April 14, 2015

First Impressions: Meeting your Indigenous Partner for the First Time

Brock_Tecumseh

Meeting of Isaac Brock and Tecumseh, 1812 (painting by C.W. Jeffreys)

You may be a bit nervous, feeling unprepared and vulnerable. Or perhaps you are overconfident and feel this meeting may feel this is not a big deal. Either way, your first face-to-face meeting with a potential First Nation, Métis or Inuit partner is critical in building trust, and establishing a relationship that will lead to fruitful negotiations, reaching a deal and success. It is essential that you are prepared for this first meeting. You know what they say about first impressions?

I highly recommend that your obtain informed advice on all of these aspects of meeting with potential indigenous partners. It can be the difference between a smooth and progressive relationship, and one that gets off on the wrong foot.

Handshake – Offer a handshake – but not too firm. Each handshake is different from person to person. Even try a two-handed handshake.

Using our Indigenous Language – Learn a few words such as “Greetings” and “Thank you”. When you say these words, make an effort to say them correctly and genuinely mean them. Our language is very important and serious to us. It’s not to be taken light-heartedly or to think of it as a joke. Remember, that there are many indigenous languages. Find out the language and customary greetings of the specific community you are dealing with. If you attempt to speak Anishinaabemowin in Oneida country, I’m not responsible for the aftermath. Here’s an example of very basic Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe/Ojibway people. I’ve even provided some pronunciations in parentheses.

– greetings: ahnee (aw-NEE)
– greetings with a handshake: boozhoo (boh-ZHOH)
– thank you: miigwetch (MEE-gwetch)
– my friends: Niijii (nee-JEE)

Try to learn and use the indigenous language proper names for communities. Don’t just rely on the old English names, Indian Act registry names or former names for communities. Here is where you will need lots of advice and practice.

Use Proper Terminology – Learn and use proper terminology when referring to indigenous people. Make sure you are using proper titles, as well as specific, proper names for communities and our Nations. For example, I am Anishinaabe. I’m not Aboriginal. Nor am I a “First Nations”. These are collective and impersonal terms that have a specific context. I can write pages about collective indigenous terminology, their use, context and appropriateness. But basically, be as specific as you can with your proper nouns. Inappropriate use of collective nouns when referring to specific people, community or nations can be seen as offensive or uneducated. We are Anishinaabe, Cree, Mohawk, Oneida, Algonquin, etc. By the way, not everyone is “Chief” even if George Armstrong is in the room.

Traditional Protocols – In your opening remarks, begin by acknowledging traditional territory, sacred items, Elders present and the opening prayer. Learn about these protocols. Demonstrating interests and knowledge of our culture will go a long way. Especially with our Elders. Remember, this step requires knowing which traditional territory you are on. (Hint: refer to the Treaty area, or the nation of the community you are meeting with)

Be Guided By Values – Indigenous people are thoroughly guided by our community, our culture, our elders and our teachings. This is part of something I refer to as a “value-based approach”. Meet us halfway and make an attempt to reciprocate. Share with your engagement partner your values. What shared values do you have with your negotiation partner. In your opening greetings, try speaking from the heart about respect, trust or even kindness.

Be a Person – The last thing indigenous people want to deal with is an impersonal, corporate “suit”. Reading exclusively from your notes, or showing disinterest in the discussion will do you a disservice. You are better to earn the respect of the people you deal with by letting your guard down and showing your humanity. Be certain to acknowledge any mistakes or missteps. Do spend some time with your negotiation partner and get to know them as a person.

Gift Exchange – Always be prepared to exchange a gift with your potential new partner. Bring something meaningful and appropriate. Avoid anything stereotypical or gaudy that you picked up in the airport gift shop. This may take some research and forethought. Now, for every subsequent visit or significant occasion (signing of agreements, cutting of ribbons, etc.), you should always be prepared for a gift exchange. Always have a gift, and a gift back and a card ready at a moment’s notice.

Listening – Resist the urge to respond to everything that is said to you.  I know this will go against all your type-A instincts, and your tendency to be the centre of attention.  But be patient and use active listening. You need not respond to every word of criticism or frustration at risk of sounding disrespectful and defensive. Take the time to listen to everything that is said to you by leadership, Elders and community members that may be in attendance.

Commitment to the Relationship – A relationship and trust will not be built on one meeting. It will take time, patience and respect in order to establish a true, mutually-beneficial partnership.

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