From Passive to Active: Research in Indian CountryNov 15th, 1992 | By kswisher | Category: 4-3: Indian Research, Editor's Essay
More than three decades ago, anthropologists George and Louise Spindler reported that their profession had studied American Indians more than any other group in the world. The announcement was not surprising. For centuries native people have been the subjects of research studies.
But rarely was the purpose of such study to improve Indian life or meet the needs of Indian people, and results were even more rarely reported back to the communities that were studied. Leading and echoing the activist voices of the 1960s, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote and Floyd Westerman sang about the “anthros” as the prototype social science researchers who were more interested in their research agenda than the interests and needs of Indian people.
This criticism has led to change and today research, like many other aspects of Indian life affected by the policy of self-determination, is increasingly controlled by Indian people. Many tribal councils have established processes for review of research requests by both Indian and non-Indian researchers.
As we approach the twenty-first century there is a strong collective and collaborative voice of Indian (and non-Indian) people speaking about the role of research in the lives of Indian people. Included in this voice are professors at tribal, public and private colleges and universities; teachers and administrators in tribal, public and private schools; policymakers at the local, state and national levels; and last but not least, the tribal leaders who envision the lives of their people being improved by research.
These voices are speaking out at gatherings of Indian people such as conventions of the National Indian Education Association, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and at meetings of the recently formed Association of American Indian and Alaska Native Professors. Research concerns were also voiced at hearings held by the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force and the White House Conference on Indian Education.
For several years research has been supported and/or generated at centers throughout the United States. For example, the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University, the Native American Research Institute at the University of Oklahoma, and the American Indian Research Opportunities program at Montana State University focus on research in education and related issues. The National Center for American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center is committed to research and development in the area of mental health.
Tribal colleges are also embracing the precepts of research. Whether the research is applied or basic, tribal colleges are involved in research, the examples of which have been reported in the Tribal College journal.
Recent legislation (P.L. 101-301) authorized the feasibility study for establishing the National Indian Policy Center, an independent policy research institute. Pending legislation to authorize permanent status, the center is currently located at The George Washington University where it is continuing consultation activities and commissioning demonstration research projects.
The purpose of the above summary and current research update is to illustrate that there is a great deal of interest and research activity occurring in Indian Country. In contrast to the passive resistance described two decades ago, Indian people have become active researchers and consumers of research. Research is on the agenda at tribal council meetings as a means for finding solutions to critical issues facing Indian societies. There is a grass roots understanding that research and development are essential to the future of Indian people. Research is no longer the venerable domain of universities and institutes led only by Ph.D.s with lofty credentials. Once purveyors of research, Indian people have become leaders in defining, discovering, constructing and explaining their reality.
So what is the difference now that Indians are involved in what has been described as Insider research; that is, research conducted about the group by members of the group? What can we expect? Will the research paradigms change? Should they change? Who will be setting the research agendas at the local, state and national levels?
One thing is certain, in the realm of Indian research there is room for involvement of many constituents and we must be careful that we as Indian people and organizations of and for Indian people do not become so competitive, or political, that disenfranchisement occurs.
Karen Gay ton Swisher is associate professor and director of the Center for Indian Education, Arizona State University. She is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota. She is the editor of The Journal of American Indian Education. Published three times a year, it is available for $161 year. For more information: Center for Indian Education, College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287.