Collaboration or Exploitation

Written for the GLAM Blog Club theme of Collaboration

“Indigenous folks, be cautious of people who want to “pick your brain” over coffee and lunch. There are people out there stealing ideas and boosting their careers for the price of a double double.” (Monkman, 2017, tweet)

People often seek my feedback, ask me questions or want my opinion on projects they are working on that relate to First Nations culture, history and/or people and I am happy to help if I can, but only if I feel their requests or projects are not exploitative. Here are some of my personal suggestions on how to ensure your projects or requests for input are less exploitative and more collaborative. Note: this mostly directed toward research projects or projects in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector.

  • How does community benefit?

Projects that involve First Nations knowledge, history and/or people need to have processes and outcomes that benefit the relevant First Nations community. First Nations people have been the subjects of too much research that does not consider our priorities and has outcomes irrelevant to our needs (FNICG, 2016, 142). “Adding to the discourse” is a not a benefit, First Nations knowledge and people have written into Western discourse and academia for centuries with no benefit (Smith, 2012, 70). In fact, this discourse has only informed our dehumanisation and “othering”  (Smith, 2012, 70). Additionally, the benefit cannot be something you assume First Nations communities need, even if that assumption is based on data (FNICG, 2016, 143). Doing so only continues the paternalistic settler thinking of knowing what’s best for First Nations people (Sentance, 2017). If your project is not driven by a community requested desire, then it may be exploitative and only advancing your career.

  • Who is being centred

Visual art, fiction, academia and collections at Museums have a long tradition of centring non-Indigenous people in the telling of First Nations history and culture (Sentance, 2017a; Moreton-Robinson, 2004, 87). Because of this, First Nations people have been exiled to the shadows (Smith, 2012, 85). Consequently, this frames different non-Indigenous people as knowers of First Nations people and culture and frames First Nations people themselves and their culture as the known (Watson, 2002, 13).  To rectify this imbalance, your projects need have First Nations people and communities as colleagues and collaborators rather than informants or consultants (FNICG, 2016, 143). This may mean giving some of your grant money to the community or hiring a First Nations community as a curator or as an editor or paying them as a contributing artist, etc.

  • Don’t seek tick a box approval

This one is aimed more at requests I receive. I am Wiradjuri man and can give my perspective, but I am one man. I cannot represent the entirely of First Nations people on this land mass, I would not even speak on behalf of Wiradjuri mob, knowing how large and diverse our community is.  I cannot be the person who gives you the okay to proceed with project. I cannot be the person who you can use later to reinforce your speaking rights on a certain topic, which is analogous to saying “it’s okay I have black friend”.

  • Include us in the planning

To ensure First Nations ideas are incorporated into your project and that your project meets First Nation communities’ needs and wants, include the relevant First Nations people/community in the planning and and forming of your idea. If you consult community after your project idea is fully formed, then it is harder for it to be changed and you are just seeking approval from the community rather than input (Sentance, 2017). That being said, any input from First Nations community during planning is their intellectual property and should only be used with approval, financial compensation and correct attribution. Furthermore, any time resources of First Nation community members need to be considered and also financially compensated for, unless agreed otherwise.

  • Remember this is our life

Remember that, even though you are passionate about First Nations people, history and/or culture, that your project could affect our loved ones’ lives. Remember that you might find our culture or knowledge interesting, but it is our ancestral legacy. You must remember and acknowledge this detachment.

  • Don’t get defensive with feedback

Again, this one is aimed more at requests I receive. If you are seeking a First Nations perspective, expect it. If you only want a First Nations perspective to agree with you, that’s exploitative. First Nations people are not here to reinforce your world-views and nurse your white fragility (Justice, 2017; DiAngelo, 2011, 57). Do not get aggressive or defensive and remember our opinions are based on lived experiences (Finch, 2017).

These are just a small number of suggestions I have to ensure your projects or requests for input are less exploitative and more collaborative.

By Nathan Sentance

DiAngelo, Robin. “White Fragility” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3, no.3, 2011, pp 54-70

Finch, Sam Dylan. “9 Phrases Allies Can Say When Called Out Instead of Getting Defensive” Everyday Feminism. 29 May. 2017,

First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNICG). “Pathways to First Nations’ data and information sovereignty” Indigenous Data Sovereignty,  Edited by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, ANU publishing, 2016, pp. 137-156.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “All mouth and no ears: Settlers with Opinions” The Conversation, 20 Sep. 2017.

Monkman, Lenard (lenardmonkman1). “Indigenous folks,
Be cautious of people who want to “pick your brain” over coffee and lunch. There are people out there stealing ideas and boosting their careers for the price of a double double.” 4 Dec. 2017, 7:53 AM. Tweet.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “whiteness epistemology and Indigenous representation” Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism. Edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.

Sentance, Nathan. “Reframing community consultation” Archival Decolonist. 8 Sep. 2017

Sentance, Nathan. “Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People” Archival Decolonist. 21 Jul. 2017

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed., Zed Books, 2012.

Watson, Irene. Looking at you looking at me — : an aboriginal history of the south-east. Volume 1. I. Watson Nairne, 2002

8 thoughts on “Collaboration or Exploitation”

  1. Hi 👋🏽. I like your article . I’m an archaeology and heritage management post grad student with a visual arts background . I am interested in the context of the photo . I am assuming it is a curators aesthetic interpretation of artifact assemblage . If so what was the purpose for it ? I identified a narrendjeri shield which asks me why it would be assembled with shields that are not related by language and history of communities

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mandaang guwu (thank you) for your question. They’re curated by Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones. All South East mob shields. To show diversity in such a small area of this land mass so people can understand that the First Nations culture is not monolithic and is very diverse. Also to show the commonalty of geometric line design used by South East mob to show that we didn’t use dot design which people always associate with Aboriginal design. Also to talk about how shields are only called shields because of western concepts and how most South East shields were used to tell individual stories of identity like a name badges, not commonly used for self defence


      1. Even though I do like the curatorial rationale, all those shields are detached from their country and were not created to be static. And placing them all together does not allow for all the culture and knowledge connected to each shield to be discussed


  2. Hello Nathan. This is an excellent blog post and I’d like to ask for permission to print 20 copies of this and hand it out to participants in a workshop I am facilitating next week (January 10). It is an Indigenous Cultural Awareness workshop for some staff at the National Gallery of Canada. I am from Chapleau Cree First Nation in northern Ontario and I have been facilitating these workshops for several years now through the consulting company I work for (NVision Insight Group). My contact at the National Gallery (who is Metis) forwarded this blog piece and I would really like all of the participants to have a copy. Thanks for considering.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yiradhu marang (g’day) Jennifer,

      I’m so happy you read my blog. I’d be happy for you to share in your cultural awareness workshop.

      I would love to hear more about the cultural awareness training in the future

      Yarra dhalan (speak soon)


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