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Embracing Tribal Culture to Build Research Partnerships

NIJ-supported projects connect with tribal communities to plan future research.
Date Published
November 15, 2022

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes across the United States.

Tribal communities carry rich cultural histories that are a longstanding source of pride. For centuries, these communities have practiced the traditions of their ancestors on historical lands.

Previous research has been conducted on Tribal land without respecting the diverse and rich cultural beliefs that make American Indian and Alaska Native tribes unique. Oftentimes, tribes have been left out of the planning of research in their own communities and they have not been consulted in the interpretation or sharing of research findings. This has led to negative perceptions and other concerns about research being conducted within these communities. As a result of past research mistakes, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has made it a priority to ensure that tribal research programs are collaborative and sensitive to Native American heritage, culture, and diversity.

To better support tribal communities that seek to address criminal justice issues with the help of scientists, NIJ launched the Tribal Researcher Capacity Building Program in 2018. This program aims to increase the capability to conduct rigorous research and evaluation projects in Indian country and Alaska Native villages by fostering engagement between researchers and tribal nations.

Since the program’s inception, NIJ has awarded nearly $1.5 million to support projects that promote partnerships between scientists and tribal nations or organizations to research criminal justice issues that are most relevant to the tribal partner. (See a list of all awards made under this program.)

This article will look at four NIJ-funded projects:

Although all four programs were adversely affected by restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, important themes emerged on how to best develop tribal-researcher investigator partnerships.

Researchers found success in developing partnerships by understanding tribal diversity and incorporating cultural beliefs into their programs, planning for extended timelines, and establishing in advance appropriate communication and data sharing policies.

Building Relationships from Within Tribes and Across Agencies

Trusted relationships are a central theme in each of the four projects, all funded in fiscal year 2018.

In one project, researchers anticipated that a lack of community buy-in for the research project would be a challenge. However, they found that having a tribal liaison eliminated this barrier. As a member of the tribe, the liaison lent credibility to the team and the project by establishing community support. Researchers noted how “Having a trusted, connected and respected tribal member as part of the paid project team helped us to navigate whom to interview and was essential in securing interviews with key community members.”

In fact, researchers reported that the tribal liaison was so foundational and important to partnership building that they will incorporate a representative for any future research partnerships they undertake.

In another study, researchers said their cross-disciplinary approach involving researchers, tribal technical assistance providers, technology experts, and tribal justice system practitioners facilitated opportunities to break down the silos between agencies. This helped to establish ongoing and sustainable partnerships.

For another project, researchers formed a five-member advisory board that included experts in program development and evaluation in Indian country, scholars on violence against Indigenous populations, and local community members. The project’s final report noted how the success of this research would not have been possible without the inclusion of the advisory board members. For example, the advisory board provided input on all published reports and direction on appropriate research protocols to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing.

In all projects, the understanding of tribal diversity was critical for effective partnerships. Educating non-tribal partners on tribal culture was often incorporated in the research preparation phase and throughout the project by involving tribal members directly in all steps of the research process.

Incorporating Tribal Culture in Research

Listening is a key part of building research relationships with tribes. Becoming familiar with the tribal community's prior experience with researchers is essential to understanding what works well and what is considered unacceptable research practice and conduct. Tribal knowledge, stories, and memories of ancestors must be honored and preserved in the planning and conduct of any research in a tribal community.

Traditional justice policies and practices that work in the federal and state justice systems are not always appropriate for tribal communities. These communities have unique needs, and justice practices in tribal settings may benefit from incorporating the tribe’s traditional practices and values.

In one project, researchers cite how establishing shared values around a commitment to supporting tribal communities built trust that led to deeper learning and stronger relationships.

One team of researchers followed tribal tradition of offering small gifts, such as snacks or pens, to reciprocate when someone has gifted you with knowledge, time, and inspiration.

Applying cultural beliefs, tribal-specific knowledge, and traditional teaching methods to the research process helps ensure that research findings are rooted in local context and increases the likelihood that findings will benefit the tribe.

Access to Tribal Criminal Justice Data

Strong relationships between tribal and non-tribal agencies rely on effective data sharing. It is imperative to support tribal sovereignty and ensure that tribes have primary ownership of their criminal justice data.

Research partnerships with tribal communities should involve discussions about all aspects of the project — from concept design to study implementation and dissemination of findings.

Tribal communities must have the opportunity to be an active partner in the research conducted on their lands. This includes the ability to make decisions about who can access their data and under which parameters.

In one project, researchers and a tribal organization drafted and signed a data use agreement to make transparent how data will be stored and used. The agreement acknowledged the tribal organization as the owner of all data collected through the research and established them as the final decision-making authority, should any differences of opinion arise. Lastly, the agreement extends beyond the life of the grant, and data collected will never be used or shared without the tribe’s permission.

Although some historical knowledge about the tribal community, culture, and people may be shared, best practices have shown that they should belong strictly to these communities. As such, researchers should take care to learn cultural protocols surrounding knowledge and data sharing.

Planning for Extended Timelines and Appropriate Communication

Flexibility is critical when working with tribal communities. Challenges can arise, including technology limitations, tribal staff with limited resources and many roles and responsibilities, and multiple review and approval processes. This makes the ability to adjust plans paramount to the success of any tribal research project.

Additionally, planning for extended timelines with tribal communities can help establish trust and cross-cultural understanding by respecting local traditional activities.

In one project, researchers noted how a one-page document highlighting the project was more effective than a webinar presentation. Due to poor internet connection speeds, spotty connections, and inclement weather, virtual webinar attendance was very low.

In another project, the appropriate modes and frequency of communication were established at the beginning of the partnership and revisited throughout the project period to ensure everyone was still in agreement.

All evaluation studies conducted on tribal lands should be sensitive to tribal culture, traditions, and the worldviews of the community. The NIJ Tribal Researcher Capacity Building Program enables researchers to do just that: by supporting the development of trusted relationships with tribal communities through a shared respect of tribal diversity and history.

Date Published: November 15, 2022