Working With Indigenous People 101
Updated: Apr 20
Indigenous communities differ from non-Indigenous communities in some very significant ways. Indigenous culture is founded on a unique view which governs all aspects of life and, in turn, affects government, corporate, and societal relations.
It is essential to understand Indigenous communities and learn about the communities’ experiences in order to develop an effective working relationship.
Some individuals, corporate entities, and government representatives may want to reach out to Indigenous communities to begin building working relationships but are hesitant. The first stumbling block has often been verbiage.
What is an Indigenous community referred to as? Is it a band, a reserve, or perhaps a tribe? Are the community members called Indians, First Nations People, or maybe Aboriginals? In the fear of not wanting to offend and trying to be politically correct, many people forego their initial attempts at effective communication simply for lack of knowledge on how to address Indigenous People. The simple answer is that the community members should be addressed in the terms that they prefer to be called. Take the first step and simply ask.
Those who are risk averse may also tread lightly around Indigenous People – often representing as a lack of confidence. Fear of the unknown in life is large enough without the addition of fear of the unknown in community relations, cultural and spiritual beliefs, mannerisms, and community values. Many strategies are available to manage such risk and increase the reward by working effectively with Indigenous People.
Prior to initial meetings, develop and implement engagement programs that focus on managing risk instead of blindly following processes or policies. Provide training to employees to help them work effectively with First Nation technicians and once introductions have been made, and a working relationship develops, help the community build capacity from within through mutual learning and sharing with respect.
Learning the factors that play a significant role in Indigenous community life is also not only important but necessary.
The timing of engagement and relationship building can depend on the community lifestyle. Calling in advance to confirm, and calling en route if you’re traveling great distances is not only a sound practice when working with Indigenous People, but makes simple business sense.
For those communities that rely heavily on natural resources for survival, their very routines may revolve around a time clock that neither works at the speed of mainstream business nor on the average timeclock of a non-Indigenous person. Similarly, Indigenous communities place a great importance on the cycle of life. It’s not uncommon for an entire administration to shut down following a death in the community. Respecting this and recognizing that the potential for a full closure is high while in the midst of engagement will go a long way toward solidifying a working relationship. (Related: Myth Busters: Indigenous Edition #1)
Questions often arise around protocols when working with Indigenous People. Many corporate and government representatives can anticipate such customs as the acknowledgement of the host peoples and their territory at the outset of a meeting. Participating in community and cultural events, and showing a genuine interest in getting to know a community without an agenda are also best practices. Choosing words carefully in advance of presenting or speaking in an Indigenous community is also wise. And, ensuring proper enunciation of traditional words, place names, phrases, and individual names is considered a form of respect.
When speaking with and meeting Indigenous People, avoid the use of acronyms in presentations and regular communications.
Also, refrain from the extensive use of technical terms. Use common verbiage that any layperson would appreciate and provide explanations in plain language. Ensure your message is understood. Highly technical communications will progress as appropriate First Nation team members are exposed to your messaging. (Related: 3 ways to effectively communicate technical information to First Nation communities)
Consider attire as well. Dressing in business casual or to suit onsite requirements is favored, as opposed to “dressing for success.” As part of ensuring the audience feels comfortable, ensuring that the appropriate message is being sent through such impressions is vital. Likewise, abstain from strict timelines and anticipate a long-term working relationship based on the development of mutual trust and understanding.
For positive and effective engagement resulting in success when working with Indigenous People, your audience must feel involved and that views are not only received with respect but are taken seriously. Addressing needs from the perspective of an Indigenous community can help create a tangible result based on productively working together over a longer-term basis.
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