University education and academic systems in the United States are permeated by a legacy of colonization of Indigenous Peoples. The Morrill Land-Grant Acts, enacted in 1862 and 1890, resulted in the dispossession and sale of more than 40,000 square kilometers (10 million acres) of Indigenous lands, providing financial security to universities across the country in the name of educating students and promoting economic development [McCoy et al., 2021]. This colonization constitutes attacks on people and land and has been accomplished through purposeful misrepresentations of Indigenous cosmologies [Watts, 2013].
Western knowledge and science have long benefited from colonization of Indigenous Peoples through the continued exploitation of their lands and knowledge [Tuhiwai Smith, 2012]. In today’s Western scientific establishment, this exploitation extends to the devaluing of work done by Indigenous community members who assist academic researchers. Together with other extractive behaviors, this devaluation erodes trust among Indigenous Peoples toward Western scientific traditions.
To improve relationships and engagement with Indigenous communities, scientists must recognize the limitations and failings of our current academic and research systems and work toward improvement. The science community is making significant progress through grassroots efforts. Now it is time for academic, federal, and industry leadership to demonstrate their commitment to advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the geosciences [Ali et al., 2021; Morris, 2021].
This manaʻo is the product of my observations and experiences as a kanaka Ph.D. student in the geosciences. It follows in the footsteps of many past and ongoing conversations by and with mentors and colleagues [e.g., Trask, 1992]. I call for changes in research funding systems so they value equitable relationships with communities; acknowledge, in the grant process, the kuleana and timelines required to build relationships and pursue research and broader impacts in Indigenous communities; and enforce accountability from the highest levels within academics to encourage best practices as common practices in research.
Who Bears the Burden of Broader Impacts?
Building relationships with Indigenous communities where research is conducted requires substantial labor. This labor is typically unpaid and often falls to early-career researchers, especially faculty and graduate students from these communities [Kimmerer, 2013; Kearns, 2021]. As a kanaka graduate student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, I am often asked and expected to volunteer in the relationship-building process with the local Native Hawaiian community. This process involves developing professional and personal connections with community members over months to years. And because I am a member of this community, my behavior and reputation hold many personal consequences that I—and my ʻohana—cannot walk away from. Despite these expectations, Indigenous scientists are often told by academic, federal, and industry leaders that this work is not valued as rigorous research—that it’s “not a good use of my time” in the academic setting compared with producing publications and giving conference presentations. This added and undervalued labor creates hurdles for Indigenous scholars to succeed.
Community members are often also asked to provide expertise, time, and energy on behalf of scientists [Gewin, 2021]. These individuals sometimes go without pay or even recognition of their contributions and are otherwise left out of the research process because they are not seen as members of the research team. Academic researchers who do not recognize intellectual property rights and acknowledge contributions and efforts from Indigenous communities fail to honor the ethical guideline of free, prior, and informed consent, which “works to ensure that knowledge holders within Indigenous communities retain informed decision-making authority regarding their participation in the research process” [David-Chavez and Gavin, 2018].
Broader impact statements and plans are now required for many research proposals. Researchers often submit plans that although they may sound ethical and broadly beneficial, cover a wide range of engagement activities that may not be feasible given funding and research timelines. Do such broader impacts actually consider community practices and meet the needs of community members? And do funding agencies hold grantees accountable for following through with the plans? Without explicit metrics gauging outcomes of broader impacts, it is impossible to evaluate their effectiveness, let alone how Western researchers are fulfilling responsibilities of reciprocity [Nadkarni and Stasch, 2013]. Meanwhile, is anyone holding the funders themselves accountable for ensuring that engagement efforts are respectful?
There have been repeated calls for federal organizations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA to hold themselves and the researchers they support accountable for the impacts their work has on local communities and environments. One way to create this accountability is to change how our academic and funding systems are structured so they better value relationship building and broader impacts on communities by ensuring that funding timelines realistically reflect the needs of the relationship-building process and provide support for Indigenous communities who provide unpaid labor to the scientific community. Without this accountability, the same mistreatments will continue to occur, and scientists will build animosity and mistrust, rather than the equitable relationships that are necessary for effective and ethical work with communities.
Enacting Accountability in Community Engagement
Although there are funding programs that promote community-based research and relationship building, such as NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and Geoscience Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity – Expanding the Network (GOLD-EN), this work is not valued across all funding systems and academia. Until it is, ethical research practices will not be given full merit in hiring, tenure, and promotion processes. In some cases, proposing community-focused work can even be detrimental to researchers because it may not be seen as impactful research in the scientific community [Gewin, 2021].
Relationship building is an increasingly important aspect of research for all scientists, but it is inherently a kuleana for Indigenous scholars: There is no way for us to not do it. When academic hiring and promotion processes do not value relational work, Indigenous scholars and communities are thus undervalued for their contributions.
