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At the Forefront of Indigenous Research

Salish Kootenai College receives $3.5 million grant to establish innovative research center

As one of the oldest and most lauded tribal colleges in the United States, Salish Kootenai College in Pablo on the Flathead Indian Reservation has been a model of forward-thinking evolution since it was chartered in 1977.

One of the latest examples of its innovative programming is the inclusion of Indigenous research, which aims to produce a body of research for and about the area’s Indigenous peoples, rather than be exported to universities and journals for purposes that may not best align with the needs and values of the research subjects.

Now, thanks to a five-year $3.5 million federal grant, the college is establishing a center to build upon the school’s existing Indigenous research and expand it moving forward.

“There’s reciprocity in the research process,” SKC President Sandra Boham said of Indigenous research. “It’s research that is done not to a group of people, but more for. It’s looking at issues and concerns of a people or place, honoring the culture, values and worldviews of those people and making sure what you’re doing is contributing back to them, so it’s not so exploitive.”

“It’s much more grounded in the place to solve an issue around a community concern,” she added. “It’s guided by the culture you’re studying. There’s an expectation in the research that it’s shared with the people you’re studying, and that you’re frequently checking with them to make sure what you’re hearing and documenting is in fact translating correctly.”

Indigenous research topics at SKC have so far included whitebark pine trees, language and culture, the health of local water bodies and their aquatic inhabitants, and the medicinal qualities of huckleberries. The whitebark pine research, for instance, incorporates silviculture components, as expected in forestry research, but also takes into account the trees’ Indigenous cultural significance and its role in management practices.

“That’s just locally, but it’s happening in Indigenous communities across the country on different reservations around things that are important to that community,” Boham said.

Equipped with the grant, SKC will now house its Indigenous research in a dedicated space, by repurposing the existing Adeline Mathias Building, and invite two separate visiting scholars over the next year to work alongside on-campus research associates and faculty. The center will be able to host seminars and lectures. The grant, through the National Science Foundation, is specifically aimed at promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) research.

“Tribal colleges and universities provide students and faculty with unique opportunities to conduct Indigenous research, and Salish Kootenai College is on the forefront of this movement,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said in an Aug. 27 statement announcing the grant. “This grant will allow the College to expand Indigenous STEM research, providing Native American students with the resources they need to succeed in those fields.”

Research shows that American Indians lag well behind whites and other minority groups in STEM education and jobs in those fields. An expansive 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that fewer than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students had access to the full range of math and science courses. That compared to 81 percent of Asian-American students, 71 percent of white students, 67 percent of Latino students and 57 percent of black students.

SKC is trying to address that gap at all levels of education. In addition to the forthcoming Indigenous STEM research program, the college has also implemented a successful STEM academy for local high schools to promote learning in those fields among teenagers, as well as an early-education STEM program aimed at ages 8 and under and funded by a two-year grant that began last year.

Boham says the STEM underrepresentation is, in part, a remnant of federal policy that historically directed American Indians to specific manual-labor careers and then, beginning with legislation passed in the 1970s, prioritized education funding on reservations in areas other than STEM, which helped contribute to decades of Indigenous students self-identifying as stronger in non-STEM fields. American Indians are comparatively well-represented in the humanities and liberal arts.

Beginning well before the recent efforts to address STEM disparities, the college and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) were already leaders on that front, Boham said. She points out that when the college started in the late 1970s, nearly all management and natural resource positions in tribal government consisted of non-tribal members with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Over the years, the tribes built a robust self-governance infrastructure, aided by its relationship with the college.

“Now the BIA has a very limited role here,” Boham, who is an enrolled tribal member, said. “Virtually all of our (tribal government) positions and management are tribal people, and that happened in large part because of the relationship between the college and the tribal government. We have been successfully training our own people to manage our own resources and manage our own direction for our future.”

Boham notes, however, that the college and tribal government must still work hard to keep pace with shifting workforce and skill-requirement realities, and to continue addressing persistent American Indian underrepresentation in STEM.

“Part of the research center is looking at those things: How do we get people into STEM fields? What does the research tell us about why they don’t go there now? How can we impact that better? What is it about the way we do science that maybe causes barriers?” she said. “There’s a lot we can learn.”

While the idea behind Indigenous research is to benefit and honor local people and places, SKC also hopes to share it through a repository with other interested parties. The grant will help facilitate establishing such a digital repository, Boham said, which will provide a tech component to the program.

“It will help disseminate the research because there’s amazing work being done that almost nobody knows about,” Boham said. “Researchers anywhere might want to tap into this to read about, ‘What is this community saying about itself relative to this?’ We’re hoping to make that accessible to other researchers. Right now we really just get a Western perspective.”

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