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Beyond the gaps: Taking on data needs in Indian Country

Tribal leaders and federal policymakers mark progress at 2022 CICD Research Summit

January 18, 2023


Caryn Mohr Senior Writer, Center for Indian Country Development (former)
Beyond the gaps: Taking on data needs in Indian Country key image
Tribal leaders participate in a panel during the 2022 Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) Research Summit. Top row: Alisha L. Murphy (Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development) and Andrew Huff (moderator, CICD). Bottom row: Rick Eneas (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) and Whitney Gravelle (Bay Mills Indian Community).

Article Highlights

  • Data needs hinder tribal and federal service delivery
  • Tribal leaders and federal policymakers are piloting new data systems
  • Tribal data sovereignty and agency collaboration strengthen new approaches
Beyond the gaps: Taking on data needs in Indian Country

Tribal leaders, federal policymakers, researchers, and practitioners came together at the 2022 Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) Research Summit to discuss emerging economic research and best practices for leveraging data to advance Indian Country prosperity. The virtual event, held December 1–2, paired discussions of data needs in Indian Country with promising examples of tribal leaders taking control of their data and federal policymakers working to deepen data partnerships with tribes.

“Data really is power,” said Whitney Gravelle, president and citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community of Michigan. “The more you understand your own community the better you’re going to be able to serve them.”

Data needs—an evolving conversation

Speaking to data challenges, Jeffrey Burnette, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, observed that many surveys and data-collection efforts have insufficient sample sizes of Native Americans to provide meaningful data on their conditions. “We’re often referred to as the asterisk nation,” he said. When these data are used to inform service delivery and funding allocations, Indian Country may not receive the support it needs.

In some cases, data needs come down to geography. “County-level data not going down far enough is a huge impediment from a policymaking perspective,” said Heather Dawn Thompson (Cheyenne River Sioux), director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Tribal Relations. “The fact that data [are] not kept at the tribal level, and that there [aren’t] sufficient GIS layers and map layers for all the federal agencies to keep the data at the tribal level [is a barrier to service delivery].”

“We need the data, but we need to be partners in how that data is collected and we need to be in the discussions of how it’s being used.”—Kevin Washburn

Fatima Abbas (Haliwa Saponi), acting director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Tribal and Native Affairs and a member of the CICD Leadership Council, agreed. Many federal funding programs use population data to determine funding allocations. “It’s an imperfect way of targeting tribal funding when you don’t have the actual data per each tribe,” she said.

Summit presenters made clear that it’s not just about what data are needed, but how those needs are addressed. And the “how” needs to be driven by tribes.

“We don’t just want to be treated as research subjects and objects of fascination, but [as] living, breathing humans and communities,” said Kevin Washburn (Chickasaw Nation), dean of the University of Iowa College of Law, former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, and a recent CICD policy/legal fellow. “We need the data, but we need to be partners in how that data is collected and we need to be in the discussions of how it’s being used.”

Conversations at the summit bridged the “what” and the “how” of addressing data needs.

Tribes taking data needs into their own hands

When the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Montana established new long-term goals, the tribes knew they needed a workforce survey to guide their efforts. Rick Eneas, CSKT executive officer and an enrolled member, said the survey would help them “understand the true boots-on-the-ground situation for CSKT members on the reservation—specifically in workforce-related areas.”

Working with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, CSKT mailed a survey to every tribal member ages 18–60 on the reservation. Survey data helped the tribes update job training programs and consider options for diversifying the local economy. For example, after the survey showed the need for more skills-based education, the CSKT economic development office, education department, and tribally chartered college worked together to expand the college nursing program and develop trades programs in areas such as plumbing and carpentry.

The Bay Mills Indian Community saw similar needs for trusted community data that could enhance service delivery. “We’ve been undergoing significant transformation in the last couple of years which really necessitated [us] to complete a tribal census,” said President Gravelle. Aside from the reservation’s growth and expansion, key motivators included the need for data to apply for COVID-19 relief funding and concern about inaccuracies in federal data used in grant applications.

To develop their survey tool, Bay Mills reviewed other census forms for potential questions. While the exercise helped develop a foundation, survey developers observed a gap in culturally and tribally relevant questions. According to Gravelle, questions such as whether individuals spoke the language and exercised their tribal treaty rights were important for informing tribal services.

“I truly believe that data tell the stories of our communities, and it’s time for our community and our tribal communities to tell our own stories using our own data.” —Alisha L. Murphy

Community meetings were held to explain the census’ purpose, how it would be used, and—of key concern—how data would be safeguarded. “We do live in a very small community, and so there were a lot of concerns raised by our tribal citizens [about confidentiality]. We had to create internal procedures and protocols where that information was closely held.” These included restricting data access to certain staff and securing the information in tribal government offices.

“Ultimately, engaging in a tribal census process was a really huge undertaking for us. We had never done it before. It took us several months to plan out the census and then create it ourselves, because it was so much more comprehensive and culturally and traditionally relevant than a typical census you might find,” Gravelle said. “[Now] we know that we have the security of our data [to] not only provide a comparison of [other] data, but also to provide real insight into what our tribal community looks like.”

