UMaine study identifies inclusive strategies for research partnerships and collaborations led by Indigenous communities 

Justice-oriented commitments within sustainability science have the potential to promote decolonization of academic institutions and support tribal sovereignty, according to a study led by University of Maine researchers. 

Co-authors from UMaine and Wabanaki Tribal Nations came together to talk about their experiences connecting justice commitments and sustainability science projects. Through dialogue, they identified the need to center Wabanaki diplomacy and Indigenous Research Methods (IRMs), redesign all stages of research to support dialogue and inclusivity, pay attention to multiple forms of time, and support Wabanaki and Indigenous students as researchers and leaders. Their findings were published in Sustainability Science

The researchers, led by Bridie McGreavy and Darren Ranco, faculty fellows at UMaine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, noted that it is important to recognize the power associated with western science, especially in academic institutions, and the need to challenge and change ideas about what constitutes formal knowledge in academia. Paying attention to the relationships between power and knowledge can help create spaces for diverse forms of communication and knowledge production, such as oral storytelling and creative writing as distinct cultural forms of knowledge. 

The team combined dialogue and case study methodology to produce insights across three studies of natural resource-related threats to Indigenous lands and traditions and to develop recommendations for researchers and collaborators seeking to apply a more just approach to sustainability science and related collaborative research efforts.

The Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) project sought to prevent the spread of the insect which attacks black ash trees, a resource of economic and cultural significance to Wabanaki peoples; the Safe Beaches and Shellfish Project, a collaboration with several state agencies, nonprofits, municipalities and stakeholder communities, sought to address water pollution that impacts Wabanaki Tribal Nations by developing environmental leaders through the Wabanaki Youth in Science Program (WaYS); and the Future of Dams (FoD) project sustained an existing partnership with the Penobscot Nation to inform decision making around the removal of dams and river restoration in Maine.  

Analyzing these projects through the lens of science as discourse revealed that investigative methods commonly used in sustainability science can limit dialogue and preclude equitable knowledge co-production by failing to acknowledge Indigenous ways of knowing. 

For example, the demand for a return on investments from external research funders favors progress-oriented approaches that ignore how multiple forms of time inevitably shape collaborations between Indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Relying exclusively on decision makers to accept research findings and implement changes reinforces existing inequalities. And naming, which calls attention to selected aspects of reality while ignoring others, creates divisions that privilege some forms of knowledge over others. 

“Our ability to ask difficult questions of ourselves and the possible role of University-based research in Tribal Nations is what makes this such an important paper,” said Ranco, “and part of the hard work that has made the University of Maine a national leader in Indigenous-University research collaborations.”

The team, which included members of the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Maliseet Tribal Nations and white settler scholars, found that a commitment to critical praxis, or practices that attend to power and that emerge from within a collaboration, could facilitate meaningful and inclusive sustainability science research that supports tribal sovereignty and self-determination. 

“The collaboration and paper writing was shaped by all of the co-authors being in dialogue with each other in multiple ways over several years,” McGreavy said. “This process allowed us to learn from each other and combine reflections from shared and different experiences across the projects.” 

Study collaborators and co-authors include current students Nolan Altvater and Suzanne Greenlaw; alumni Brawley Benson, Maliyan Binette, Natalie Michelle, Anthony Sutton and Tyler Quiring; tribal partner in the Penobscot Nation’s Water Resources program, Jan Paul; and faculty members John Daigle and David Hart.

Contact: Joan Perkins,