In my experience as an educator and academic in Canada, experiences and discussion of communication with animate Earth have normally been associated with Aboriginal peoples, and not white Western scholars. Not only did explicitly speaking of many of my research methods feel risky to my standing as an academic using appropriate research methods, but given expressed concerns of appropriation of indigenous knowledge (e.g. Tuhiwai Smith, 1999), attempting drawing on Aboriginal scholarship to get support for my work seemed to risk my position as a politically appropriate scholar. Other traditions, such as that of deep ecology were tenuous given feminist critiques (e.g. Merchant, 1992), and while the work of theorists such as John Livingston (1981/2007) and others writing in the area of environmental thought were helpful, cautions about discourses of essentialism which pervaded much of my coursework made them difficult to comfortably take up from within my place of research. Often, too, the ontological place from which many of these authors appeared to be able to write did not offer explicit enough articulations of the phenomenon with which I was engaged. They were often much too metaphoric and as such re-presented (for me, at least) the existing human-nature dualism rather than disrupting it.
Highly politicized discussions around ownership of Aboriginal knowledge (Battiste & Henderson, 2000; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999), commodification of the Other (hooks, 1992a) and the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation also made it difficult for me to both ask for help, and to speak. The discourses I had access to and had power in my graduate school context meant that I did not feel comfortable seeking out guidance from Aboriginal scholars, or Elders. I heeded the caution not to look to the Other for knowledge of their culture (Ellsworth, 1989), but rather to do my own homework (Kuokkanen, 2006; O'Riley, 2003). I was wary of cultural appropriation (a discourse I had already encountered years before, during my time teaching outdoor education), and cautious about being seen as an Indian wannabe (O’Riley, 2003; see also, the story of Archie Belaney). I was also embedded in an academic culture
Ultimately, I decided it was important, in the context of this evolving study, that I stay within my 'white' culture, and collaborated with a few non-Aboriginal women not connected with the academy, and one white male, as guides and 'critical friends' from whom I could get support and insight throughout various parts of this process. Given the combination of perceived and actual risks of speaking of what I was as doing, particularly within academia, it was difficult to find people who shared some of the same epistemological and ontological assumptions as I in order to find collaborators. Such is the disciplining power of Western academic discourses which reinscribe the more-than-human world as objects rather than subjects with agency, volition and consciousness (Abram, 1996; Harvey, 2006a). Such, also, is the disciplining power of practices such as referencing, essay-writing, and language which identifies, and thus (re)inscribes the marginalized role of the non-human, and of spirit within the academy.
It was with relief that, through a chance mailroom meeting, I found support from the one First Nations scholar in my faculty – someone who, at the very end of this process, joined my committee.
This highly politicized racial context, together with the silence that surrounds engagement with spirit in the context of academic research (Blain, Ezzy & Harvey, 2004; Ezzy, 2004; Dillard, 2006b; Hurtado, 2003; Shahjahan, 2005), made it very difficult to speak explicitly about researching through an ontology of spiritual animism and to describe the variety of processes I used in this research. It was only gradually that I have been able to come to speech.* Still more remains to be said, and will be spoken, when the time is right.
*I would like to express gratitude to Shauneen Pete and Aboriginal colleagues at my current place of work for their openness and unwavering support in this process.