FIRST NATIONS PROTOCOL: Working With First Nations

Non-Native environmentalists have a poor record of developing relationships with First Nations communities. There may be many specific reasons for this but it boils down to the lack of understanding that protocols exist within First Nations and that an honest effort must be made to observe them.

First Nation traditions have a foundation that respects Mother Earth and this is why a natural alliance is possible between Native and non-Native environmentalists. Many First Nation territories are the front-line on environmental crisis. Understanding and respecting Native ways, the protocol that has been developed and in use for thousands of years, is the first step toward working together for the environment.

Protocol is the way to have a meaningful conversation. This is true with every nation- it is important all over the world. Individuals in business, who don’t respect proper protocol, fail in their efforts before they get to “the meat of the issue” because people are turned off. Minds become closed. Non-Native protocol is well understood by Native people because it is on TV, radio, in the papers, in the churches; it is everywhere.

Native protocol is not difficult or complicated; it only requires common sense. Knowledge that it exists is the way to get to first base. But, there isn’t just “Indian” people in North America, there are many nations. Each has a different language, different environment, and a different culture. Begin with a basic understanding of protocol and then realize that there are protocols unique to different nations. 

It is very basic, but if people aren’t even aware of it and they try to accomplish things with Native people and they don’t succeed, it is probably because they have botched the initial protocol.

It takes time to develop an experience of the people you want to talk to and develop a relationship with. This starts with respect for the ways of the community you are visiting. Watch, listen and learn about the different ways of different nations. And, be “real”, don’t be false; if you are, you’ll be spotted a mile away. Relationships that are possible are deep and fundamental. Helen Forsey offers these thoughts in her article, “Parallels and Alliances – A Non-Native Woman’s View”, written in October 1991:

“In building these alliances, we must insist on honestly addressing what is real in each of our lives, expressing and hearing each others’ true thoughts and feelings- the pain and anger, the guilt and mistrust, as well as the hope, the warmth and the joy. True respect cannot be built on a foundation of half-truths, of glossing over our differences and difficulties for the sake of some illusory harmony. Reality is too complex, and the urgency of the tasks at hand too pressing. To fight oppression, we need all our strengths, all of our varied truths, all of our creativity, all our courage, all our caring. When we lovingly challenge a sister or a brother on something they have said or done, it is because we want the connections among us to be strong and durable, and that can only happen if they are based on the truth. Sometimes truths are all we have; if we share them with one another, with open hearts and minds, we can render the old divide-and-conquer tactics of oppression obsolete.”