Section 3: Engaging with Indigenous Communities

Respecting Protocols

You may have heard the term protocol in relation to working with Indigenous people. The term protocol includes many things, but overall it refers to ways of interacting with Indigenous people in a manner that respects traditional ways of being. Protocols are not just “manners” or “rules” – they are a representation of a culture’s deeply held ethical system. They also have highly practical applications that may have arisen in a pre-contact context but still apply today. Protocols differ vastly from one Indigenous culture or community to another, and they can be highly complex and multi-layered. Coming to understand and practice protocols appropriately is a lifelong learning process even for Indigenous people growing up within their culture. Following protocols is a significant sign of respect and awareness. It shows that you are taking the time to learn about Indigenous cultures and are challenging the often unconscious bias that everyone should interact in the way that mainstream settler culture dictates. Through following protocols, you can build stronger relationships with Indigenous communities and learn about different ways of interacting.

As a non-Indigenous person who is just learning about protocol, there are a few simple things you can do that are generally common to Indigenous cultures. These include:

  • Acknowledging the traditional lands on which you are situated. If you do not know the area, ask someone who knows. Acknowledging the traditional lands is generally done at the beginning of a meeting or event by an Indigenous person local to the area, an Elder, or by the event’s host or facilitator. In terms of curriculum development, this practice can also be used in the classroom and taught to students. It is important to note that unless you are Indigenous to that area, you should not “welcome” people to the area – only someone who is originally from the location can do that. Acknowledgement, on the other hand, is a good thing for anyone to do. See Appendix E for tips on how to acknowledge the traditional lands.

Note: If you are not using the online version of the Curriculum Developers Guide, you can find this document in Appendix E.

  • Always introduce yourself at the beginning of a meeting. An introduction should include who you are and where you come from, which means your family’s cultural and geographical background prior to being a settler in North America, (i.e. Where is your family indigenous to?) Do not say you are from Canada or the United States. You may also include who your parents and grandparents are and where they are from. This allows a deeper understanding of your family lineage and situates you in relation to the people you are interacting with.

Beyond these practices, you should be ready to engage in a lifelong learning process. As protocols vary widely between and even within Indigenous cultures, they are not something you can learn about by taking a course or reading a list. They are learned through relationships. Therefore, it is important to find people who you trust to support you as you learn about protocols. There may be people at your university who can support this – for example, staff an office of Indigenous affairs or a colleague who has established strong, positive relationships with Indigenous partners. You will need to ask questions and be prepared to make mistakes and apologize if needed. It may not always be smooth, but with practice your knowledge will grow.


Activity 1: Indigenous Protocols

Time: 25 min

Type: Individual

Watch the following two videos:

  • Indigenous Arts Protocol video: This video relates to the topic of cultural appropriation in the arts, but it includes an in-depth discussion of the meaning and application of protocols.
  • Bradley Dick TedX Talk video: In this video, pay close attention to how Bradley Dick (Lekwungen First Nation) follows traditional protocols, explains his own learning process, and reflects on the meaning and importance of those protocols.

Activity 2: Finding Support

Time: Ongoing

Type: Group

Identify and introduce yourself (in person) to one or two people at your institution who you can go to for questions about protocols (for example, a staff member at the office of Indigenous affairs or Elders in residence).



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Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers Copyright © 2018 by Asma-na-hi Antoine; Rachel Mason; Roberta Mason; Sophia Palahicky; and Carmen Rodriguez de France is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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