Each Native American experiences his or her cultural connection in a unique way. An individual's personal, tribal and family history determines cultural identity and practices, which may change throughout life.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the federal government, adoption agencies, state child welfare programs, and churches adopted out thousands of American Indian children to non-American Indian families. The Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978 ending this practice. Many American Indian children were raised with little awareness or knowledge of their traditional culture. They may now be seeking a connection with their homelands, traditional culture, and unidentified relatives.
Age is a cultural identity consideration. Elders may be very traditional, while younger people may be either multicultural or non-traditional. In many communities, leaders and elders worry about the loss of the use of the traditional language among children and young adults. Still, in other communities, young people eagerly practice traditional language and other cultural traditions, inspiring older generations who may have felt shame in their identity growing up as American Indians.
Historical trauma and grief events, such as boarding schools or adoption outside of the tribe, may play a dramatic role in shaping attitudes, senses of identity, and levels of trust.
Role of Veterans and Elders
Elders play a significant role in tribal communities. The experience and wisdom gained throughout their lifetimes, along with their historical knowledge of the community, are valuable in decision-making processes.
It is customary in many tribal communities to show respect by allowing elders to speak first, by not interrupting, and by allowing time for others to express opinions and thoughts. In group settings, people often ask the elders' permission to speak publicly or will first defer to an elder to offer an answer. Elders often offer advice in indirect ways such as storytelling.
In social settings where food is served, elders are generally served first and men are served second by the women. It is disrespectful to argue openly or to disagree with an elder.
American Indian communities historically have high rates of enlistment into military service. Often, both the veteran and the community display pride for service in the military.
Veterans also receive special respect, similar to that of elders, for accepting the role of protector and for their personal sacrifice. American Indian community members recognize publicly the service of the veteran in formal and informal settings.
American Indian veterans are honored at ceremonies and pow-wows, and through songs and dances. The veterans and their families are shown respect by public acknowledgment and inclusion in public events.
The American Indian community’s view of uniformed service members deployed to an American Indian community in times of crisis or disaster (such as the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps or National Guard) will vary greatly. There may be respect for the uniform similar to that shown to a veteran, but there may also be feelings of distrust related to the U.S. government’s and the military’s historic role and presence in American Indian communities.
Self-Awareness and Etiquette for Service Providers:
If you are not a member of the American Indian community, examine your own belief system about American Indians prior to making contact with a community. Consider your understanding and awareness of social issues, such as mental health stigma, poverty, teen suicide, and drug or alcohol use among American Indian tribes.
Keep in mind that you are being observed at all times, so avoid making assumptions. Be conscious that you are laying the groundwork for others to follow.
Adapt your tone of voice, volume, and rate of speech patterns to that of local community members to fit their manner of communication style.
Preferred body language, posture, and the concept of personal space depend on community norms and the nature of the personal relationship in an American Indian community. Observe others and allow them to create the space and initiate or ask for any physical contact.
If community members tease you, understand that this may indicate rapport building and may be a form of guidance or an indirect way of correcting inappropriate behavior. You will be more easily accepted and forgiven for mistakes if you can learn to laugh at yourself and listen to lessons offered through humor.
Living accommodations and local resources will vary in each community. Remember that you are a guest. Observe and ask questions humbly when necessary.
Rapport and trust do not come easily in a limited amount of time. However, don’t be surprised if community members speak to you about highly charged issues (e.g., sexual abuse, suicide), as you may be perceived as an objective expert.
Issues around gender roles can vary significantly in American Indian communities. Males and females typically have very distinct social rules for behavior in everyday interactions and ceremonies. As a service provider, be aware of the common behaviors relating to gender issues, such as eye contact, style of dress, physical touch, personal space, decision-making, and the influence of male or female elders.
To demonstrate respect for the culture and observing local customs, carefully observe and seek guidance from a community member on appropriate gender-specific behavior.
Etiquette Do's for Service Providers
- Learn how the community refers to itself as a group of people (for example, the tribal name).
- Be honest and clear about your role and expectations and be willing to adapt to meet the needs of the community. Show respect by being open to other ways of thinking and behaving.
- Listen and observe more than you speak. Learn to be comfortable with silence or long pauses in conversation by observing community members’ typical length of time between turns at talking.
- Casual conversation is important to establish rapport, so be genuine, and use self-disclosure (for example, tell where you are from, general information about your children or spouse, and personal interests).
- Avoid jargon. American Indian community members may nod their heads politely, but not understand what you are saying.
- It is acceptable to admit limited knowledge of American Indian cultures and to invite people to educate you about specific cultural protocols in their community.
- If you are visiting the home of an American Indian family, they may offer you a beverage and/or food, and it is important to accept it as a sign of respect.
- Explain what you are writing when making clinical documentation or charting in the presence of the individual and family.
- During formal interviews, it may be best to offer general invitations to speak, then remain quiet, sit back, and listen. Allow the person to tell his or her story before engaging in a specific line of questioning.
- Be open to allow things to proceed according to the idea that "things happen when they are supposed to happen."
- Respect confidentiality and the right of the tribe to control information, data, and public information about services provided to the tribe.
Etiquette Don’ts for Service Providers
- Avoid stereotyping based on looks, language, dress, and other outward appearances.
- Avoid intrusive questions early in conversation.
- Do not interrupt others during conversation or interject during pauses or long silences.
- Do not stand too close to others and/or talk too loud or fast.
- Be careful not to impose your personal values, morals, or beliefs.
- Be careful about telling stories of distant American Indian relatives in your genealogy as an attempt to establish rapport unless you have maintained a connection with that community.
- Be careful about pointing with your finger, many tribes interpret pointing as rude behavior.
- Avoid frequently looking at your watch and do not rush things.
- Avoid pressing all family members to participate in a formal interview.
- During a formal interview, if the person you are working with begins to cry, support the crying without asking further questions until he or she is composed and ready to speak.
Do not touch sacred items, such as medicine bags, other ceremonial items, hair, jewelry, and other personal or cultural things.
- Do not take pictures without permission.
- NEVER use any information gained by working in the community for personal presentations, case studies, research, and so on, without the expressed written consent of the tribal government.