Module 4: Working With and Within Indigenous Communities

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Appreciate that each individual community has different governance structures and cultural protocols, reflecting subjective knowledge systems from each community and Nation.
  • Recognize the importance of fully collaborating with communities as equal partners in climate adaptation initiatives.
  • Determine the importance of collaborative interactions and relationship-based learning opportunities with Indigenous communities.
  • Describe the practice of Critical Self-Location and be able to determine your own personal location within your current professional practice.
  • Identify different ways in which you can commit to your own actions of decolonization in your work and personal lives.


At this point in the course, we have reviewed important issues pertaining to Indigenous leadership within climate mitigation and land-based knowledge. The purpose of this final module is to ignite a shift from merely consulting with Indigenous communities to creating a shared purpose together. Reaching back to Module 3, we have had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of braiding Indigenous and Western knowledge systems together towards systems of balance in how we not only conceive but also actualize our relations and practices to the Planet. This final module invites learners to deepen their own considerations within the realm of working with Indigenous communities within your own professional practice. It will present themes around culturally reflective collaborative work opportunities, decolonization of shared approaches, contemporary Indigenous governance and also developing our own critical self-location practice in our professional work.

Collaborative Shared Futures

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Module 3 challenges conceptions that allocate Western science as the only viable pathway towards climate solutions and sustainable environmental management. The module presents and upholds the significance of Indigenous traditional knowledge systems, acknowledging them as bodies of scientific knowledge themselves within the realm of climate mitigation. Through increased opportunities to weave or “braid” together different knowledge systems, learners are invited to consider fortified solutions based on shared expertise and relationships.

Within the context of Reconciliation in Canada, it is time for Canadians to challenge colonial legacies and centre Indigenous leadership, knowledge and reconciled relationships across diverse social, institutional and social spheres of life. Listening to what Indigenous communities have to contribute to a project and working together on equal footing is an act of reconciliation.

Listen to David Isaac talk about the notion of “Walking in Two Worlds”.

David Isaac

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David Isaac – Renewables and traditional worldviews – Transcript

Once we learn to value contributions of Indigenous worldviews, knowledge systems and community knowledge expertise, we can move authentically into relationships based on trust, respect and dignity for all. Collaboration requires all participants to enter into shared spaces with the room to actualize their full potential through meaningful shared contributions. This approach moves away from Canada’s historical tendency to patronize Indigenous community knowledge and make decisions on their behalf.

Additional Reading

“Environmentalism has failed. Over the past 50 years, environmentalists have succeeded in raising awareness, changing logging practices, stopping mega-dams and offshore drilling, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But… we failed to realize these battles reflect fundamentally different ways of seeing our place in the world. And it is our deep underlying worldview that determines the way we treat our surroundings.”

—David Suzuki, Full Article

We often hear from communities about the “saviour complex” that some non-Indigenous individuals and organizations possess, and how communities’ experiences with these professionals are not always positive. When individuals with that mindset approach communities – acting as if they have all the answers and are there solely for the benefit of the community – it is a real challenge for the community and often throws up barriers to being able to work together. Working with Indigenous communities needs to be a reciprocal interaction where all parties can learn from one another and what they bring to the relationship is considered with equal value.

Interviews with Coralee Miller and Chief Gordon Planes reflect on the theme of “Working with Professionals & Deep Listening”:

Coralee Miller

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Coralee Miller – Support on Climate Adaptation – Transcript

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – Working with professionals – Transcript

There is a real opportunity for a more cooperative model in working with Indigenous communities, as well as opportunities to bring funding and direct resources to communities so that they aren’t fully absorbed and used up by industry consultants. The emphasis here should be on creating opportunities for partnership, as well as creating appropriate opportunities for communities to not only lead but own the infrastructure projects that impact their territories.

Let’s Walk Together!

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Critical Self-Location: Lifetime of Learning

When and if invited to work within Indigenous community contexts, it is helpful to first and foremost determine who your community contact will be to begin asking questions about how to conduct your way in a culturally safe and reflective manner. One important first step to take, is to return to the practice of Critical Self-Location.

Critical Self-Location is a practice that invites individuals to consider their position and relationship to Indigenous lands and communities within the context of colonial histories, power and privilege. Each one of us comes into this work from different entry points, and it is encouraged for each of us to consider the ways in which we benefit from colonial histories along with the ways in which we are each uniquely positioned to move forward in a good way. Here are some helpful reflections questions to consider as you develop your own critical self-location:

  1. What are aspects of your identity that you consider important? (ex. Gender, culture, ancestry).
  2. What are some of the most significant relationships in your life? How do they define who you are and your values?
  3. What is your family’s history in the context of Canada?
  4. What is your relationship to the lands you and your family currently live on? How do you define your current relationship to Land? To water?
  5. In what ways have you and your family benefited from Colonialism? In what ways do you personally experience power and privilege in your life? (Here is a helpful resource and a more comprehensive toolkit if you have never considered this question).
  6. How do you define the concept of Accountability? In what ways can you exercise responsibility to Indigenous communities where you live?
  7. In what ways can you and your family begin the work of “decolonization” in your own home?

Engaging with Community

Before you begin working with Indigenous partners, it is important to prepare to meet with them by learning about the community or communities with which you’ll be working. Beyond learning the correct traditional names of the territories you may be working on, it is important to learn about local histories, cultural protocols, and any other background information that will better equip you to work respectively in their community. You learned in Module 1 that understanding the territory that you normally live or work on is very important, and this also applies to individual communities that you may be working with if they are located somewhere else.

Take a moment to listen to Chief Gordon Planes and Coralee Miller offer advice regarding visiting Indigenous communities for the first time:

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Chief Gordon Planes – Advice to professionals coming to community for first time – Trancript

Coralee Miller

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Coralee Miller – Advice to professionals new to community – Transcript

Start your preparation for working with a community with research on where the community territory is, what their Nation or language group is, and what they are currently doing in terms of climate adaptation. Here are some points to consider:

  • Learn the names of Traditional Territories, Nation names, and Languages spoken (Look up the communities on or other similar websites).
  • Ask your community contact if there are protocols in place, and if so, what protocol or gift you should prepare/bring when entering into the community (helpful to also consider “who should I ask permission to enter into their territory?” “Should we invite anyone to the meeting to open or close?” “are there any other cultural factors or protocol that I should consider when developing this plan?”)
  • Familiarize yourself with the Nation’s website, including governance structures, histories and ongoing cultural projects.
  • Learn about the histories between that specific community and the Canadian government.
  • Familiarize yourself with trauma-informed practice (if you work with individuals and families who have survived residential school systems).
  • Build a personal resource list (readings, videos, articles, courses) that you can access to support your ongoing learning and commitment to this work.
  • Ask your questions with the recognition that some of the work required to seek answers or to find answers is up to you.

Community Voices: Clyde & Elijah

Listen here to reflections about cultural differences and professional work in community contexts. The speakers discuss the importance of learning and the recognition of cultural differences when it comes to community offices closing due to funerals or other ceremonies. They speak about the different parallels of working to live versus living to work and how communities often may place different emphasis on what is important, or what really encompasses wealth. It is not always based on economic drivers or bottom line performance.

Clyde Tallio & Elijah Mecham

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Clyde Tallio & Elijah Mecham – Climate Change Concerns – Transcript

Indigenous Governance

Module 1 offers a background into Indigenous histories and contemporary governance structures. It is important to familiarize yourself about the difference between Band Councils and hereditary governance as it pertains to each individual community. It is important to become familiar with what governance structures exist in each community and how to engage with them appropriately. Since you now know that each Indigenous community is unique, you won’t be surprised to hear that each community may have its own structures and processes, and this can change from community to community.


Sharing the Framework Agreement experience: Chief Gordon Planes shares how T’Sou-ke First Nation’s Land Code facilitates their vision for safeguarding the environment and ensuring cultural health and food sustainability while providing an opportunity for future generations to thrive.

Building Better Relations

Indigenous communities have lived on their land since time immemorial and will continue to do so. It is this longevity and their everlasting relationship with the land that is so incredibly unique and unparalleled in most other situations. Indigenous communities have vital information on cumulative impacts of existing projects, and have lived experience when it comes to climate change and the climate adaptation of their specific territory. In contrast, it is not uncommon for non-Indigenous scientists or companies to move from area to area depending on the projects that they are working on. Because of this, it is important for non-Indigenous professionals to create and value long-standing relationships with Indigenous communities, not ones that are based on project interactions.

Understanding the community and culture in a deeper way also helps to understand the challenges they face around climate change and climate adaptation. When we gain an appreciation and understanding of how the people interact with the environment, it may start to bring a new perspective to what the challenges and potential solutions may be.

Coralee Miller

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Coralee Miller- Do the Work! Learning about First Nations Communities – Transcript

The spirit of relationship-building

When going into a community, your focus needs to be on respect and listening and learning. Be curious. Ask questions and ask for directions. These are all the elements of effective relationship-building, and this is the way to not only approach how to find out who the appropriate contacts are in each community but to really be able to listen well to what they have to contribute to your project.

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.

“It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted.

“This is you,” the master replied. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” – Suler (2013)

Balance: Chief Gordon Planes shares about the importance of Indigenous approaches to Land relations as it pertains to the value of balance:

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – Indigenous approaches to land management – balance – Transcript

When engaging with this work, it is important and helpful to return to the practice of critical self-location. Along with self-locating within social, economic and political backgrounds, it is also important to reflect upon other questions around what brings us to this work. Why am I here? What are my intentions in this work? What are my goals, visions and hopeful outcomes? How do I hope to conduct myself in these spaces? These questions among others help us determine the spirit of what brings us into opportunities of deepening relationships with Indigenous communities and knowledge holders.

Community Voices: Clyde & Elijah

Listen here to reflections about the importance of slow relationship building towards shared goals within collaborative work efforts.

Clyde Tallio & Elijah Mecham

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Clyde Tallio & Elijah Mecham – Advice to Professionals – Trancript

Time as Teacher: A broad focus to relationship-building

Indigenous communities have a strong worldview around collectively holding wealth. Knowledge is seen as a form of wealth, and it can be held by community members of all ages. Reaching back to Module 3, it is helpful to reflect upon ways in which we can include or invite inter-generational participation in the work we do; specifically around the translation of knowledge pertaining to teachings about the Land. These inter-generational participants’ interests are often considered and incorporated into different projects and pieces of work, and often there may be shared value decision-making or consensus that might go along with this too. This means your goal will not be to just connect with the assigned representative or scientist in the community. How then can our work fold in diverse individuals across many spheres of community life (age, positions, roles, responsibilities etc.)? Lastly, we need to remember that Indigenous cultures are dynamic and different for each community and relationship-building within the communities may look different for different projects. For example, some projects may be smaller in scale and may be directed by technical advisors or other First Nations staff, while other larger projects may require engagement with all levels of the community over a longer period of time.

Chief Gordon Planes reflects on how Indigenous Languages comes from the Land itself.

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – Languages came from the environment

Decolonizing our approach

At this point in the module, it is encouraged to consider how you currently understand and or define the concept of decolonization. In relationship building, it is essential to respect community autonomy and ownership over their work, expertise and knowledge embedded in each individual project. This is an important component in our efforts towards decolonization and safer relationship-building practices. There isn’t a “perfect check-list” or cookie-cutter solution that outlines exactly what we should say or do when working with a community. Each project and subjective community will determine the process and procedures that best reflect their cultural protocols and considerations. What we can ensure is that we take the time to critically self-reflect/locate and commit to ongoing learning opportunities to strengthen our approaches and commitment to decolonized relationship building. These assurances feed directly into the quality of relations within each project and ultimately the outcome of and success of our efforts within climate mitigation and ecological modelling.

Community Voices: David

Listen here to reflections based around relationship-building and a personal commitment to ongoing learning in order to get to know the people, the land, and the culture. By centring relations at the core of the work we do within climate mitigation, we can build a level of shared understanding and urgency as it pertains to the communities who have maintained relationships with their homelands and territories across generations. How can we begin to see the Land and waters through the insights and worldviews embedded in each individual community and culture?

David Isaac

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David Isaac – Renewables and Traditional Worldviews – Transcript

Be patient in your learning

The Canadian education system has excluded content pertaining to Indigenous governance, histories and culture from education systems until very recently. It is by no mistake that many non-Indigenous people are frustrated with the fact that they simply “didn’t know these things!” Remember that true reconciliation must happen over generations and time. Learning is a lifetime process that requires time, patience, learning and re-learning.


At this point in the course, you have reached the final section of our material. In this specific module, you’ve had the opportunity to listen to Indigenous experts in the field of climate mitigation and land-based knowledge as they provide insight into working with their communities and in the field. You should now be able to consider the complexities of Indigenous world-views, political agencies and governance systems as it pertains to each individual community and Nation. You should also be able to employ a practice of self-location that supports your ability to enter into community in ways that reflect cultural sensitivity, self-awareness and decolonized approaches towards relationship building. Practises of Indigenization and decolonization do not lay on the shoulders of Indigenous leaders and community members, but are an ongoing learning opportunity for all peoples to consider the ways in which we contribute to ongoing colonialism and therefore can better situate ourselves as agents of change. The stronger our shared efforts are in the creation of decolonized spaces, the more effective and efficient our allied work is in how we relate, care for and restore balance across our planet earth. This work does not end with the conclusion of this course, but rather provides an opportunity to welcome your continued learning in your own homes, families and continued commitment to make this world a safer and healthier place for generations to come. Beyond colonial legacies, and short-term solutions, it is time now for us to position ourselves in constellations of reciprocity, humility and authentic care for all relations. The journey starts now. We look forward to walking with you.




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Indigenous Knowledges and Perspectives on Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Royal Roads University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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