Building Trust: Lessons on Collaborating with Indigenous Communities

In my role as the Director of Events at the University of Manitoba, I had the honour of working closely with the local Indigenous community to organize a wide range of events. These events included ceremonial gatherings, conferences, and large-scale projects like the opening of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Throughout these projects, I collaborated with Elders and Knowledge Keepers, engaging in discussions about trust, understanding, and navigating cultural barriers. As a result, I developed a deep appreciation for indigenous traditions and sacred values and compiled a valuable knowledge bank that can support other event planners looking to collaborate with Indigenous communities. I would like to share some tips for building successful and respectful partnerships.

  1. Firstly, event planners should be mindful of cultural practices and beliefs and show respect for the traditions and heritage of the community. Before embarking on the planning process, research the community’s history, values, and customs, and be prepared to ask questions and learn more. Avoid making assumptions or relying on stereotypes, and demonstrate a genuine interest in the community’s culture and way of life. Remember that each indigenous community is unique and has its distinct customs and traditions, so approach each project with an open mind and a willingness to learn.
  2. It is important for event planners to understand that asking Indigenous community members to participate in their events requires sensitivity and respect. Ceremonial acts like honour songs and blessings are not performances but deeply meaningful and sacred traditions that should be approached with care and reverence. Asking an Elder, Knowledge Keeper, or Drummer to participate in an event should be treated differently than a business transaction. Instead, it should be done to show respect for their culture and honour their traditions. This could involve passing tobacco and asking for their consideration or reaching out through a community leader or organization. It is important to remember that these traditions have been passed down through generations and are considered an integral part of a culture. Event planners must approach these sacred practices with the appropriate level of respect and sensitivity and be prepared to adjust their plans if necessary to honour the community’s wishes.
  3. Effective communication is the bedrock of any successful collaboration, especially when working with Indigenous communities. Clear and transparent communication is not just a tool; it’s a bridge that helps build trust and understanding between event planners and the community. Take the time to listen and understand the community’s perspective and communicate the event’s goals and objectives. Avoid using jargon that may be unfamiliar, and use inclusive language that respects cultural diversity. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and foster a sense of mutual respect and understanding.
  4. Indigenous communities often have sacred sites that hold cultural and spiritual significance. Event planners must be aware of these sites and refrain from disturbing them, even if it means changing or adapting their plans. This could involve avoiding using certain areas or ensuring that certain activities do not occur near these sites. It is important to involve Indigenous community members in the planning process and seek their guidance on respecting their sacred sites.
  5. Involve community members in the planning and incorporate their ideas and input into the event. This not only helps to ensure that cultural traditions and customs are respected but also helps to build stronger relationships. 
  6. Many Indigenous communities face significant economic challenges and are marginalized. Make a conscious effort to ensure the community benefits economically from the event. For example, local workers and businesses can be hired to support the event and provide fair compensation for their contributions. Consider working with local organizations and community leaders to identify ways to maximize the event’s economic impact.
  7. Indigenous communities often have a deep connection to the land and a strong commitment to environmental sustainability. Planners should minimize the event’s environmental impact and work in partnership with the community to preserve the local ecosystem.

Finally, I recommend planners take the time to understand the “why” behind the “how” of cultural traditions and ceremonial practices. Ultimately, the key to planning successful events for Indigenous communities is to approach the process with humility, respect, and a willingness to learn. By taking the time to understand the cultural traditions and practices of the community, involving members of the community in the planning process, and ensuring that economic benefits are shared with the community, event planners can help to create meaningful and impactful events that honour and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Indigenous communities.