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How Can Tribes Relate to Off-Reservation Citizens Better? Study Aims to Help

A new study attempts to figure out how tribes can connect to off-reservation citizens, and how citizens can participate in their tribal community.

How do you define “home?”

“Home is where one starts from” is one explanation, while another states, “Our feet may leave home, but not our hearts.”

Where you call home is especially important to Native Americans who have left the familiarity of where they grew up among fellow tribal members and moved to urban areas. How they stay connected with their past and what efforts their tribes make to stay in touch is the genesis of a recent pilot study on young adult tribal citizens living off the reservation.

Called “Residence, Connectedness, and Citizenship for Young Adult American Indians,” the project attempts to answer questions like “How can tribes facilitate connections with young adult off-reservation populations?” and “What are ways to participate in the community as citizens, even while living off-reservation?”

“While there are a lot of studies on ‘walking in two worlds’ or how people who have left reservations manage their own identity, we haven’t seen any research on this particular topic,” said Stephanie Rainie, Ahtna Athabascan, manager of the Tribal Health Program and Senior Researcher for the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the University of Arizona.

“Living on a reservation, you have both racial identity and specific tribal identity, but off-reservation in urban areas or at a university, your ID is that of ‘Native American’—all of a sudden, the citizen part is missing,” Rainie said. “There’s been very little discussion and pretty much no research looking into non-resident tribal citizens as a distinct body and figuring out how tribes relate to them—or not.”

The pilot study was conducted online with input from citizens of federally-recognized tribes, ages 18-29, who were either students or employed. About one-fourth of the responses came from the Navajo Nation with the rest coming from all over the lower 48 states.

“We focused on tribes as political entities and respondents as citizens and what challenges these citizens faced in staying connected,” added co-researcher Jennifer Schultz. “We didn’t focus on off-reservation identity, but on how respondents maintained tribal connections.”

The 40-item survey asked questions like, “Has your Native nation/tribe been in touch with you over the past year via newsletter, e-mail, phone calls, or ceremonies?” or “How might your reservation or tribal community strengthen feelings of engagement among young tribal citizens who live off tribal lands?”

The researchers agree that how tribes engage their citizens is the key to maintaining cultural and political connections, and many sovereign nations were out of touch with their non-resident populations, which is fixable.

“Respondents had some thoughtful, insightful, creative concepts about how tribes could stay in closer touch with their non-residents,” said Schultz. “Some of their ideas would be major undertakings, but many would take near-zero resources to accomplish and could have a powerful impact.”

“Because this is a small-sample pilot project, we can’t make broad statements or extrapolations, just claims like ‘the majority of respondents felt this way,’” said Rainie. “We’d really like to do a larger scale survey because tribes do want to know about their non-resident population, who’s out there, what they’re doing, and how they can remain in touch.”

The full report was released June 30 at the National Congress of American Indians Tribal Scholar Forum. Their findings show that despite diversity in where participants lived or what their tribal affiliation was, there were a number of shared perspectives:

The majority of participants yearn for a deeper connection to their Native nations, even those who may be very involved in the Native community that is local to their present residence.

While some participants experienced many communications from their tribes, tribes generally did not make active contact with non-resident citizens. A third of participants had not been contacted by their tribes at all in the past year. Most participants experienced infrequent communication, and when communications did occur, it was most commonly through the tribal education department.

Participants report that involvement in formal organizations is crucial to their engagement with the local Native community and to maintaining Native identity.

Opportunities to serve the tribe through employment or volunteer efforts are prominent existing factors that bolster participants’ engagement with their specific Native nations.

Participants suggest a variety of ways to strengthen their engagement with their Native nation, including employment and internship opportunities, timely communication, political participation, reduction of stigma, and participation in local Native organizations.