Indigenous Elder and Community Protocols
Collaborating with Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and community members helps to build and support lasting relationships with local Indigenous peoples and communities. It also brings Indigenous ways of knowing and cultural teachings into the university through oral tradition and personal interaction. After centuries of colonial practices of dispossession, assimilation, and oppression of Indigenous peoples and their ways of life, it is essential to help create a space for Indigenous knowledge and presence at Concordia. Indigenous engagement facilitates memorable learning experiences for Concordia students, faculty, and staff that go beyond typical Western educational models based on written forms of knowledge transmission.
The purpose of this document is to assist Concordia University faculty, staff, and students through the process of respectfully and ethically inviting, interacting, and/or collaborating with Indigenous peoples and communities. These guidelines and protocols may also aid in the development of policies and procedures concerning teaching, research, employment, and strategies for Indigenous community outreach and engagement.
The goal of this document is to foster meaningful long-term relationships and collaborations between Concordia University and First Peoples based on mutual respect. These guidelines are designed to create awareness and promote accountability for ideas, words, and actions that may directly or indirectly do harm to Indigenous peoples whom we wish to invite, honour, and collaborate with.
These protocols and guidelines are to be followed by Concordia University faculty, staff, and students who wish to engage with Indigenous peoples and communities on campus or in the Tiohtià:ke (Montréal) area and beyond. It is not possible to cover all Indigenous knowledges, cultures, or perspectives in a single document or set of protocols. This document is not comprehensive in its representation of Indigenous cultures and communities nor the roles of Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and community members. Members of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities have collaborated to co-compose these protocols. Collectively, Indigenous peoples are considered the primary cultural resources and experts on these matters and as such their needs, opinions, and views take precedence over the content of this document.
Frequently Asked Questions
Within the majority if not all Indigenous communities, Elders are a primary source of support, knowledge, and expertise. Elders are highly respected and cherished for the roles they fulfill within communities, which often entail offering guidance, advice, and support on a wide variety of matters. Keep in mind when working with Elders that they may be vocal or opinionated and take political positions that challenge stereotypical expectations of Elders as passive or neutral.
All elderly people should be treated with respect considering their knowledge, life experience, and seniority in a community or society. Within many Indigenous communities, an Elder is someone who has reached a certain age or has grandchildren. The terms “grandmother,” “grandfather,” “auntie,” or “uncle” are used in a literal sense but are also endearing terms for Elders and Knowledge Holders in some communities.
An individual identifying as an Elder (with a capital “E”) may have been appointed, sanctioned, or have simply arisen as an advisor, role model, and leader within a given community. This may happen formally through a traditional ceremony or commemoration of some kind or can occur informally through a gradual process over time. To state it plainly, an Elder is recognized and identified as such by the community.
Policies and practices of colonization and assimilation such as residential schools resulted in language and culture losses that particularly impacted First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. In many communities, this caused a knowledge gap between generations. Efforts to reclaim and revitalize language and culture have resulted in an influx of younger generations of Indigenous leaders and Elders who speak an Indigenous language and have acquired traditional and ceremonial knowledge that their elders may not possess. In these cases, an “Elder” may be someone much younger than our grandmothers and grandfathers who hold traditional and cultural knowledge.
“Knowledge Keeper” or “Knowledge Holder” is a widely used term that generally describes an individual with traditional or cultural knowledge or expertise. This may include land-based knowledge, singing, or drumming. A similar role that exists in many Haudenosaunee Longhouses is “Faith Keeper.” Many other communities have “Pipe Carriers.” Individuals with extensive cultural knowledge and experience but not yet ready to be considered an “Elder” may be identified as a Knowledge Keeper, Knowledge Holder, or use a similar term. An Indigenous person with extensive knowledge and experience in academic, political, or economic settings may also be considered a Knowledge Holder.
The term “Indigenous community member” is broad but it is generally understood as someone claimed, accepted, or recognized as being a part of a specific Indigenous community. Indigenous community members have valuable knowledge, experiences, and stories to share. This includes Indigenous faculty, staff, and students at Concordia and within Tiohtià:ke. Their opinions on matters that concern their community, people, or culture should be respected.
Conversely, they are not to be viewed as “experts” on Indigenous matters, objectified, or tokenized in the classroom or on campus. It is also important to keep in mind that many individuals that self-identify as Indigenous do not necessarily have ties to community or may identify with an urban Indigenous community.
These guidelines will help students, staff, and faculty at Concordia to be respectful and accountable when extending invitations to Indigenous guests or participating in Indigenous-focused events.
- Do not wait until the last minute to invite an Indigenous Elder/guest to speak. Clearly discuss your expectations in advance.
- Verify if there will be smudging or if a fire (outdoors) is needed for a big tobacco burning. Contact Campus Safety and Prevention Services or Hospitality to make arrangements (e.g., smoke alarms).
- Do not rush or limit time for Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen or an opening, as it is disrespectful.
- Do not ask an Indigenous student, faculty, or staff member at the last minute to open or speak at an event (putting them “on the spot”).