Under the leadership of their first full-time economist, the Navajo Nation is pursuing a similar path. Alisha L. Murphy (Navajo Nation), economist with the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development, described a major data collection effort underway for 2023, including work to establish a data repository and rules for data protection and sharing. “I truly believe that data tell the stories of our communities, and it’s time for our community and our tribal communities to tell our own stories using our own data.” To Murphy, that includes working with community members to define indicators of economic success. “I will incorporate community input to help define what economic development is for our nation.”

Beyond new efforts to collect the data they need, tribal leaders shared examples of how they’re strengthening systems to review research conducted in their communities. For CSKT, that meant establishing a research review board responsible for vetting research projects within reservation boundaries. “That group not only approves and makes sure that the research is appropriate, that we’re willing to engage in that,” Eneas said, “but it also is tasked with looking at what gaps in data or knowledge or understanding do we have within our universe of data or research studies and then ultimately seeking out researchers or working with a tribal government or other entities to fill in those gaps.”

Federal agencies collaborating to serve Native communities

Other summit sessions explored data needs and opportunities at the federal level. Federally collected data such as the Decennial Census and American Community Survey provide information vital to a wide variety of policymaking and funding opportunities. Still, tribal governments can have more accurate and up-to-date information on their enrollment counts than is available in federal data sources. Presenting researchers and policymakers explored opportunities to strengthen and supplement existing federal data-collection systems.

Federal policymakers participate in a panel during the 2022 CICD Research Summit. Top row: Roberta Downing (moderator, CICD), Fatima Abbas (U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Tribal and Native Affairs), and Jason Freihage (U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs). Bottom row: Heidi J. Frechette (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Public and Indian Housing) and Heather Dawn Thompson (U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Tribal Relations).

Jason Freihage, deputy assistant secretary for management at the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, described recent success working with tribal enrollment data to inform American Rescue Plan funding allocations. This type of data sharing requires protocols to honor tribal data sovereignty and can be resource-intensive for tribes and federal agencies. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) held consultation sessions and collected written comments to determine tribes’ support for the department’s use of tribal enrollment data and to gather feedback on the process, including a form developed for tribes to certify their enrollment counts. According to Freihage, BIA will continue working with tribally certified data based on support expressed for the initial efforts. “We did consultation with tribes about collecting enrollment data on an annual basis, and they overwhelmingly supported it.”

Through an interagency effort, Treasury also worked with the tribal enrollment data collected by BIA. “Treasury, like a lot of agencies, uses tribal data to allocate funding—especially for [the American Rescue Plan Act] and many of the recovery acts,” said Abbas.

Tribal input is also shaping funding allocations at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “The formulas we create to allocate funding [are] really [through a] tribally driven consensus process,” said Heidi J. Frechette, deputy assistant secretary for Native American Programs with HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing.

According to Frechette, if a tribe believes inaccurate data were used in awarding HUD’s Indian Housing Block Grant, they can challenge the data. “If a single tribe feels like the data that we used to award the Indian Housing Block Grant [are] not accurate, we have [a] process where they can challenge the data that we used and provide alternative information and data to base the funding on if they’re successful in their census challenge.”

Despite growing awareness of the need for tribally certified data—and interagency efforts to share that information—gaps remain. For example, federal policymakers described the need for clarity on tribal lands and boundaries. “As we try to do a better job as the federal government in honoring tribal jurisdiction, we have to be able to define where that tribal jurisdiction is and have some sort of agreement on that,” Thompson said.

“In Indian Country, economic development is community development, and community development is economic development.” —Casey Lozar

That includes understanding different layers of tribal jurisdiction. “Pushing really aggressively on the GIS layers, the mapping layers, and the coding layers across federal agencies [to] make sure that everything’s being coded at not just county boundaries but at tribal boundaries would go a very long way,” Thompson said.

And while summit conversations illuminated exciting progress, they also honored deep pain points around data use. “Every tribe in the country had the experience of having other people seeing what they had and then taking it from them,” Washburn said. “You can see why tribes might be a little shy about sharing some of that data.”

New tools at our disposal

While tribal leaders and policymakers pilot new approaches, CICD and partners are working to support the need for accurate data on tribes’ terms. Throughout the summit, CICD staff shared new data resources available to inform economic decision-making. These include the Native American Funding and Finance Atlas showing economic development resources in Indian Country, the Native American Labor Market Dashboard illuminating labor market conditions, an interactive map of Native American Financial Institutions across the United States, and a forthcoming Native Entity Enterprise Dataset.

CICD’s Principles for Research and Data Use, developed in collaboration with our Leadership Council and partners, can also serve as a guide for honoring tribal data sovereignty and governance in data collection and research.

A holistic conversation

Data advancements may have taken the spotlight, but the summit featured a variety of emerging research that can shed light on economic decisions in Indian Country. Topics ranged from Native CDFI lending outcomes to the role of homeownership in expanding tribal economic opportunity to travel and spending patterns during the pandemic. Taken together, sessions made clear that talking about economic prosperity in Indian Country is a holistic conversation.

“In Indian Country, economic development is community development, and community development is economic development,” said CICD Director Casey Lozar (CSKT) in his closing remarks. “When we talk about tribal economies, we’re really talking about ecosystems that include many types of community infrastructure and our place and our culture.”

Explore the ecosystem of topics in our event agenda, and click on a session video to go directly to that conversation.