No one likes to be an after thought. I’ve been invited to events where organizers actually said to me two days before an event…”So sorry! We didn’t even think to include an Indigenous speaker to do an opening until just now”. I’m glad they thought to do so in the first place…it’s not always nice to know you’re cultural participation was an afterthought. In any case, I look at these instances as an opportunity for “teachable moments”.
I don’t speak for all Indigenous peoples, and I am speaking from an Anishinawbe perspective. These tips are not meant to be Pan-Indigenous tips, but they may prove useful to organizers.
As a community organizer myself, I can understand how much responsibility comes with organizing events. It can be stressful, hectic, and full of surprises. In this age of Post-colonial, decolonizing, and reconciliational beginnings, I’ve come up with a list of handy tips for event planners who wish to include an Indigenous element in their events.
1. Start reaching out early. Relationship building is what many Indigenous communities are about. At the very first meeting to plan an event, even if it is a year in advance, start thinking about where to go to find an Indigenous Elder or knowledge-keeper to include and reach out to the local community.
2. Learn the basics. There are certain respectful ways to ask for ceremony. Reaching out early will help you to learn about using tobacco as a respectful way to request something of an Elder. Not all communities observe this method, find out from your local community some of the cultural norms. Openings are considered ceremony. The openings will vary from Elder to elder, and the ceremony will change depending on the purpose of the gathering. To get the most connection for your event, try to have an open mind, asking an Elder early on in the planning will allow for changes to the itinerary, for example, a multi-day event may require an opening and closing each day, or to allow time for smudging (a spiritual cleansing ceremony) you may want to plan extra ventilation, give notice to scent sensitive individuals that smudging will occur, or ask the fire wardens of the building that the event will be held in, to shut off the smoke alarms at the time that smudging will occur. There may be other considerations you haven’t thought of, including an Elder or knowledge-keeper early on will head off these issues.
3. Working with Elders. Elders, knowledge-keepers, and drummers have different responsibilities. Sometimes you can find all of these elements in one individual, but organizers are encouraged to learn about the types of ceremonies they are asking for, who would be most suitable for such an event, and how long they will be asked to attend. Our Elders are super important in our communities. Many, but not all are very Elderly. Inviting a 75-80year old for an opening that is allotted 5 minutes is not necessarily gaining the full benefit of the Elder’s time and expertise. Especially if they have to travel an hour to get there and back from their homes. Or if they need a helper to do the work they do. Historically, individuals from communities asking for the expertise of a neighbouring community would send a couple of people to replace that individual while they are gone, simply due to the absence of expertise and to help out the Elder’s family while s/he are away.
4. Don’t panic if they don’t respond to every call, text, or email. Our Elders are very busy. They have many commitments in the community, but are often good on their word. Again, this depends on the individual, but calling or emailing multiple times because of your own worry about the event is not helpful. If they agreed to be there at a certain time or place, they will be in attendance. If you are worried, and you have built in time to relationship build, they will be attending planning meetings, or have offered to be available by telephone, and you can speak with them about any anxiety you are feeling over the event, or stress. This is a good use of their time and expertise.
5. A way of life. Elders live the teachings. They are the embodiment of what our teachings represent, they teach us about living authentic lives. While for your organizations, hosting a ceremony and including an Elder, or knowledge-keeper to provide an opening may be a novel idea, or new to you and your organization. To the Elder, it is likely the third or fourth among many that week, even at the beginning of the week. Elders hold vast knowledge about our cultures, but also they hold much experience about being a human being. Human beings are social beings. Everyone loves to be included in dialogue, events, and activities that provide the opportunity to gather, celebrate, and learn from one another. Elders are people too. Sometimes things happen and the plan changes. Go with the flow…you may have a plan B or C. At any rate what occurs is exactly as it is meant to happen.
In this time of renewed relationships and rebuilding of trust and integrity. Land acknowledgements, political correctness, and fear of offending Indigenous people is rampant.
Event planners seem to have a much more demanding role than previous organizers. I hope these tips will be helpful for those of you out there who are starting to plan, or brainstorming an upcoming event. Personally, I have started carrying around an extra pouch of tobacco to do a tobacco teaching before an event, and offer it to the organizers so they can offer it back to me.
It is nice to attend an event where the planners know what to do, and present their tobacco without even being given the teaching first. I think these exchanges are what our ancestors had in mind way back when they made the treaties. All of us growing stronger together, with each other, not despite the other.
Post a comment below, or feel free to respond and ask questions that rise. Like I said, I don’t speak for anyone else but me, though I do have a lot of experience working in the community, and working with Elders and may be of some help. So ask away