Tips for Working With Tribes


One of the goals for the November Heritage Huddle, organized by James Toledo of the Division of Indian Affairs, was finding ways to help the eight sovereign tribes of Utah. At the end of his speech, Darren Parry named a half-dozen things everyone can do to improve their relationships with tribes and start improving life on the reservation and for American Indians generally.

The tips are listed below along with some of his insights. I’ve also added my own thoughts, based on personal experiences and conversations with tribal members. If you have ideas or observations you would like to add, please do so in the comments.

  1. Develop a mutual trust with tribes: Any project with a tribe will be more effective if there’s a trust established first. “We need to get to know you, we need to trust you, before we can learn from you,” Parry said. “As we build that trust, we will open our minds to all you have to offer.”
    Begin by learning about the eight tribes in Utah , including similarities and differences. (The Natural History Museum of Utah has a great exhibit). If you get a chance to meet with tribal leaders or members, prepare to listen to their concerns before suggesting solutions to problems you perceive. It may take multiple conversations before you feel like you reach a productive point, but recognize this is part of the trust building process.
  2. Educate tribes about opportunities: “You have outreach programs and resources that, many times, we don’t even know exist,” Parry said. That’s not a new problem for this department, but the tribes present a unique challenge because they operate as sovereign nations that deal primarily with federal agencies. But Parry is right: we have programs and resources that can help tribes if creatively applied, especially in partnership with state and federal agencies.
  3. Broaden the native view of the world (in a positive way): Building trust will also help bring programs to reservations, in particular, that can prove beneficial to members. This could be through literacy, cultural exchanges, historical preservation, and other programs we offer.
  4. Teach them to preserve their culture: As a department, we have good programs for folk arts and historical archiving for Native Americans. This is an important start, but even more important is helping the tribes do this independently. A concern that ran throughout Parry’s speech was the idea that “victors write history.” Giving tribes the ability to write their own history alleviates at least some of that concern.
  5. Support Innovation: Parry used the example of the LDS Church providing a grant to his tribe digitize tribal records, photos, and stories. Digitization, in fact, can play a big role in preserving native cultures. After all, much of the history is preserved through oral traditions that can be lost as generations progress.
  6. Go to the tribes: Parry suggested getting on the tribal council agendas, even if it’s just to tell them about potential opportunities. Doing so will help build that trust, but because it is a more formal setting, it can also be a good way to jump start conversations about programs and grants. It also helps them to put a face to the generally faceless state bureaucrat.
    In my experience, this is the most important tip — and also the area where many state agencies fail. A constant complaint I hear from tribal leaders (and others) is that they always have to come to the state, to Salt Lake, to the Capitol. If more of us took the time — which can be a day or more in round-trip driving — to visit tribes, we would see dividends.

Note: Banner image is of Cyrus Napper and Shoshone Indians. Courtesy the State History digital archives.