Indigenous tribes represent some of the most diverse populations in the United States. It is both an honor and a privilege to advocate for the indigenous people and their causes. Every tribe is different and comes with its own unique cultural, social, political, and legal rules, customs, and traditions. Taking proactive steps to understand tribal perspectives and issues is essential to building relationships based on trust and mutual respect. Whether you find yourself working directly on an indigenous reservation, for a federal agency, for a non-profit, or any other organization, it is necessary to be conscious of how you interact with indigenous populations. Here are just a few things to keep in mind when engaging with indigenous tribes:
Consider the differences
There are many different indigenous tribes that reside in the United States. Even though they are all indigenous, each tribal nation has its own unique language, culture, customs, values, and beliefs. They have their own ways of governing and legislating, and different perspectives on building relationships with other tribes and with non-indigenous Americans. Before you begin establishing your connections, conduct research on the tribe you will work with. Learn about what that tribe considers to be the most important for their people, and see if you might find some shared features or attributes that you can identify with yourself that can be used to start a conversation.
Connect with leaders
Not every tribe has the same structure in terms of who makes decisions on matters that impact tribal relations. As you continue learning about the tribe, note who the tribal leaders are. How can you get in touch? What customs exist when communicating with tribal leaders? Take some time to acquaint yourself with the person you want to reach out to. Some tribes might have a council of people in charge instead of just one person. Take the time to get to know everyone, their roles, and who you might end up interacting with the most. Exhibit the behavior that is consistent with the expectations of the tribe. If you get the chance, talk to a member of that tribe to learn what you need to know to build a positive, lasting impression.
Don’t assume that you know everything you need to know from your research as you start to build your relationship with the tribe. News and updates may be available only to certain people or through specific mediums of communication, so take the time to listen and absorb as much information as you can. Something might come up in conversation that you may want to refer back to, so memorize or note down what you think is important to remember. Let the tribal members openly address what their needs or questions are before making conclusions. Different tribes may have unique issues, and each one needs to be approached in its own specific way, so really try your best to help them feel comfortable, heard, and understood. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand, but bring the conversation back to them so you can learn as much as you can without making it about yourself.
These are just a few things to keep in mind as you think about working with indigenous populations. The more preparation you do ahead of time, the better equipped you will be for forging strong connections with different indigenous populations and tribes. If you want to discuss more ways to keep yourself informed on best practices for working with indigenous populations, feel free to schedule an appointment with a Career Coach at the UConn Center for Career Development. A Career Coach will help you explore some options on ways to start a conversation and build lasting professional relationships with indigenous populations.