- It is inappropriate and considered highly disrespectful to interrupt an Elder while they are speaking during an event.
- Care for Elders by offering assistance (carrying things, finding them a seat, etc.). If food is being served, Elders should be offered or served first.
- If an Indigenous guest or group will be drumming or singing, secure an adequate space for it and consider that the sound may impact nearby classrooms.
- Never touch cultural dress/regalia, the body, hair, or personal items of an Indigenous person without their permission.
- It is offensive to wear feathers, “Indian” costumes, headdresses, or clothing with Indigenous mascots. The same is true of doing “war cries.”
- Drums, rattles, or other sacred items are not toys. Do not “try them out” or touch them without permission.
Tobacco may be offered to an Indigenous Elder, Knowledge Keeper, or community member as an acknowledgement of their wisdom and teachings that they have shared (a sacred gift in exchange for their knowledge). The tobacco is usually presented in a small tied bundle, a basket, or a leather pouch. If the community member is a Pipe Carrier, they may also appreciate pipe tobacco.
Requests or invitations may be made without a tobacco offering. In many Indigenous cultures (including Kanien’kéha), a request or invitation for medicine, knowledge, ceremony, assistance, or teachings is traditionally made with an offering of tobacco. If you wish to provide a tobacco offering, you must arrange a meeting in person with the Elder or Knowledge Keeper. Be sure to make clear your intentions and be specific about your request. The tobacco is presented to the person in a small bundle or pouch held in the palm of your left hand. Keep your hand open and outstretched offering the tobacco. If the Elder or Knowledge Keeper takes the tobacco, they have accepted your request.
Important: Not all Indigenous elders (e.g., Inuit Elders) expect a tobacco offering. A request made with a tobacco offering may be difficult for someone to refuse despite the fact that they are aware they have the option to decline. Tobacco should only be offered with sincerity and pure intentions; it should not be viewed as an obligation.
A number of items may be presented when a formal request or invitation is made to an Elder or Knowledge Keeper or presented as a gift for the wisdom and knowledge they have shared. A few examples of local Indigenous cultural items are sweetgrass, rattles, a drum, baskets, feathers, handcrafts, or medicines. Other gestures include a song, words of acknowledgement, or a story. It is also acceptable to present any gift that you made or purchased if that is what is accessible to you, such as tea, items from Concordia Stores, books, etc. The act of the exchange between the teacher and the learner made with appreciation and sincerity is what is important and not necessarily the gift itself. This protocol of exchange maintains the balance of giving and receiving knowledge to ensure that Indigenous ways of knowing are passed on to future generations.
It is respectful to offer Indigenous Elders and guest speakers a gift for sharing their knowledge and wisdom including an honorarium as a gift for their time. All gifts and honoraria should be prepared well in advance. Compensation for travel and parking should be arranged. Many Indigenous Elders do not wish to provide their social insurance number or private information for payment (and should not be forced to). Some Indigenous people may choose to refuse an honorarium or alternatively request that a donation be made to an organization or a cause in exchange for their time, knowledge, or labour. We have prepared a chart as a guideline for recommended honoraria amounts.
|Classroom presentation, a brief talk or presentation (1-1.5 hours), or short opening words at a small event
|$100 - $125
|Panel or 2-3 hour presentation or discussion
|Opening, Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen, and tobacco burning at a conference or large public event
|$250 - 300
|Keynote address, long talk/speech, presentation, or facilitating a workshop at a conference
|Half-day participation in workshop, conference, or event (no opening or other responsibilities*)
|Opening or other responsibility and half-day participation in workshop, conference, or event.
|Full-day participation in workshop, conference or event (no opening or other responsibility)
|Opening or other responsibility and full-day participation in workshop, conference or event.
* “Other responsibility” may be facilitating discussions or “circles,” moderating, teachings, ceremony, medicine keeping, etc. It includes any duty or responsibility beyond what is expected of any other participants at the conference or workshop.
Honoraria and compensation for Indigenous community members should be reasonable and affordable. Gifting honoraria larger than the amounts recommended here is unnecessary unless there is a justifiable reason or expense (e.g. keynote speaker travelling from a great distance, workshop supplies, etc.).
Important Notes: The recommended honoraria amounts do not include transportation (taxi, mileage), accommodation, parking, meals, additional expenses, or gifts. If you have a smaller classroom budget, discuss that with the Elder/guest as many will work with your available budget. We recommend a minimum honorarium of $75 per hour for consulting or other work with an Indigenous Elder or Knowledge Keeper. A half-day is four hours and a full day is eight hours.
This document was written on behalf of the Indigenous Directions Leadership Group by Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean, a Wolf Clan member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Nation at Kahnawà:ke. Valuable contributions to this document were provided by members of the IDLG, with special thanks to Vicky Boldo, Geneviève Sioui, Tiffany Ashoona and Charles O'Connor. Please cite this document as follows:
“The Indigenous Elder and Community Protocols document was written on behalf of the Indigenous Directions Leadership Group at Concordia University by Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean (January 2019). To read the entire document, please visit https://www.concordia.ca/indigenous/workshops-resources/elder.html.”