February 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB1

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Determining the Needs of American Indian Audiences for Cooperative Extension Programs

American Indians have been in North America for centuries. However, there is limited Cooperative Extension programming on American Indian Reservations due to limited funding and lack of knowledge of the population by Cooperative Extension. The study reported here on the Walker River Indian Reservation in Nevada sought to identify the demographic characteristics, risk factors, and community concerns of the population in order to develop Cooperative Extension programs that address quality of life on the reservation. Similar efforts are recommended for other Cooperative Extension workers responsible for American Indian and other indigenous populations in the United States and around the world.

Staci Emm
Assistant Professor and Extension Educator
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Hawthorne, Nevada

Don Breazeale
Associate Professor and Extension Educator
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Lovelock, Nevada


American Indians have been in North America for centuries. The Western United States is famous for the Indians that lived in the Great Basin, which includes Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Eastern California. American settlers moving west began appearing in the Great Basin between 1820 and 1860. In the beginning, strangers in the area were not a problem, but as time passed, American settlers began to increase in numbers. The Great Basin American Indians, in the 19th Century, were displaced and moved from their territories due to the increase of American settlers. The United States government managed this problem with the creation of American Indian reservations (Intertribal Council of Nevada, 1976).

From the beginning, the services to the American Indian people have been difficult and limited to housing, education, health care, food, and other social services. There has been a general lack of dialogue with American Indian Tribes or tribal people (Hiller, 2005). It was in the late 1980's that a non-profit organization, Intertribal Agriculture Council, lobbied for United States legislation to create Cooperative Extension programs on American Indian reservations through U.S. Cooperative State Research Education Extension Service (CSREES). Thus, the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) was created. The program recently expanded with additional monies appropriated by Congress for the FRTEP program. There are 314 federally recognized tribes spread among 33 states in the continental United States (Sterner, 2007).

Nevada currently has one FRTEP program, "Nevada Indian Tribes," to provide Cooperative Extension services to four out of the 18 federally recognized American Indian tribes in Nevada. Nevada American Indian Tribal lands make up 22% of the land in farms base in Nevada (Owens, 2003). University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE) has become more involved in addressing American Indian issues due to its involvement in FRTEP.

Because of the lack of involvement with American Indian Tribes, UNCE is currently trying to determine Extension programming needs on Nevada reservations. All good Cooperative Extension programs identify issues through a formal community assessment process. Program planning and action is more effective with accurate and up-to-date information about client needs and preferences (Butler & Howell, 1980). One example in Nevada involves a community needs assessment for the Walker River Paiute Tribe on the Walker River American Indian reservation in west-central Nevada. In order to provide programming, Extension agents need to be knowledgeable of tribal leaders and tribal governance (Hart, 2006).

Literature Review

The legislation and regulation of American Indian Affairs by the United States government has shifted over many years and generations to reflect a unique situation of understanding and "Trust" responsibility regulation. American Indian affairs, better known as "Indian Affairs," began with writing treaties, establishing Indian reservations, and giving sovereignty by allowing Tribes to be a separate nation within the nation of the United States. Today, legislation and "Indian Affairs" is centuries old and is filled with complex and multifaceted issues.

Cooperative Extension programs in the United States and American Indians do not nationally have strong relationships. The FRTEP places Extension agents/educators and Extension programs on reservations. Unfortunately, the FRTEP has only enough funding for 28 American Indian projects on 27 out of the 314 Federally Recognized Tribal reservations in the United States.

In addition, Cooperative Extension is finding that the traditional Extension model of servicing this disadvantaged population is not as effective on reservation lands as in other settings (Hiller, 2005). Just as in other countries, Cooperative Extension models need to be adjusted to meet American Indian social, cultural, and economic conditions of the intended program recipients (Seevers, 1997). Programs that are participatory, engage community members, provide local community capacity building, and empower clientele are necessary for effective Cooperative Extension programming (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003).


In August of 2005, the Walker River Paiute Tribe passed Resolution WR-88-2005 approving the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension to conduct a needs assessment by surveying all households on the reservation and compiling and reporting the results. The survey instrument was designed as an "opinion poll" of community expectations, concerns, and risk factors in order to enhance Cooperative Extension programming efforts. To establish content and face validity, a panel of experts reviewed the instrument. A pilot test was run to establish reliability resulting in Chronbach's alpha coefficients ranging from.81 to .98.

The survey was completed in 2005 on the Walker River Indian Reservation. The survey was conducted from November 9, 2005 to December 30, 2005 through door-to-door and face-to-face contact. Contact was only possible with 168 households out of the 350 households that were estimated by the Tribe's housing department. Contact was limited primarily by the inability to find residents in the household. The surveying team divided the reservation into three sections using area-frame maps. Potential respondents of a household were asked if they would like to participate by filling out the survey instrument. A total of 107 households participated in the study, and 61 households declined to participate in the study. This represented a 31% response rate from reservation households.

Community Demographics

There were 82% of the 107 respondents that were between 21 and 60 years of age. Fifty-six percent of respondents were female, and 40% were male, with 4% not responding. Approximately 85% of respondents consider themselves American Indian. Figure 1 shows the ethnic breakdown of respondents.

Figure 1.
How Do You Describe Yourself?

Figure 2 provides information on the number of years respondents lived on the reservation. Almost two-thirds of respondents reported that their family had lived on the reservation for generations, while only 3% reported that their family had lived on the reservation less than one year. Figure 3 gives a breakdown of yearly household income. Sixty-four percent had an income of $35,999 or less, with 28% reporting $10,999 or less, which is below the national poverty level.

