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Article: Doing Research in First Nations Communities
Jun 08, 2009
First Nation people are often silenced, excluded, and disengaged from the research process (Bennett, 1982; Brubacher, 2007; Hart, 1999; Mayer, 1994; Mitchell & Baker, 2005; Nelson and Prilleltensky, 2005). As a result, Aboriginal communities are often hesitant to engage in research partnerships, even when they believe that research has the potential to help them recognize their strengths and to utilize their assets (Brubacher, 2007; Mayer, 1994). Although the need for a unique approach when working with First Nation communities is becoming increasingly accepted, there have been few examples of how to actually implement and integrate research into First Nation community development.
Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin Research Project
The story of the Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin research project is a story of collaboration between First Nations in Northern Ontario, aboriginal researchers and researchers from CCBR. The research is being conducted in partnership with Tikinagan Child and Family Services, a Native child welfare agency working to keep their children at home and in their communities. The project is named after a unique model of child welfare that Tikinagan has developed and implemented based on the traditions of First Nation people in Northern Ontario. This model is called Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin, which translates as "Everyone working together to raise our children." The Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin research project is a three-year project designed to document the Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin model so that Tikinagan can share what it has learned with others. The project used community based research methods such as collaboration and mutual learning, partnership and relationship building, and active community involvement to empower and build the capacity of First Nation communities. (Foto caption: CCBR Research Team, Sarah Lord, Norah Love and Cindy Nault on their way up north).
Collaboration and Mutual Learning
The Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin research project was designed in a collaborative way so that researchers and First Nation leaders could teach each other. At the very beginning of the project the Tikinagan agency recommended key people from their program and communities to be part of a Steering Committee. Tikinagan staff, community members, and elders joined the committee. The research project manager and two of the community interviewers are First Nations people who speak the traditional languages.
The research team (including both northern and southern team members) developed community profiles to familiarize themselves with the values, culture and traditions of the communities that they were working with. First Nation grassroots representation, as well as a cultural understanding of the communities helped in gaining community research approval to conduct pilot tests.
Pilot testing is one of the most effective ways to collaborate and learn how to work in a First Nation context and is important to ensure that the research follows the communities' political approval process.
Partnerships and Relationship Building
Time was taken by the research team to develop partnerships and relationships carefully. The Steering Committee developed guiding principles for how they were going to work together throughout the duration of the project. The guiding principles served as a resource to motivate equal participation and ensured accountability on behalf of everyone included in the research project. Secondly, the research team made community visits to promote the research to community members. Through translated radio broadcasts, presentations at Chief's Assemblies, and local newsletters the project became increasingly well-known by the communities served by Tikinagan. Lastly, because the research topic being studied was a sensitive issue within First Nation communities, the research team also took time to build relationships with community workers. When the community workers had a sound understanding about the project and could explain the project themselves they were much more successful in recruiting interviewees.
Active Participation of Community Members
First Nation members have been actively involved in carrying out the Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin research project. There were many ways in which the active involvement of community members was crucial for providing First Nation communities with the opportunity to exercise power over the research process. One of these ways was in the selection of community sites and interviewers. The First Nation Steering Committee and research team selected the communities to be interviewed. A survey was distributed to Chiefs and other Board members that included a system of rating the needs of communities. This process was developed to ensure that a broad range of communities were involved in the project. It also made certain that the process of selection was controlled by First Nation communities. This active involvement of First Nation communities empowered First Nation people to recognize and utilize their skills and assets. In addition, all research reports and plans were shared with the Chiefs through in-person presentations and workshops. This was to make certain that all findings were accurately representing First Nation people and that the communities themselves remained in control of the research process. (Foto caption left to right: Elsie Stoney Community Researcher/Interviewer, Sarah Lord, CCBR, Andrew Taylor, CCBR and Selma Poulin, Project Coordinator).
Lessons and Insights to be Learned
Many insights have been gained and lessons have been learned from the Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin research project. First and foremost, the process for setting the research agenda needs to be participatory from the very beginning. First Nation communities need to be included throughout the entire research process; from the design of the agenda right through to the dissemination of the findings. Not only does this process empower communities and people, but it ensures that the research is meeting the exact needs identified by the communities. In addition, the outside research team did not pretend to know what is best for First Nation communities. This approach provided First Nation people with the opportunity to direct the research process as well as facilitated mutual learning where both groups learned the strengths that they brought to the research project.
The Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin research project also challenged the assumption that research is feared and disliked, or considered not useful in First Nation communities. Rather, the research team recognized that First Nation research is quite unique and research should not be limited according to Western notions of how research should be conducted. This project emphasized how First Nation people can value research and are prepared to engage in meaningful research projects that will help to re-build and to take control of their communities.
Formerly Centre for Research and Education in Human Services (CREHS)