A group or individual’s preferred ways of meeting their basic human needs and conducting daily activities as passed from generation to generation are considered to be cultural customs. Specific cultural customs may vary greatly from among AI/AN groups. There are multiple factors that influence customs. Different factors include origin, ethnicity/spiritual beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, socioeconomic status, ancestry, history, gender identity, geography, etc. Cultural customs can be seen evidently through material culture like food, dress, dance, ceremony, drumming, stories, symbols, and other visual characteristics of culture. Outward reflections of cultural customs are often more a reflection of an ingrained and implicit culture that cannot be seen visually or verbalized. A Tribe’s decision-making process and how they conduct ways of doing things within their tribe, family, community, or clan can represent the thoughts, core values, and beliefs of a group or individual. Questions respectfully made about a Tribe’s cultural customs are generally welcome but not always answered directly. Questions about culture should be directly for the purpose of increasing understanding so as to better improve the quality of service given to a patient.
It is important to understand that each person has experienced their cultural connection in a unique way. An individual’s personal and family history are what will shape their cultural identity and practices, Some view himself or herself as “traditional” and live their traditional culture daily and some view themselves as “Indian” or “Native” and yet have little knowledge or interest in their background or traditional cultural practice. Many families are multicultural and adapt to surrounding culture. When asked “Where are you from?” most AI/AN people identify their name of their tribe or village. They also may mention their traditional family homeland. These are important keys to self identity. Age is also an important factor in cultural identity. Elders typically identify as more traditional while younger generations are multicultural or non-traditional. There are also younger members who eagerly practice traditions.
Before European contact, AI/AN communities lived all throughout various areas of North America. Voluntary and forced relocations happened throughout the tribes, after Federal policies were in place, from their familiar territories to current day reservations. On reservations, some tribes were forced to co-exist together on the same reservation. Some of these tribes were related culturally and linguistically, but some were not. Some historic enemies were even forced to live on the same reservation. Many of the repercussions from this can still be felt today in those communities with political and cultural tension. Differences in cultural groups are related to regional differences. Language or spiritual belief systems may help to distinguish a tribe. The differences are also a result of homeland diversity as well as Tribe migration patterns. Cultures developed in adaptation to their natural environment and are influenced by trade and interactions with non-Indians and other AI/AN groups.
There are a few communication styles to keep in mind when working AI/AN communities. Only a few will be highlighted here, but they are worth noting.
Nonverbal Messages – A great deal of communication among AI/AN people involves non-verbal gestures. Use careful observation to avoid miscommunication.
Humor – AI/AN people may convey hard truths or difficult messages through humor. Great pain may be covered with smiles and jokes. Listen closely to humor and keep in mind it might be covering an internal struggle.
Indirect Communication – Openly criticizing each other within the AI/AN community is generally frowned upon. When children or youth are asked to speak out or testify against another person, it is important to understand that they may consider doing so disloyal.
Storytelling – Whether through traditional teachings or personal stories, it is very common to get messages across through telling a story which can take time.