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  • Maria Givens (Coeur d’Alene Tribe)

Interested in working with Tribal communities? Consider these 6 things first.

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

By Maria Givens (Coeur d’Alene Tribe)

This article was informed by the work of the Healthy Food Community Tribal Advisory Council, composed of six Indigenous leaders from across the country working toward food sovereignty and healthy food access for their communities.

Native Americans have been living on Turtle Island, what we now call the United States, for thousands of years and have been maintaining thriving food systems for just as long. Today, we find Native people on reservations and in urban areas revitalizing these food systems after centuries of oppression and injustice. In the face of a pandemic, long lasting impacts of colonization and other challenges, Indigenous communities are moving their food systems forward in new and exciting ways.

While many well-intentioned non-Native organizations seek partnerships with Tribal Governments, Native organizations, and Indigenous individuals to bolster food and nutrition efforts, these requests can overwhelm or place undue burdens on Native people. Many Tribal organizations are flooded with requests or don’t have the bandwidth to educate interested parties while also serving the need of their communities. Some non-Native organizations start partnerships without a respectful cultural competency that sets things off on the wrong foot.

To avoid these common mistakes, we recommend following these guideposts for engaging with Tribal Governments, organizations, and individuals. Following these guideposts will ensure that you respect Indigenous peoples’ time and bandwidth while also starting off on a good foot. These simple steps will allow for meaningful, long-lasting relationships that are mutually beneficial for uplifting the needs of Indian Country. Focusing on supporting Indigenous-led efforts can make sure that everyone can thrive.

1. Educate Yourself on Native American History and Current Priorities

The most important part of allyship is education. The more you know, the more you can communicate to others. The first place to start is understanding that what you were taught about Native Americans in school was most likely not written by a Native person and did not reflect the Native history or perspective, especially after ~1870. It’s not too late to learn something new. I encourage you to research the Tribe, organization or individual thoroughly before reaching out, not only so you can bring an informed discussion to the table, but also so that you show a proper respect for their story. Reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a great place to start; then focus on your local area.

It’s important to understand that every Tribal community is unique with a unique culture, history, and approach to their work. Indigenous people are place-based people, so understanding the relation to their specific ancestral territory and the histories of these places is critical. What worked in the past with one Tribe, might not work with another Tribe or organization in another area. Be humble and accept that there is more to learn.

In addition, it is important to understand the current priorities of the Tribe or organization. Familiarize yourself with their websites, press releases, social media posts and any recent media to better understand what is happening right now. This can ensure that you are lining up your engagement with what is already a priority. It respects the work that has already happened and sets up a successful partnership that is in line with the community’s ongoing work.

2. Think Critically about Place-Based Food Systems

No matter where you are in the United States, you are on Native Land. For thousands of years, Native people have been cultivating that land and feeding their people from it. With these thousands of years of tradition comes robust food systems that will inform any community-based food systems work serving all people.

Culturally appropriate food justice work in Indian Country should reflect the food traditions of that specific community. Many Native cultures also view their communities and food ways through a “Systems Thinking” lens where all things are connected. Mental, social, spiritual, economic, nutritional, and cultural health and wealth are interconnected pieces of a large puzzle. This plays out through different structures of Tribal organizations that might not be familiar to non-Native funders or organizations. Approaching Tribal communities with a one-size-fits-all, siloed approach will likely not get much traction in Indian Country. Respecting the Indigenous system and its many parts is a great place to start.

For example, the right place to find a partner for your food work can take many shapes or forms. In my community, the food access work is done by the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations warehouse while the traditional foods are supported by the Department of Natural Resources, and the Tribal Farm grows wheat and lentils. They coordinate often to address the local food system but, on the surface, it may not be clear to an outside partner. By deferring to the Tribe and taking your lead from them, you will ensure that you’re going in the right direction. Taking a wholistic approach from the start is a great way to move forward.

3. Get Comfortable with Not Knowing

With thousands of years of collective, community knowledge, Native people have accumulated an abundance of Traditional Knowledge about their land and peoples. But for folks who are not Native or not a member of that individual community, it is important to recognize that some knowledge is not yours to know.

