Indigenization Guide: Building Relationships

The following is an excerpt from Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers by Asma-na-hi Antoine, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France. 

Through relationships with Indigenous people, both within and outside of your university’s context, you will be able to work in partnership with Indigenous people to bring local knowledge and Indigenous approaches into course design.

Principles of interaction

It is important to remember that many Indigenous people and communities have experienced negative interactions with your university or with non-Indigenous institutions in general (for example, the government, the education system, the healthcare system) in the past, and so you may need to work extra hard to build a relationship of trust that overcomes the mistrust that has been planted by colonization. Bob Joseph, a Gwawaenuk Nation member, owner of Indigenous Corporate Training, and former associate professor at Royal Roads University, provides 7 Tips on Building Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.[1].

Establishing initial relationships

The first place to begin is by exploring the relationships that already exist within your institution. You would not want to approach a community about working together without knowing if a previous relationship has been established between that community and your institution. If your university has an office of Indigenous affairs or Indigenous education, begin there. You may also want to search the institution website to see if there are existing agreements with Indigenous communities (such as a memorandum of understanding) or an Indigenous plan. If you cannot find any existing relationships this way, you may also want to look into any research that has been done which involved engaging with Indigenous communities, and get in touch with the people from your institution who were involved in that research. Just keep in mind that the research may or may not have been built on positive relationships with Indigenous communities.

If you have no connections and no one from your institution to guide you, then protocol requires that you begin by working to establish a relationship with the local First Nation(s). You can do this by first visiting the local First Nation’s band office in person to introduce yourself and to book a meeting with the Nation’s Chief or member of Council. There may be an employee within the Nation who is the education coordinator. If so, then, they would be the person to connect with, but don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to others as well.

It is also a good idea to bring a small gift as a token of appreciation for the individual’s time and energy. This demonstrates that you’ve prepared and done some research on protocols for engaging with communities. Examples of gifts are coffee, tea, food, sweets, or small and useful items, such as a mug or pen. Traditional medicines (sage, sweetgrass, traditional tobacco, cedar) can also be gifts, but you will need to do your research in advance to understand cultural protocols around traditional medicines.

Establishing these relationships will take time and effort. It important to initiate this relationship with face-to-face contact. Elders say that it’s always better to first visit in person, then call, and then send an email. If you still haven’t received a response, don’t give up. Go back to the office and introduce yourself again. Be prepared if you do connect with someone, you may have to wait a while or only be given a short time to meet. If you continue not to get responses, consider how you can make your request more relevant to the priorities of the First Nation. Keep in mind that many First Nations’ staff are overworked and have limited capacity for additional tasks.

If you have reached out to the First Nation(s) in your area, you may then also consider connecting with Indigenous community groups, such as social service agencies, cultural groups, or arts collectives. Many communities have a Métis organization, which can provide valuable insight into Métis perspectives. Consider contacting a local chapter of Métis Nation British Columbia[2]or Métis Service Providers.[3] You can also contact Friendship Centres,[4]which serve Urban Indigenous people of all backgrounds. They exist in 25 communities across B.C. and are another great group to connect with. Many of these groups are involved in education, and they may value working in collaboration with universities.

Intentionality and purpose

As you develop relationships, it is important to reflect and be clear on your intentionality and purpose. Are you seeking permission to share stories from local Indigenous people? Are you looking for advice on developing learning activities? Are you looking for guest speakers to participate in course delivery? Or are you looking for someone to bring a deeper involvement, such as a co-teacher or curriculum adviser?

Following the principles of respect outlined above, it is important to think about how involvement with your project will benefit the communities and help them to meet their goals. Will there be opportunities for people from the community to gain knowledge and skills? Will there be benefits to Indigenous students? Does the community have goals (such as contributing to a greater understanding of their culture or building relationships with the university) that may align with your request? Don’t race out to the community only because you need something. A partnership should never be one-sided, and it is important to recognize that many Indigenous communities are approached with multiple requests to share their time and knowledge, which can strain their operational capacity and their ability to focus on the needs of their own community. Asking someone to contribute to your course development is a big ask that will require considerable time and effort.

For this reason, you will want to consider the issue of compensation. In some cases, honoraria are used as compensation – usually when the interaction is short-lived (limited to several visits). We discuss this approach more in the topic about working with Elders (below). If a longer relationship is required, community members who are not already being paid by their community to do this work (for example as an educational adviser within a First Nation or Friendship Centre) should be compensated on a level that values their work equally to the work of university staff.

In many cases, if you are mindful of the principles and approaches discussed above, you will be able to build strong relationships. But keep in mind that some Indigenous people or communities might not be ready or willing to build relationships with you or your institution. This may be due to negative experiences in the past, or simply due to different priorities or limited human resources capacity. If that is the case, it is important to respect that choice and move on.

Working with Elders

An Indigenous Elder is someone who has lived and continues to live in a cultural way and uses a traditional lens to engage with people. The term “Elder” is not an Indigenous word – it comes from interaction with the Christian church. Indigenous languages have other words to connote this role, such as “wisdom-keeper” (In conversation, Leslie McGarry , 2016 ). Elders play a role of keeping traditional wisdom alive and passing it forward. Although an Elder is usually an older person, not all older people carry the title of Elder, and in some cases Elders can be quite young.

Working with Elders can be highly rewarding. Not only do they bring expertise in traditional knowledge, but Elders also often bring a certain energy to an interaction that impacts people’s mindsets. Elders remind us of the larger picture and the moral and communal reasons for the work that we do together. Elders can also bring a sense of spirituality, laughter, and connection. Review Appendix F for tips on working with Elders.[5]

Activity 1: Working with Elders 

Time: 10 min

Type: Individual

In this video,[6] T’Sou-ke Nation Elder Shirley Alphonse answers questions about how to work with Elders.

What additional questions do you have about working with Elders? To whom could you reach out to answer these questions?

Activity 2: Engaging with Communities 

Time: 10 min

Type: Individual

Watch the following videos in which Dr. Susan Dion, a Potawatomi /Lenape professor at York University, speaks about engaging with the community, and the responsibility of and benefits for non-Indigenous educators. These videos were created in reference to K–12 educators, but they provide some important reflections also relevant to post-secondary curriculum developers engaging with Indigenous communities.

Activity 3: Exploring Your Institution’s Connections with Local Indigenous Communities

Time: 30 min

Type: Individual

Do some research to determine what connections exist with local Indigenous communities and organizations. Make a list of existing connections and potential areas to build connections that do not already exist.

Activity 4: Contributing to Indigenous-Led Work

Time: Ongoing

Type: Group

Following the ethic of mutually beneficial work, identify areas in your institution where you can meaningfully contribute to Indigenous-led work toward Indigenization. Be clear about what expertise, skills, or support you can offer and work to build trusting relationships with those already engaged in the work. Be willing to commit to the emotionally and intellectually demanding work of Indigenization, rather than expecting Indigenous people to do this work on their own. If your participation is not needed, accept it and move on.

Learn more:

  1. 7 Tips on Building Relationships with Indigenous Peoples: 
  2. Metis Nation British Columbia, Regional Contacts 
  3. BC Metis Service Providers 
  4. Friendship Centres in BC 
  5. Appendix F: Working with Elders: 
  6. T’Sou-ke Nation Elder Shirly Video: 
  7. Reaching Out to the Community: 
  8. Partnerships in Sharing Knowledge: