Hello, I am Kateri Joe, a University of Washington graduate student interning with the College Success Foundation. I am also a Swinomish (located between Anacortes and La Conner) and Halalt (Victoria, BC) tribal member. I recently presented alongside Shelly Vendiola (a personal hero of mine and Native Studies Leadership Program/Coast Salish Institute faculty member) at the Passport Leadership Team meeting on Monday December 3. Our presentation was about how to effectively engage with tribal communities, an important topic as Passport to Careers (PTC) eligibility is expanded to include tribal foster youth.

Kareri Joe and Shelly Vendiola presented to the Passport Leadership Team (PLT) on December 3rd. Learning to engage tribal communities effectively is a PLT priority given PTC’s expansion to tribal foster youth.

I will now attempt to summarize our 2-hour presentation into five recommended practices when working with tribal communities. This is nowhere near a complete list, or even an intermediately complete list. This is merely a pebble dropped into a vast and stagnant pond hoping to break the surface. There are currently 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, 29 in Washington state, and even more still fighting for federal recognition. Each tribe is unique in language, governing style, traditions, and spirituality. I am in no way attempting to speak for all tribes. I am simply attempting to give a starting point for non-tribal folks wanting to build bridges, especially as the PTC program is expanded to tribal foster youth. So, without further delay, here are my 5 recommended practices:

1) From the beginning, understand that building effective working relationships with tribal entities can be complex and slow moving. Every tribal community has a distinct history with outside forces (including individuals, communities, governments – even those from other tribes). If you feel a sense of distance, or coldness when first meeting with new tribal community members, know that they are likely attempting to determine your intentions and the potential benefits or risks of engaging with you. My recommendation: be consistent, persistent, and respectful. And know your behaviors and actions are watched even when you think no one is looking.

2) Appreciate that most tribal communities have both elected and traditional leaders. There is typically an elected governmental body, often including a chairperson and tribal council who make major decisions affecting tribal members. They may be involved in visible legal or political advocacy for their community. Yet, there are also likely to be traditional leaders (can be hereditary chiefs, tribal elders, or strong natural leaders) who may lead ceremonies and keep traditional knowledge and history. Both types of leaders are valued equally. As an outsider attempting to engage, your role is to find the appropriate person to talk to in specific situations. If you are unsure who this person is, ask your trusted connections to point you in the right direction. Once you find out who it is, invite them to the table and allow them to speak from their perspective. Tribal elders are revered and given preferential treatment. Know that if you are seen disrespecting an elder, you will lose all buy-in from the community.

3) Know that western society and Indigenous societies have different values with respect to time, and plan accordingly. With most indigenous communities the work being completed is more important than the time it is taking. That means if you were initially expecting a 1-hour meeting, but someone needs to express themselves, it is important to hear them. Some indigenous people believe that if a person feels moved to express themselves, but resists, they can become spiritually sick. If you cut them off due to time, it can be perceived that you value your time over their wellbeing. I suggest giving significant buffer time around meetings with tribal people, and if you are unable to do so, inform them at the beginning of the meeting your time limitations. If you attend a tribal event, expect to dedicate the entire morning or afternoon to it.

4) When making an important request, make sure to do so in “a good way.” Though specific rituals will vary, there are some common themes. When wanting to collaborate or request assistance from a tribe, make significant attempts to do the asking in person. If you are requesting additional support (cultural consultation, or outreach to their network on behalf of your agency/institution) show appreciation tangibly (pay) for expertise and strategic support. In Co-Salish traditions (tribes along the Salish Sea) if a person was asked to witness or speak on someone else’s behalf they would be paid or given a gift for this work.

5) Continue educating yourself about the history and practices of those you are attempting to engage. If a tribal member corrects you, try not to take offense. This is their way of showing they care about your growth and value the relationship. Humility is a valued trait and can lead to better relationships with tribal people.

As stated in the beginning of this list, this is only the starting point for a much deeper conversation of learning to work effectively with tribal communities, but I hope it is a good primer.


10 Things You Should Know About the Swinomish Tribe
Basic Etiquette When Working With Tribal Communities

US Department of Energy’s Guide to Working with Indian Tribal Nations

OSPI Office of Native Education Website