Skip to main content

Marketplace insights

The challenges of employee diversity in Native organizations

What do you think of when you hear the word ''diversity''? For some veteran managers, the images of affirmative action and the promotion of equal opportunity employment campaigns still come to mind. For others, it is part of a more modern management philosophy, where diversity is welcome in the interest of productivity in their organizations. It is believed that diversity brings about creativity and optimal performance. But what does diversity really mean in Indian country? For Native organizations, diversity may not be seen in the same light as it is in general American business society - good or bad.

To begin to understand the full impact of diversity in Indian country, we might first want to revisit the true meaning of diversity. Although diversity is most often associated with racial or ethnic affiliation, it is simply the differences in people. These differences can include not only race, origin or gender, but many other differences such as age, socioeconomic class, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and physical condition. Some productive organizations use all means to achieve a good balance of diversity among its employees. Diversity in problem-solving or creative workgroups is strongly promoted because studies have shown a greater quality of outcome in projects, products or strategies. The diversity of a group allows individuals to contribute from many different perspectives.

When attempting to promote full ethnic diversity in Native organizations and businesses, we must remember that such organizations are unique, not only culturally, but with regards to American Indian historical aspects and political dynamics. To a certain extent, Native nations operate under their own governmental rules, laws and policies. They may operate with the full interest and interaction of tribal members only. This may present a challenge, as some Native organizations will not only promote the hiring of tribal members, but are required to or enforce the selection of Native job applicants only, as outlined in many tribally adopted TERO or tribal employment rights ordinances. It may limit the ability to experience full ethnic diversity in our work forces.

So how can we achieve the benefits of diversity in our Native organizations? The first step is to remind ourselves that diversity is not only about race or national origin, but about differences in general. We must not only be willing to identify what makes us different from one another, but to find value in those differences. This does not mean compromising our cultural dynamics - those traditions, beliefs and habits we share as Native groups - but to appreciate and value that which makes us unique individuals. This can include how we think as women or men, as rural or urban-raised tribal members, as seasoned workers or new to the work force. We should not believe that one is better than another, but respect and value our differences.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

For some, promoting individuality in Native organizations may be perceived as a threat to our collective culture. It is our cohesiveness that has protected and preserved our Native cultures over time. Today, we are experiencing many changes in our tribes and communities: intermarriages and the educational accomplishments of tribal members are creating a pool of diversity even within a single tribal culture.

To fully benefit from diversity in our Native organizations and businesses, we must learn to accept and promote the differences we hold as employees or members of our organizations. We should not be apprehensive about our differences, but use them to our full advantage.

Diversity in Indian country does exist and will continue to progress. We will continue to evolve to a new level of development in our Native businesses and organizations, ones that use all the resources available in their processes, structures and membership that will contribute to the most effective outcomes for our clients or customers.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan has many years of teaching and training in the fields of business and management, with a focus on the cultural dynamics in Native businesses and organizations. She is an enrolled member of the Tohono O'odham Nation. She holds an MBA in global management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in business and organizational management. E-mail her at