May 11, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

How to include Indigenous researchers and their knowledge

5 min read

Researchers from Native American and Indigenous communities explain how colleagues and institutions can help them to battle marginalization.

Despite long-standing calls to increase diversity on university campuses, Indigenous researchers remain poorly represented in academia, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. For example, Maori people make up about 17% of the population of New Zealand, but the percentage of Maori academic researchers is much lower. A 2019 study found that Maori researchers comprise less than 5% of the full-time academic workforce at New Zealand’s eight universities. Tara McAllister, a freshwater ecologist and diversity researcher at the University of Auckland and a member of the Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki tribe, was lead author of that work and of a follow-on study in 2020. It found minimal change in Indigenous representation between 2008 and 2018 at those eight universities and at six Crown research institutes (T. G. McAllister et alJ. R. Soc. N. Z; 2020).

In the United States, Native Americans held full professorships in just 6 of 15 STEM fields — chemistry, computer science, astronomy, physics, biological sciences and Earth sciences — at the nation’s top 50 departments, according to data from the most recent comprehensive survey in 2012 (D. J. Nelson and L. D. Madsen MRS Bull43, 379–383; 2018). The study also found that Native Americans — who in 2012 made up 1.2% of the US population — were completely absent from the top 50 departments in mathematics, mechanical engineering, economics, political science and sociology.

Although racial-justice initiatives around the world have sparked a renewed focus on the need to recruit and retain more people from minority ethnic groups in STEM, Indigenous researchers — and Indigenous knowledge — remain at risk of being overlooked. Nature spoke to four Indigenous academic scientists about the challenges these early-career researchers face, and how scientists can respectfully and effectively bring together traditional knowledge and Western science.

OTAKUYE CONROY-BEN: Recognize that communities maintain data sovereignty

Member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and an environmental engineer at Arizona State University, Tempe.

I lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota during my early years. I still have family there and I am culturally connected. I started off studying chemistry at university, but switched to looking at the impacts of reusing waste water as a water source because I knew it would make a difference to tribal communities. My parents and grandparents instilled in me the importance of not forgetting where I come from. For the Oglala Lakota tribe, water is sacred. Researchers need tribal approval on every aspect of studies on water, including approval of the contaminants to be studied.

Most communities have data sovereignty, meaning that any data generated on our land belongs to the tribe. Researchers can generate data — whether that’s recordings of tribal elders, interviews or chemical concentrations in local water sources — but the information has to be approved by the tribal research review board and returned to the tribe, which will store it. When I proposed a study to monitor pollutant exposure and human-health indicators in samples collected from the sewage system, I worked with a number of tribal offices, including utilities, environment and the Indian Health Service, depending on the tribe.

There are painful examples of researchers not following such practices. The most notorious case involved researchers from Arizona State University (ASU). Members of the Havasupai tribe in Arizona gave blood samples in 1989 for research on type 2 diabetes, only to find out later that the researchers had used the DNA samples for studies on schizophrenia, ethnic migration and population inbreeding without the individuals’ approval. (The tribe sued ASU in 2004 and won monetary remuneration and the return of the DNA samples.) That set the benchmark for how not to conduct research with Indigenous communities. Because of that incident, several Arizona tribes don’t want to take part in research with ASU or any other institute. Because I’m a tribal member, they can be more accepting of the research I want to conduct.

I advise anyone working with Indigenous communities to realize that it takes time. When I do research with some communities, it can take a year or two to receive tribal approvals, which means there is often not enough time for someone at a pre-tenure stage to focus on the issues of Indigenous communities. In addition, often the tribes own the data and place limitations on publication. If a community allows publication, it must be approved and edited by them first. My work is for the benefit of Indigenous people, but it can be challenging because I’m in a faculty position and need to publish to advance my career. That said, each tribe handles research differently. Early-career researchers should get a clear picture of what a tribe allows in terms of dissemination of research. Researchers should ask questions, such as whether the tribe needs to be anonymized or if it has a formal data-request process.

In the past five years, I’ve seen more researchers at conferences start their talks with a land recognition — a statement that acknowledges the Indigenous land they are on and offers respect to the local tribes. The president of ASU does a land acknowledgement, as does the ASU library. (Editor’s note: it states, for example, that the university’s four campuses are located in the Salt River Valley on ancestral territories of Indigenous peoples, including the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) Indian communities.) My Native American colleagues have it in their e-mail signature. I don’t know if there is a wrong way to do a land acknowledgement, unless you get the tribe wrong.

Early-career researchers who are members of Indigenous communities should question their prospective department heads, and senior faculty members whom they are considering as advisers, about their cultural sensitivity. For example, Native Americans have cultural and family responsibilities that might require them to take a month off in the summer. It’s good to make sure potential advisers are aware of that.

Bradley Moggridge sampling water
Indigenous scientist Bradley Moggridge has used social media to push for equity in research.Credit: Karen Moggridge

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