Research with Indigenous Peoples & Communities


Colonialism casts a shadow over any research (scientific or otherwise) involving the environment and humans – anywhere. Colonialism enabled the theft of knowledge and property as well as broad-scale genocide. It was imposition and exploitation for someone else’s needs and goals.

Don’t be a colonialist if you plan to work with indigenous people and communities – indigenous or not – anywhere.

The ideas below are borrowed and just a bit modified from “Spatial Data and (De)colonization: Incorporating Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles into Cartographic Research” by Annita Hetoeve·hotohke’e Lucchesi. This is published as Cartographica 55:3, 2020, pp. 163–169.

I belive these best practices apply to working with any community or group of people.

“A ‘best practice’ for upholding Indigenous data sovereignty inspired by such diplomatic protocols might be that researchers approach Indigenous communities first by asking permission to be there, introducing themselves and the networks to which they are accountable, and offering their skills and gifts for the community to use as they see fit. This is a radically different perspective from the bulk of academic work done in Indigenous communities, and even the IRB/HSR process as framed by Western institutions, both of which are structured around receiving consent for the researcher to collect something he or she want, rather than asking the community what they need or want.”

Adapted from “Spatial Data and (De)colonization: Incorporating Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles into Cartographic Research” by Annita Hetoeve·hotohke’e Lucchesi. This is published as Cartographica 55:3, 2020, pp. 163–169.

  1. Above all else, the protocols of the specific community you intend to work with should be respected, followed, and deferred to. If you do not know these protocols, or anyone you can ask about these protocols, then you are not competent or adequately prepared to do the work.
  2. Do not assume the community you are intending to work with does not already have trained researchers capable of doing the work you intend to do. Many tribal governments in the United States, for example, have natural resources departments and tribal historic preservation offices with staff who are trained to do environmental work in a culturally sensitive way.
  3. Do not solicit Indigenous people to participate in a project they did not ask for. Instead, make it known that you have skills and institutional power and access to funds as an academic researcher that you are willing to volunteer and mobilize to serve an Indigenous community. Then wait to be asked for this help.
  4. Do not travel to an Indigenous community for research if you are not willing to connect with the land solely in a manner that the community feels is appropriate. Do not gather plants or medicines without permission, do not arrive with a feeling of entitlement to attend religious or cultural events, and do not expect to work in sacred places.
  5. Do not travel to an Indigenous community for research without previously extensively researching the history and ongoing legacies of violent colonization as it affects that community.
  6. Understand that as Indigenous peoples, some of our most sacred and sensitive information is the knowledge and stories we carry about our lands and significant places. This means that if you are coming to work on any of our stories or knowledge, you have a responsibility to develop the cultural and technical competence to do the work in a respectful way. This should include undergoing the community’s IRB/ HSR process, sharing the work you intend to do with the tribal council or leadership, gathering gifts to give to those who share their knowledge with you, and developing a data storage and use plan in collaboration with the community.
  7. Be willing to acknowledge that public sharing of research data could compromise the community’s data sovereignty, inform them of that in the planning process, and be willing to explore alternatives and think creatively.
  8. Understand that you may be asked to do work that is not for public distribution, that may never be allowed to be published, because it holds sensitive information – view those moments as gifted experiences of trust, not roadblocks to publications.
  9. Understand that the community has a fundamental right to own the data on their lands and people. Just because you gather it does not mean it belongs to you.
  10. Do not assume that Western styles of research are useful or desirable for a project in collaboration with an Indigenous community. Make those options available, but be open to utilizing their own practices in the project, and be ready to defend those practices as legitimate in academic and political spaces.
  11. Create opportunities to help in building the capacity of the community to continue to to their own research and work moving forward. This may mean training interns or assistants, offering free community workshops, mentoring local high school and under-graduate students, giving the equipment and software purchased for the project to the community when the project is finished, and assisting the community with seeking additional funding to support their development and capacity to do their own work.
  12. Do not expect an academic publication out of any collaboration with an Indigenous community. If this is something that you feel would be helpful to them or the project, let them know, ask for their permission, and offer them the opportunity to be co-authors.
  13. This list comprises recommendations for actions that are largely at the level of the individual researcher; that said, institutions also have a role to play. Academic funding requirements and time limitations can present challenges to researchers, but these barriers in turn require two responses: (1) researchers should attempt to navigate around these barriers by shifting to alternate forms of funding and a project timeline that invests in the work over a longer period of time, and (2) researchers have an obligation to work to remove these barriers as scholars or members of research communities by challenging institutions to shift to better incorporate Indigenous data sovereignty practices into their frameworks.