Greetings, colleagues! My name is Marguerite DeSpain. I am holding up my hand, sending you good thoughts and appreciation for listening to my words. I am an independent planning, development, and evaluation consultant with twenty years of experience working with Native non-profits, Tribes, and mainstream organizations.
As an Indigenous person, I find myself drawn to watch movies with “real” American Indians in them, especially when they are central characters and culture and language are accurately depicted. Old westerns used white people in orangey-brown makeup and black wigs to depict American Indians. They repeatedly showed military “Indian Scouts” hunting down other Native people, a deeply disturbing image. Newer Hollywood movies often use Native actors, but revolve around a white character.
Years ago, a non-Native colleague asked me to help with a Tribal project. I naively agreed, and recommended the consultant to the Tribe based on their past work on a mainstream project. While the Tribe and I were led to believe I would play a significant role, minimal hours were budgeted for my involvement after the contract was secured. The plan and process had no room for changes. Cultural relevance, and I, were “add-ons,” to give “input.” This reflects what I call “Indian Scout Mentality.”
Our first meeting with the Tribe included a large, representative, group, reflective of all stakeholders, relaying multiple examples and consensus about a problem they “suspected,” and possible solutions. I heard plenty of evidence, first, that there was a problem, and second, that the Tribe wanted and would benefit from discussing how to best address the problem. I knew the problem they described was also being experienced by other Tribes.
After the meeting, I wanted to mirror back their themes, showing their consensus and their extensive knowledge about their problem. I felt a sense of urgency to feed back information to the Tribe that they could use immediately. This was also baseline data, important for us to build on. I shared a written summary with my team. Rather than seeing and valuing the Native Community’s knowledge and ways of knowing, the team insisted that we collect data to determine if there was a problem. Their limited understanding of Tribal Communities prevented them from recognizing the representativeness of the group that had met with us, the significance of the stories shared, “story” as a legitimate way of conveying observation data, the systemic nature of the problem, and the value of my work and perspective. Being Native, I know many realities in Native Communities and want to maximize the value of time and money spent on evaluation services in the midst of other critical needs.
- Achieve more authentic evaluation when working with Tribes/Native organizations by ensuring that team members with substantial cultural knowledge/competence play a central role, are trusted, have the power to influence every aspect of the work, and are supported by their team—rather than adding them on like black wigs and orangey-brown make-up.
- Leave ample flexibility in plans and budgets to show respect for changes that will need to be made as a result of learning during the process.
- Be mindful that what is learned over a lifetime and passed through generations cannot be quickly learned. Tribes/Native organizations are better served when they do not have to spend time and money educating consultants who lack cultural knowledge.
- Respect traditional Indigenous ways of knowing, and existing knowledge, to affirm self-agency and support Tribal Sovereignty, which is imperative to survival.
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