.”

Dr. A. knew that Prof. D. wanted more from her, but decolonization was a relatively new word for her, too. Despite all of the whispering she had heard over the past 10 years, she still did not feel she had the right words to explain it, or that she even had a right to explain it.

“For me,” she began, “the one characteristic I keep returning to is the potential of an applied approach to view our work as musical, personal, and political all at once. If we start thinking and talking openly about relationships and response-abilities, then through this lens we are enabled to address the uneasiness that many of us feel when we position ourselves and our discipline in the context of colonization, white power, and white privilege. Indeed, the ‘idea of privilege is at the heart of the colonial relationship’ (Memmi, 2013 [1965]). It’s a matter of urgency, how we as non-Indigenous researchers address the complex relationship between our histories, our disciplines, and ourselves as colonizing culture. Our white settler colonial identity brings us enormous power and privilege in relation to Indigenous peoples, and yet in many research contexts it remains hidden under carefully guarded discourses of ‘for their own good,’ ‘soothe the dying pillow,’ ‘researcher as expert,’ ‘document and preserve at all costs,’ and, ‘saviours of a disappearing race, music, and culture,’ ”

Prof. D. raised her eyebrows, “Those are pretty harsh words.”

“For sure,” Dr. A. agreed, but continued with her critique. “But they need to be. Interrogation of the ways in which we continue to embody and enact colonialism is not comfortable business, nor it is an apology for being a colonizer. What it does mean is taking on board, believing, and living words like decolonization.”

“That’s my baby!” Prof. D. exclaimed. “But it makes me really sad to think that nobody really knows me yet, even when I walk down the corridor to the tea room, many people quietly close their office doors to keep me out. What do they think I’m going to do? Rip their pristine white research chairs from right under their backsides? Do you know what? One day I just might—and that’s what everyone is scared of.” Prof. D. paused and then continued carefully, “I know that you’ve been trying to introduce me for some time in your own work Dr. A. (Mackinlay, 2005, 2010, 2012). But maybe it’s time for me to start telling the story.”

Dr. A. knew that placing emphasis on unveiling inequalities, deconstructing power relations, and reflection and action as pathways to change are important in any dance toward to decolonization. As a non-Indigenous person working with Indigenous communities in applied ethnomusicological contexts, words like “reconciliation,” “hope,” “action,” and “social justice” were everywhere in her writing because they gave her assurance that performance of her white power and privilege as Ms. White Settler Colonial had good intentions. They provided her with “immunity,” as Youngblood Henderson (2000: 32) contends, from recognizing and responding to herself as part of the problem. (p. 389) She consistently saw herself as the ethnomusicologist “doing decolonizing good”—one who proudly wore her anti-racist, social justice, and reconciliation politics on her invisible White sleeve and wasn’t afraid to call neo-colonial and racist praxis in ethnomusicological research for what it was, where and when she saw it. She realized now that while she had might have heard the whispering, she had not really ever listened, and it was time to start.

“Settle in Dr. A., we might be here for a while.” Prof. D. shifted in her chair to find a more comfortable position and began. “Some of us—and by ‘us’ I mean the ‘colonized’—have been talking about decolonization for a long time. Decolonization is a concept which takes on different meanings across different contexts—it simultaneously evokes a historical narrative of the end of empire, a particular version of postcolonial political theory, a way of knowing that resists the Eurocentricism of the West, a moral imperative for righting the wrongs of colonial domination, and an ethical stance in relation to self-determination, social justice, and human rights for Indigenous peoples enslaved and disempowered by imperialism. Indigenous scholars frame decolonization in both congruent and contested ways.”

“And that’s part of it, isn’t it?” Dr. A. added, “Discourses such as Orientalism (Said, 1978) and Aboriginalism (Hodge, 1990; McConaghy, 2000) want to construct and imagine an essentialized homogenous colonized group in historical and contemporary terms, but Indigenous peoples’ experiences of colonization vary across time and space, and responses to colonization are equally as diverse.”

