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Casey Lozar, Center for Indian Country Development

Guest Opinion. For my people, the Salish, when the Mission Valley on the Flathead Reservation is first blanketed with snow, a new cultural season is underway. Traditionally, winter ushers in a time when we tell our stories and reflect on our histories, weaving in life lessons to remind us of where we’ve been and who we want to be as a people, as a Native nation.   

As snow surrounds me in Montana, I find myself reflecting on conversations about data that have unfolded in Indian Country since the first snow fell last year. In no time during our modern history has data been more woven into the daily dialogue of tribal leaders and policymakers.

The Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) has engaged in many of these conversations about how to collect accurate, comprehensive data with Indian Country in ways that honor tribal data sovereignty. As I consider our collective work to address harmful data gaps that perpetuate the invisibility of Native people, I take comfort in history.  

Data and our knowledge systems 

Over the holidays, my brothers, my dad, and I shared stories of a recent q̓ʷeyq̓ʷay (buffalo) hunt we did in our tribe’s aboriginal hunting grounds in southwestern Montana. Even though it was a one-day hunt, it took months to plan. Reflecting on the volume of  information we needed to carry out the hunt got me thinking about the traditional q̓ʷeyq̓ʷay hunts the Salish did in our part of the world. 

The success of these tribal hunts depended on a deep knowledge and understanding of the natural world that, in modern terms, we could consider a form of data. To drive their decision-making, our leaders relied on information regarding the skills and training needs of the hunting party, their horse and supply inventories, the demand for and the supply of meat in the community, q̓ʷeyq̓ʷay migration patterns, the location of supplemental foods, climate indicators, transportation logistics, and any competition from other hunters in the area. 

While these data didn’t live on rows of spreadsheets or in complex datasets as they do today, Salish leaders were experts in interpreting information found in the physical and spiritual world, and relying on this knowledge to make the best decisions for their communities.  

Understanding Indian Country today 

Information-gathering systems for the Salish and much of Indian Country have had to evolve. Many would argue that our data evolution has been relatively slow to develop in the modern context. There are good reasons for this. Historically,  there have been far too many instances of tribal data being misused or misrepresented to undermine the sovereignty and economic prosperity of tribal communities. In addition to the history of data misuse, tribal governments have also been in the position of directing precious resources toward defending their sovereignty and managing essential government services—limiting their capacity to invest in data systems.

Today there is great diversity in data capacities within tribal governments and communities. This patchwork of data experience across the hundreds of tribes, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian Homelands makes for a complex environment for understanding the collective economic conditions of our Native communities. There isn’t a complete picture of Indian Country that’s anchored in data—yet. 

Data takes central stage  

Though considerable gaps remain, a new era of data collection, use, and governance has gathered steam in conversations among tribal leaders and their partners. At the heart of these conversations is tribal data sovereignty—tribes’ right to collect, secure, analyze, and share data on their own terms. Over the past several decades, tribes have strengthened and exercised their inherent sovereignty as Native nations. These efforts have increasingly extended to the governance of our own data.

Policymakers and practitioners now recognize tribally certified data as vital in economic self-determination—necessary for understanding tribal needs and opportunities and informing decision-making.  

Data are also becoming increasingly essential for tribal governments to deliver public goods in responsive ways. As a result, individual tribes have increased data collection and utilization.  

For example, the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan just executed its first-ever tribal census to gather community data that could be used to enhance service delivery. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana recently partnered with the University of Montana to evaluate tribal workforce needs, resulting in new educational programming at the tribes’ college. For several years, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe in Texas has conducted a tribal census, which helps the tribe direct workforce opportunities for its members. These are just a few of many examples across Indian Country.  

In addition to efforts at the tribal level, federal agencies are beginning to address data sovereignty and the low sample sizes of American Indians and Alaska Natives in their data-collection efforts. Recently, the federal government partnered with all 574 federally recognized tribes to support their collection of tribal enrollment and employment data. For the first time in history, federal agencies leveraged self-certified tribal data to distribute billions of dollars in emergency relief funds. While these efforts don’t solve all of the concerns about data in Indian Country, they reflect greater inclusion of our people.

Research organizations and financial institutions are also partnering with Indian Country to help fill these gaps. Guided by our research principles, CICD has multiplied our suite of data tools available to the public and hosted discussions on the intersection of data, research, and good economic policy. Projects are rooted in input from tribal stakeholders, policymakers, and our CICD Leadership Council.

Braiding tradition and modern systems 

This data revolution is nothing short of remarkable and necessary. Our people are braiding traditional knowledge practices with modern data systems at frequencies and depths never seen before, and in ways that allow us to articulate an Indigenous future. As we do this, we can lean into our tradition of being knowledge keepers and our modern understanding of what it means to honor tribal data sovereignty. 

Trusted partners are at the doorstep of Indian Country eager to learn and collaborate. CICD is honored to be one such partner—one foot in the past, and another in the future. 

Casey Lozar is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and director of the Center for Indian Country Development, a research and policy center of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Prior to joining the Minneapolis Fed in 2018, Casey served in economic development and higher education roles for the state of Montana, as well as executive leadership roles in national Native American nonprofits, including the American Indian College Fund and the Notah Begay III Foundation. He is based in Helena, Montana.

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