Currently, there are few incentives for researchers to take time to build relationships before writing grant proposals or to continue relationships beyond a grant’s expiration date. However, if relationship building were valued in academia—and incentivized by funding agencies—researchers would, in turn, be prompted to also value equitable relationships and collaborations with the communities in which they work. How, then, do we start to bring about this change?
All too often, when researchers do work within communities, community members are exploited for their knowledge, not credited for their contributions, and not given authority over the research process [David-Chavez and Gavin, 2018]. Community leaders and organizations are seen as volunteer outside collaborators who can be called upon when needed—and thus are often kept in the dark about research plans, methodologies, and final outcomes or products.
Although it takes time to build trust with communities, it is scientists’ kuleana to ensure that we follow proper protocols of engagement. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines the bare minimum of expectations for how we should be engaging. Among other points, these protocols guarantee Indigenous Peoples the right to free and informed consent. In some cases, discussions between researchers and communities may lead to the outcome that no research is consented to and therefore none can be conducted—an outcome that researchers must respect and value as part of rebuilding trust.
In the relationship-building process, honoring Indigenous Knowledge systems and cultural practices is paramount [Kahanamoku et al., 2020]. To promote respectful and reciprocal engagement with local communities, targeted funding in grants for relationship building should be provided to both the communities and researchers. This funding would provide resources and time to support mutually beneficial and respectful interactions that focus not only on producing meaningful research but also on the needs and concerns of community leaders, including questions of data sovereignty, ownership, and access as well as coauthorship or co-review of project outcomes.
Encouraging Best Practices in Community-Driven Research
The development of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the sacred land of Mauna Kea is one example of how the geosciences have perpetuated extractive behaviors in Hawaii and elsewhere. Despite misconceptions, protests by Native Hawaiians opposed to the TMT are not rooted in anti-science perspectives (although they do reflect erosion of trust in the Western scientific establishment); rather, they are motivated because extractive practices are detrimental to the health and cultural prosperity of Native Hawaiians.
The historic “lack of transparency and egregious mismanagement of Mauna Kea,” as Alegado  describes it, highlight important aspects missing from science collaborations, especially respect for Indigenous Peoples’ cultural integrity and the process of building relationships. The TMT protests mark a significant moment in our history, when kānaka are standing up and saying enough is enough, that scientists must understand the history of how scientific advancements have affected communities around the world, and that they must learn from earlier mistakes to change their approaches.
There are resources that can help develop relationship-building and -sustaining skills, as I have learned over the past few years. The Kūlana Noiʻi outlines best practices and guiding questions regarding respect, reciprocity, self-awareness and capacity, communication, maintaining a long-term focus, community engagement and co-review, knowledge ownership and access, and accountability. The volume Kanaka ʻŌiwi Methodologies: Moʻolelo and Metaphor includes a collection of methodology-focused essays from kānaka scholars in varying disciplines. The authors describe how they use these methodologies to guide and inform their research process and to gain a deeper understanding of language and culture, allowing for positive social changes.
Some organizations, such as the Rising Voices Center for Indigenous and Earth Sciences at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, hold space for the coming together of Western and Indigenous scientists. Among other contributions, the Rising Voices Center has identified that recognizing Indigenous community needs in research, including data sovereignty, coauthorship, and accountability, has been an important step forward in developing scientific collaborations. At the Indigenous Geography website, researchers can find resources about collaborative research methodologies from around the world, which can help to start the relationship-building process with Indigenous communities.
Raising Our Standards
As a kanaka scholar, I am required to follow proper protocols and procedures in my academic research: take time to talk with community members, meet frequently to share results, and conduct my work in a pono way. As a researcher, I am held to the highest standards of quality and ethics when reporting my research: sharing quality assurance and quality control information, calculating analytical errors in data sets, and detailing my research methodologies. Why are similarly high standards not applied when communicating and collaborating with Indigenous communities? It is not only our kuleana as scientists to hold ourselves accountable, but it is also incumbent upon funding agencies to hold themselves and the scientists they support to the highest standards when engaging Indigenous communities.
As we move down the path of knowledge together, empowering Indigenous Knowledges, Peoples, and cultures to remain sovereign is essential. Updating funding systems is just one step the scientific community can take to value equitable relationships with communities and the processes needed to build those relationships. This change will allow for more accountability across all levels of academia and will result in science that is mutually beneficial to, and respectful of, everyone involved.
The author is grateful for input and feedback provided by Rosie Alegado, Kristen Luna Aponte, Carolyn Brinkworth, Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Sara Kahanamoku, Kaiwipuni Lipe, and Katy Putsavage.
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Diamond Tachera (email@example.com), University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; also at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo.