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Which Values Will Guide Us?

Native American Grandfather Reads to Grandchildren Indigenous peoples have always had their own traditional ways of relating to the natural world and creating knowledge. Similarly, Indigenous peoples have also defined values that guide how they relate to outsiders seeking knowledge about their people. As sovereign governments, tribes have the right to regulate research on their lands. Defining a research regulation process can be a challenging task. Tribes may wish to begin with examining which values will drive their process of research regulation. Similarly, in deciding how to relate to genetics research, tribes may find it helpful first to decide which values will guide their decision making. In this section we will discuss community values related to research in general. There is also a guide for making decisions specifically about genetics research .

One way to begin thinking about your community's values is to look at examples from other communities. The Akwesasne Community of the Mohawk Nation is an example of a community that has defined its own values for research. This community formed the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE) to oversee research conducted in the community. In its Protocol for Review of Environmental and Scientific Research Proposals, the ATFE includes its Guiding Principles for research. The values are:

  1. skennen (peace)
  2. kariwiio (good mind)
  3. kasastensera (strength)

These are the central ethical values to which both the ATFE and researchers must adhere when working in Akwesasne. The ATFE Protocol , developed by and for members of the Akwesasne Mohawk Community, sets out a comprehensive vision of how ethical research should be conducted at Akwesasne. This vision is based on traditional cultural values of the tribe.

The federal government offers another useful example. The federal government uses the three ethical principles in the Belmont Report to guide its oversight of research involving human research participants. These principles are:

  1. Respect for Persons: This principle emphasizes the concept that individuals are "autonomous agents" capable of "self-determination." It also means that individuals should not be coerced into participating in research, and their decisions regarding research participation should be respected.
  2. Beneficence: This principle means that researchers have the "obligation" to not harm research volunteers and to maximize possible benefits while minimizing possible harms of the research.
  3. Justice: This principle states that the burdens of research should be equally distributed amongst different groups, including individuals of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The fairness demanded by this principle also means that "research supported by public funds" must ensure that the benefits of the research, such as new drugs or diagnostic tests, are equally available to all individuals, even those considered socially disadvantaged in any way.

These values are also used by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) at universities around the nation. IRBs are committees which review research proposals involving human research volunteers to make sure that research participants are protected. Some tribes have also created their own IRBs. Other tribes have created research review boards or committees with a different structure from an IRB.

AI/AN communities may find it helpful to consider what values they hold dear that should apply to research. Communities could involve elders, religious and spiritual leaders, youth, and other stakeholders in discussions about which values should guide research. Communities vary widely in what "tradition" and "knowledge" mean to them. We encourage communities to decide what values matter to them related to research. This might mean adapting existing sets of ethical principles, like the Belmont Report, or defining a unique set of values for the community. Some questions that could be asked in community discussions are:

  1. What are our most important cultural values as a community? What are some key values that guide us in everyday life and decision-making in our community?
  2. If the tribe's Native language is widely spoken, what are some key concepts expressed in the tribe's traditional language that come up often in everyday life?
  3. Are there cultural ceremonies practiced in the community? Why are these ceremonies important to us? What values are we trying to keep alive and pass down through these ceremonies?
  4. What are some key concepts we consider sacred in the community?
  5. How might these values apply to the way research is done in the community?

Here is a sample of how these answers might help a community to define their values related to research. This sample is not from a real community, but just an example of possible responses.

1. What are our most important cultural values as a community? What are some key values that guide us in everyday life and decision-making in our community?

View answer

Respect for elders and youth are key values for our community. Sharing with others and generosity of spirit are also important to us. Healing is another value of ours.

2. If the tribe's Native language is widely spoken, what are some key concepts expressed in the tribe's traditional language that come up often in everyday life?

View answer

"Peace" and "balance" are words that come up often in our community.

3. Are there cultural ceremonies practiced in the community? Why are these ceremonies important to us? What values are we trying to keep alive and pass down through these ceremonies?

View answer

The coming-of-age ceremony is very important in our community for both boys and girls. This ceremony is important to us because it helps the youth to understand where they come from. It also helps the youth to feel a sense of belonging to the community. We are trying to help the youth understand how important they are to us. We want them to feel confident and understand that they are our future. We also want to help the youth understand the importance of traditions. We are trying to help them develop respect for the ancestors, a desire to learn their language, and traditional concepts of a healthy family. We want them to understand their roles in our community and to inspire a love of community in them.

4. What are some key things we consider sacred in the community?

View answer

The mountains and river in our community are sacred. There are some animals and plants we have considered sacred for many generations. Our language, traditions, and songs are also sacred.

5. How might these community values and concepts apply to research?

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View answer 2

View answer 3

View answer 4

Respect for elders and youth: we can include elders and youth in the review of research proposals. For example, researchers can be required to go to youth and elder councils for advice. Also, we can put a high priority on research that deals with the needs of youth and elders. We can ask youth and elders what topics they feel need to be researched. Then we can try to find researchers or partners to help us look at those issues. Generosity and healing are important to us also. We will seek research partners who have these same values. A researcher who is generous, for example, would be willing to share the research results with the community and have the community's best interests at heart.
Peace and balance are important for our community. We will prioritize research studies that involve these values. For example, research on prevention of violence or drug use in our community will help contribute to balance and peace. We will also look for these values in our potential research partners.
Helping the youth understand where they come from and giving them a sense of belonging is important to us. Research studies that help strengthen our youth will be given priority. All researchers will be asked to provide a plan for how they will strengthen our youth. This could include activities to help youth to feel connected to the community. It could also include plans for training youth or special activities designed to help youth understand research, science, medicine, etc.
In the agreement we ask researchers to sign, we will include a statement that they will respect the landscape, plants, and animals that we consider sacred. We will also prioritize research projects that are related to the preservation of the landscape, plants, animals, songs, and traditions. However, there may be some songs or traditional ceremonies that we prefer to keep confidential within the community, and so we will ask researchers not to record these.

In conclusion, community values can be incorporated into many aspects of research such as:

  • The topics that are studied
  • The way researchers are asked to engage with the community and specific groups like youth or elders
  • The process for review of research proposals, data collection, and publication of results
  • Consideration of the benefits and risks of a research study to the community
  • Decisions about whether a researcher would be a good partner for the community
  • Agreements researchers sign
  • Tribal research codes or protocols

Photo Credit: NativeStock Pictures Used with permission. All rights reserved.

How Do We Decide?

A Guide for American Indian/Alaska Native Communities

The interactive decision guides provide a set of interactive questions to help you reflect on your feelings regarding research. Read More