Increasing Your IQ (Your Indigenous Quotient)

Ways to improve your relationships with Indigenous individuals, communities and governments.

Communication Cues

There is a difference between speaking and having something to say. Indigenous peoples may be more comfortable with silence than you are. It’s OK to wait a bit until they’re ready to talk. And be aware that gestures, facial expressions and other subtle, non-verbal forms of communication are very much part of the way that many Indigenous peoples interact. For example, Inuit will often signal agreement by raising their eyebrows and disagree by wrinkling their noses. Some First Nation individuals may signal direction by pointing with their lips rather than pointing with their fingers or seem awkward when offered a firm handshake. Understanding body language is important. You will also want to have a sense of humour. Indigenous peoples like to laugh, joke and tease. Even though our colonial history is dark and traumatizing, many Indigenous peoples use humour as a way to teach important truths. If they laugh at you or with you, it just may mean that you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously. And if they tease you, it probably means they like you.

Importance of Elders

Prior to contact with Europeans, it was the Elders who took the children and taught them while the parents were busy with the practical necessities of life. Elders are revered and honoured for their wisdom and knowledge. To show respect, some are taught not to look Elders directly in the eye. It is important to listen and not interrupt when Elders tell stories and share knowledge. Some have been taught that it is not polite to ask too many questions; simply listen, observe, imitate and think about what you’ve learned.

Listening and Consensus-building

The reason why many Indigenous groups often meet in a circle is to demonstrate that everyone’s voice is important and everyone gets a chance to speak. Several nations use a talking stick, a physical item that gives one person at a time the right to be heard without interruption. Everyone’s perspectives are considered, and all options are discussed. Most Indigenous nations traditionally made decisions by consensus. This requires more time and effort from all parties. You can see this in action in the consensus-based proceedings of the Nunavut and Nunatsiavut governments which are based on Inuit principles. You may find in your relationships with Indigenous communities that you have to allow for a lot more time so that they can come to their own internal agreements.

Community Protocols

Protocols are the customs and rules of the communities you work with. Some may have formal documents or processes to follow. In other communities, these protocols will be revealed once you are in a relationship with that community. Find out what kind of governance system is in the community. If it’s a First Nations community, do they have a hereditary chief system? Do they have an Indian Act chief and band council? Is there a traditional leadership council? It’s important to understand the leadership and authority structure.

Protocols cover things such as land acknowledgements, incorporation of insights provided by Elders, cultural requirements such as providing tobacco, or tea, fees and honoraria or other gifts. There might be a need for translation and interpretation in communities where people’s first language is not English. There could be detailed protocols related to engagement and to research. It’s important to research, ask and understand what each community’s protocols and processes are and then follow them.

You might also ask about books to read, websites to visit, people to talk to in order to find out more about particular items or materials. For example, with some First Nations, you may have seen a smudge or been given tobacco to share. You may see an eagle feather being used. Find out why the eagle feather is important. Or the significance of ribbon shirts, or the Métis sash, or the Inuit qulliq. You will likely be exposed to many different practices, and it’s important to have an attitude of humility and a willingness to learn and understand.

Community Capacity

The vast majority of First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada have populations of fewer than 1,000 people. Yet they’re under constant pressure from researchers, resource companies, governments, educational institutions and the media to respond, to engage, to be consulted.

Most communities struggle with the impacts of colonialism – substandard education and infrastructure, social issues and heavy administrative and reporting burdens. They may lack the capacity – or simply the people – to meet all of the demands placed on them. An Indian Act band councillor on a small reserve, for example, will be required to address federal issues, provincial or territorial issues, AND fulfill a role comparable to that of a town councillor as well. Amendments to the Indian Act and modern treaties add even more to the governance and management burden of a reserve, and Inuit across the North have created literally dozens of co-management and oversight bodies to implement various facets of their land claims agreements. Given all that, you’ll need to be patient and recognize that the Indigenous communities you’re working with are struggling with many priorities and limited capacity.

Relationships are Paramount

Is the relationship just about what you need from them? Do you know anything about the history, the cultures, the current realities of the people you meet with? Do you care about their well-being?

Relationships take time and effort and a willingness to listen on both sides. Understand the power dynamics at play, and work to see things from the perspective of the Indigenous peoples and communities that you are building this relationship with. Incorporate Indigenous ways of thinking and doing things into the mix.


Underlying all of this is respect. Consider what it means to be respectful as an individual, as a nation, as a corporation, as an organization. Is it respectful to name a sports team or use a mascot with a stereotypical image? To dress up as Indigenous peoples? Is it respectful to practise cultural appropriation, to ignore Indigenous inherent rights, or to deny Indigenous peoples the human rights afforded to all Canadians?

Given Canada’s disturbing colonial history and the failure of so many promises and commitments over the decades – ranging from the personal to the Parliamentary – how can you, your employer, and your government foster and demonstrate real respect for Indigenous partners, communities and individuals?