Feedback Careers

How to Talk Tribal

September 22, 2023

How to Talk Tribal

By M.K. Youngblood, safety manager and tribal liaison, ACRT Pacific

Interacting with tribal nations can be very daunting for companies, especially if there are projects on or near tribal lands. One thing to be aware of is that federally recognized tribes are domestic sovereign nations with a unique status in the United States, with numerous laws to protect them. Many vegetation management companies work as contractors to major utility companies which have power lines that run through these lands that lead to thinning projects and fuels reduction programs such as defined scope, enhanced vegetation management, or even lump sum. The issues that may arise can be mitigated by engaging these Tribes in a good way. The term “good way” means that your company is engaging in business practices that are considerate of the tribe’s sovereignty, culture, and history. This includes operating in accordance with local, state, tribal, and federal laws, such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and other Tribal laws specific to each Tribe. Many tribes have their own tribe-specific laws that deal with cultural and natural resources.

Sometimes engaging with tribes can be unnecessarily arduous because people attempting to outreach do not have a good understanding of the social, legal, and political context of American Indian tribes in general and the particular tribe involved. Whether you are employed by an energy company, vegetation management company, developer, regional authority, or other entity, chances are there is a tribal group near you that might be impacted by your activities or have the potential to impact your work. Proactive steps to understand tribal perspectives and issues are essential for making these relationships productive. There are some considerations that can be made prior to starting work in these areas that will lend to better outcomes for all involved.

Utilize a tribal liaison. This position within a company can provide measurable benefits in relation to lawsuits, time lost, negative publicity, and more. This person should be of indigenous descent preferably from a local tribe. The cultural connection here is immeasurable. The tribal liaison (TL) will be the intermediary between the tribe and your company for all issues pertaining to business with their current and ancestral homelands.

Contact the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. The tribal liaison should be reaching out to the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) whenever projects fall within the boundaries of the local tribes. Doing so prior to any work being done is a step in the good way process. The THPO can advise the TL of sensitive areas within the scope of the work area so that steps can be taken to mitigate any potential damage to the tribe’s resources. Remember, each tribe is different so do not generalize every tribe. While federally recognized tribes have a special status in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act review processes, don’t forget about state-recognized tribes. It is important to engage with them early and often to develop relationships and surface any concerns about your project.

Engage the decision-makers. With every tribe being different, the chain of command will also be unique. Some tribes have a “chief” and a tribal council, while some may be run more like a Fortune 500 company with a board of directors and a chief operating officer (CEO) or president. Do the research and find out ahead of time how the tribe is organized. Making a faux pas on this can have disastrous effects. When you engage with the decision makers do so in a respectful manner, another step in the good way process. Treat tribal leadership the same way you would treat the President of the United States or the CEO of a major corporation. It is very important to demonstrate respect for their role in their tribal nation, in addition to their role in the process and the value they bring to the table.

Understand tribal areas of concern are ever-changing. Just because a tribe did not get involved in a project prior in the same area does not mean that their priorities could not change, the tribe can become involved at any time on any project, and understanding this is paramount when looking at current and ancestral tribal areas. Remember, all of the United States is ancestral tribal land. Just because failed treaties and forced migrations pushed tribes around, it does not alleviate the fact that their ancestors walked the land.

Gifts can be a double-edged sword. If the company wants to give the tribe a gift at the first meeting, research should be done to see what is appropriate. Traditional gifts such as cedar, sweetgrass, tobacco, and sage are always a safe bet. Stay away from bottles of alcohol — this would be highly insensitive due to some tribes dealing with astronomically high rates of alcohol and or drug abuse. One of the ways to connect is to learn the culture of the tribes with whom you are dealing and find something unique about them that shows consideration and respect.

Listening is critical. Be prepared to talk with the tribe and engage in meaningful dialogue about their thoughts, issues, and concerns with the project. Perhaps the most important part of talking to a tribal leader is what seems to be small talk, and most likely dominates your first interaction with a tribe member. They are not more interested in your position than in knowing who you are and understanding your motives.

Don’t forget about training. Key leaders of the company should also be trained to build constructive relationships with Native American tribes, including the culture, protocol, treaty rights, and worldviews of the Native American tribes affected by your business. Often the tribes themselves help with such training. This will allow the company to better understand why Native American tribes are concerned and improve internal communication between designated liaisons and others within the company.

This article was originally published in the 2023 September/October UAA Newsline.

ACRT Staff

ACRT is the largest independent utility consulting company in the U.S. and empowers utilities to proactively manage vegetation across their entire rights-of-way. We consistently stay on top of and share relevant industry content with our employees and customers around the country.