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MSU collaborates with Native communities to launch equitable research partnerships

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MONTANA — Montana State University has launched a planning initiative that will involve Montana tribes in a “true equitable partnership” during every step of research that involves Native entities.

The university began the collaboration recently during the inaugural MSU Tribal Partnership planning meeting held at MSU. More than 100 tribal representatives and university administrators, faculty, staff and students involved in research, education and outreach attended. MSU officials said they believe the effort to involve tribal representatives at every step and build a truly equitable partnership may be “game-changing” when it comes to procedures for how research is conducted within tribal nations.

“The meeting was really historic,” said Walter Fleming, director of MSU’s Department of Native American Studies.

Fleming explained that, very often, researchers, many of whom may be well meaning, plan projects that involve Montana tribal members without asking for the tribe’s permission or seeking their feedback. After the research is finished, the tribes may not receive the results, much less integrate those findings to improve lives in the community. As a result, tribes often mistrust researchers, he said.

Fleming said that even in projects that are based on a community-based participatory model, which seeks the input of communities that are being studied, the partnership between tribe and academic researcher can be imbalanced. However, MSU is working to involve tribes from the beginning and strive for more balanced partnerships. “It’s going to be a gamechanger,” Fleming said.

Fleming said tribal representatives at the meeting recommended several changes. First, they said that members of the tribal communities need to be co-principal investigators, or co-PIs, from the beginning of a research proposal. Also, resources, including funding, need to be shared.

The MSU Tribal Partnership planning meeting was facilitated by Loren BirdRattler, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who was recently appointed Katz Endowed Chair in Native American Studies at MSU. His mandate in the professorship is to lead the tribal partnership initiative statewide and nationally.

BirdRattler led a community developed planning effort that created the first in-house tribal Agriculture Resource Management Plan in the country for the Blackfeet Nation. He has more than 20 years of public and private sector experience in organizational development, strategic planning, policy development, project management and civic engagement, much of it at the national level. Last year, BirdRattler addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues about the Blackfeet ARMP, a presentation that was so successful he was invited to return to address the General Assembly.

BirdRattler said that about $25 million of MSU’s annual research dollars come from Native-based projects. An equitable relationship between university and tribal communities has the possibility of “raising everyone up,” both Native communities and MSU, he said.

At the meeting, several of MSU’s Native partners spoke about their work and advised the group about what they felt was important in building tribal/academic relationships. 

BirdRattler said the next step in the process will be to share information gathered from the meeting with all participants and then create an advisory group to continue the work.

“I think we made great progress in getting faculty to the table to listen to what meaningful partnerships look like from tribal partners and their perspective,” BirdRattler said. “I think we also were successful in getting interested faculty members to share their ideas on the same topic as well.”

President Waded Cruzado told the group that increasing mutually beneficial collaborations with tribal nations and partners was a goal expressed in MSU’s new strategic plan, Choosing Promise.

“MSU puts tremendous importance on our partnerships with tribal nations,” Cruzado said. 

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