Prof. D. nodded, “Fanon’s thinking asserts exactly that. He writes that decolonization is not a formal administrative term but rather a ‘restructuring of subjects into agents of history’ (in Kohn & McBride, 2011: 69). Smith (1999) similarly argues that decolonization necessarily empowers Indigenous people to re-claim, re-name, re-write and re-right and in this way the colonized emerge from the fog of the colonial imaginary as liberated people. Wilson and Yellow Bird expand on this and suggest ‘decolonization is the intelligent, calculated and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies and lands’ (2005: 2). Others such as hooks have turned their attention more intensively to the prospect of decolonizing minds as a powerful move to ‘militantly confront and change the devastating psychological consequences of internalized racism’ (1994: 205). Fanon, too, felt strongly about this, writing pro- and evocatively that ‘imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but our minds as well’ (1965: 36).”

“Let’s come back to the issue of land in a moment,” Dr. A. suggested. “I’ve read Battiste’s work (2000), and she similarly emphasises the need to decolonize Indigenous minds from ‘cognitive imperialism, our cognitive prisons’ (2000: xvii) and suggests that this can be accomplished by ‘harmonizing Indigenous knowledge with Eurocentric knowledge’ (2000: xvi). In a way this reminds me of what a lot of applied ethnomusicology tries to do—make a space where musical and cultural knowledges of the researched and the researcher can performatively come together to empower the former. Applied ethnomusicology when viewed from this perspective might shift us closer toward a critical (p. 390) practice and assist us in deconstructing the unequal power relationships between the researcher and the researched by giving oppressed peoples control over how they are depicted.”

“In some senses, yes,” Prof. D. continued. “Smith describes decolonization as a process, rather than a product, linked to political action such as social justice and self-determination grounded politically in contexts, histories, struggles, and ideals (1999: 4). We owe a lot to critical scholars and our feminist sisters for giving us the theoretical grounding to expose the lingo of research as vehicles of sustained oppression and tools of colonization (Mutua and Swadener, 2004: 14). For naming colonization for what it is—not discourse and practice that exist in the past, but a machine that continues to dominate our worlds as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people today.”

Dr. A. agreed. “I guess you’re right, the shift from a colonized to decolonized state doesn’t occur in a tidy and linear progression from imperialism through to colonization, and then hey presto, we’ve got decolonization. It seems to me that thinking about colonialism and decolonization as dialogical is key to us being more responsive and responsible (Le Sueur, 2003: 2). It’s a constant dovetailing, circling in and around, backward and forward, and once passed through, any of these stages can be revisited or reversed. That makes it a pretty complicated agenda to take on as a researcher and I am still not sure where, how, and why non-Indigenous people—colonizers like me—should, could or can enter the conversation.”

“Yes, and we would insist that colonization is indeed alive and well. There is no post-colonialism here (cf., Smith, 1999, 2000); the colonizers have not left yet (Smith, 1999: 24).” Prof. D. spoke animatedly, “But we need to start somewhere, Dr. A., we need to begin. The first step is to produce counter-narratives to those texts and contexts which sustain the dominance and power of the West over Indigenous peoples. Easy enough, you might say, but to be ‘completely’ decolonizing, research must go one step further to strive to change lives, stop people from dying, and respond to reality (Mutua and Swadener, 2004: 10; Smith, 1999: 3).”

“You know what? You’re right.” Dr. A.’s face flushed with shame. “The lived experience of Indigenous peoples is the ‘unfinished business of decolonization’ (Smith, 1999: 7)—and in the enthusiastic rush to dive into deconstruction of imperialism, we as non-Indigenous researchers maybe too easily forget or dismiss the realities of life for Indigenous peoples because we refuse to make them part of our own. It’s too easy for us to step back into settler colonial innocence, sitting pretty under the umbrella of social justice.”

Prof. D. reached over and placed her hand gently on Dr. A.’s shoulder. “Dr. A., decolonization is not a metaphor, nor is it a ‘metonym for social justice’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 21). In the opening article of the new journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, Tuck and Yang provide us with this stark reminder: decolonization is not converting Indigenous politics to a Western doctrine of liberation; it is not a philanthropic process of ‘helping’ the at-risk and alleviating suffering; it is not a generic term for struggle against oppressive conditions and outcomes. The broad umbrella of social justice may have room underneath for all of these efforts, but this is not decolonization.”

(p. 391) Dr. A. dropped her head into her hands. All of a sudden, her earlier talk about decolonization as linked to social justice in ethnomusicology and applied ethnomusicology felt awkward—exactly as Tuck and Yang intended. Their words were harsh, and there were more to come; Prof. D. had not finished.

