Tribal Consultation: Simple Tips for Success

Jon Shellenberger

Tribal Consultation: Simple Tips for Success

(by a former Tribal employee)

 I have taught Tribal Consultation to Federal, State, and Local Government employees and all have the same questions because they all make the same mistakes. Government workers are all too eager to pull the trigger on large scale, high-level manager meetings with Tribes without ever having informal discussions to avoid awkward nuances that could have been easily avoided.  The problem is typically in the execution. Government employees don’t know how or when to engage. When they do engage, they typically make big asks of Tribal employees that become unfunded obligations, or worse, mandates. Or the Government team has had so many meetings, that they speak over the heads of Tribal representatives, assuming that the jargon and topic of discussion is understood. Here are some things to help avoid challenges in Tribal consultation:

  •  Consultation vs. consultation:

There is consultation with the big “C” and consultation with the little “c”. Knowing the difference is very important. What defines consultation is typically defined by Tribes. Many consider “Consultation” to mean Government to Government consultation, with the highest levels of each side being present. If you unsure how a Tribe defines Consultation, please ask. You don’t ever want to show up unprepared to meet with Tribal Council with only middle managers present.

  •  Attorneys

Having attorneys present unannounced is a big no-no. It is an assertive maneuver and can threaten meaningful discussion. Always ask your Tribal contact if attorneys will be present at upcoming meetings.

  •  Pen and Paper

Set down your pen and paper and listen. Listen to the words being spoken by Tribal representatives. There is nothing more frustrating than staring at the top of someone’s head while they are writing notes about a discussion that doesn’t seem worth one’s attention.    Listen with your body and recap discussions so that you are clear what the terms are about. Make it very clear what is being asked of you by checking back with your Tribal reps. Tribal reps hate, hate, hate having to repeat themselves.

  •  All business

Talk about things other than just business with your tribal contacts. Build relationships, learn about Tribal traditions, holidays, history. Having an insider perspective will only help build positive relationships with tribal people.

  •  Understand the Tribal line of authority.

Tribes are sovereign entities with their own Treaty laws that stem from Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution. Understand the Tribe’s Treaty, laws, Constitution (if they have one), and Government structure. Also, don’t assume that Tribal reps know your structure either. Transparency is the catalyst for meaningful consultation.


I have watched many failed attempts by Government employees and don't want you to make the same mistakes others have.  These mistakes inevitably cost Tribal staff time and effort, and time is a precious thing to a Tribal employee.  I hope some of these tips help. If you have any questions, please contact me at




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