Canoe Journey


Tribal communities hold a unique place in America today. Carrying forward ancient traditions and cultures, their art practices are a core element of our national cultural landscape.

Lessons Learned: 
Engaging Tribal Communities

Community engagement in Our Town projects with tribal communities is similar to outreach efforts in other projects, but it is different in key ways.

Some modes of communication, such as email announcements or webpage postings, are not accessible to some tribal members and special considerations need to be made in order to ensure a broad spectrum of community members are reached. 

In Aiea, Hawaii, project managers found that, “we used email notices to announce meetings, but in some cases we needed to use personal follow up phone calls to the native Hawaiian artists as many don't respond to or don't have emails. Some in our community of artists also do not respond to online surveys.  So we contacted many of them through personal phone calls.” 

Another important issue to address is the recognition how past injustices will impact how requests for participation are received.

In Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico, project manager Kenny Pin pointed out that care needed to be taken when engaging the community at Santo Domingo Pueblo because of the distrust that often exists between tribal members and outside agencies. “Historically tribal communities have been taken advantage of and are hesitant to invest time or give information – repairing some of those relationships, and even creating new ones, takes a lot of time.” 

For all the challenges that project participation strategies can face, however, there are also numerous opportunities to directly engage native traditions as part of larger outreach plans.  In Ajo, Arizona, project manager Tracey Taft said, “because we had not had participants from this community at our other public meetings, we added a special shared meal meeting for the Native American community.”  

Balance Working with Local Tribes and Regional Networks

Many Native American tribes also often have both the opportunity and the challenge of belonging to regional communities.  Our Town projects in tribal areas often had to balance working inside and outside the tribe. 

In Olympia, Washington, the Squaxin Island Museum and the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center of Evergreen State College partnered to help support the Squaxin Island tribe in hosting the annual Tribal Canoe Journey.  They said that one of the challenges they faced was, ”maintaining a focus at home (local tribes) while also broadening the network along the Pacific Rim.  We had to work to find the right balance.”  Working through regional networks to promote the event and find potential participating artists, they also made sure their work stayed focused on the local tribe and helping them to prepare for the festival."

Finding Equity at the Heart of Many Efforts

Many Our Town projects in tribal areas focused on the issue of equity. 

The PA’I Foundation in Hawaii, for example, who lead the Ola Ka 'llima: Creative Art Spaces project, “has a history of working on issues of diversity and equity.  [Their] programs are designed to address the needs of native Hawaiians and the underserved of our community.”  For their Our Town project, the foundation focused specifically on addressing the, “issues relating to a lack of access to affordable housing and the creation of opportunities for economic and professional development, sales & commissioning of art by native Hawaiians.” 

In Santo Domingo Pueblo, the Tribal Planning Department brought two distinct historic areas on the Santo Domingo reservation into a single cultural district.  In doing so, they hoped to address the tribe’s pressing need for affordable housing development while at the same time supporting the culture and the artistic entrepreneurship that the tribe is known for.