Going Back to Square One and Finding It’s a Circle: (Not) Doing University Research in Indian Country

An Excerpt


University-based researchers know that, in order to fund and carry out a good program of research, a number of administrative steps have to be taken to obtain project approval. Graduate students also have to go through these, and other, administrative steps in order to complete their work at the masters and doctoral levels. University projects and funding require documentation of procedures as well as compliance with a variety of standards or expectations that have been established by precedent and policy development.

However, in terms of intercultural research, what a university asks for does not always work in the field. To illustrate this point, this paper reviews my experience of engaging in intercultural research with some First Nations individuals as part of a doctoral degree in clinical psychology at a Canadian university. The paper includes a critical analysis of ethics application procedures, securing of funds, and attempting to meet academic criteria while retaining the integrity of a community-based research project. Maintaining that integrity requires trust, courage, sacrifice, openness on both sides, and, above all, a sense of commitment to the community of people involved in the project ahead of personal or academic goals and expectations.


During 1992-93, I was working as an entry-level government psychologist in a young offender program at a Canadian mental health clinic. During this time, I noticed that a high percentage of the clinic’s clientele were youth of First Nations heritage. I noticed the same phenomenon when conducting masters’ level research on young offenders that same year — the sample I obtained from provincial correctional facilities was overwhelmingly First Nations. Following natural curiosity, I decided that my doctoral research would focus on the experience of First Nations’ peoples in the mental health system, specifically on how the mental health system could better meet the needs of First Nations women. Once I had developed the proposed focus for this research, I applied for a doctoral fellowship from a national granting agency, which I received, and then commenced the research.

In the early stages of the research project, I had been reading a considerable amount of literature on participatory action research and community based research projects. Given my perception, at the time, that First Nations people were a “vulnerable population,” I decided that I would engage in participatory research in order that the interests and needs of the community participating in the project would be addressed. The problem with deciding to “do” participatory research is that the research requires people with whom to participate. I spoke with many different people — First Nations and

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