Healing Through Local Knowledge: Community & Tribal Engagement

By Danáe Sakuma and Erica Thompson

How Reciprocal Relationships Build Trust to Facilitate Healing from Generations of Injustice

Associate Danáe Sakuma and Associate Principal Erica Thompson presented on this topic together with Lynn Palmanteer-Holder, the Director of Tribal Government Affairs for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. Here, they summarize the key lessons shared with attendees at the Society for College and University Planning Pacific Regional Conference and the Washington Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference.

Although many projects require stakeholder engagement, institutions often encounter roadblocks to engaging their local communities and Tribes effectively. Understanding why, when, and how to engage creates a more meaningful process that can lead to whole-community healing. The process of engagement is especially critical for higher education projects because educational spaces can be healing for the people who have access to them.

Through engagement, local knowledge brings nuance to how projects create accessible places of learning, and place-based Tribal knowledge brings a unique perspective on how to relate to the land — which Tribes have known since time immemorial. Learning from local knowledge in general, and Tribal knowledge in particular, helps institutions facilitate wellness and improve sustainability strategies — creating projects that encourage belonging and mindful land stewardship.

Engaging with local and Tribal communities who have experienced injustice requires acknowledging the past and committing to a reciprocal relationship moving forward. The lands on which many higher education institutions sit were not taken peacefully, and Indigenous students are chronically underrepresented to this day — even at institutions that sit on their own Tribes’ traditional lands. Many communities of color have also been affected by historic wrongs perpetuated by institutions, and they are just as likely to be left out of decision-making processes that affect the spaces where they learn. The first step toward healing these relationships is replacing these historic power imbalances with intentionally reciprocal interactions.

This diagram by Rosa Gonzalez of Facilitating Power illustrates how different levels of engagement can empower a community (or not).

We often refer to this diagram by Rosa Gonzalez of Facilitating Power to explain how different levels of engagement can empower a community — and, in the case of Tribal communities, begin to heal the centuries of injustice that have stripped many Tribes of their rights as sovereign nations. By developing reciprocal relationships through engagement, Tribes become part of the success of a project and share in the positive outcomes. Key tenets of developing reciprocal relationships include:

  • Recognize and honor the engagement needs and protocols requested by the community
  • Create project timelines that allow for authentic trust to develop
  • Communicate and follow through on agreed-upon decision-making processes to build trust

Engagement can take many forms, but it is most effective when it is authentic, timely, and tailored. Specifically, best practices include:

  • Defining where the decision-making power rests
  • Developing reciprocal relationships before engaging for a project
  • Engaging early and allowing time to integrate feedback
  • Considering the needs of each specific community

To help in these processes, Hennebery Eddy has outlined a workflow that asks questions aimed at unpacking this information. To identify the community, we can ask who has been historically excluded in local decision making, if there are existing relationships that can be leveraged for trust, and what new relationships need to be forged for inclusivity. To engage the community, we can ask who will benefit from relationships and projects, and what barriers exist to participation (both physical and emotional).

Lynn Palmanteer-Holder, Danáe Sakuma, and Erica Thompson present at the Washington & Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference.

Building reciprocal relationships specifically with Indigenous peoples can be challenging because institutions are unfamiliar with the sovereign nature of Tribes and unsure how to approach the process. As Lynn Palmanteer-Holder explained, these should be approached as government-to-government relationships, proactively built for meaningful collaboration and mutual benefit. Based on her experience with local colleges, best practices for building these types of relationships include:

  • Committing to formal consultations to build meaningful relationships between sovereign nations and college and community leaders
  • Designating Tribal liaisons, such as hiring a Tribal relations coordinator and developing a Tribal Advisory Board
  • Training staff on how to work with Tribes and collaborating with Tribes on policies
  • Creating space for Indigenous knowledge(s) by recruiting and hiring community scholars as adjunct faculty
  • Centering place-based knowledge in curriculum
  • Customizing workforce training and CTE grounded in Tribal workforce and community needs
  • Providing Tribal student pathway programs through scholarships and visual, on-campus support

By shifting engagement practices — from reactionary or extractive to proactive, collaborative, and empowering — institutions can contribute to a healing process that reverberates beyond a specific project. Learning and teaching place-based knowledge strengthens community ties and leads to collaboration and innovation, empowering diverse communities.