Introduction to Research

“Trust takes time. You need to prove—as a researcher or as an outsider—that you can actually function as a positive member of that community; and there’s no way to do that without becoming a part of that community. That takes time." – Teleconference Participant, May 2012

“You have to be able to humble yourself before another person, to understand that each person has something valuable to contribute. So you have to be able to quiet down your own agenda and your own thought processes and open up your entire spirit." – Teleconference Participant, June 2012

(Excerpts from ‘Walk Softly, Listen Carefully’: Building Research Relationships with Tribal Communities, 2012)

Increasingly, tribal leaders acknowledge that research is a key tool of tribal sovereignty in providing data and information to guide community planning, cross-community coordination, and program and policy development. Sovereignty is a legal word for the authority to self-govern. Tribal sovereignty means that each tribe has the inherent legal and political authority to govern itself. Tribes are governments that have distinct legal and political authority to represent their citizens and to regulate all activities occurring on their lands, including research. Similar to federal and state governments, tribes have sovereign power over their lands, citizens, and related affairs. Researchers are required to follow the laws of each tribe, including the tribe’s research regulation policies and any tribal laws pertaining to research being conducted with tribal citizens and on tribal lands.

This is especially important as there has been an increase in the number of American Indian and Alaska Native people pursuing research careers, many who are intent on developing research that has benefit for Native communities. These emerging scholars stand with the generations of Native scholars and culture bearers who have been committed to using the best knowledge and information to shape positive futures for Native peoples. Engagement with research and partnerships with researchers may be seen as one expression of self-determination.

Tribes have used research as a tool of sovereignty to address issues like water quality, early childhood education, cancer, diabetes, and elder care. Yet tribal leaders also continue to express concern about the need to protect cultural information and their communities from dangerous and unethical research practices. There have been historic and present-day ethical violations in the use of data and knowledge collected from Native peoples (e.g., taking and misusing of blood specimens, religious items, and traditional practices) and a lack of benefit returned to Native communities who have participated in research.

There are many examples of longstanding and meaningful research partnerships that have provided benefits to Native communities and contributed innovative solutions to complex challenges. These partnerships offer insights to tribal leaders, researchers, and other communities interested in using research to address community issues. Developing ethical and meaningful research partnerships with Native communities requires researchers to understand and commit to an ongoing process of authentic and deliberate relationship-building, cross-cultural learning, open communication, trust, and reciprocity. This is especially important for tribal leaders and communities in protecting knowledge, culture, and beliefs in the research process while also providing benefit to their tribal citizens.

Working with tribes in a research capacity and forming trusting relationships cannot be accomplished by following a simple checklist or navigating a ‘how to’ roadmap. Tribal nations are diverse. Each tribal nation and each research project and team is unique. Additionally, developing effective relationships cannot be accomplished from behind a desk or without active, in-person participation in the community. Partnerships between tribes and researchers require an orientation to research that is both culturally-based and community-centered. The NCAI Policy Research Center is working to advance research stewardship by tracking federal research priorities, supporting the work of tribes and American Indian/Alaska Native communities to drive research on their lands and with their citizens, and synthesizing data and information for tribal use.