Monday, 11 February 2013

Involving Indigenous Peoples to create meaningful and authentic events

People can meet anywhere. We have multiple opportunities and endless venues in which to connect with each other, worldwide. Why is it you meet where you do? Thinking with your event professional hat on you might say price. Accessibility. Safety. Flexibility. Availability. Incentives.

Now change your hat to that of a participant, and feel with your heart. What would you say?  Why do you meet where you do?

Because it offers a chance to meaningfully and authentically connect with others.

As experience designers, creating spaces and programs that allow participants to truly connect is a combination of event science and fine art. While a peppered mix of ingredients contribute to this magical potion, I'd like to propose one powerful element that is sometimes missed: sincere involvement of Indigenous People.

The talking stick is an important symbol of the right to speak in public. Aboriginal youth perform a ritual cedar bough cleansing dance prior to presenting  a talking stick during an event. 
Event Management: Cantrav Services.  Photo: Coast Mountain Photo.
In sustainability circles, we tend to file this element under the principle of "inclusivity": the idea that fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all stakeholders is important, and enhances the event experience.

Although many stakeholders are relevant, the value and importance of Indigenous People to events is unique for many reasons. They are the host Nation. They are the people who for the longest time have called your event location "home". Who better to welcome? Who more generous and proud to share? Who more informed of local protocols and culture? Who with more at stake to protect?  Who more entitled to benefit?

Alex Wells performs a traditional hoop dance at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. Photo: Mike Crane.
The 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver set a new precedent for sincere involvement of Indigenous Peoples in events. The Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations signed a historic protocol six years prior to the Games. They agreed to work together to fully participate in all aspects of the event, while maximising for their communities the opportunities and legacies linked to the Games.

This protocol was the first step in the creation of the Four Host First Nations Society, which Gwen Baudisch, Marketing Manager at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, affirms has left a lasting legacy. "The Four Host First Nations agreement brought authenticity to the Games for Canada. Through their efforts Aboriginal People from across Canada were enabled to participate, and benefit."

In fact, a portion of the royalties from the sale of Aboriginal merchandise supported education, sport, culture and sustainability initiatives for Aboriginal youth across Canada and $59 million in economic opportunities were provided for Aboriginal businesses during the Games.

"It gave us a worldwide audience for the exceptional talent of Canadian First Nations communities. It is because of the potential that was shown then that we are able to excite planners about experiences that we can create today."

The Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre itself benefited from the legacy of the Games. Located in Whistler, British Columbia, it creates opportunities for drop-in guests and event participants to engage in First Nations culture.

Holly Joseph and Brooke Martin welcome visitors to the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.
"We are different in that our Centre brings the local culture into an event experience as a foundation, and that creates a unique canvas for real connections to be made: with the First Nations Ambassadors, our visitors and amongst visitors. What we do is not just about art, or performance or history. It’s about connections," emphasises Baudisch.

Whistler is blessed with a dedicated venue where these kinds of cultural connections can be made. But what of other locations not as fortunate? Event planner Judy Kucharuk lives in the northeastern community of Dawson Creek, British Columbia and understands the importance of consulting with local First Nations early in the event planning process. “The onus is on the event planner to make the effort. And ask questions. Reach out to your local First Nations community. Seek opportunities. Consult and engage."

Baudisch encourages such efforts. "You don't need a facility to invite First Nations involvement. Having a welcome ceremony and including an Elder can help build a connection. It's a good and respectful first step."


·         The Eagle Song Dancers perform a welcome song for participants at an event in Vancouver. 
Event Management: Cantrav Services.  Photo: Coast Mountain Photo
And creating a relationship based on mutual respect is key, for it can be easy to misstep, and unintentionally offend. Involving a destination management company (DMC) that has good local knowledge and connections with Indigenous Peoples can help, especially for planners who aren't familiar with local customs. Tahira Endean, CMP, Director, Team and Creative Production for Cantrav Services, a DMC operating in Western Canada adds, "Respect is the most important principle. We educate our clients to understand the roots of our First Nations here are deeper than any who came later, and it's important to show respect for that."

"It can be very simple to get it right, or wrong. So guidance helps," says Baudisch, whose staff often educates planners about protocol, to improve experiences and prevent embarrassment. Consider the typical format of an event opening. Many groups have the habit of inviting their CEO to speak first. But if you were in someone else's home, would the guest give a welcome toast? No, the head of the household most likely would, with guests responding. Therefore, SLCC client service managers guide event planners to invite the local Chief to speak first, and greet their CEO and guests with sincere and respectful words of welcome that do them honour, after which the CEO can express his or her own sentiments.
The Great Hall, Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Center
Other tips to promote inclusion, fairness and respect of First Nations include:
  • Ask who the local Indigenous People are, and for information on their culture. SLCC ensures this is discussed during initial site visits, so planners are afforded an early opportunity to consider how cultural elements can be woven into their programs.
  • Discuss the value and opportunities for inclusion of First Nations early in the event, especially with any local agencies or committees. Baudisch encourages planners to look at all aspects, such as food and beverage. "You can look at a meal of salmon as something to feed your attendees. And you can also add to the experience by showing people more: the place where it was fished, the person who caught it, the story of its character in legend, song or dance, and its importance as a staple of the local diet."
  • Inform yourself about appropriate language. In Canada Aboriginal People prefer to be identified as First Nations, Indigenous and Aboriginal. Planners using the terms "Indian" or "Native" could cause offence.
  • Expect there will be protocol to follow. Think about this early, as it may be particularly important when siting your event. Do you need or should you seek special permission from Indigenous People to host your event in their territory? Assuming you have permission, seek guidance on who should be invited to participate in the event and what cultural norms are expected. Protocols may affect everything from speaker order, to appropriate types of food and beverage, guest attire and conduct.
  • Probe vendors to confirm their products and services are authentic. Don't be afraid to ask where things were made, or acquired. This is particularly important for decor and gifts, which may look like traditional designs, but could be made outside of the territory and by non-Indigenous People.
  • Pay attention to what happens behind the scenes, including materials left over from events. While a planner may view greenery as mere material for a centrepiece, First Nations might view these plants as sacred, requiring respect in life, display and disposal. Baudisch describes how staff at the SLCC step in to ensure sacred materials such as cut cedar boughs are returned to the earth and water where they were taken from, rather than discarded in a trash bag and taken to a landfill.
Cedar boughs and traditional art grace the banquet tables in the Great Hall
A trusted partner, whether it is a venue, DMC or local planner, is an important asset to have and can help to create powerful experiences for attendees by including perspectives from Indigenous People. In one example an entrepreneurial conference held at the SLCC opted to integrate a talking stick spirit theme into their event. Organisers selected the wolf as their event spirit, and wove this element throughout their program. The wolf, they felt, embodied the skills and spirit of their entrepreneurial participants: both independent and team-oriented, intelligent and instinctual, free and disciplined.

Baudisch emphasises the importance of the relationship between the host Nation and planner in creating powerful experiences like this. "A good planner will want the experience to be authentic. And to do it right. Planners are very respectful and focused on the perception and feelings created amongst participants. When your experience and selected partners embody the values of inclusivity and respect, great things are possible."

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