Native Scholarship: Explorations in the new frontier

May 15th, 1997 | By | Category: 9-1: Honoring Our Native Knowledge, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Linwood Tallbull sifts through the plants and materials left by his father, the late William Tallbull. Linwood continues his father's legacy as an ethnobotanist at Dull Knife Memorial College.

A few weeks ago, a woman called the Tribal College Journal with a question about protocol. She planned to write a paper about the tribal colleges’ efforts to teach Native American languages based upon articles in the journal and college catalogs. After reading our Fall 1996 issue on cultural property rights, however, she felt hesitant. A non-Indian scholar, she wondered whether she would be encroaching on the tribal colleges’ property rights and invading their privacy by presenting her paper.

We thanked her for her call and reassured her that such published material could be used without stepping on anyone’s toes. Several of the tribal colleges are playing vital roles in Native language scholarship–researching, preserving, preparing curriculum material, and teaching. Attention from outsider scholars is one way of validating that. Tribal colleges want people to know about their scholarly work. To ignore them for fear of invading their privacy would further marginalize them.

Native scholars once were treated as the objects of research, not as researchers themselves. Now that has begun to change, and the work of Native scholars is gaining more respect, as indicated by her interest and that of other scholars. This is part of a larger movement to make scholarship more inclusive and responsive to the needs of society. It is also part of a movement to acknowledge indigenous knowledge. The New Western History movement, for example, renounces Frederick Jackson Turner’s view of American Indians as unsophisticated children of nature when Europeans arrived. Instead, scholars such as Jack Weatherford have demonstrated Native people’s scientific achievements before 1492 in architecture, astronomy, agriculture–and research.

The caller’s question indicates the need for better understanding of the changes being made in researching Native communities. The protocols for research in American Indian communities are part of an emerging science, and the roles of American Indian scholars and non-Indian scholars are not yet well defined. Despite decades of criticizing the meddling of anthropologists and other outside researchers, there has been very little offered as guidelines for change. Nor have the models for good research been compiled. Tribes are still deciding what cultural information must be kept private and what can be shared. Many tribes are considering research regulations, but few have them in place, as indicated in the fall issue. Misunderstandings are inevitable.

This issue of Tribal College Journal attempts to nudge the conversation forward by explaining how Native research and Western research differ and the contributions each has to offer. The journal’s involvement with reforming Native research began in 1993 with the endorsement of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium board. That winter, editor Paul Boyer and guest editor Karen Swisher published a special issue on Native ways of knowing. In 1995 Lannan Foundation provided financial support to continue the project, which has included a symposium, this Summer 1997 issue of the journal, and workshops at Indian education conferences. Two of the papers from the July 1996 symposium were published in previous issues of the journal. Most of the papers can be read on the Journal’s web site (

Lakota scholar Cheryl Crazy Bull’s article in this issue reflects the thoughts of both the academic and the community scholars who participated in the symposium. This issue also includes a guide to literature on reforming American Indian research by Rosemary Ackley Christensen and Dr. Thomas D. Peacock and a survey of research now being conducted by the tribal colleges. The brevity of the literature guide indicates how little has been published on this subject.

The project explores effective ways to control people whom the Native scholars referred to as “research poachers”–people who come into the community for cultural information and leave without offering any benefits. We also searched for good research models both inside and outside of the tribal colleges.

The project underlined the need for change, not to be politically correct but to improve the quality of research. When there are conflicts between Native and non-Native scholars, the conflicts involve much more than petty territorial disputes. The quality of the scholarship has suffered when intruders have entered reservation communities disrespectfully, with their own agendas. Viewing the Indian people through the lens of their own culture, the researchers often missed essential truths. The community became sophisticated in understanding the researchers’ culture, offering them just enough fiction or half-truths to speed their exit while keeping sensitive cultural knowledge inviolate. The research subjects have derived from non-Indian agendas. As Ojibwe scholar Thomas Peacock points out, scholarly works have focused upon Indian-white contact, ignoring hundreds of years of pre-contact Indian history. Referring to the history of his own tribe, he said much was written by a Catholic nun and by Indian agents who exhibited open contempt for their subjects. Non-Indian researchers have also focused upon problems rather than solutions.

