7 Effective Tools for Anthropologists Working with Tribes

Jon Shellenberger

If you live in the western United States and are working in any of the sub-fields of anthropology, you will or have already worked with a Native American Tribe in one fashion or another.  

Have you ever ended a long day of meetings wishing you had insider tips to working with tribes? Working with tribes can bring uncertainty with methodology, presentation of results and findings. After utilizing the anthropological standards, some anthropologists find themselves needing additional guidance with working with Native cultural specialists and tribal elders.


University archaeologists and students working with tribal staff on an archaeological excavation.


Sure, we are not utilizing the outdated anthropological field methods of yesteryear. The lack of insider guidance may cause delays or further expense of communication barriers between anthropologists and tribes.

This, my fellow anthropologists, is something we would like to help with.

After all, if you are like me you would much rather be getting back to literature reviews, ArcGIS, aerial photo analysis or escaping out to the field to survey.

No one wants the umpteenth email regarding research protocol or experience delays due to a lack of trust with the surveys or approach.

I understand. Even as a Native anthropologist, I have been there.
Yes, there is distrust on different fronts.

That's why I've put together the 7 Effective Tools for Anthropologists Working with Tribes

1) Listen!  You have ears, you are hearing the words come of out of their mouths but you are too busy writing everything down.  Don't bother bringing a pen or paper out immediately.  Sit down, visit, and listen.  

2) Strengthen your memory: Most tribal people don't want you to write anything down.  It is considered rude to sit in front of a Native elder with your head down focused on writing what he or she is saying.  He or she is literally pouring their heart out about the most sacred information that they have learned in their entire lifetime.  It is just better to experience what is being said then to record it.  You will be surprised how much more productive your work will be on just this tip.    

3) A strong skill set:  You might be surprised but you are probably not the first anthropologist Native people have ever met.  Anthropologists on reservations are a dime a dozen, all of which carry the stereotype of wanting "old Indian wisdom" to advance themselves. So, you are going to be measured up against all the other anthropologists and historians they have ever met.   Maybe your skill is map making.  Maybe it's making genealogies, or perhaps it is lithic analysis.  Whatever your skill set is, hone it, and sharpen it.  Even if you just have one strong skill, be the very best at it.  You may be wondering what tribes can do for your career, but that street goes both ways.  They are as equally, if not more, concerned what you can do for their Tribe.  They will want to know what you are good at.

4) Patience: A lot of anthropologists suffer from deadline-itis.  That doesn't mean that Native people do.  If the work is that important, it can wait.  The oral traditions and cultural resources of Native people have been here for millennia, free of any of our deadlines. Be courteous and honest about your situation, but realize you may not get what you want if you don't have the patience.     

5)  Follow-up: So many times Anthropologists say they will return to go over an issue but never do.  If you say you are going to follow up, do it.  So many do not, so you will be a stand out if you come back prompt and prepared.  It's a sign of respect that the concerns of tribes are legitimate and real.  

6) Support tribal cultural specialists: Don't be cheap! You have a budget to perform your work and if that work wouldn't get completed without help from tribal people then budget for them.  This builds stronger working relationships with tribes that will really pay-off in the long run.   

7) A sense of humor...and thick skin: You won't make it far without a sense of humor or thick skin.  Remember you are handling some of the most sacred information and resources Natives' have, sometimes a good laugh lightens the mood and opens more doors.  Also realize, because the information and resources are so important, Natives are that much more passionate about the issues.  You may find yourself at the receiving end of a tirade you were unprepared for.  Relax, 99% of it has nothing to do with you.  After all, you are likely not the first anthropologist this Native has ever met.  Be calm, admit to wrong-doing when appropriate or ask where you can do better.  Keep calm.  News of any outburst on your part will spread through Indian Country like a firestorm and tarnish your career forever.  Relax and have a good time.  Remember, you wanted this as a career.  

Of all the anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, linguists, and archaeologists that I have met, the most effective ones utilize most if not all these tools.

Do you have any additional tips for working with tribes or do you wish to share your experiences?  I would be more than happy to hear your feedback.

Kwathlanu' (Thank you) 

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1 comment

  • The hardest thing for me with outsiders is that they believe all tribal people and tribes are the same…it’s nice when I do meet an outsider who is willing to listen and hear what is being said… Nice 7 Effective Tools

    Karen G Madison

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