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How to Improve Business Relationships with Native Americans

Before traveling to any foreign country, it is prudent to learn how that country’s culture and business practices differ from your own. The same is true when you seek to establish a business relationship with a Native American tribe. There are 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona and each one operates like its own country. Each has its own tribal government structure, sets its own tax policies, and has its own development process. In order to gain cultural competence, you must first be aware of your own world view and how that may affect your ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with Native people. Understanding common customs and business routines can help you avoid embarrassment and focus on building successful relationships.

Here are five of the most common qualities that are valued by Native people and therefore relevant to your business interactions.

  1. Relationships come first; then business. Laying a foundation for relationships begins with an understanding of history, trust, respect, honor, and tribal sovereignty. A tribe won’t automatically teach you about these things, but you can take the initiative to seek out the information from organizations like the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona in Tucson; the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University; or the Center for American Indian Economic Development at Northern Arizona University.
  2. Networking with other professionals who have done work with a tribe is another way to learn about customs and practices particular to a certain tribe. Such affiliation can also help build trust for your relationship.
  3. Time is relative to circumstances. Many Native Americans tend to see time on a continuum of the past, present, and future. This means much can be gained by watching, listening, waiting, and then acting when the time is right. It’s more about respecting the timeliness of an action rather than doing something by a certain time on the clock or the calendar.
  4. Stories are integral to communication. Native Americans often exchange information and convey beliefs through storytelling. Their communication style is greatly affected by their values of humility, respect for elders, and concern for group harmony.
  5. Negotiations are an opportunity for consensus-building. Dialogue should be approached with patience, politeness and modesty. Native Americans tend to be more collaborative and less confrontational than other Americans. Long silences during discussions are typically occasions for tribal members to fully consider the options before them.
  6. Respect personal space. Even though there are varying expectations, some tribal members greatly value keeping a distance of 2-1/2 to 3 feet of personal space between them and others. Soft talk, gentle handshakes, minimal eye contact–especially with elders–and little facial display of emotion are also appreciated among many American Indians.

These are just a few of the cultural differences that may be applicable to interactions with the tribe you want to approach. However, even if you have worked with one tribe before, you only have experience with one tribe. Do not assume that the culture will be the same with another.

When Phil Entz, a Development Management Consultant for UrbanTech Ltd., began working with the Ak-Chin Indian Community nearly 20 years ago, he found the Community to be “one of the most welcoming.” Though Entz had worked with other tribes outside the state and went on to work with a number of other Arizona tribes, his experience was often distinctly different. “I learned very quickly that Ak-Chin is extremely proactive in expanded investments in economic development, partnering, marketing, and accelerated economic growth,” said Entz. “That’s not just different than other tribes; it’s different than most municipalities including cities, counties, and entire regions.”

Learning about foreign cultures can be fun and rewarding, and it’s no different when gaining insight into American Indian tribes. Our approach may be different, but our desire for mutual success is the same.