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The Importance Of Meaningful Relationship Building

As an Anthropologist, researcher, and advocate, I find that relationship building work is just as important, if not more important, than other aspects of the research process. I am the Social Science Program Director for Kawerak, Inc. Kawerak is based in Nome and is the Alaska Native non-profit Tribal consortium for the Bering Strait region. There are 20 federally recognized Tribes in the region that our organization regularly collaborates with on a variety of research, education, and other issues, in addition to partnerships and collaborations we have with other organizations and individuals.

Kawerak, as well as many of the colleagues we work with, have long promoted the development and maintenance of long-term relationships between the research community and Indigenous communities and organizations (while recognizing that these ‘communities’ are not mutually exclusive). While research-based relationships are often primarily professional relationships, they may also develop into (or from) friend or kin-type relationships. In order to create useful, relevant, and timely research in the Arctic, we strongly believe that Arctic communities, and specifically Indigenous Arctic communities, must have the opportunity to be equal partners in research activities.

Long-term relationship building leads to greater understandings between people in terms of their backgrounds, lived experiences, histories, and cosmologies. This is true in any context, but when researchers are committed to working with specific communities or in specific regions over the course of their careers, or even just for long periods of time, there is more opportunity to develop these meaningful and productive connections.  When people understand each other’s concerns and interests, their challenges and goals, trust grows and more substantial and effective collaborations can occur. When working on relationship building in the context of research, it is really important to be clear about each team member or participants’ roles and responsibilities. Ideally, these roles and responsibilities are determined in an equitable way and with involvement, discussion and decision-making by all.

When research activities are planned and designed from the very beginning (starting at the ‘idea’ stage), with partners that already have a relationship, and one that is based on equity and trust, the problems and questions identified, the methods chosen, and the outcomes reached are much more likely to be of use and value to everyone involved. This utility and value should then be able to extend beyond the ‘research relationship’ and into the realm of policy-making that addresses real-world challenges and questions.

When looking to initiate a connection with a community you are interested in collaborating with, there are many different approaches to try. Regional organizations, like Kawerak, can often be helpful in making initial connections to a community. The Tribal Council(s) in the community should also be a first point of contact. As a sovereign governing body, Tribal Councils need to be included in all decision-making regarding their community. Tribes and communities may have a designated person who handles research-related inquiries, and may also have protocols or guidelines (oral or written) that need to be followed. A colleague or mentor who works with, or has worked with, a particular community may also be able to make introductions and assist with first steps in relationship building. ‘Cold emails’ and letters are also acceptable ways to introduce yourself to a community. Recognizing a community or individual’s right to say no (to a research relationship, or specific project) is crucial in this process, and is a step towards reaching research equity.

When it comes to research, the process is as important as the outcome; and a solid relationship is the foundation for that process.

Suggested Additional Resources:

  • co-production of knowledge model presentation to IARPC

  • Research Processes and Indigenous Communities in Western Alaska:

  • An Indigenous approach to ocean planning and policy in the Bering Strait region of Alaska:

  • Podcast - Putting science under an indigenous microscope:

  • Lene Kielsen Holm, Arctic Observing Summit 2016 speech (starts at minute 52:30)

  • A global assessment of Indigenous community engagement in climate research:

  • Indigenous Ally Toolkit, Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network.





Dr. Julie Raymond-Yakoubian was born on the east coast of the United States but has made Alaska her home for the past 22 years.  She works in the Bering Strait region, which is the homeland and waters of the Yup'ik, Inupiaq, and St. Lawrence Island Yupik Peoples, and she also currently lives and works in Girdwood, AK in the homelands of the Dena'ina People.

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