In 2006, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe launched the Tribal Ventures Poverty Reduction Plan, a multifaceted effort to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north central South Dakota, where median annual family income sits just north of $18,000.
To track progress against the plan’s 12 different programs, a tribally sponsored organization called Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Ventures conceived of and carried out a data-collection initiative across the reservation. The project, called the Cheyenne River Tribal Ventures Voices Research Project (Voices Survey), gathered information from 819 families—or between 15 percent and 20 percent of the reservation’s estimated 10,500 residents—on a broad range of economic, social, and educational indicators. It was the largest, most comprehensive tribally led survey ever conducted on a reservation in the Ninth Federal Reserve District.
Community Dividend recently spoke with Eileen Briggs, executive director of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Ventures and co-principal investigator of the Voices Survey, to learn more about the data-collection effort and how its results might help shape the tribe’s future.
Community Dividend: The Voices Survey, which you led, was an outgrowth of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s need to measure results of its poverty-reduction plan. What made you decide to create and conduct your own survey, instead of using information that’s regularly available from sources like the U.S. Census Bureau or other federal agencies?
Eileen Briggs: We needed data that could help us evaluate the work and progress of the poverty-reduction plan, and frankly, the kind of evaluative metrics and indicators that were available to us were insufficient—particularly census data, which has been historically inaccurate for us. And the data and indicators that we have locally, within our own bureaucracy and systems, just weren’t sophisticated enough for our evaluation. We felt like there was a lot more information that we could get from our own families and community members if we went directly to them and asked them questions in specific categories where we were lacking data.
CD: Can you share an example of an inaccuracy in the census data about the reservation?
EB: Sure. As I understand it, the current American Community Survey methodology includes a phone call component, but a lot of people here don’t have telephones, or they just have a cell phone. [In fact, 10 percent of Voices Survey respondents reported having neither a cell phone nor a land line.] So I think the sample size that the census takers are getting in Indian Country is small. It would help if they’d over-sample more in these populations. They also need to get more boots on the ground, more people knocking on doors—preferably Native people, because a familiar face helps some of the people who live here overcome a lot of distrust they may feel toward the federal government. But I should also point out that the census has been here on Cheyenne River and has had some success. In fact, some of the surveyors I hired were former census surveyors themselves.
CD: How do the data you collected in the Voices Survey differ from what is available through the census and American Community Survey?
EB: We asked a lot more questions than the ACS asks: more than 150 for each survey. It allowed us to get a more in-depth understanding of a person’s circumstances. And we asked questions that are outside the scope of a typical census or ACS survey topic. Questions about technology and communication, microenterprises and businesses, savings, borrowing, and credit. We also asked about the type of land—tribal, allotted, etc.—that a person’s home site sits on.* Our questions fell into 15 categories. We also made sure to account for everyone living in the homes we visited. When the U.S. Census comes to a home, they may just be getting the data from one head of household in a given dwelling. Well, that person is the head of the household for just one family, but there can be several families living in one home. We knew that was the case on our reservation, and that was confirmed by our data, which showed an average of 1.5 families living in each dwelling. There were instances when we surveyed up to five families living in a home.
CD: Let’s discuss your survey operation a little. When did it get under way and how long did it take? And how large was your survey team?
EB: We conceptualized the survey in January 2012, began surveying in June of that year, and then finished our data collection efforts in December 2013. We had some weather-related delays that extended the survey period a bit. On average, the survey itself took a little over an hour to complete, but it really depended on how much people wanted to talk. It was sometimes as little as 45 minutes and at most two hours. And at peak survey-taking time, we had eight surveyors working the entire reservation.
CD: Looking back, is there anything you would change about the process or the questions?
EB: Absolutely. I’d change the wording of some of our survey questions, because we’d sometimes fail to communicate what we were actually trying to learn. I mentioned before that we asked more than 150 questions. Frankly, I think we would reduce that number by some degree. And we would possibly re-examine our sampling methodology—that is, how we selected and targeted houses to survey. It was a pretty time-intensive process, and I would have liked to speed it up. And finally, even though we engaged a lot of people in the survey-writing process, if I could do it over again I would engage even more stakeholders. This was a rare opportunity in Indian Country to get direct information from families and to have this huge of a sample size. Getting input from even more people upfront might have helped us create different or better questions to get at some types of information.
