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Working with Tribal Nations: Breaking Barriers, Building Relationships

Working with Tribal Nations: Breaking Barriers, Building Relationships

By Narinder Dhaliwal, MA / June 16, 2014

Have you ever heard, “You can’t work with Native Americans unless you are a Native American”? Not true! Yet we hear it over and over again from those who appoint themselves as the “gatekeepers” of Tribal Nations. California’s Clean Air Project (CCAP) at ETR has been building relationships and providing education and research to Tribal Nations in California since 2006. What we’ve found is that respect is the key.

CCAP was tasked through a grant from California Department of Public Health Tobacco Control to provide technical assistance to the 61 state public health departments, competitive grantees and Tribal Nations concerning the dangers of second hand smoke (SHS) and steps that can be taken to eliminate exposure.

Our first daunting question was, “How do we even begin to start working with Tribal Nations?” They are Sovereign nations and not subject to California rules and regulations. They do not have to comply with state laws.

Perhaps even more challenging was how to approach Tribal Nations to ask about conducting research. The “R” word does not typically go over well with Tribal Nations. History documents many times research projects have collected data and used it against the tribes.

Do Your Homework

We’ve found the most important thing when beginning to work with Tribal Nations is to do your homework. Learn all you can about the tribal entity. How many members are there? Where are they located? Who is the Tribal Chair? How many Tribal Council members are there? How do they take care of their members?

For our project, we also wanted to know the number of smokers within the tribe, and how that compared with the rate of smoking among the Native American population in California generally. We needed to understand more about the tribe’s income sources. Tribal casinos are a well-known source of income for some tribes.

Once we gathered our data about the tribe itself, we were better prepared to approach the Tribal Management/Council.

Building Trust is a Process

Seven years ago, CCAP began a journey with the Redding Rancheria Tribe in California. At our initial in-person visit, we were asked to sign a confidentiality contract that stated we would not disseminate any information/research collected without the consent of the General Manager or Tribal Council. This started a process of building trust that continues to this day. By working in partnership towards common goals, we were able to create a meaningful collaboration of benefit to all parties.

Today, the General Manager happily provides information on our collaborative work to other Tribal Nations as well as those outside the tribe working in the area of SHS. He allows us to share this information as well.

Lessons Learned

We cannot overstate the importance of confidentiality and respect for the Tribal Nation’s way of doing things.
Flexibility and negotiation are essential keys to moving forward. For example, having a written protocol doesn’t mean we can always proceed that way. Being flexible and “bending” to collect the data we need has been crucial to our continuing work with Sovereign Nations.

As a result of our years of collaborative research and positive working relationship, Redding Rancheria passed a 100% smoke-free policy in their entire casino resort on March 14, 2014. This created the largest smoke-free casino in California. This is proof that perseverance, dedication and transparency are all equally important to working with Tribal Nations.

Narinder Dhaliwal, MA, is the Project Director of California’s Clean Air Project (CCAP), a project funded by the California Department of Public Health. You can reach her at or find her at LinkedIn.

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