Just like you wouldn’t give out your great-grandma’s top-secret recipe that has been passed down through the generations, don’t expect Native folks to freely distribute Traditional Knowledge. This can include locations of food sources, food preparation techniques, spiritual or cultural practices or meanings within the food system. You’re always free to ask about cultural property and traditional ecological knowledge but understand that it’s not personal if you don’t get an answer to that question. A respectful partnership requires an understanding that there are things that not everyone is meant to know.

4. Build Deep and Ongoing Relationships

Native people are defined by their relations. Often during introductions, Native people will tell you who their family is and trace back their lineage. A common term in Indian Country is “All my Relations” which is a way to address all people with a respectful recognition of our relationality to each other. Relationships matter more than funding, stakeholder engagement, mutually beneficial outcomes, and the like. A strong relationship is the path forward to trust.

If you want to work with Indigenous communities, commit to deep, ongoing partnership with them and work to build trusting relationships.

One example of this type of partnership is the Northwest Tribal Epidemiology Center (EpiCenter), which collaborates with tribes to provide health-related research, surveillance, and training. Since 1997, the EpiCenter has partnered with 43 federally recognized Tribes in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to assist them in identifying local priorities for healthcare and health education.

5. Follow the Lead of Indigenous Peoples

Self-Determination requires communities to do what is best for themselves because they know what is best for their unique circumstances. Top down, one-size-fits-all solutions never work in Indian Country because every community is unique.

The leaders of these communities and organizations know what will work for their specific situation, and that instinct should be trusted. Usually, the decisions, recommendations and solutions offered by Indigenous Peoples are based on years of observational research of their community. This perspective is invaluable. If a community member tells you an approach won’t work for them or a different method will, it’s best to listen.

The most effective way to help Native people is to invest in their existing efforts that have been created by that community. Unrestricted funding or supporting Indigenous consultants can ensure that grantmaking processes are culturally relevant and inclusive for Indian Country. At the end of the day, it is best to follow the lead of Indigenous Peoples with resources and funding.

For example, the Navajo Agriculture Products Industry (NAPI) was created to continue the legacy of sustainable farming in Navajo Nation and contribute to the economic sustainability of the tribe and the health of its people. The Seminole Tribe has been active in cattle ranching since the 1700s and continues to do so today in Florida. Supporting Indigenous-led initiatives ensures self-determined outcomes and supports tribal sovereignty.

6. Focus on Upstream Solutions to Solve Downstream Problems

Native people have faced centuries of oppression, injustice, and systemic racism that has left a lasting mark on our food systems and our communities. These consequences show themselves in poverty, health outcomes, and food access. Addressing systemic racism requires addressing the system as a whole. Focusing efforts on the larger upstream problems can better assist Native communities than a smaller effort to solve a downstream problem.

For example, in my community, I once saw a large shoe corporation donate a pair of sneakers for every student in the Tribal school. While this was incredibly generous, the shoes arrived 6 months after the students submitted their sizes, and when the shoes arrived they were too small for these growing kids. In the end, this generous gift was not used and literally didn’t fit the needs of the students. An approach that targeted economic development in the community for parents to afford high quality shoes and clothes for their kids would have paid more long-term dividends to the community.

As this relates to food access, investments in food infrastructure will pay more long-term dividends than a box of donated food. An investment in education and training of Native youth to be active participants in their local food economies will solve the upstream issues for the community. Deeply understanding the needs of the community will ensure that solutions you provide will actually help. For example, downstream fixes like food donations that are not culturally relevant will surely go to waste while upstream investments in the community like infrastructure will pay dividends for years to come.

Conclusion and Further Resources

No matter what you do, understand that working to benefit Indian Country should be community-focused and driven by the individuals involved. Forcing outside agendas or expecting Native people to educate you for free is a recipe for disaster. Educating yourself is the first step, but keeping an open mind and an open heart and an ongoing commitment will continue a fruitful relationship for everyone going forward.


If you’d like to research further, check out the resources below:

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