Prevention. Intervention. Respect.
Tipis in a field

Relationship Building

For Indigenous people, the values and practices that are important are the familial, collective, group, and community dynamics and inter-dependent relationships that form the basis of personal and professional identity. This is unlike the values and traits of Individualism, independence and autonomy that are the foundational ideologies and practices of non-Indigenous people in North America. For Indigenous communities, relationships with and connections to family, to neighbors, to the land, to the environment, to ancestors, to future generations and to the spiritual world and cosmos collectively construct the concept of relationality for Indigenous people.

  • Researchers working with AI/AN peoples and communities must understand that relationships and accountability to those relationships are the lynchpin of the entire research (or evaluation) process. Attention to relationality must be paid at the beginning, for the duration, and at conclusion of any research effort in Indian Country. Issues of research ethics, worldview, and methodology are entirely wrapped up in notions of relationship. As articulated by Cree scholar Shawn Wilson, "relationships do not merely shape reality; they are reality" (Wilson, Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (2008), p. 7).
  • Relationality also has profound implications for the way researchers and evaluators engage with and make meaning out of data. As a consequence, specific variables or concepts may be over-analyzed to the exclusion of others, thus producing findings and conclusions that are devoid of context and improperly generalized, which leads to the findings being construed as global truths applicable to other Indigenous communities.

Researchers and evaluators that want to work with AI/AN peoples and communities must realize that building a relationship with the Tribal community based on trust and authenticity needs to happen prior to beginning any work. Learning about the unique history of the community, its experiences with research and evaluation (good and bad), and any cultural protocols (formal and informal) surrounding the planning and conduct of research activities is imperative. Building a rapport with elders, Tribal leaders, culture bearers, and other community members is also key. These are processes that take time.

Researchers and evaluators entering Indigenous communities have a moral and ethical obligation for relational accountability. One way of accomplishing this is for Tribal communities and researchers to jointly host meaning-making sessions with research participants, key stakeholders, or the community at large once data collection and analysis is complete. These forums provide an opportunity for researchers to transparently share results and explain their process for interpreting findings to the community, while also empowering the community to provide their input, feedback, and recommended corrections. Such practice increases the interpretive validity of research done by researchers as well as increases uptake and use of research findings by the community – thereby fulfilling obligations of reciprocity.


  • LaFrance, J., & Nichols, R. (2008). Reframing evaluation: Defining an Indigenous evaluation framework. The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 23(2), 13.
  • NCAI Policy Research Center and MSU Center for Native Health Partnerships. (2012). 'Walk softly and listen carefully': Building research relationships with tribal communities. Washington, DC, and Bozeman, MT: Authors.
  • Waapalaneexkweew (Nicole Bowman, Mohican/Lunaape), & Dodge‐Francis, C. (2018). Culturally responsive Indigenous evaluation and tribal governments: Understanding the relationship. New Directions for Evaluation, 2018(159), 17-31.