Thoughts on how to submit a socio-cultural project to the Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board.
Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board Purpose
As explained in a 2006 Science and Engineering Ethics Journal article, “Protecting the Navajo people through tribal regulation of research” by Doug Brugge and Mariam Missaghian, through a review board, follows a process and procedure specifically created for biomedical research conducted with Navajo people. Here is where it gets a little tricky for people like me - qualitative, ethnographic oriented - because the NNHRRB is primarily concerned with clinical and biomedical projects. But fear not - I am here to share what I know on submissions of socio-cultural projects for NNHRRB review.
Word of caution - the following is based off my experience; my Navajo collaborators are all 18 years or older and are not identified as "high risk." For direct instructions that are specific to your research and your participants, contact the NNHRRB. You can't blame me for tabled or denied projects; but I'll accept some credit if your project is approved and you complete some awesome, ethical research 😎.
Who Needs to Submit to the NNHRRB
First, figure out if your project needs NNHRRB approval. You would think that this is an easy question ... If you are working with Navajo People - you go through the NNHRRB ... but people/institutions/programs/organizations and even the NNHRRB itself make it tricky.
At the core, if you are coming to the Navajo Nation to conduct research (qualitative, quantitative, clinical, biomedical of any kind) with Navajo people who live on the Navajo Nation, ✅ you definitely need approval. Even if your own institution or agency expedites your project through their IRB, ✅ you still need NNHRRB approval - this includes multi sited projects (i.e., comparison of the Navajo people to another tribe).
Now, if your project is working with "Native Americans" who are in locales off the Navajo Nation and there happens to be Navajo people in your random sampling, 🚧 often it is left up to the Principal Investigator (PI) and the sponsoring institution to decide if NNHRRB approval is needed. In scenarios such as this, for socio-cultural projects, more often than not, PIs will indicate that their project include qualitative research with a "sensitive" population, list "Native Americans," address how they will mitigate risk factors at their institution's level and forgo the NNHRRB process. Now - I am not saying this is correct or incorrect, I am only reporting on how I have seen projects completed by colleagues and other scholars .
But if you are researching on the Navajo Nation and you are working with Navajo people - this means even if you an enrolled Navajo individual and working with your own family - ✅ YOU WILL NEED TO RECEIVE APPROVAL FROM THE NNHRRB and, if you aren't doing any funny business, you should honestly want to. FYI: There is an exception for enrolled Diné College and Navajo Technical University students enrolled in research classes at those institutions - but I will address that later in this blog so pay attention for that.
Okay... now that that's settled....
What is Your Project's Classification
Depending on your project classification, you will have a different set of requirements to submit. Here are the three project classifications that the NNHRRB has outlined on their NNHRRB New Application Checklist Document.
Submission Requirements for Community Projects
In terms of actually submitting NNHRRB proposals, I am only familiar with the Community Checklist. So that is what I have outlined below - Once again - As a word of caution .... I am pulling together the various resources (from scattered NNHRRB pages) and utilizing my experience submitting to the NNHRRB. It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to contact the NNHRRB office for any official guidance that you may need.
1. Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board Cover Sheet
Here are some additional components that I include in the Attachments but are not on the NNHRRB checklist. If you don't include these and your project gets tabled.... don't say I didn't tell you 🥲:
If you mailed in your project, I would request a tracking number and then call Mr. Winney to confirm the application's arrival to the NNHRRB office. Once the application is received, Mr. Winney will put your project on the meeting schedule.
Typically, the NNHRRB meets every 3rd Tuesday, starting at 9am. The meeting can last all day - so prepare yourself. As of late, all NNHRRB have been held virtually - which I appreciate.
At the meeting you will be given a brief amount of time to present, followed by time to answer any and all questions posed by the NNHRRB Committee Members. So questions are for clarifications, others are about missing information. After the question/answer portion, the Committee will vote according to Robert's Rules of Order - so be prepared to be Tabled as well.
Other Thoughts about the NNHRRB Application Process
Tabled Projects: As of late, I have seen projects tabled because their application is missing either one big component or a lot of small components (missing timelines, missing resolutions, missing support letters, missing measures, etc). Best way to be prepared is for you to be as organized as possible. If your project isn't prepared by the submission deadline, don't rush - just wait to submit at the following meeting. Your first impression should be one of preparation and organization. So my suggestion is to start your preparation way in advance - I suggest at least 3 months prior to the submission date (4 months prior to formal presentation to the NNHRRB). I know this is difficult because some of you are graduate students (and others are just impatient lol) but, as I tell my students - the more solid your IRB project packet presentation the better prepared you are for actually implementing the project. It will make your presentation much smoother. The presentation itself then becomes a training ground for you to talk about your project. The more you talk about it with audiences such at the NNHRRB, the more real your project becomes.
Academic Discipline Notes: The NNHRRB committee is composed primarily of experts from biomedical and clinical professional/academic backgrounds. This makes the presentation of socio-cultural projects a bit challenging at times. The first time I presented the committee wanted to push my project into an Animal Science realm, when I work in the area of Animal Studies (they are very distinct). Don't get upset, wait for them to finish their commentary and respond with clarification. As with all presentations to general audiences (grants, fellowships, IRBs), avoid discipline specific jargon.
Emic Cultural Notes: If you are well attuned to a specific cultural area, (1) do not assume you know all - be open to hearing what some of these individuals share (even if they are taking you down a worm hole) and also (2) do not hold back on your own areas of cultural knowledge - just like you don't know everything, the same goes with the committee members (everyone is here to learn). I have been fortunate to learn from a few of the committee members and they have hopefully also learned from me. I have also been on the other end of that spectrum as well. With that said...
Discrimatory Notes: If you feel that you are being discriminated for whatever reason - make that declaration, document, and submit a complaint. I have, in previous years, experienced and seen race and gender of the PI be questioned, and as a result, the entire project put under scrutiny. Now - there are times when gender or culture does play a role in research, access to cultural content, or data analysis. But when projects are tabled or denied merely based on the race of the PI and the biases of individual committee members, there is an ethics violation that require immediate legal review.
Honest Notes: Although I have some disagreements with the process and procedure, especially during COVID (you can check out the ICT article for more info on that), I must confess, this past time around was much smoother than my previous experience. I feel like the committee is better prepared for socio-cultural projects now than they were 10 years ago when I first presented to the NNHRRB. I also speak the Navajo language better and I am firmly grounded in my community and profession. Additionally, I am now on the Diné College IRB so I am starting to fully understand the intricacies of IRBs. Because of all these factors - and the change of atmosphere/leadership of the NNHRRRB - my project was reviewed for ethics, which is the purpose of the NNHRRB, and the committee members were professional, curtious, and helpful. Finally, like butchering - the more you do it, the familiar the knife becomes in your hand.
Last Note: CONTACT THE NNHRRB COORDINATOR FOR ASSISTANCE. This blog is not an official 'how to' document approved by the NNHRRB . This are just my thoughts and my experiences.
If you have any more guidance, be sure to put them in the comments! Your experience can help others navigate what is often considered a tedious and often stressful part of the research process. It doesn't have to be :)
Just a Tách'inii thinking out loud about butchering, researching, manuscript writing, and life on the Navajo reservation.