Onus of interpreting Indigenous contexts rests squarely on interpreter

Heritage interpreters are educators in places like zoos, parks and museums. Given that they are often steeped in the Western academy in settler-colonial imperialism, how could they accurately interpret Indigenous material/information, contexts and themes? This is a major ethical challenge.

Chance Finegan

PhD Chance Finegan, a recent graduate from the Faculty of Environmental Studies (supervised by Professor Ravi de Costa), argues that interpreters cannot do this without having an appreciation for the differences between Western and Indigenous knowledge, engaging in critical self-reflection and committing to interpreting Indigenous themes in a manner that serves Indigenous interests.

In an article published in the Journal of Heritage Tourism (May 2019), Finegan, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto, emphasizes that this responsibility rests on the interpreter.

“In places that lack readily apparent Indigenous links, such as Point Peele National Park, it means ensuring that the interpreter is not un/knowingly contributing to the settler-colonial state’s attempted erasure of Indigenous people and culture,” he explains.

Importantly, Finegan, an Ontario Trillium Scholar during his tenure at York, has concrete suggestions for change.

Interpreters in powerful role as “meaning-makers”

Research and academia reflect their historic environment – imperialism and colonialism – and they have traditionally reinforced this hegemony.

In this context, it’s important to understand the power of heritage interpreters. They are more than mere communicators, passively transmitting information. Instead, they are the stewards of the story; the “meaning-makers” and “people with the power to give credence to certain knowledge,” in Finegan’s words, when they present public programs or design exhibits.

Their role is vital because their work shapes public opinion. “Interpretation is a profound exercise in power,” Finegan states.

Focus on interpreters working in national parks

How did Finegan approach this vast topic? As part of this research, he undertook a literature review, which sums up existing thought in a particular area.

He also focused specifically on heritage interpreters employed by settler-colonial park agencies (e.g. the U.S. National Park Service or Parks Canada). While writing the article, he examined and then provided an overview of interpretation training and a discussion of the differences between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems.

Finegan’s objectives were three-fold:

  1. To focus on the role of research in protected area heritage interpretation;
  2. To create space for thinking about interpretation as an exercise of power that uses information to mold public perceptions; and
  3. To highlight the intersection between the politics of knowledge creation, settler-colonialism and protected area heritage interpretation in Indigenous contexts.

Examples illustrate ethnocentrism

Finegan’s research brings to light some compelling cases that illustrate the parks’ failures to present Indigenous history. Two cases are profiled below.

Case 1:  Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, near Portland, Oregon

Congress created the park in 1948, but it was not until the early 2000s when staff began interpreting Lower Chinookan heritage. The second photo (below right) depicts the partial reconstruction of the Indigenous labourers’ village at this site. “Until the arrival of Superintendent Tracy Fortmann, this was a blackberry tangle and park interpretation focused on the white settlers within the main fort,” Finegan explains.

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Credit: Chance Finegan
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Credit: Chance Finegan
Case 2: Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming

This is held sacred by multiple Northern Plains Tribes and occupies disputed Indigenous territory. While the park does attempt to interpret Indigenous heritage, rock climbing is still allowed on the monolith – Finegan notes that this is akin to climbing St. Peter’s Basilica for sport. “Notice the American flag – a visual manifestation of settler claims to Sioux territory,” he adds.

Devil’s Tower. Credit: U.S. National Park Service
Devil’s Tower. Credit: U.S. National Park Service

Suggestions for change

Going forward, Finegan suggests two broad approaches: First, interpreters need to improve how they work with Indigenous communities. He suggests that they could incorporate Indigenous knowledge in their work. The community which holds that knowledge must have a substantial and substantive role in the entire interpretive process – including how its knowledge is used. This underscores the fact that interpreters need to be listening to what Indigenous people say about research in their communities, for interpreters are consumers and communicators of research.

Second, interpretation needs to foster a culture of self-reflection. “Such a culture is currently lacking in the field and is urgently needed,” he emphasizes. In a key passage, he elaborates:

“How one learns what one interprets is equally as important as the methods for interpreting this knowledge and measuring success in delivering content. In settler-colonial societies, where protected areas preserve state heritage, the intersection of power, knowledge and race need to be understood by heritage interpreters.”

Finegan suggests that interpreters, in seeking to bridge the gap between Indigenous and Western knowledge or walk along the Western-Indigenous boundary, should ask themselves:

  • Am I being a good steward of Indigenous culture, history and perspectives?
  • Am I working with a specific community and seeking to reveal a particularly sensitive issue/topic? If so, do I have the community’s assent to do so?
  • How will my interpretation meaningfully help in the remediation of centuries of colonialism?
  • Why have I, the interpreter, chosen to tell this story, to give this program, and/or to forge this visitor-resource connection?

Finegan emphasizes that for interpreters, understanding how their job fits into broader historical and political contexts (i.e. colonization) is a part of proficiency. He is hopeful that there is a way to go forward if interpreters become more self-critical and seek genuine engagement with Indigenous communities.

To read the article, “The interpreter as researcher: ethical heritage interpretation in Indigenous contexts,” visit the website.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca