Including Indigenous People in Research and Pedagogy – a SICB sponsored workshop overview

On Friday the 18th of November, a group of scientists attended a zoom focused on including indigenous people in research and pedagogy presented by Ripan S. Malhi and Ulrike Muller

The workshop was based on Appreciative Interviews of Liberating Structures. (

image from site listed above and see

When asked why they attended the workshop, several of the attendees responses included:

finding a community of others who are seeking to decolonize their practices

learn effective ways to promote DEI that is specific to indigenous people and how to become a better advocate

how to build a partnership that’s mutually beneficial when students contribute through community service and have the opportunity to learn indigenous ways of sustainability managing natural resources

to gain skills to create an inclusive classroom and respect for other cultures

learn about how indigenous knowledge is included in biology classrooms and reflect on how similar strategies can be employed in my own.

learn effective ways to promote DEI that is specific to indigenous people and how to become a better advocate.

At the onset of the workshop, Ripan started the workshop with his first experiences in studying population genetics. In grad school at U.C, Davis in late 90s to early 2000s, he was participating in learning about population histories of indigenous people in North America. The Phd advisor in the lab had 100’s of tubes of blood of indigenous people that he’d collected from a variety of places all over North America.

In Ripan’s 4th year an indigenous archeologists invited him to Round Valley reservation to give a talk and collect samples. It was his first time to perform research outside the lab and talk with California’s Indigenous people. He was excited to collect new samples as in the lab they’d been working with samples that had been collected for other reasons than the ones their projects focused on.

At end of talk he gave, an elder asked “Why should we trust you?”

The elder talked about scientists taking samples previously, yet never coming back to relay any results. Ripan knew that this extraction without communication was a model he didn’t want to follow however, he didn’t know how to do community engaged work to keep this from happening until he worked with a bioarcheologist, Jerry Cybulski, who had worked with first nations for 20 or 30 years. (

Harold Harry (left), community member and collaborator on the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, and Jerry Cybulski, curator of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. Malhi met Cybulski in 2004, and the two collaborated on research until Cybulski’s retirement in 2013. (Image courtesy of Ripan Malhi)

During this time, Ripan learned that you should go back annually and have the people who you took samples from involved in reports and in every part of the work. They work with tribal leaders and the local community to write and M.O.A. (memorandum of agreement ) that they revisit at least annually to ensure both the scientists/researchers and the community are having their needs and goals met with the research. Armed with this knowledge, Ripan developed a fellowship program that trains scholars in genomics and teaches them how to approach it in a way that’s attractive to indigenous communities differently.

When discussing the hardships of this type of work, one that Ripan noted, “I struggle that it is my job is to do this type of research yet often the smaller communities have people to work on this who are doing a dozen different jobs at the same time. If they’re working with me, it’s going to be on top of all else they have going on. Finding balance between not overstepping and speaking for them while also making things easier for them is a struggle. I don’t want to speak to what people want yet I also want to lighten their load if they don’t have time to speak for themselves.”

Aside from being sure to have an M.O.A., these steps were also given on how to be mindful at various stages in your research work:

  1 Work with those who are already established

  2 Be respectful and transparent, it needs to be mutually beneficial  

3 Be aware of intertribal politics that you must be conscious of

In the second part of the workshop, Ulrike shared about her work to have students engage in a decolonizing project in the classroom. In this effort she hopes to address the colonizing issues within the natural history collections.

To start, she has students work to answer questions about species such as

Who contributed the specimen?

Who named the specimen?

Who is honored in the name?

By doing this, students discover that certain collections, such as the mammal collection, have been contributed by nearly all men. Students also find that most of the collections have been dominated by white males. Ulrike offers the students opportunities to bring in their own specimens so that they’re actively working to change the contributor record.

She finds that many of her BIPOC students are contributing, yet in order to make sure everyone feels included, she works hard to frame the work in language that is not shaming to students of privilege. Ulrike noted that using language that empowers those students to be allies rather than shames them is important.

Another practice that Ulrike works on to help bridge the gaps between local communities and academia is to have them share practices and contrast their local practices with academic medicine. They start by focusing on a health issue such as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health. Ulrike then asks:

“What do you, your family, your culture and community do to promote cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system health?”

This line of inquiry helps to respect local and indigenous knowledge in a constructive way. In Ulrike’s class they go on to explore what academic medicine says about what the students have shared that their culture does.

While examining this, they usually realize their cultures have similar practices and goals as academia does in regards to cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health.

Ulrike hopes to help her students recognize that local knowledge is equal to academic knowledge. Another hope she has is to help them see that it’s important not to “parachute” into communities to extract knowledge but rather invite them to share and collaborate.

After Ripan and Ulrike shared, attending scientists were invited to discuss their own experiences with the subject matter at their universities and in their research. The major ones that were touched on again and again revolved around the fact that grant funding does not allow for time to develop relationships that can be needed for forming the M.O.A.’s and or following up with local communities.

Another concern was finding the time, resources and staff to have adequate follow up and continuation once a set research project is finished. There was also a wide concern of how to implement best practices without being exploitive.

Many great ideas were exchanged to meet these needs such as having PhD students involved in summer programs to help with initiating programs and following up afterwards, working with your universities liaison (first becoming aware of who they are and if your university has one) who can help form relationships with local tribes or agencies.

There was also discussion surrounding working to improve the cultural competencies of staff in regards to their local student population and address historic exclusion that universities may be participating in.

Great resources were also shared as well such as :

Overall, this workshop helped to connect those who are interested in this topic while also generating some excellent questions about how to best engage with indigenous communities in research practices. It also offered help for how to begin raising awareness in the classroom of colonizing practices that have persisted and how we can work to change them.

Of course none of these issues can be solved overnight, but with meetings such as this one, we can at least begin to chip away at some of the longstanding practices that have hurt the communities around us, and do our best to begin to do better.

Connect with Ripan and Ulrike via



Resources shared in workshop:

research collaboration resources


○Trisos CH, Auerbach J, Katti M. Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices for a more ethical ecology. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2021 Sep;5(9):1205-12.

■Ulrike: I love this article, but then a friend is a co-author, so I am clearly biased

●other useful websites and resources:

○Ecological Society of America – Traditional Ecological Knowledge Resource page:

■Ulrike: good section on resources for Collaborations and Partnerships with Indigenous Communities

Article that includes a “7Rs of Indigenous Research”

Banquer. L. (2017). Transforming Spaces: A Decolonizing Approach to Collections Stewardship at the Burke Museum. Unpublished master’s project, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.

Author: suzannecrmiller

Author of Queen, Wage, The Selections on Amazon, Fly on site and soon to be Souvenir through @Inkdedingray publishing

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