By bringing together Native and non-Native scholars, the Tribal College Journal research initiative explored the vast possibilities of further collaboration, opening the doors to a whole new world of knowledge. Tribal colleges are in ideal positions to nurture Native scholars and to facilitate the collaboration. The survey of tribal college research in this issue demonstrates that capacity. The colleges’ research includes cultural curriculum development, oral history interviews, economic development surveys, and biological inventories. The survey results may astound readers who realize that most of the tribal colleges are two year institutions with limited resources. Several projects involve collaboration with other tribal colleges, mainstream institutions, and private funding sources. A tribal college’s research benefits the community, protects the tribe’s intellectual property rights, and preserves the culture. Only 10 percent of the information that Indians possess is presently in print and available for discussion, according to Lakota author Vine Deloria, Jr., in his book, Red Earth, White Lies.

The tribal colleges’ work also has implications for the national scholarly agenda. “Because of their sensitivity to their culture and acceptance within their community, the tribal colleges can, if they choose, become leaders in a national movement to reexamine the foundations of scholarship,” as Paul Boyer, then Tribal College Journal editor, said in 1983 when he initiated the project. The tribal colleges validate the work of community scholars, people who have devoted their entire lifetimes to studying tribal history, stories, belief systems, and cultural practices. The colleges attract academic scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, who become part of the community.

None of the colleges have come close to realizing their potential capacity for research, however. They never have enough resources, time, or money. “There is nothing comparable to the institutional and grant support that most academics have come to assume as a part of their position. There is no paid time for research, no travel budgets, no promotion for publishing, and no circle of peer researchers to spur one on,” as pointed out by Dick Pierce. Pierce is the director of special programs and marketing for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), which often works with tribal colleges on projects.

Cooperation between Indian and non-Indian scholars can stretch resources to improve research in Native communities. Occasionally graduate students ask us how to conduct effective research in tribal communities. In response to such questions, Cheryl Crazy Bull offers her frank “Advice for the non-Native researcher” in this issue. If their agenda serves the community, Crazy Bull acknowledges the value of their research. “Outside scholars can be our allies without being our leaders and without becoming us,” she said at the symposium. Peacock emphasizes the attitude of the researchers, whether Indian or non-Indian. “Humility, generosity, and respect need to be mutually established before seeking the truth,” he pointed out at the symposium.

There have always been a few non-Indian scholars who understood how to work with Native communities effectively, as exemplified by Robert Young’s work creating the Navajo dictionary and Frank Water’s work on behalf of the Hopi and the Taos Pueblo. Some California tribes are now learning their language from wax cylinder recordings collected decades ago by non-Indian linguists. A modern example is Dr. Gary Conti, formerly of the Montana State University College of Education, who has nurtured many of the best Native scholars in Montana. In 1997 alone, five American Indians earned Ph.D.s through his program, compared with less than 100 Ph.D.s normally awarded to Natives nationwide in a year. Such allies demonstrated not only humility and respect, they were committed. They didn’t make a short foray into the Native community for gems of knowledge and then disappear.

There will always be a need for quality research–for health professionals who will study not just diabetes and alcoholism but also effective diabetes prevention and alcohol treatment, and for anthropologists and historians who will assist with land claims and tribal applications for federal recognition. The numbers of Natives with master’s degrees in such professions is growing, according to a recent American Council on Education report. In the meantime, Native communities will continue to depend upon research involving non-Indian scholars in collaboration with the community institutions.

Some thorny issues concerning research in Native communities remain to be resolved, including intellectual property rights, compensation for Native scholars, the role of technology, and how to avoid further colonizing Native language and thought. To augment the tribal colleges’ efforts, the Tribal College Journal will continue to sponsor research workshops, publish news of tribal colleges’ research, provide a clearinghouse for research topics upon request, and publish papers that stretch the boundaries of scholarship.

We didn’t intend to create the hypersensitivity reflected by our reader’s call. We hope this issue will contribute to the atmosphere of respect, generosity, and humility that will encourage effective research to thrive in Native communities.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.