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Culturally Appropriate Communication

September 10, 2010

Native communities have a worldview that is their own, as is appropriate. Time is unique in Tribal Villages. When work has to be done, it is done. Planning is built into life. When food needs to be put away, it is. When berries need to be picked, they are. When fuel needs to be gathered, fuel is gathered. When you feel dirty, you steam. When you want to talk, you steam. When time is slow, you visit around. When you are tired, you sleep. When meetings come up, you go. When you are hungry, you eat. On Sunday and religious holidays, if you are religious, you go to school. Skiffs, 4 wheelers, snow machines, stoves, trucks, nets, rifles—they are all tools that need to be kept in great repair and used. It a different, and wonderfully so, world that our Urban world is.

Knowing how to communicate in a culturally appropriate way in a village is important. Tomorrow I will be speaking to a classroom of University of Alaska Anchorage students at the request of one of my former employees. I accept invitations like this because they make me think about what to say. I already have 2 pages of bullet points, but I only want to share a couple of them with you.

Visiting around used to be a way of life in the Village. Televisions, video games and computers with Internet access have diminished visiting around, to our detriment. When you visit around, it’s important to be there. Don’t want to be somewhere else. That means do not be in a hurry to leave, but spend the appropriate amount of time there. If you are told to make yourself at home, do it. That means offering to make the tea or coffee, clear the table, clean the dishes and in general act like you are at home. If you are a frequent guest, bring a gift. Expect to be fed, and eat what is put in front of you. Food is one pleasure we don’t always appreciate in Urban Alaska. Take time to enjoy it. Learn how to converse. Share conversation, don’t monopolize it. Recognize that silence is OK. You don’t need to talk all the time. Most of all, relax and be comfortable.

If you are an outsider, its important to communicate in a culturally appropriate way. You should  understand local issues, be aware of differences and similarities. Recognize that there are different worldviews, and that yours is not dominant nor superior. And there is deference to Elders. Serve them. If they need coffee or tea, get it for them. Let them speak when they wish to speak. They may not want to. Don’t try to show off. Use the correct tone and volume in your speech. Use direct words with commonly understood meanings. If you don’t understand something, don’t be ashamed to ask about it. Respect gender differences and the role of religion in the life of the person you are talking to. Be sensitive to space and touch. And if you are invited to a steam, accept and enjoy. Be prepared to spend some time. Remember that conversation involves a speaker and a listener, so take time to be both. Share of yourself. And most of all, enjoy the time you spend with the person you are communicating with.

Now, go out and practice.

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