Avoiding cross-culture misunderstandings

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jessica Kroll
  • Native American Heritage Month committee
There are seven special emphasis observances implemented by presidential proclamation to enhance cross-cultural awareness, promote positive human relations and teamwork in an environment of equity, dignity and respect. To understand a culture, you need to understand the people, their sensitivities, codes of ethics and expected behaviors, especially during sacred ceremonies.

Unknowingly, we can offend someone by engaging in behavior that is not offensive in our culture, but is highly offensives in theirs. The more you know about a culture, the less likely you are to create a cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Etiquette is the part of culture that demonstrates respect, courtesy and cooperation with others. A breach of etiquette may communicate disrespect or a lack of deference or concern for other people's feelings and beliefs. When attending a Native American event, it helps to know what behavior is considered courteous and respectful. Naturally, customs and rules vary from tribe to tribe.

The best way to bypass this is to know what behavior is appropriate at a tree ceremony and pow-wow. There are a few standards across all tribes.

1. Dress and act appropriately: Women must wear a knee length skirt, which can be worn over pants. Men must wear long pants and no shorts.

2. Don't bring cameras or audio recording devices.

3. Listen to the master of ceremonies: The master of ceremonies will make frequent announcements and give instructions as to what behavior is appropriate during special singing and dancing ceremonies, to include when it is required for all in attendance to stand and remain silent. If you have questions, ask before or after the ceremony.

4. Grand entry and flag song: The procession of flags and then dancers follow directly behind the Native American Eagle Staffs. The Eagle Staffs and flags are generally carried by members of the military or active duty soldiers. The flag song is the Native Americans' way to honor the native, state and American flags. Because of the sacredness of this part of the ceremony, please stand and remove hats during the grand entry and flag song.

5. Respect regalia: The traditional dress worn at sacred ceremonies is called regalia and should under no circumstances be referred to as costumes. The Native Americans view the regalia as sacred items that hold a spiritual significance for the wearer. If any article of someone's regalia is to fall to the ground, do not touch it; simply point it out and it will be retrieved appropriately.

6. Respect the circle: The center of the circle where the dancing takes place is blessed before the pow-wow. You should never cut across or allow children to play in the circle. There will, on the other hand, be times when the master of ceremonies will invite others to the circle to join in the dancing.

7. If you see a lost feather, or you drop a feather, do not pick it up and do not walk past it. Notify the nearest veteran, the head veteran, head man dancer or master of ceremonies immediately.

8. No alcohol or drugs: No alcohol or drugs are permitted at Native American ceremonies. Anyone found under the influence or in the possession of drugs will be immediately escorted off the grounds.

9. Honor elders: Elders, the true wisdom keepers, are greatly honored in the Native American culture. The phrase "elders first" is commonly heard at Native American events. When eating, it's proper for young people to be served last. Elders first, and the rest must wait in order according to descending age. This is a sign of respect for the wisdom of age.

10. Respect: Respect is the key to life. Treat everyone with respect and kindness. Do not touch things that belong to someone else, especially sacred objects, or take pictures without asking permission first or have an understanding between you.

11. Bring a folding chair: Ceremonies can go for a period of time and seating will be limited.

12. The tree ceremony is potluck. Please bring your favorite dish.

Most non-natives are well-meaning, but are not always aware of native etiquette, and sometimes it's easy to make an innocent blunder. A simple and heartfelt apology will always do. Although aspects of Indian culture can be unexpectedly strict, once a few basic rules are known it is easy to get close to these people. After a while, they will treat you as one of their own.

The Dighton Intertribal Council Tree Ceremony takes place Nov. 6 at 1111 Somerset Ave, Route 138, Dighton, Mass. Those interested may meet at Council Oak Hall at 10 a.m. For further information, call 508-880-6887.

Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness National Native American Day Pow-Wow takes place Nov. 13 indoors at the Kelly Gym, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Mass., from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for children 4 to 16 years old. There will be limited seating, and attendees may bring a lawn chair. For further information, email MCNAA@aol.com or call 617-642-1683.

For further information about Native American Heritage Month activities at Hanscom, contact 1st Lt. Kevin Grebb at kevin.grebb@hanscom.af.mil.