Working Effectively with Tribal Governments

Cultural Orientation and Working with Tribal Governments

Elderly Navajo code talker and younger Native woman standing together

Cross-Cultural Communication


Many tribal members speak English as a second language. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of American Indians and Alaska Natives 5 years and older speak a language other than English at home.

Like traditional Native American religions, the use of Native languages was actively discouraged by the schools that many Indian children were forced to attend. As a result, many Native languages are considered in danger of being lost forever. To respond to this threat, many tribes have instituted Native language programs to encourage their use in all aspects of tribal life. Because language is an integral part of culture, the continued use of Native languages is a priority for many tribes.

In cases where a tribal member who is not fluent in English needs to communicate with a federal employee, the tribe may provide an interpreter. As is the case with many languages, however, some concepts are not easily translated. Therefore, cross-cultural communication can be more challenging than typical conversations.

Problems in cross-cultural communication occur primarily because people assume that the elements of their own culture are clearly understood by everyone, thereby misunderstanding the distinctions between their culture and that of others. Being sensitive to such possibilities and seeking clarification in a patient and respectful manner can go a long way in bridging any gaps that may exist in cross-cultural communication.

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