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Air Force receives tips on how to embrace, respect America's native people

A white male and a white female stand at the front of a room filled with people sitting at long tables.

American Indian Cultural, Communications, and Consultation Course instructors John McDonagh and Alicia Sylvester listen to a question from a class participant during the three-day course held at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Sept. 12-14, 2018. The goal of the course is to help military and civilian personnel acquire the skills necessary to work with tribal nations while meeting mission requirements.

A group of white females and males look at displays at a museum.

Participants of the American Indian Cultural, Communications, and Consultation Course presented at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Sept. 12-14, 2018, end the course by visiting Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park to experience some of the local tribal culture.

A group of white males and females sit around a long table and discuss a scenario and how to deal with it.

Students in the American Indian Cultural, Communications, and Consultation Course at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, work their way through a scenario Sept. 14, 2018, that will help them communicate better with the federally recognized tribes in their area.

A dark-haired, bearded white male sits at a table and talks to other people talking at tables.

Christopher Brewster, chief of Environmental, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, gives an example of local tribal customs during the American Indian Cultural, Communication, and Consultation Course at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Sept. 12-14, 2018.

A bald, bearded white male in brown suit sits at a table in a room full of people sitting at tables.

During the American Indian Cultural, Communications, and Consultation Course presented at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Sept. 12-14, 2018, Bryan Goldberg, 19th Airlift Wing Judge Advocate civil law attorney, explains the process for legally being able to eat food and receive gifts from the federally recognized tribes military installations work with.

Two adult white males in U.S. Air Force blue uniforms stand in front of a seated crowd briefing them on the base mission.

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Justin Strain, 19th Airlift Wing command chief, and Col. Gerald Donohue, 19th Airlift Wing commander, brief Little Rock Air Force Base’s mission to the participants of the American Indian Cultural, Communications, and Consultation Course, Sept. 12, 2018. The goal of the course is to help military and civilian personnel acquire the skills necessary to work with tribal nations while meeting mission requirements.

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --

As part of their jobs globally, Department of Defense employees learn about the people, cultures and customs of other countries. Civilians and Airmen at a recent American Indian Cultural, Communication, and Consultation Course held at the Walters Community Support Center Sept. 12-14, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, learned how to work with tribal cultures and people in their own backyards.

 

“I’ve been offered an eyeball to eat,” said Anita Dragan, Office of Secretary of Defense instructor for the course. “I put the eyeball in my shoe and I squished it, but to turn it away was disrespectful. So you just find a way to take the offering.

 

“Getting and eating food is very critical to survival,” she said. “The tribes offering of food is another symbolic way of bringing you in for conversation to occur, of establishing relationships.”

 

This anecdote was part of the three-day course covering such topics as federal and Native American law, communication techniques and culture. The course merged Airmen and civilians from Air Force bases nationwide to teach them skills necessary to establish and maintain good relationships with federally recognized tribes, while meeting their base’s mission requirements.

 

The course is important for the DoD because the department has a trust relationship and trust responsibility to Native American Indian tribes, said Alicia Sylvester, a course instructor and DoD senior adviser and liaison for Native American Affairs.

 

The Federal Trust Responsibility is a legal obligation under which the United States has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust toward Indian tribes. It is also a legally enforceable financial obligation on the part of the U.S. to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska’s native tribes and villages.

 

During the class, various instructors focused on that trust responsibility, DoD’s obligations to Native American Indians, their cultures, and, most importantly, how to communicate and establish relationships with them.

 

“It’s about respect, and learning more about the cultures, before you start meeting with the tribes,” Sylvester said. “It’s a general understanding of the tribal histories, the tribal culture and the department doing its due diligence to learning about these tribes before they consult with them, so they can establish and build a working relationship with them.”

 

Defense personnel work with local tribes on such things as land-disturbing activities, construction, management and protection of properties of traditional religious and cultural importance, activities involving access to sacred sites and disposition of cultural and funerary items.

 

“The department needs to consult with (Native American) Indian tribes,” Sylvester said. “The consultation process is pre-decisional, so in the planning stages, the installations need to get with tribes before any construction, before any land-disturbing and other activities take place.”

 

The class ended by detailing some best practices on consultations. This included a big discussion about communicating with the tribes, knowing about the tribes’ cultures, and how to avoid the pitfalls while interacting with the tribes.

 

“One of the things we talked about in the executive session is the critical importance of gift giving to almost every tribe you are going to be dealing with,” Dragan said. “When you go to visit the tribe, you need to anticipate and expect that is going to occur, more likely than not. The refusal of a gift is remembered long after you have disappeared. Anticipate this so you never have to refuse. Talk with your legal counsel beforehand and figure out what it is you do.”

 

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