Salish Kootenai College’s new Indigenous Research Center draws on the expertise of Native scholars nationwide.
By Melanie Lenart
What makes scholarly research indigenous? Does it follow its own methodology? Does it ask different questions? Does it serve a different purpose?
That’s what a team of researchers affiliated with Salish Kootenai College are hoping to determine through its newly established Indigenous Research Center. Funded by a five-year $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the center’s mission is to “establish the importance of an indigenous worldview for STEM research,” said Director Dr. Shandin Pete, and help create “a research structure from within the tribal community.”
“Our internal goal is to address the disparity that we see in the literature that discussed indigenous research methodologies,” Pete said. “So much of the writing would explain that indigenous research methodology and indigenous research is founded in the culture and worldview of Native peoples. But there was a lack of clarity in what most authors used to describe worldview.”
The core team of five indigenous scholars, all from different tribes, began working together officially on June 1 “to flesh this idea out and find out what would be a true modern description today for Native realities of how we see the world and how we would describe our own culture,” Pete said, “and then how that would tie back into a research process or a research philosophy that seemed accurate.”
Located on the Flathead Reservation of western Montana, Salish Kootenai College is one of the nation’s largest tribally controlled colleges, enrolling close to 800 students representing 68 tribes nationally. Offering 16 bachelor’s degrees and 23 associate degrees—many of which are in STEM disciplines–the college has a longstanding interest in indigenous research. Initial discussion of a research center began in 2014, through a needs assessment led by SKC researchers Dr. Regina Sievert and Cecillia Arnoux. For several years, the college also hosted annual gatherings of the American Indigenous Research Association. All this allows the center to take a cross cultural and interdisciplinary approach as it works to understand and help legitimize Native scholarship in the larger academic sphere and in indigenous communities.
“One of the biggest drives is to understand how new knowledge would be validated in the community,” said Pete, a member of the Salish tribe and an SKC hydrology instructor. “We’re from the community, we all grew up on the Rez and we had the pretty standard reservation type of life—you know, the struggles and the achievements—but we had the privilege of having academic training, and we just want to know how much of that is infiltrating our thoughts vs. our upbringing.”
The original plan called for half a dozen research colloquiums each year that would be held on campus but designed to solicit input and feedback from members of the community. Because of the pandemic restrictions, this year the team is sharing podcasts rather than colloquiums to try to engage the larger community.
While members of the center’s core team noted that their work to identify indigenous research methodology had just begun, they all highlighted the importance of community input and relevance when pursuing indigenous research.
“I think indigenous research has to be something that benefits Indian people in the immediate,” said Aaron Brien, a member of the Crow tribe who serves as the center’s research coordinator. “It’s not convoluted. It has to be palatable by Native people.”
Dr. Serra Hoagland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe (also known as Kawaika) and the center’s community engagement and outreach coordinator, expressed similar ideas.
“With indigenous research methodologies, it really has to be applied and it has to have some direct purpose to answer a question that has serious value and impact for that community,” said Hoagland, a postdoctoral employee of the U.S. Forest Service who engages some of SKC’s approximately 80 students in forestry, hydrology and fisheries in research projects. While western science may be management-driven, some scientific research is done just for the sake of advancing knowledge, she said. “Sometimes we don’t know if it has a purpose right away.”
She launched her own doctoral research with New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache using an indigenous approach.
“I knew I just needed to go there and just listen,” she said. When she did, she discovered the tribe was interested in a habitat assessment for the Mexican spotted owl that would benefit from an outside researcher. As a member of a neighboring tribe in New Mexico, Hoagland fit the bill—not only because she was offering forestry research, but also because her tribe did not have the same cultural restrictions against having contact with owls.
Her dissertation committee at Northern Arizona University approved the research topic broached from her interactions with the Apache tribe.
“I had a great committee who also understood that value and began to learn they didn’t have to drive the research question,” Hoagland said. “Sure, there was some hard-core western science built in, but they also realized there was this underlying component really driving the whole train, and that was what the Mescalero Apache really wanted to know about. And that’s what we were able to provide them with.”
Now she teaches students how to do community-centered research, typically working with a dozen SKC students a year as well as some graduate students from the University of Montana. UM faculty members have been “blown away” by the idea of leaving the research question undefined until after gathering input from the tribes they wish to work with, she said, but some of them are coming to accept this approach.
“Listening is more important than talking,” Hoagland said, noting she had made this her first point when giving a presentation for the Ecological Society of America conference about best practices for working with tribes. “Just get that in your head from the get-go and the rest will come. Just listen first, and then talk.”
It’s also good to keep in mind that tribal members generally favor reciprocal relationships, so researchers should make the effort to convey the study findings to the community and otherwise continue the relationship they started with the tribe even if the grant has run out or they’ve left that job.
“One other classic way that we can always give back when working with tribes is to train their youth,” she added.
Social science has its own challenges, but Brien, an anthropologist and the center’s research coordinator, has found a way to carry it out in the Rocky Mountain region where he was raised.
“I didn’t want anything I do to feel separate from the community,” said Brien, who also has training in archeology.
He is currently working on an ethnographic project investigating whether it’s feasible to revitalize ceremonies—in this case, a medicine pipe dance that is no longer practiced among the Crow. He’s been reintroducing the medicine pipe to a community, in part to ask this research question: “Is it even possible to do that? To take a ceremony that’s died out completely … is it possible for it to still hold its significance and power?”
Many of the podcasts produced by the group incorporate concepts from traditional dances and songs or other cultural traditions. Brien, a singer himself, noted that most Native songs and dances do not fit a definition of art as personal expression, but are rather invoking power using strict procedures with a specific intent in mind. Because of that, he suggested they should be considered “physical prayer” rather than art.
“It’s funny to me that science can recognize psychology as a scientific field, yet they don’t recognize spirituality as a field,” Brien said, noting both fields involve qualitative research about how people feel. “As soon as you say a word like ‘prayer’ or to make a wish for something, then they put that into a different realm.”
He had some additional thoughts for what the center might contribute to assessing indigenous research methodology, such as developing a style guide for writing about such research. For instance, he pointed out that the current academic style requires authors to cite the 1994 book Yellowtail, Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief: An Autobiography as a work by researcher Michael Fitzgerald even though Fitzgerald’s contribution involved recording and compiling the words of Thomas Yellowtail.
Besides supporting the center’s internal work on developing indigenous research methods, the center’s grant supports two indigenous visiting scholars each year and several research projects proposed by SKC faculty, including adjunct professors. For the 2019 academic year, the latter funding supported research on:
- the infusion of the black-tailed deer dance among the Blackfeet, Salish and Kootenai peoples;
- an evaluation of opportunities for providing more cultural context in STEM courses; and
- the study of the sign language once used across the continent for communication among tribes speaking different languages, which is still in use by some elders.
Team members are enthusiastic about doing this work, but they all stressed the importance of getting feedback from tribal communities as well as the larger academic community—especially the researchers working with indigenous peoples around the world.
“We’re not a governing body. We’re not going to tell people what it is indigenous research,” Brien said. But “we want Native people to come out of the realm of being in the Appendix.”
Melanie Lenart, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to Native Science Report. She has worked in academia since 1996, including on projects with tribes, and with tribal colleges since 2015.