“Tuck and Yang are critical of the way in which decolonizing discourse is too easily adopted ‘without mention of Indigenous peoples, our/their struggles for the recognition of our/their sovereignty, or the contributions of Indigenous intellectuals and activists to theories and frameworks of decolonization’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 3). In this guise, it becomes nothing more than a metaphor, and Tuck and Yang stress that this ‘kills the very possibility of decolonization; it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future. Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 3).”

Dr. A. rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know Prof. D, there are too many questions swirling around, muddying the waters and making everything messy. How do we read and respond to the multiple ways our colonial settler power and privilege is embedded in our lived experience as non-Indigenous peoples, in our relationships with and responsibilities to Indigenous peoples? How do we begin to link our awareness and acceptance of this reality with ‘an agenda which does not accept the dichotomies implicit in the terms colonizer/colonized… but rather explores the relations of power through dialogue, creating spaces for transformation, for new [ethnomusicological] and methodological strategies’ (Fox, 2004: 91)? What is our applied ethnomusicological work if it is not linked to social justice? What can and should it be?

Dr. A. realized, as soon as she asked these questions, that she had already slipped back into a colonizing decolonizing search for ‘settler futurity’ and ‘settler normalcy’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 35), desperate to find the comfort of ‘settler innocence’ once more through use of words such as dialogue (read: reconcile, negotiate, settle). Prof. D. sat quietly for a moment staring at Dr. A., almost as though she could read her mind. This next part of the conversation was not going to be easy.

“Unsettling, isn’t it, Dr. A.? Land is central to colonization—discovery, conquest, exploitation, distribution, appropriation—all of these are violent acts which form part of the white possessive logic that Moreton-Robinson (2004) speaks of, which disavows Indigenous sovereignty. We can see that land and place are central in ethnomusicological work, too—think about the word ‘field’ and our insistence on ‘fieldwork.’ What kinds of white possessive logic do we invoke when we use those terms? Smith (1999: 7) asserts that the ‘linguistic and cultural homeland of the colonizers is somewhere else, their cultural loyalty is to some other place’; is this not true, too, for many ethnomusicologists, applied or otherwise? Is not the claiming of a ‘field’ through ‘fieldwork’ the same kind of colonial move but in a different guise? In the ‘field’ are we not laying colonial claim to epistemologies and discursive traditions of knowledge which are not ours?”

Dr. A. felt tied up in knots. She knew that what Prof. D. was telling her made sense; it’s no longer whispering she hears but shouting, screaming, and yelling. Her husband’s and (p. 392) children’s voices, those of her family at Burrulula, her Indigenous friends and colleagues are all part of this loud and noisy chorale. Now that her White Settler Colonial laundry hangs plainly on the line for all to see, what is she to do? What are her response-abilities? How can she respond in a way that enacts an ethic of response-ability in relation to the demands of decolonization?

Response-ability and Being-in-Relation as Decolonizing Work

How might we then begin to decolonize applied ethnomusicology? How can decolonizing theory inform actual applied ethnomusicological work? These questions sit uneasily in this story, each and every one of us wanting and needing a neatly packaged way forward through our discomforts and uncertainties. Decolonizing theory asks us to rethink, reimagine, and reconstruct our research identities, relationships, and agendas as existing within a colonial framework, which wants and needs to know, fix, and capture the Other. This is our response-ability—a word written in this way throughout this chapter quite deliberately to remind us that we have an ethical obligation to act on such wide awakeness to the ways in which we continue to “be-in-relation” to colonialism. “Being-in-relation” is a concept that provokes us into personal and political kinds of thinking about the ethical and moral obligations we have to enact a nonviolent research relationship towards the Other, a relationship which deconstructs and breaks down the colonial project. This is dangerous work because it means placing ourselves in a vulnerable position where our reason for being as applied ethnomusicologists is under threat. “Being-in-relation” is a different kind of thinking in applied ethnomusicology—it refuses, as Audre Lorde (2003) would have it, to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. The absence of “being-in-relation” to colonialism and our White Settler Colonial subjectivities weakens our capacity to work toward less violent and more socially just practices and projects in applied ethnomusicology. “Being-in-relation” means placing colonial relationship at the center of our practice at every epistemological, ontological, and methodological turn. Sitting there in the middle—whispering and reminding us—colonial relationship calls other ethical modes of being into the research space. Response-ability, respect, re/search, rights/rites, and attentiveness to re/presentation begin to make their way into the motivations, means, and modes of working with Others as applied ethnomusicologists, and become crucial for putting in place a decolonial and ethical way of knowing, being, and doing. Without such attentiveness, colonial ways of working remain unchallenged, undisturbed and unaccountable. “Response-ability” and “being-in-relation” cannot be easily scripted or written into a fieldwork manual or a step-by-step guide on how to decolonize applied ethnomusicology—they are intimately about our individual personal, political, (p. 393) philosophical, and performance relationships that each of us has with colonialism and the people with whom we work. But they can become the beginning of the research conversation.

