Prevention. Intervention. Respect.
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Why Is This Important?

Researchers working with Tribes and Tribal communities must recognize that acceptance, trust, and respect must be earned. The historical trauma and exploitation that Tribes have endured are still very much alive among Indigenous communities, and researchers need to understand and conduct themselves accordingly. In addition, relying on the kind of linear logic embedded in Western-style research and evaluation often functions to obscure or erase the efficacy of Indigenous Ways of Knowing (IWOK), the epistemic norms, beliefs, and practices that Indigenous peoples have used for millennia.

In 1989, members of the Havasupai Tribe worked with researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) to address a matter of concern to the community: the spread of diabetes. Members of the community signed informed consent documents, and they subsequently donated blood for this research. The outcome was that researchers did not find the genetic link to diabetes found in other communities. However, ASU researchers "continued their research into medical disorders without seeking additional consent from the tribe. Worse yet, other ASU researchers also utilized the Havasupai blood samples for their work and published papers about inbreeding, alcoholism, and the origin and migration of the tribe from Asia." (Sterling, 2011. Virtual Mentor. 113-117. 10.1001/virtualmentor.2011.13.2.hlaw1-1102) The additional use of blood samples was neither done at the request nor with permission of the Tribe, it was invasive and some of the published results directly contradicted the Tribe’s personal and spiritual beliefs and values.

The harm done to the Tribe was significant and resulted in a civil action against the Arizona State University Board of Regents over misuse of the genetic samples and complete lack of informed consent involved in the samples' use. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example and it can serve as a cautionary tale about the lack of regard and profound exploitation by non-Indigenous researchers historically inflicted when doing research in Tribal communities.

The issues this example raises are not unique to biology or genetics; but reflect an attitude and practice of disregard for Tribal sovereignty as well as a lack of understanding about Tribal protocols and values and the devastating impact of non-informed research on Tribal communities. A lack of essential knowledge, including about Tribal sovereignty over research, the importance of reciprocity when working in Tribal communities to ensure they benefit as well as the researcher, and building important relationships with stakeholders, leads to the importance of understanding how to gain permission in a way that is respectful and will ensure researchers can be successful in understanding the topic they are researching and benefit the Tribal community.

One way of restating the point is that much of the practice of social science in Indigenous communities by people from outside of these communities has, to some degree or other, fallen afoul of Indigenous norms regarding sovereignty, reciprocity, relationality, and permission-seeking. For example, researchers have earned a reputation for their extractive (rather than reciprocal) approaches to their research in Indigenous communities.

At present, there are 574 federally recognized Tribal nations in the United States with diverse languages, histories, cultures, and practices. It is essential for researchers to take time to learn about the about cultural protocols, belief systems, and life ways of the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) community (or communities) they intend to study. This may include knowledge ranging from the community’s history, their ontology, spiritual practices, and seasonal calendars—even their traditional name. By taking the time to learn about a Tribe’s name, researchers can learn a lot about culture, language, and history.

A crucial asset for working in AI/AN communities is to practice humility. There are a few prerequisites for effective researchers to ethically engage with AI/AN communities:

  • Involve the Tribal community from the beginning of and throughout the process (pre-planning through dissemination)
  • Develop policies and implement cultural protocols that are mutually agreed upon by and important to the Tribal community
  • Anchor practice in cultural ways and ethical practices (e.g., inclusive research methods like community-based participatory research, informed consent, and research integrity)
  • Be clear about any constraints related to funding expectations (e.g., methodology, data collection, ownership of data, and dissemination of findings)
  • Develop the capacity of Tribal peoples and institutions to collect and use data to build capacity and ensure sustainability

If you just want to dive in, you can start with the following resources: