Indigenous scientist using a microscope

Amplify Native Voices: How to Support Indigenous People in the Workplace

Articles Apr 12, 2024

Successes like “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Reservation Dogs” have centered Native American stories. Yet, in corporate America, the Indigenous perspective is often overlooked. With few prominent advocates in the professional world, organizations have an opportunity to act intentionally to better support Native employees and amplify their voices. By creating a more welcoming workplace, leaders can tap into fresh perspectives and better retain talented individuals.

Indigenous Peoples account for 6.2% of the global population–roughly 476 million people worldwide–spread across more than 90 countries. While each community has its own customs and culture, common challenges echo around the globe: discrimination, unemployment, poverty, and poor health. These issues stem from the continued marginalization of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the lingering effects of displacement from ancestral lands and governmental policies to force assimilation.

As inclusive leaders seek to create welcoming workplaces and support Indigenous team members, they should be mindful of past injustices. Historical awareness is key to developing cultural intelligence and empathy, which lead to mutual trust and better professional relationships. In addition, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) must be foundational to an organization’s mission and incorporated into its daily operations. Leaders should focus on people and helping them do their best work, no matter their cultural background or identity.

With inclusion in mind, it’s worth exploring some general guidelines and strategies that can help organizations better support people of Indigenous heritage. Keep in mind, however, that Native people aren’t a monolith, and each region has its own priorities. Any effort to boost inclusion within your organization has to include meaningful conversations with individual stakeholders, asking how you can make the workplace more welcoming for them. 

Use inclusive language

Inclusive language is a foundational technique to honor and value the experiences and identities of all people. In accordance with UN guidelines, ‘Indigenous Peoples’ should be used as a general term that recognizes the status of people of Indigenous heritage in international law and their right to self-determination. People living in different regions may prefer Aboriginal, Native American, Alaska Native, First Nation, Inuit, Adivasi, or another description of their identity. When referring to a specific person or group of people, it is best to include their tribal affiliation or citizenship. Ask if you aren’t sure how someone wants to be identified. Taking the time to find out how a person self-identifies, rather than making assumptions, ensures that the person feels seen and respected.

Word-choice guidelines include the appropriate use of terms with cultural significance such as “totem pole,” “spirit animal,” or “powwow.” They should not be used to refer to a “career ladder,” “kindred spirit,” and “meeting,” respectively. Sometimes the way a word is used makes it non-inclusive. For example, “chief” is of French origin and is common in business parlance. However, it becomes a culturally insensitive slur when it is used as a nickname for a Native American.

Assess your policies and procedures

Your organization’s employee handbook and accepted procedures should be examined to remove culturally insensitive policies. For example, professional appearance policies that dictate hair length and ban visible tattoos signal an unwelcoming workplace. Assessing your documents and policies–ideally with the help of someone of Native heritage–can uncover inequities and lead to fairer, more inclusive guidelines. 

Organizations should consider flexible bereavement leave protocols and an expansive definition of family, which accommodate a variety of cultures. At many companies, bereavement leave consists of two or three days, which can be inadequate for travel and traditional funeral ceremonies. In addition, policies defining “immediate family” as parents, grandparents, and siblings fail to encompass the extended kinship ties that connect Native communities. 

If demographic information is collected as part of your company’s DEI strategy, it’s also important to acknowledge everyone’s identity. Frequently, Native employees are left out of DEI data and grouped into an “other” category, as the population is “too small” to count, says Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leader Sunny Myers. Instead, surveys should include a space to fill in one’s demographic info, and all groups should be listed in the DEI report – even if there are only one or two people of Indigenous heritage.

“We deserve to have a name, yet we are deemed as statistically insignificant. It’s harmful. It literally says, ‘You are not important,’” she says.

Supplier diversity is another common component of an organization’s DEI strategy. As you assess the diversity of your vendors and suppliers, consider ways to partner with Native American-owned businesses in your area. 

Prioritize mentoring and career development

Mentoring programs and networking can provide important connections and professional development for all employees, and many organizations lean on their Employee Resource Groups to provide those opportunities. However, that practice can be problematic if there aren’t enough people to form an ERG. In the U.S., Native Americans make up roughly 2% of the population, so even if your company’s workforce reflects the local population, there might be only a few employees of Indigenous heritage. For comparison, Indigenous Peoples make up 5% of the Canadian population, and 3% of the Australian population.

To ensure every individual gets the support they need to grow their career, managers should have regular conversations about professional development and pathways to advance. Formal mentoring programs create mutual learning opportunities. In addition, national organizations serving Native American professionals, such as the National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) can provide crucial professional role models as well as culturally specific resources. Companies can support their employees by paying for memberships to these professional associations and making it possible for them to attend conferences and events.

Examine your recruitment pipeline and job requirements

To create a diverse workforce and to attract the best employees, culture-centric organizations know how important it is to expand the talent pipeline and create an inclusive hiring process. Partnering with Native American professional organizations, which often have job boards, can help you find qualified candidates. And, if your organization regularly recruits from universities, make it a best practice to also partner with Tribal Colleges and Universities and universities with high populations of Native American students. Waiving the four-year degree requirement for skills-based jobs can also attract more applicants from Native communities, as they are three times as likely to attend two-year colleges compared to White Americans. .

It’s also worth noting that allowing employees to work remotely can result in a more culturally diverse workforce. In particular, remote work can support the well-being of Native individuals who can remain in their communities and maintain ties to their culture, particularly across multiple generations. Remote work also strengthens Indigenous nations as a whole, according to the Brookings Institution, because “population loss weakens their ability to operate as sovereign political entities.”

Support culturally appropriate mental health care

Studies show Indigenous People have disproportionately higher rates of mental health problems such as suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, violence, and substance use disorders. According to the Indian Health Service, Native American and Alaska Native people are 2.5 times more likely to report serious psychological distress than other populations. Experts theorize that the mental health disparities stem from historical and generational trauma, in addition to continued marginalization and lack of economic opportunity. 

While it is inappropriate to make assumptions about any person’s health, inclusive leaders should prioritize mental health and well-being for everyone in the workplace. Mental health days, empathetic relationships, and strong communication all support mental wellness. Most vital, however, is a health plan that includes mental health benefits and an employee assistance program. EAP counselors should be trained in cultural awareness and be able to connect Native employees with healthcare providers versed in holistic healing practices and culturally intelligent counselors who can offer long-term care. 

Land acknowledgement statements

Organizations, especially those with large physical footprints, can draft land acknowledgements to honor the original Indigenous inhabitants of their corporate site. These statements have become increasingly common, especially at public institutions and governmental entities, and might be installed on a plaque or included on the company website. If your company decides to publish a statement, reach out to local Indigenous communities and to Native Nations forcibly removed from the area in the past to ask how they want to be recognized. 

Some experts see land acknowledgements as a way for institutions to signal their support of Indigenous Peoples, however care should be taken that the acknowledgement isn’t merely well-meaning or, at worst, performative. As Cutcha Risling Baldy, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and an associate professor of Native American Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, tells NPR: "The land acknowledgment gets you to that start. Now it's time to think about what that actually means for you or your institution. What are the concrete actions you're going to take?” 

More actions for organizations 

One of the best ways to foster inclusion is by partnering with individuals with Native heritage at your organization and in your community. Ask how your company can support them, and follow their suggestions. Listen to their opinions and amplify their voices through your internal and external communications channels. Are there opportunities to bring in speakers, not just during Native American Heritage Month, but throughout the year? 

Acknowledging and celebrating diverse identities is critical to building an inclusive and employee-focused culture where all people feel safe to bring their full, authentic selves to work and empowered to contribute their best effort and ideas. Cultivating cultural awareness of the Indigenous Peoples in your community sends a clear message that your organization values their current and historic contributions. It also signals your intention to create a workplace culture where everyone is supported and feels that they belong.


Amber Keister

Amber (she/her) is a Certified Diversity Executive and content strategist for The Diversity Movement. She writes, researches, and edits TDM articles, guides, videos, and more.