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  • Invest time to build trust

Distrust is common in American Indian communities due to a long history of broken promises. As a result, building trust is a very important in  forming good working relationships. Trust building, however, is a process that requires time. As a result, it is important for an individual to first break down feelings of distrust by investing time for honest communication to occur.

  • Engage in relationship building

Get to know individuals from the American Indian community. Person-to-person relationships are important to American Indians. If an individual presents himself as a representative of an organization, the community may not accept him because American Indians may identify that individual with organizations and institutions that they have learned to distrust. It is, therefore, more beneficial to build relationships on a personal basis. Success depends on the quality of interactions and relationships that are established within the community.

  • Ask individuals to meet for lunch or for coffee.

American Indian respond to people, not positions. As a result, this is an excellent way to build relationships. As this occurs, the range of leadership within the American Indian community becomes evident.

  • Focus less on finding official American Indian leaders.

Leadership within American Indian communities can differ from the mainstream perspective of leadership. Community leaders often view themselves as leaders to the extent that a community regards them as such. Often they will go to the community to seek advice and input.


  • Promote mutual understanding and respect.

Facilitate understanding of both government structures involved in the process. Develop and articulate as understanding of common purposes and interests. Acknowledge that each partner is a government entity working to promote a similar agenda to benefit a particular population. This also requires partners to be aware of individual biases and stereotypes and open to other viewpoints and experiences.

  • Acknowledge and respect differences in leadership styles.

Many leadership techniques typical to mainstream society are not successful or effective when working with American Indian people. Competitive or aggressive leadership styles are desirable in some mainstream settings, but voluntary cooperation may be more acceptable in American Indian communities.

  • Promise only what can be delivered.

As previously mentioned, American Indians are often distrustful of non-Indian institutions. This distrust is sue to concrete historical evidence. For this reason, it is very important to communicate honestly about what can and cannot be accomplished. This also includes sharing information about the intended purpose and objectives of programs, policies , and research.

  • Incorpoate as approach of working with not for.

American Indian communities have historically been subject to paternalism. As a result, many ineffective decisions regarding services and programs have been made on their behalf. American India communities are increasingly exercising self-determination to address, manage, and implement culturally appropriate responses to the day to day challenges within their individual communities. As a result, it is essential to develop cooperative planning and research strategies with American Indian communities. It is also important to build consensus between organizational decision makers and community participants. This requires the inclusion of ongoing evaluation of activities.

  • Integrate Indian participation.

The most effective way to address issues within the American Indian community is to involve American Indian participants directly. Effective programs and projects will include American Indian participation from the beginning. Many professionals conceive and design projects and then seek participation and approval from the community. It is difficult for members of the Indian community to claim ownership of programs, policies and initiatives when they have no part in conceptualizing or developing the project. Indian advice and/or participation is essential; the earlier this happens in a projects development the more effective the outcome.

Forming Effective Relationships

  • Acknowledge and respect differences in communication style.

American Indian communication styles differ from communication styles in mainstream society. Whereas mainstream society values directness, American Indian culture values non-interference. While there are exceptions, traditional American Indian communication styles emphasize patience, listening, observation and non-competitive interactions. These differences often affect communication between Indians and non-Indians.

  • Understand the different value given to verbal skills.

The purpose of conversation and dialogue emphasizes consensus building versus persuasion. Sharing of narratives and personal experience is a powerful practice within Indian communities. The principle of non-interference is also reinforced by language and forms of intrusion, even if subtle, are considered improper behavior.

  • Understand differences in non-verbal communication.

Other aspects of non-interference include non-verbal behaviors. Direct eye contact is desired in mainstream society but is not always welcome among American Indians. Do not misconstrue such non-verbal behaviors as shyness, lack of interest or social deficiency.

  • Exhibit patience and respect at meetings.

American Indians tend to communicate in story form. In addition, they will take their time in making points. Sometimes non-Indians may perceive this as pointless discussion. It is not, but it requires patience and perceptive attitude.

  • If it is not clear what is being said, pursue the point respectfully.

people often attempt to translate what American Indians say into their frame of reference. Do not attempt to try to translate what is being said by using language such as, "What I hear you saying is..." This will not be well received and may lead individuals to stop sharing information.

  • Be aware of the subtle messages conveyed with language.

Honest, clear communication is an essential component to long term working relationships. The words 'if possible', 'depending upon', and 'we'll see what we can do' convey vague messages. American Indian communities perceive this as lack of commitment.

  • Utilize personal forms of communication.

Letters, memorandums, and other formal notices are not as effective as personal communication. Face to face interactions and meetings are well received by American Indian communities. This requires effort to meet and interact with people within the American Indian community.

  • Participate in culturally appropriate forums.

Culturally appropriate forums provide as opportunity for American Indian communities to share information about programs, policies, and service. Such environments are usually comfortable environments because they provide a space where differences in communication styles are acknowledged and valued.

All tips from A Guide to Working with American Indians