Transformative learning, tribal membership and cultural restoration: A case study of an embedded Native American service-learning project at a research university

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Brent E Sykes
Joy Pendley
Zermarie Deacon


This research examines the case of a service-learning project embedded within a CBPR-based Native American tribal nation and research university collaboration in the US. Transformative learning (TL) served as the theoretical framework by which we, the multidisciplinary research team, came to appreciate the significance of the tribal nation’s lived history and deep sense of cultural loss, as well as the social impact of the service-learning project. To date, the majority of research on transformative learning has focused on the individual. This research builds on the work of a growing cadre of TL theorists who consider the role of the collective in transformation. This is especially salient for community-focused research efforts that incorporate service-learning. In this case, we treat consciousness raising, observed through documents, direct observation and participant observation, as evidence of collective transformation.

Results indicate that the service-learning project served as a catalyst for tribal nation higher education students and tribal leaders to collectively engage in critical reflection. In doing so, both groups came to develop new, emergent views of tribal membership. Students, in particular, emerged with transformed world views and deepened cultural connections, while tribal leaders came to appreciate service-learning relative to tribal needs. We thus assert that service-learning can be a culturally appropriate, sustainable educational mechanism that has application across a wide range of Indigenous
communities, thereby highlighting the instrumentality of this case.

The research also indicates how higher education institutions and fellow researchers oriented to CBPR may render more successful their future collaboration practices with historically marginalised communities. We advocate that service-learning be directed by the tribal nation or community in question. As such, the community’s lived experience and world view becomes the focal point of the partnership, thereby making it culturally relevant and broadening the views of other stakeholders.

Article Details

Research articles (Refereed)
Author Biographies

Brent E Sykes, Randall University

Director, Social Studies Education

Psychology Instructor

Joy Pendley, University of Oklahoma

Research Scientist, Center for Applied Social Research

Zermarie Deacon, University of Oklahoma

Associate Professor, Department of Human Relations