Considerations In Designing Native American-Engaged Research

When designing a research project intended to engage with Native American Nations, the following considerations should be addressed early in the process.

Benefits and Risks:

  • How is this research of benefit or utility to the Native Nation/community?
  • How can you design research with the community to support them in developing their vision or plan of action?
  • How does your project support community self-determination?
  • What risks does the research pose?

Potential risks to community could include environmental, physical, and/or social risks or risks to the Native Nation’s reputation. For example, research that is based on a deficit model framing might reinforce mainstream perceptions and stereotypes about a Native Nation or its citizens. Deficit models focus attention on lack within communities or concerning individuals as the starting point for research, often relying on stereotyped assumptions, failing to consider structural causes of perceived deficits, and often result in blaming the victim for a perceived lack, and maintenance of hegemonic ideologies (Davis & Museus 2019).

Risks should be acceptable to the community and outweighed by the benefits to the community. The research should support the Native Nation in building its capacity and ability to self-govern based on knowledge gained. If your research purpose for working with Native Nations is one of convenience or does not provide meaningful benefit to the community, you may want to reconsider your research purposes and population.

Historical and Cultural Context:

  • What are the government structures, laws, and policies associated with the research topic, subject matter, or research site?
  • What is the leadership structure of the Native Nation and how often does it change? How might that affect research permissions or longitudinal studies?
  • What research experiences have citizens of this Nation had before and how might that impact your ability to form research relationships?
  • Who are key gatekeepers in the community? How can you work with them to build relationships and navigate research approvals processes?
  • What are the current issues the Tribe is interested in addressing? What research questions would the Tribe ideally ask?
  • What are the cultural norms regarding timelines for completing activities? How do these timelines match up with those expected by granting agencies, thesis committees, and tenure/promotion processes?

Notice that answering many of these questions requires building ongoing relationships and trust with key persons in the Native Nation you intend to engage with. An in-depth knowledge of the community supports both short-term research approvals by the Native Nation’s boards and long-term research success in terms of planning, recruiting, collaborations, and publication.

Native Epistemologies and Knowledges:

  • Which ways of knowing (epistemologies) are privileged in this community?
  • What are the cultural expectations/norms for interpreting and sharing data?
  • How might incorporating Native ways of knowing strengthen the research project?

Respecting the Native Nation’s ways of knowing and engaging in inquiry is not only good practice, but could also serve to facilitate translating research findings into benefits for the community.

Engagement and Permissions:

  • Which Tribal resources does this research impact (personnel, social, medical, health, historical, environmental/lands, fish and wildlife)?
  • Do you need formal permission or a permit to visit the lands?
  • Does the Native Nation have an Institutional Review Board, a research approvals board, or other processes? Who is the primary contact for beginning review process?
  • Are you including not just gatekeepers or Tribal government, but also community members in the design, approvals, and dissemination process?
  • Have you budgeted for compensating consultants for their time?

Increasingly, Native Nations are implementing their own IRBs or research approvals processes. A simple letter of agreement from one individual might be a good starting place, but may not be sufficient to grant you approvals to conduct your research. In addition, considering which voices are represented in the research engagement process is key to both relationship-building and to quality of research process and data. Finally, remember that consultants and participants are providing specialist knowledge: their time is as valuable as any other specialist and warrants appropriate compensation.

Degree of Collaboration:

  • Which level of collaboration does your research design entail (consultation, collaboration, co-production)?
  • Which level of collaboration does the Native Nation want or have the capacity to support?
  • Are Native personnel part of your research team?
  • Were Native Nation’s citizens, government personnel, or knowledge holders engaged in designing the research question? The methods?
  • How are Native Nation’s representatives engaged in data collection and analysis?
  • How are Native Nation’s representatives engaged in reviewing materials for publication?
  • How are Native knowledge keepers’ and key consultants’ voices represented in the publication process? Are they acknowledged? Are they co-authors?

Working with Native Nations requires being sensitive to the needs and capacity of the community while allowing for the maximum degree of collaboration desired by the community. Some Native Nations will be happy for you to conduct the research and share the results with them. Others will desire to be engaged at every stage of research, from research question generation through publication, including shared authorship.

Data Sharing, Intellectual Property, and Dissemination:

  • Where will data be stored? Who has access?
  • What will happen to data after the research is concluded? Will it be returned to the Native Nation?
  • Who will own the data?
  • How will you disseminate results? Will you share with community members?
  • How will the Native community review and approve intended publications?
  • Who will own copyright?
  • How will you follow up with the community after the research and publications are complete?

Data sovereignty is a key consideration in the research process. Native Nations, as sovereign nations, have a right to determine not only which information is collected about them, but how that information is used, stored, and disseminated as well as who has access to the data long term and for what purposes.

Student Engagement:

  • How are you engaging Native students in the research process?
  • Are you including both undergraduate and graduate students?
  • How are you training your student researchers on respectful Native-engaged research?

Including Native students can build sustainable research relationships and support Tribal sovereignty by building research capacity among the Tribal citizenry. These students can then become researchers for their Tribes.


Planning Collaborative Research with Native American Communities Copyright © by Tribal University Advisory Board Research and Cultural Preservation Subcommittee. All Rights Reserved.