Reaching out to an Indigenous Elder

Reaching out to Indigenous Elders is a task which you must take great care in undertaking. Do not contact anyone without significant research into the person/agency who you are contacting. Follow these steps very carefully before taking any action. It’s very important to also realize that, Indigenous peoples are not one homogeneous group, and that every person is different and unique, so, we recommend you treat this as a general guide — meaning your actions may differ depending on your situation.

Why you might need to contact an Elder:

There are various reasons why you might need to contact an Indigenous Elder or Knowledge Keeper. For example, you might want to have a climate event that highlights how pipelines are being built on Indigenous land, without any sufficient consultation. In this event, it might be beneficial to have an indigenous person speak about what they’ve experienced in this issue. However, this is only one reason. There may be several others. After you’ve finished the process, keep in contact with the person you had come to the event and work to foster an ongoing relationship. 

 

This information has been ascertained from the “First Nation Elder Protocol” at the Indigenous Corporate Training Incorporated organization, with consultation from Terry Lin, a member of the Sacred Circle Foundation for Reconciliation. You can reach out to the organization for help or advice, or you can read the Indigenous Corporate Training Incorporated Organization’s protocol, here. (However, their protocol differs in protocol around Honorariums)

 

If you have any questions for Terry Lin, you can reach out to her organization, which is the Sacred Circle Foundation for Reconciliation.

Contacting an Elder

Method of Contact

It is important to consider the way that you are contacting Indigenous Elders. Please do not contact them by way of letter, and instead contact via a phone call. Elders prefer spoken word, rather than written word for their contact with people. 

When to contact

It is important that you contact a few weeks before your event, and not months in advance. After your first conversation with an Elder, contact them once more a few days before your event. You must be prepared for cancellation from the Elder as they may have community events that they must attend to. If this is the case, contact the community and ask their advice on who to contact next.

What to say when contacting an Elder

Be sure you know the following information from the Elder: 

  1. Name of Elder

  2. Spelling of name 

  3. How they should be addressed (How would they like to be referred to? (Many Indigenous people want to be identified as a Knowledge Keeper, while many others are fine with “Elder”.))

  4. Contact information

  5. Anything else you believe is pertinent to their attending your event.

Creating a meaningful relationship

When you work with Elders, it’s very important that you work with them to create a meaningful relationship, that is NOT rushed. You should never try to “fast track” a relationship, just the same as you would not do so with anyone else. Relationships with Indigenous Elders are super meaningful—why wipe that out by not taking the adequate time to work with other people? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Why should an indigenous Elder offer a ceremony for your event? 

  2. How are you working with the Elder’s community? 

  3. What is your interest in building a meaningful relationship? 

To begin your relationship, here are two things you can do:

  1. Show them your land acknowledgement draft and ask what their thoughts are

  2. What next steps would be meaningful to the Elder?

Event Preparation

Honoraria

It is important to offer an honorarium to an Indigenous Elder to thank them for their time at your event. Always give an honorarium.

  1. It’s important to realize that a lot of the time, you likely won’t know what honorarium is appropriate for the Elder, and since everyone’s situation is different, you may have to determine when it’s appropriate to contact the Elder for honorary information, or not. If you think you know what the Elder would like for honoraria, some Indigenous people may think it is presumptuous to assume what they would benefit from, while others might not have this view. It depends on who you are working with. Either way, this comes back around to creating meaningful relationships with people.

  2. The honoraria should be obtained/ascertained before your event—keep in mind you are asking to impose a monetary value on a sacred ceremony.

  3. The honoraria respects the value of what the Elder is offering.

Travel Arrangements

  1. Be prepared to cover the travelling costs of the transportation to your event. (You do not need to order the Elder a  Taxi or Uber)

  2. Derive the necessary information—is the Elder bringing someone with them? If so, who are they? What is their name?

Food and Beverages

Follow these instructions for appropriately obtaining information from the Elder about Food and Beverages: 

  1. Find out in advance if the Elder has any dietary restrictions or allergies, and whether or not they will be staying for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

  2. In some cultures, it is customary for the Elder to be served their food; definitely a must if the Elder has mobility challenges, such as a wheelchair, or uses a walking stick and needs help carrying their food.

  3. Never serve Alcohol at your event, as some Elders will not attend if it is being served—If you must serve Alcohol, then check with the Elder beforehand if they are comfortable.

Preparing the Space

  • If your event is a large one, you should prepare a quiet room for the Elder to prepare whatever it is they are there to do.

  • Have a snack and drink prepared for them, and if it is midday or evening, plan to have a meal available for them.

During the Day of the Event

On the day of the event, be sure to have someone at the door to greet the Elder. You must not assume that they will shake hands, as they may or may not offer a hand to you. 


If the Elder does offer you a hand, do not shake their hand firmly, and instead shake their hand at the same pressure they shake yours. It will be a soft handshake. Inform the person at the door of the hand shaking considerations.

During a ceremony, the following must happen: 

  1. Everyone stands; hats removed 

  2. Heads must be bowed

  3. Hands by everyone’s side or clasped in front

  4. Do not sit down until you are SURE the Elder is finished speaking

Once the ceremony has been completed, thank the Elder, and their companion (if they brought someone with them). Once they are back in the quiet room, this is the time to give the honoraria. Never give honoraria in front of the group. Once they are ready to head back to their home, usher them to the door and be sure their transport is queued up.