Figure 2.
How Long Has Your Family Lived on the Reservation?

Figure 3.
What Is Your Yearly Household Income?

There were 20% of respondents that had undergraduate or a graduate degree. Thirty-two percent graduated from high school, with 36% attending some college. Six percent graduated from 8th grade, and 7% did not answer the question. There were 58% that reported having one child or no children, 25% reported two or three children, 10% reported four or five children in the household. Seven percent did not answer.

Community Risk Factors

Meetings with tribal staff and tribal departments identified 17 possible community risk factors for the needs assessment survey instrument. Survey respondents were asked to rate each of the 17 possible risk factors (1 = major problem, 2 = problem, 3 = small problem, 4 = no problem, and 5 = no response). Scarce resources limit Cooperative Extension's ability to work with American Indian audiences (Hiller, 2005). Therefore, only those issues reported as the most important (problem and major problem) were reported in the study described here. Eighty-four percent of respondents identified unemployment as the number one community risk factor. Approximately two-thirds of respondents also reported alcohol abuse, drug abuse, preparing youth for work, reservations laws, and lack of recreation for children as important issues. Figure 4 provides a visual breakdown of these risk factors.

Figure 4.
Community Risk Factors Identified

Community Concerns

There were 11 possible community concerns identified through meetings with tribal staff and departments for the survey instrument. Survey respondents were asked to rate each of the possible community concerns (1 = major problem, 2 = problem, 3 = small problem, 4 = no problem, and 5 = no response). As in the risk factor section, problems and major problems were combined. The number one community concern was the availability of illegal drugs. Other community concerns identified were community disorganization, family conflict, lack of commitment to school, community laws/enforcement, early initiation of problem behavior, and academic failure beginning in elementary school. Figure 5 shows a breakdown of the top seven community concerns that were identified.

Figure 5.
Community Concerns Identified

Summary of Findings

Approximately 85% of respondents in the study identified themselves as being American Indian. Two-thirds of the respondents have lived on the reservation for generations. It is a relatively low-income population, with just under two-thirds of the respondents reporting less than $35,999 a year in income and 28% reporting under $10,999 a year of income. This is a relatively well educated group, with 88% of people having completed high school or a higher level of education. In fact, 20% have bachelor degrees or higher.

The identified risk factors cited by the respondents in order of importance include unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, inadequate preparation of youth for the work world, inadequate laws to protect residents, and lack of recreation for children. The number one community concern identified by participants was the availability of illegal drugs, followed by community disorganization. Other concerns included family conflict, lack of commitment to school, community law enforcement, early initiation of problem behavior, and academic failure in elementary school.

Implications and Recommendations

The participants in this group indicated that they have a good level of education. However, due to the rural isolation, limited employment opportunities, and availability of drugs and alcohol, residents tend to turn toward substance abuse. This in turn affects youth attitudes about their future opportunities. Thus, economic development may play a very important role in improving reservation quality of life on the reservation.

Improving the quality of life on the reservation is directly tied to understanding and eliminating or reducing the community risk factors and concerns cited by residents. Through economic development and increased employment opportunities, tribal residents have the opportunity and incentive to change their substance abuse habits and lifestyle. This in turn can provide more positive role models for reservation youth.

Given this situation, Cooperative Extension programming can play a vital role in improving quality of life on the reservation. Through a needs assessment and community situation analysis, Cooperative Extension programs can gain vital demographic information and allow residents a formal process for identifying their community concerns and risk factors. The involvement of the American Indian population in the study will result in more effective Cooperative Extension programs by giving participants greater input and ownership into program planning and implementation.

Additional research is needed concerning tribal leaders, tribal governance, and styles and practices in order to collaboratively develop programming to meet the identified needs of the Walker River American Indian population. The needs assessment process utilized in the study reported here should provide important information to other Cooperative Extension personnel working with American Indian reservations as well as with other indigenous populations throughout the world.

Because this study was specific to West-Central Nevada, little is known about how this framework might apply to different ethnic and cultural situations. This remains an important opportunity for further study if underrepresented audiences are going to be provided with equal access to Cooperative Extension programming efforts. Regardless of where the American Indian and other indigenous populations are located, focused research and educational programming to strengthen community development efforts can help shape and provide road maps for Extension programming in other comparable communities.


Butler, L. M., & Howell, R. E. (1980). Coping with growth: Community needs assessment techniques, WREP44. Corvallis, OR: Western Rural Development Center.

Hart, J. G. (2006). Exploring tribal leadership: Understanding and working with tribal people. Journal of Extension. [On-line], 44(4) Article 4FEA3. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2006august/a3.shtml

Hiller, J. (2005). Is 10% good enough? Cooperative Extension work in Indian country. Journal of Extension. [On-line], 43(6) Article 6FEA2. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2005december/a2.shtml

Intertribal Council of Nevada. (1976). NUMA: A northern Paiute history. Reno, Nevada: Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada.

Minkler, M., & Wallerstein, N. (Eds.) (2003). Community-based participatory research for health. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Owens, M. (2003). Nevada agriculture statistics. Reno, Nevada: USDA Nevada Agriculture Statistics Service.

Seevers, B., Graham, D., Gamon, J., & Conklin, N. (1997). Education through Cooperative Extension. Albany, New York: Delmar Publishers.

Sterner, R. (2007) Colored landform atlas of the United States: Indian tribes listed by state. John Hopkins University Applied Physic Laboratory Oceanography Group. Retrieved July 26, 2007 from: http://www.hanksville.org/sand/contacts/tribal