Indigenous peoples are active participants in modern business and will understand these and other business realities. However, there also exists ancient protocols and customs that will often be given a priority in Indigenous communities. Knowing how to navigate some of these protocols based on respect will ensure better relationships and the best experience for all involved. This concept of relationship building for trade and business has been present in BC for centuries, and still continues today.
Indigenous communities incorporate traditional practices in their daily lives and place great importance on protocols, art, regalia, ceremonies, celebrations, social structures, and many other aspects of their diverse cultures. It is also important to recognize that our cultures are not static, Indigenous peoples are modern people and reflect that in their lives. The foundation for success when working in Indigenous communities is one of respect, while you may not understand the culture, protocols, or ceremonies, respecting the people and their way of life provides a better path towards understanding.
Recognizing Indigenous territories is a great first step in recognizing traditional territory in BC, but is important to remember it is only the first step. To take this a step further recognize that you are a guest on the territory and thank the nation(s) who steward(s) it as your hosts for welcoming you into their territory. Additionally, do the work to understand the history of the place, and whether, like the Nisga’a among others, it is a territory owned under a treaty and requires special permissions to access.
The wounds made to Indigenous societies through colonization were calculated and deep, and the repercussions will take many generations to heal from, trying to identify the cause of mistrust, non-cooperation, or caution would not likely lead to an easy answer. One example of these repercussions surrounds alcohol and drug use, and while many Indigenous communities are dry now the stereotypes remain, respect this and the harm perpetuating stories about issue like this can do to communities. In the instances where you are confronted with the repercussions of the recent past, try to understand and respect the healing process and consider whether you are unnecessarily reinforcing stereotypes.
The mark of a successful partnership with Indigenous communities is one which places the value of the relationship in line with that of the outcome. Indigenous people have been building relationships for trade and politics through marriages, potlatches, powwows, and other formal gatherings for over 10,000 years, and it continues to be practiced. It is important for anyone seeking positive business relationships in Indigenous communities to not focus solely on the business transaction but at the relationship as a whole.
Band Councils are the elected governments of most Indigenous communities, and can be a great resource within Indigenous communities to connect you with community members. For some Indigenous Communities however, there are tribal governments which act alongside or replace the Band council. Finally, there are Hereditary Chiefs, who hold titles and authorities which have been passed down for thousands of years, their roles are as influential figures in the community who focus on the health and well-being of their people and their territories. This is a key instance where a local guide would help navigate the governance systems for permissions and participation.
Protocols are the complex social orders and procedures that must be adhered to during interactions, they include manners, ceremonial procedures, familial hierarchy, host-guest responsibilities, and a long list of other such functions. To go into an Indigenous community and apply knowledge from prior experiences will likely help, but to navigate the many facets of an Indigenous community like an expert, get the help of an expert. Find a guide to ask questions during your visit about protocols and how to be included in the community for whatever your purposes are, be it tourism experiences, interviews, or knowledge.
Within Indigenous cultures reciprocity or giving and receiving is integral to our interactions with one another as well as with the natural world. It is often appropriate to give a gift as a show of gratitude and respect for a person’s time or knowledge as it is akin to a trade, it respects what was shared with you and gives you the opportunity to acknowledge the worth of what was received. In cases where you would normally give honorariums it is appropriate to offer this to community members as well, in the cases where it is turned down, having a gift on hand might be a better option. It doesn’t need to be of high monetary value, often times swag or merchandise from the organization you work for might work well.
For Indigenous communities, ceremony and celebrations maintain and strengthen community, some are private but you are welcome to politely ask if your attendance would be appropriate. Some ceremonies are available for others to attend but do not allow photography, video, or recordings, it is extremely important that this is respected when asked of those gathered. If you are uncomfortable with participating in any portion of ceremony, politely excuse yourself from participation.
Indigenous communities can sometimes have a more relaxed attitude for time management during events, not out of disrespect for time, but out of the deep-rooted respect for protocols to be followed. It does not allow for important processes to be rushed, to rush an Elder in their blessing, a chief in his speech, a youth in their learning, or guests who are being fed would be deeply disrespectful to the culture. In business and media, tight deadlines are often necessary and this perspective on time may not fit with yours, but it is important to allow for time to adapt as need.
Indigenous peoples recognize the value of knowledge and the need to safeguard it against distortion or improper use and are often restricted by protocol or cautious due to past experiences. You cannot take it personally if you are told no when asking about interviews, attending events, being included in ceremony, or when asking for comment or knowledge. If you are an aggressor you will never be trusted with knowledge or access, respect that a ‘no’ will not likely change to a ‘yes’ and depending on the reason/person it is not a good idea to keep approaching different people until you get a ‘yes’.