Conclusion: Applied Ethnomusicology Talks about Decolonization

A story like this has no ending, it is, as Greene would have it, a “narrative in the making” (1995: 1). Dr. A., Ms. White Settler Colonial, and Prof. D. continue to talk, and this chapter represents the way that my “thinking heart” is attempting to “cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same” (Greene, 1995: 16; cf. Mackinlay, 2010). Indeed, it is not for me to complete this narrative for readers; it is a story that needs to become uniquely their own. My dialogic and dialectic role as storyteller has simply and most complexly been to introduce a new character into the plot line of applied ethnomusicology, that of decolonization, and the intention has always been to ensure that the ways that Indigenous scholars are thinking, talking, and writing around this concept speak loudly and clearly. Is applied ethnomusicology ready to listen to the voices of decolonization? Are we ready to ask the uncomfortable questions about the ways that we perform and reproduce White Settler Colonial power and privilege from the beginning to the end and back again in our research projects and products, our classrooms, and our engagements with communities? Are we ready and do we have the response-ability? If we are ready to acknowledge and become “wide awake” to our personal-political-disciplinary identities as White Settler Colonial and hold that decolonizing our discipline is one of the most urgent ethical and moral questions of our time, the search must be ongoing, for we are not there yet. We are already performing some of the theoretical and methodological moves we need to make—many of us enthusiastically embrace dialogic and collaborative research processes; we lay bare a willingness to engage with and enact a set of politics that link applied work with advocacy work; we openly enter into a reflexive engagement with the intersubjective and performative nature of what we do; and, we demonstrate a preparedness to ask what kind of research, for whom and by whom, under what circumstances, to what ends—and then to ask them all over again.

In this sense then, to paraphrase bell hooks (1994), applied ethnomusicology, with all of its limitations, remains a location of possibility to begin to decolonize. If applied ethnomusicology can embrace that “research exists at the interstices between political ideology (the idea that shape any given praxis), space/place (the spaces that give life to such projects) and community (the people that carry out such work)” (Zavala, 2013: 65), we begin to decolonize. If we are vigilant in our attendance to and act upon a “wide-awakeness” to the white settler colonial possessive logic of our practice; we begin to decolonize. If we ask whether our projects are ultimately about white settler colonial futurity or (p. 394) Indigenous futurity, we begin to decolonize. If our applied ethnomusicological work places an accountability of “place” (Zavala, 2013: 60) (and by extension, land, sovereignty, and self-determination) at the center of what we do, we begin to decolonize. If we position applied ethnomusicology as within/against colonizing structures, knowing that we forever are between and on the way, we begin to decolonize. If we refuse to engage in the kind of “politics of distraction” (Corntassel, 2012: 91) and reimagine words such as rights as response-ability, resources and research as relationships, and reconciliation as resurgence (Corntassel, 2012: 91), we begin to decolonize. Being white settler colonial in this space means we have to make a radical break from business as usual and perform an ethical turning inside out to imagine a different kind of applied ethnomusicology encounter, “an encounter that both opposes ongoing colonization and that seeks to heal the social, cultural, and spiritual ravages of colonial history” (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2012: 42) and the colonial present in which we find ourselves entangled. Decolonization is everyone’s business; it “implicates and unsettles everyone” (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 60). The narrative remains unfinished, and it cannot be built upon metaphor. It is now up to each and every one of us to commit to producing a different kind of decolonizing story.


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