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Conducting Research in Tribal Communities

Date Published
February 26, 2013

Conducting research in tribal communities involves forging partnerships with tribal governments. NIJ has worked successfully with tribal communities since 1993 by ensuring collaboration and transparency through full partnerships that involve local buy-in and coordination. NIJ projects attempt to marry research methods with traditional and culturally appropriate practices.

The process of forming partnerships for research is a cradle-to-grave endeavor and involves negotiations about all aspects of the project from concept and design through implementation, execution and dissemination.

Respect for tribal governments. Tribal governments are the standing authority on Indian reservations. Researchers should understand that they are moving out of formal U.S. territory and into specific tribal jurisdiction of a tribal nation. As when traveling to a foreign nation, the researcher should show respect and obey the laws and government of the host community.

Researchers who wish to engage tribes in research should have some basic knowledge about tribal communities, including:

  • Legal status of federally recognized tribes as sovereign nations
  • Tribal government governance structures, infrastructure, laws and community norms
  • Differences between Western and tribal justice systems

Securing permission and approval of tribal government authorities. When conducting research with tribal nations, researchers should gain consent not only from the individual subjects, but also from tribal government authorities before beginning a study. Generally, this requires submitting proposals to the tribal council and to tribal Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).

Federal and state IRB standards do not recognize the collective responsibilities and powers of tribal governments. In recent years, tribal governments and communities have moved to gain control over the research conducted within their tribal borders. While university researchers will need to pass through IRB review at their home institution and pass review with their federal or other funding agency, they need to gain permission from tribal governments as well.

Many tribal communities have created IRBs and have generated guidelines for researchers. The method and detail of research requirements vary among tribes according to their resources and experience with researchers. Mainstream professional ethical standards do not safeguard American Indian and Alaska Native cultures or rights, and the development of ethical research standards in tribal communities is a work in progress.

Even if a tribe has not created research guidelines or an IRB, they expect researchers to talk directly to the tribal leadership and secure permission through tribal decision-making processes (e.g. , via tribal council meetings and securing tribal resolutions). Approval can take time. Even then, recruiting and securing cooperation from eligible tribal members can be challenging.

Direct benefits of research. Tribal nations need information and research on issues confronting their communities. As a result, they increasingly want research to have a direct benefit on their lives. They believe that the tribal community presents the researcher with the gift of access; the researcher should show reciprocity by giving back in return. The giving back can be a gift as a token of appreciation, but more generally the community wants the outcomes of the research returned and explained, and assistance or advice about how to use research knowledge in ways that will benefit community health and well-being. Researchers should be prepared to share their findings and develop a plan for dissemination.

By participating in research and evaluation, tribes understand they can receive important benefits such as:

  • Ensuring that analysis and data interpretations have community input and validated interpretations
  • Insight into community issues
  • Skill transfer/employment
  • Credit as collaborators and authors

Although tribal communities are willing to negotiate a variety of research projects and methodologies, the ones they may be most interested in are those that have direct policy or social benefits to their own communities. Tribes are particularly interested in research partnerships related to tribally driven research issues and topics. They expect that researchers will share research findings and give back to the community.

Date Published: February 26, 2013