Urban Wire Native Data Sovereignty Can Address Data Gaps and Improve Equity
Alex Tammaro
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Students from Sherman Indian High School, an off-reservation boarding high school for Native Americans in Riverside, California, sing native songs together

Data collection is critical to equitably and responsibly supporting people’s well-being. But traditional research and data collection methods often extract from, rather than support, Native communities. The resulting poor-quality data harm Native populations on and off reservations through underfunding, less access to supportive services, and widening disparities in public health and poverty.

Insufficient data on Indigenous populations is often cited as a reason behind the inability for evidence-supported decisionmaking. But researchers can break from this circular logic and shift toward a Native-centered approach, one that acknowledges both a wider definition of data and that Indigenous peoples are, and have been, expert data collectors, keepers, and users for thousands of years.

Increasing representation and equity among Native peoples involves supporting their transition from dependence on ill-fitting data systems—those that can’t reach them, don’t apply to them, and don’t reflect their lived experience—to data sovereignty: the right of Indigenous people and nations to govern the collection, ownership, and application of their own data. From a research and policymaking standpoint, supporting this sovereignty requires being a tenacious, resourceful ally.

More than “something else”: Making Native people count

Sovereign nations of Indigenous peoples have been denied power and agency over the history of their relationship with the US government, which continues to shape the perception of Native peoples’ presence, needs, and representation in the US.

More than 9 million Indigenous people live in the United States, most off reservations. Yet, Indigenous peoples aren’t always meaningfully included in survey or poll results because of statistical significance or margin of error concerns. Native peoples are often relegated to an “other” or “something else” category, essentially erasing them.

Lack of broadband and physical mailing addresses and other logistical hurdles make engagement difficult. This was evident during the pandemic, when opacity and strict guidelines around CARES Act funding made it difficult or impossible for tribes to receive assistance. But surveys and censuses are necessary to allocating resources and electing representation, making engagement issues obstacles to overcome, not a reality to concede to.

Practicing and strengthening data sovereignty

Data collection, including tracking climate change and conducting tribal censuses and surveys, is a traditional Native practice that incorporates knowledge and expertise around resources, land, and environments, as well as experience with US systems and tribes’ historical and current relationships with American power structures.

Power over and ownership of these data, or data sovereignty, can be restored to Indigenous peoples through material support, technical assistance, and reinforcing Indigenous peoples’ presence and voice through ethical, responsible, and empowering partnerships.

“Equity for Indigenous people starts and ends with sovereignty,” said Desi Small-Rodriguez, director of the Data Warriors Lab and cofounder of the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network, during a recent Urban Institute staff discussion. The right to collect, own, and use data requires activation and exercising by Native nations and acknowledgment and respect from outside actors. In other words, data sovereignty is practiced and strengthened both within and outside tribes.

Being a “good relative,” Small-Rodriguez said, means moving away from a paradigm where data are collected by non-Native stakeholders for their own purposes—a “by them, for them” model.

Instead, she encourages stakeholders to move toward understanding and accessing the abundance of Native data, building a “cogovernance” research model, and deferring and creating space for Indigenous researchers and data practitioners. This is how Native data are effectively released— decolonized—from a misaligned data system.

Being a good relative and a determined ally

Collecting data is costly in time and resources, and tribal nations are often obligated to use these resources to meet basic needs. This is where research organizations, universities, and governments can come in.

Working alongside organizations and other stakeholders that support Indigenous data sovereignty is an expeditious way forward. And sustaining these relationships requires acknowledging that the quality and effort with which Native folks have kept and managed data is as rigorous as a Western approach.

Lived experience is core to methodologies like community-engaged methods, and these alternative ways of knowing and doing are becoming more affirmed and valued as tools for authentic data gathering and evidence building.

This also means materially and technically supporting and empowering Native-led data collection through providing training, flexible funding, and people power. Engaging Native expertise in asking the right questions, determining the best methods, and stewarding and interpreting data yields higher-quality results and supports Native data sovereignty.

Embracing Indigenous data sovereignty is different for some, but there’s much at stake: environmental conservation, intergenerational poverty and lower life expectancies, and the prevention of human suffering. It’s not new or unpracticed, though; after all, Native nations have been collecting, using, and processing data long before the US as we know it existed.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Native populations Structural racism in research, data, and technology Rural people and places Community data use Climate mitigation, sustainability, energy and land use
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