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Being a good ally in Indigenous research

Doing Research in Indigenous Communities Conference showcases Native American research, disciplines at ASU

Man seated at a table talking into a microphone.
December 20, 2022

Indigenous research isn’t just about the collection of data or the academic study of a subject. It’s also about how to show proper respect and reciprocal relations to tribal nations and communities. 

That’s the sentiment and wisdom shared by participants and attendees of the 2022 Doing Research in Indigenous Communities Conference held Dec. 16 at the Beus Center for Law and Society on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

“Today’s conference really focuses on what does it mean to be a good relative as a researcher with and for Indigenous communities and thinking about our relationships with one another,” said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, university vice president of social advancement and director of the Center for Indian Education. “If we are in a relationship with one another, it means we’re responsible to and for each other. It also means that whatever work we’re doing impacts tribal nations in favorable ways and preparing generations of researchers from those communities. ASU is a resource that can help these nations chart their own future.”

Now in its sixth year, the conference was co-hosted by the Office of American Indian Initiatives, the College of Health Solutions, Knowledge Enterprise and the Arizona Biomedical Research Centre in the Arizona Department of Health Services. It featured approximately 400 scholars, researchers, staff, fellows, students and community members making an impact in Indigenous communities in the fields of history, law, health care, language, preservation, art, molecular science, sustainability research methodologies and higher education experiences.

The one-day event featured in-person and Zoom panels, networking opportunities, breakout sessions and a poster gallery. Topics included Indigenous genomics, research, advocacy, threats to tribal sovereignty, addressing missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, and creating pathways for future Native American academics.

“It’s hard to rank which topic is more important than the other because they’re all important,” said ASU’s Jacob Moore, associate vice president of tribal relations. “Knowing, being and doing in terms of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science is equal to, or perhaps even greater, than Western science.”

But the science and research must be respectful of the tribal nations and understand their needs above all else, said Krystal Tsosie, a presidential postdoctoral fellow from the Navajo Nation who will become an assistant professor with the Center for Biology of Society on Jan. 1, 2023. On that date, she will become ASU’s first-ever Indigenous geneticist.

“Usually, non-Indigenous researchers come to tribal communities with their own research agendas, questions and interests and we have to flip that back around to make sure it’s the tribes who are driving the research and the questions,” said Tsosie, who is leading a scoping review of paleogenomics studies with a team of researchers at ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Their goal is to assess the breadth and scale of community-engaged approaches in DNA research involving Indigenous ancestors.

“This type of study starts from the ground up and requires getting buy-in from tribal partners and building trust with communities so that they are engaged,” Tsosie said.

It's a practice that’s inherent in Kate Fox’s work and research. As professor and director of the Research on Violent Victimization Lab, which was established in January 2020 through a generous ASU Women and Philanthropy grant, Fox and her student-led team must tread lightly while being diligent in the pursuit of justice.

“There are many barriers in why numbers of missing Native American peoples go unreported,” said Fox, who was a guest speaker on the “Bridging Research, Advocacy and Policy to Address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples” panel. “Trust in law enforcement, trust in victim advocacy, trust that something will be done about the case and that it will be taken seriously … it’s all connected to historical trauma and colonization.”

Fox said her team members, almost half of whom are Native American, do a lot of listening instead of talking to earn trust in the tribal communities where they conduct their research.

“We listen to the experts, which are Indigenous people because they are used to research in many, many different capacities,” said Fox, whose research unit is housed in ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “It has to be Indigenous-led so that researchers can come in, help, connect and collaborate to help solve a collective problem. Data needs to be collected with Indigenous peoples, not on Indigenous peoples. We are very much dedicated to this in perpetuity.”

Reaching out to tribal nations also means pulling up the next generation of Indigenous scholars not only to continue their work but maintain respectful research methodology.

Angela Gonzales, a member of the Hopi tribe and an associate professor in ASU’s School of Social Transformation, is the co-principal investigator of a $750,000, three-year grant to train rising Indigenous researchers. Supported by Genetech, a member of the Roche Group, the Indigenous Health Equity Initiative is one of 30 groundbreaking projects selected for the 2022 Genetech Innovation Fund

“Our goal with this grant is to develop gold-standard policies and practices that support tribal sovereignty and promote institutional transformation grounded in respectful, reciprocal and equitable research partnerships between universities and Native communities ... to use so that they too can engage in respectful and reciprocal practices,” said Gonzales, who co-leads the grant with Nate Wade, executive director for strategic initiatives and innovation, and an assistant research professor in the College of Health Solutions, with support from Jacob Moore.

Moore heads up the ASU-Berkeley Lab STEM Pathways Program, which provides travel, a stipend and housing costs for Indigenous undergraduates interested in obtaining a PhD in STEM.

“The idea is to find matching pairs of researchers and students with an interest in STEM and provide a pipeline for them,” said Moore, a chemist from the Powhatan Pamunkey tribe in Virginia. “We want to get them excited about a career in STEM, which is vast and could include science, technology, engineering, mathematics and even architecture.”

Colin Ben’s research has also contributed to helping Indigenous students become more successful in academia. As an assistant research professor in the School of Social Transformation, Ben (Navajo) and Jessica Solyom, also an assistant research professor in the school, recently submitted a chapter titled “How Unique Ways of Knowing, Being and Learning Contribute to Persistence Factors Among Underrepresented Students” to editors David J. Nyguyen and Christina W. Yao for their 2022 publication “A Handbook for Supporting Today’s Graduate Students."

“The chapter draws on my previous research on the decision-making factors that led Navajo students to want to pursue doctoral education,” said Ben, who is also the associate director of the Center for Indian Education. “ASU is truly leading the way in graduating and investing in and meeting the needs of our Indigenous students who are living and working within their tribal communities.

"And that's what makes working at ASU so exciting."

Top photo: Associate Professor of law Trevor Reed speaks during a panel discussion on “Threats to Tribal Sovereignty” at the Armstrong Great Hall inside the Beus Center for Law and Society on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus on Dec. 16. Photo by Samantha Chow/Arizona State University

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