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Creating Partnerships between American Indian Communities and Researchers

by: Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, J.D., M.P.A. and Katherine Spilde, M.B.A., Ph.D. | Jan 3, 2010

To understand why tribal governments are reluctant to allow “outside” researchers to study their communities, consider the following story. In 2004, the Havasupai Tribe filed a lawsuit against Arizona State University (ASU) charging that ASU researchers had misused blood samples taken from tribal members who had been told that the sample material would be used for a study on the genetics of diabetes. The Havasupai later learned that the samples were also used for research on schizophrenia, inbreeding and migration patterns, without the tribe’s consent. This case reinforced Indian Country’s suspicions of research and the assumption that findings would be used to harm and humiliate Native Americans (Santos, 2008; Sahota, 2007).

Researchers interested in studying the impact of gambling on American Indian communities must understand the history this story illustrates, as well as the new research regulations some tribal governments have adopted to protect themselves by exerting more control over investigations conducted on their communities. We offer the following recommendations to researchers who are thinking about studying gambling and gambling disorders among American Indians.

Observe Proper Protocol

Issues of proper protocol can make or break a research project in Indian Country. As sovereign nations, American Indian tribal governments have the right and responsibility to regulate research on their lands, and some have created their own Institutional Review Boards (IRB) for the purpose of evaluating proposals for research on their communities (Sahota, 2007). Investigators should take care to follow the community’s research regulations when submitting the project to the tribe’s IRB.

We find that researchers are often reluctant to approach a tribal government about potential projects. One simple guideline for dealing with tribal leaders is to consider them as one would the President of the United States or a member of the U.S. Congress. Elected tribal chairs and members of tribal councils are the chosen representatives of sovereign peoples. They carry a heavy mantle of responsibility and should be accorded great respect. If the leaders and members believe that the concept of tribal sovereignty is understood and honored by researchers, they will be more cooperative and forthcoming and more likely to contribute their ideas and support to research among their community members.

Strive for Cultural Competence

The recommendation to develop a project that is culturally competent might sound like obvious advice. However, in our experience, researchers often fail to do their homework or invest time in trying to understand the community’s perspective on important issues. Learn as much as you can about the history, culture, traditions and circumstances of the community you would like to study. For example, try to understand the pace and rhythm of life in the community, which may not always proceed in accordance with your project’s timetable or deadlines. Ceremonies and rituals often take precedence, even over previously scheduled interviews with investigators.

In addition to examining your own personal preconceptions, take a critical look at the existing methodology for cultural bias. For example, current screening instruments for gambling problems have not been validated for use in American Indian populations. You might also consider how the view of gambling among Indian tribes might influence your investigation. Whereas the dominant American culture often seems ambivalent about gambling, despite the large percentage of Americans who gamble, many tribes view their own traditional gambling activities as an important and positive part of their history and culture. Additionally, for many tribal governments, gaming revenues provide the only source of governmental income and, therefore, tribal gaming’s political impacts are understood to outweigh any potential or actual social impacts.

Aim for a True Partnership

Most importantly, community leaders and tribal members should be involved from the inception of the research project as more than just human subjects to be studied. You should expect them to monitor your research project and to request continuous consultation and conversation. Be prepared to explain your project again and again to leaders, small groups and individuals and to incorporate feedback along the way.

Reciprocity should be the hallmark of research projects with American Indian communities. If investigators make use of the subjects’ time and participation, they should give back to the community by providing resources and skills and by focusing on projects that the community itself is seeking. Hiring tribal members to assist in research activities is a common practice that can benefit the tribe and also make it less likely that research participants will be exploited or exposed to unnecessary risk (Caldwell et al., 2005).

Conclusions

These are just a few of the many issues involved in the study of American Indian populations. Despite the many challenges, we are confident that researchers who make the effort to conduct community-based, collaborative research in Indian Country will succeed in producing enlightening studies that will benefit both the tribes and the gambling field.

About the Authors

Eileen Luna-Firebaugh (Choctaw/Cherokee), J.D., M.P.A., is associate head of American Indian Studies and associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona and is a current member of the scientific advisory board of the Institute for Research on Gambling Disorders.

Katherine Spilde, M.B.A., Ph.D., is chair of the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming based at San Diego State University (SDSU) and associate professor in the SDSU School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

References 

Caldwell, J.Y., Davis, J.D., Du Bois, B., Echo-Hawk, H., Erickson, J.S., Goins, R. T., Hill, C., Hillabrant, W., Johnson, S.R. et al. (2005). American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research: The Journal of the National Center,12,(1), 1-21.

Legaspi, A., & Orr, E. (2007). Disseminating Research on Community Health and Well-being: A Collaboration between Alaska Native Villages and the Academe. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 14(1), 24-42.

Sahota, P. C. (2007). Research Regulation in American Indian/Alaska Native Communities: Policy and Practice Considerations. National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Center.

Santos, L. (2008). Genetic Research in Native Communities. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action, 2(4), 321-326.

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