Getting Started: Research & Engagement

As a member of the Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention Outreach Core, Dr. Francine Gachupin (Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of Arizona) has developed some helpful guidelines and first steps for researchers seeking to work with Native American communities. Volumes III and IV are especially useful for university researchers. The four part series includes:

Some essential concepts to consider as you get started:

1. Tribal Sovereignty and Implications for Research

Sovereignty is the inherent right of a people to self-government, self-determination, and self-education; including governance within their lands/territory. Sovereign status is a defining feature of Native nations and it differentiates them from other communities with whom the University of Arizona may engage. 

  • Understand that any research or institutional engagement conducted on sovereign native land is governed under the authority of that individual Native nation. 
  • In the research design, understand that each Native nation is the exclusive owner of all property on its lands and fully controls the disposition, development and use of its physical and intellectual property.
  • Throughout the research process, understand that sovereign Native nations have the legal right to:
    • Approve or deny requests for research conducted with Native communities, including research on reservation lands and resources, and with residents.
    • Halt research activities without disclosing their reasons.
    • Decide whether the outcomes of research activities conducted within their jurisdiction will be disclosed/disseminated (or not) in oral or written form.
    • Negotiate exclusive or shared ownership of research data.
    • Learn about and follow all local protocols to obtain research permission from the authority designated by the Native nation's government.

2. The Importance of Cultural Competency

Tribal nations are extremely diverse in terms of cultures, languages, lands, governance structures, economies, and decision-making authorities.  Each Native nation has its own laws, codes, regulations, procedures and/or departmental guidelines governing activity occurring on tribal land. Most indigenous groups share common understandings that they as a people have access to land, have a form of self-government, and want to preserve important parts of their culture and worldviews. Familiarize yourself with the culture of the Native nation with whom you intend to work. Native nations are the keepers of their knowledge, cultural practices, and traditions that are shared with researchers.

3. Consultation

See the ABOR Consultation Policy and UArizona Consultation Guidelines.

Best Practices: 

  • Communicate early, regularly, and in good faith with individual tribal governments regarding proposed research, initiatives, agreements, and policies that may have foreseeable implications for tribes and individuals as members of a tribe. 
  • It is the responsibility of the University of Arizona faculty, students, or professional to determine and abide by the Native nation's required procedure or protocol for review, approval, and regulation of research or institutional engagement.
  • All consultative documents should be retained according to the University's data storage and retention policy.  

For more information on consultation and culturally respectful research, see “Walk Softly and Listen Carefully: Building Research Relationships with Tribal Communities” by the NCAI Policy Research Center and MSU Center for Native Health Partnerships (2012). 

4. Indigenous Collective Rights

When considering research with Indigenous communities, it is important to understand that indigenous peoples have collective, as well as individual rights.  A notable statement of collective indigenous rights can be found in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).  The following Articles of the Declaration have specific relevance to research.

States shall establish and implement, in conjuction with indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples' laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories, and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used.  Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process (Article 27).

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts.  They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions (Article 27).