CD: How did you get the word out that this data-collection effort was happening?
EB: We used radio, fliers, and word of mouth. We were kind of like the census, in fact: we had magnets on our car, branded shirts, lanyards, badges, and such, so people would know when we were in the neighborhood. Some people chose not to participate, but on the whole, people were eager for us to come to their homes. And there were really two reasons for that. One, it was rare that people actually asked them something. Some people in our community had never been asked what they thought about certain types of subjects. And two, we were able to provide a $20 honorarium to participate. When you’re living on such a meager income, it’s worth it. And if you have three or four families in a home, that’s groceries for a couple of days.
CD: Has the Cheyenne River tribal government made use of the Voices Survey’s results, or have any nonprofits or private businesses?
EB: All of the above! Our tribal government, for instance, uses the data in talks with the South Dakota Department of Social Services about its low-income energy assistance program. The survey provides a more realistic number of the families here that are facing heating issues and shows the average costs associated with electricity, propane, and other heating costs. Our veterans on the reservation have used the survey results to substantiate their numbers, which is important in their advocacy for veterans’ housing.
We’ve seen nonprofits, both on the reservation and off, using the data from our survey in their advocacy for better economic opportunities for our families. An example is the First People’s Fund, a national nonprofit based out of Rapid City. They’re advocating for art as a viable source of income, and they were able to use our data to demonstrate that 55 percent of reservation families earn supplemental income from microenterprises. We identified that 78 percent of those families participate in the arts, like quilting or making jewelry. You can see that in the data.
One of the things I’m excited about is that we were able to drill down and get additional data—we did an additional survey of about 200 people around the subject of workforce—and it’s given us better data to talk about the employment opportunities and our workforce on the reservation. The government and private sector are working together to use that data, that information, to attract businesses and employment here.
CD: Did the Voices Survey reveal anything that you were surprised to learn?
EB: One really interesting finding was the commitment to our traditional way of life. I mean, we knew that people were hunting and essentially living off the land, but the level of wild-resource consumption was really surprising. So many people are eating wild game and wild plants to live.
CD: What did it take to conduct the Voices Survey, in terms of human resources?
EB: It’s been a pretty labor-intensive process. It would have been easy to simply hire this out to some external firm, but we were committed to building our own capacity to carry this kind of work out. At the peak of the survey period, we had about a dozen people working, collecting data, entering data, and analyzing data. We’re still dissecting the data to this day. And I think that’s the kind of resources and talent needed to get a project like this done: statisticians, people who have survey experience, people who can coordinate and manage projects, people who can help us design and graphically tell the story that’s in the data.
CD: Do you plan to use that talent to conduct additional surveys like this in the future?
EB: I hope so, but maybe not to this extent. I don’t know that we need to replicate exactly what we just did—all of it, that is—but we do want to do additional drill-down surveys, as well as possibly repeat some portions of this survey.
CD: What advice would you offer to another tribe or community seeking to undertake a similar data-collection effort?
EB: I would advise them to do it. Tribally driven data collection is a wise and strategic approach to planning for the future. I’d suggest that they figure out what they know already and what kind of data they have, then figure out what information they need, and then figure out the questions they think are important to get that information. You need to drive the process, because you know your community best. I think the biggest thing for us with this kind of a project is that if we don’t know about something that’s affecting our community, we can’t take steps to change it. And once we take those steps, we have to have some kind of a baseline for our people to figure out if we went up or down. We have this kind of data now, which gives us the power to move our ideas and our futures forward.
* In much of Indian Country, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, there is a mixture of land-ownership types, including allotted trust land, fee-simple land, and tribally owned land. For more on these categories and their implications for housing and development on reservations, see “Maximizing the tribal land buy-back program: How priority lists can help tribes influence what’s purchased,” from the July 2014 issue of Community Dividend.