Some Dos and Don'ts of Tribal Partnerships  Thumbnail Image

Some Dos and Don'ts of Tribal Partnerships

There are more than 7 million Americans who are members of either an American Indian or Alaska Native tribe. These members, like countless other Americans across the country, cannot ethically – or indeed legally – be overlooked in states’ efforts to expand access to affordable, quality Internet.

During a recent appearance on Ask Me Anything, Adam Geisler, president and chief operating officer of Tribal Ready and a member of the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians, explained that his professional career has placed him at the intersection of Tribes and the federal government, including at the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) and U.S. Department of Commerce.

“We see ourselves as members of our traditional homelands, peoples, and nations but we’re also absolutely Americans and care about the success of this country, our neighbors and people around us,” Geisler said. “It’s important to not lose sight that Native American history is not a one-size-fits all and, as a result, the way that folks are seen by the federal government is different because of that region, history, interactions and that tribe’s past.”

Geisler offered some valuable insights for partnering with Tribes that have been compiled into simple do’s and don’ts of building tribal partnerships.

Do: Remember that if you’ve met one tribe, you’ve only met one tribe

Native Americans are not a monolith. There’s a wide array of differences among Tribes, much like among U.S. states, that encompass areas, such as politics, culture, socioeconomic status and interactions with non-Native organizations.

Everyone from California, for instance, will have their own unique experience of being a Californian. A person from Northern or Central California will have a different experience than someone who lives in Southern California.

On a more granular level, this would mean that someone from the San Fernando Valley would have a different experience from someone from San Diego. All of these people and their experiences are meanwhile uniquely Californian.

Don’t: Attempt to over-relate or make assumptions

If you have to ask, it’s not appropriate to ask if they’re familiar with the mythical Native ancestor that someone swore you had and don’t try to compare your family’s origin story.

Don’t assume that because one tribe operates in a certain manner that others will do the same.

Be normal and keep the focus on what’s important: getting families and communities connected to broadband.

Do: Break bread and ask plenty of questions about a tribe’s history and background

Whatever you do, don’t just start by jumping straight into work. Get to know the person on the other side of the table as a person, share a meal, ask about their families and what they’re passionate about.

A great starting point can be the simple question, such as: What do you refer to yourselves as? Some communities prefer Native, Tribal, Native American, Indian or something entirely different. It will vary by each group, but all will appreciate your curiosity and respect by asking.

Tribes are often eager to share about their unique culture, history and background. This commonly takes place early in the conversation as these discussions can provide crucial context for both parties seeking an effective understanding and partnership.

Joe Valandra, CEO of Tribal Ready, is known to spend a considerable amount of time providing historical background and answering questions about his tribe, Sicangua Lakota, and broader Native history.

Don’t: Ask about their federal or state recognition status

At the time of writing this article, there are 574 federally-recognized Tribes, but this number is expected to grow. Tribes, nonetheless, operate under tribal sovereignty, or the ability to govern people, land and processes in a manner that best serves their nations and tribal governments.

"The list of federally recognized Tribes continues to grow as time, policy and politics evolves on this issue,” Geisler said. “Don’t ask if they’re federally or state recognized because there’s nuances between each tribe’s relationship to the federal government varying by numerous factors, including treaty rights and other past agreements.”

Do: Recognize the importance of tribal and data sovereignty and challenges faced by Native communities

Tribes are considered sovereign nations within the borders of the United States and, as a result, possess the right to govern their communities and data. Both of these issues remain incredibly important to Tribes after years of both of these concepts being neglected by the U.S. federal government throughout history.

“Tribal Ready is helping Tribes evaluate those solutions, manage data and ensure that people aren’t monetizing or taking info away from these communities without their knowledge, permission or, in many instances, compensation,” Geisler said.

Tribes, much like states and local communities, face similar challenges with deploying broadband whether it’s lack of accurate data or decades of underinvestment. Much like in other communities across the United States, many tribal leaders were thrust into the sector as their communities lacked adequate internet speeds to access educational and healthcare opportunities online.

Geisler notes that Tribes are considering numerous approaches to close their digital divide. “Some want to fully own, build and operate ISPs, others want to look for someone other than their Tier One providers and are willing to build and others want to continue to work with their Tier One and subsidize, build and pay for the service,” Geisler said.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that this article should be the beginning of your journey exploring tribal partnerships, not the end, and as such, aims to reach the broad points of this topic. 

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