Whether you are a small business or a large company, gifts are one of the best ways to value and show appreciation for employees, leadership, clients, or colleagues.

There are plenty of common, standard gifts that are given in the workplace all the time and hundreds of lists exist suggesting gifts from plants to fruit baskets to photo frames and other desk decorations. You’ve probably seen them all.

All of those usual things have been done before. What if you want to go beyond the norm and give gifts that not only hold meaning, but perpetuate and honour indigenous culture? Especially if you are an indigenous owned or operated business, it can be especially meaningful to give corporate gifts that demonstrate your heritage and honour sacred indigenous teachings.

If you are not an indigenous company, you can still give indigenous gifts! There is a respectful way to participate in indigenous gift giving that actually honours and helps teach others about indigenous culture. You will be supporting indigenous businesses and you will have given not only a lovely, thoughtful gift, but a gift that inspires and teaches along the way.

So, we’re here to suggest that you can do corporate gift baskets or corporate gift ideas in a whole new way.

To get started, let’s talk just a little bit about the history of some indigenous gifts and the protocols for indigenous gift giving.

First of all, is it OK to buy sacred medicines or other indigenous products?

Yes! In the Indigenous culture, we believe that the sacred medicines are gifts given to us by the Creator and Mother Earth, and treat each with respect and integrity. The medicines were given to us for the purposes of healing, maintaining wellbeing, and connecting with the Creator and the Spirits.

The various sacred medicines each have their own specific uses, benefits, symbolic meanings, and significance to the Indigenous people of North America, and should be used according to their traditional uses. Some concerns over the sale of sacred medicines involve improper use, since some non-Indigenous people have and continue to misuse them.

As long as the buyer plans to use the sacred medicines for their intended purpose, we see no problem sharing these gifts with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Traditional Gift Giving Protocol for Elders and Knowledge Keepers

The Sacred Medicines

In the Indigenous culture, there are four sacred medicines: tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweetgrass. Of these, tobacco is the most widely known, but despite the broad usage of commercial-tobacco products, the general public knows very little about tobacco’s traditional uses and its importance to the Indigenous culture.

Tobacco is actually considered the most sacred of the indigenous medicines. It was the first medicine given to the anishinaabe people by the creator and is still used in pretty much every indigenous ceremony and ritual as a way of connecting directly to the creator.

Don’t forget that sacred tobacco is completely different from commercial tobacco! Traditional tobacco is not inhaled at all and is instead used in a natural, intentional, and respectful manner for medicinal and spiritual purposes.

Sacred and commercial tobacco are even different scientifically; tobacco belongs to the genus Nicotiana, while almost all commercial tobacco is of the tabacum species.


Tobacco as a Gift

If you are looking to honour an elder or a leader of some kind, in indigenous culture it is tradition to offer tobacco in exchange for knowledge, wisdom, guidance, or even in exchange for other medicines or healing.

Tobacco is also often offered in thanks to an elder, spiritual leader, or other person of significance.

In the indigenous culture, the offering and acceptance of tobacco is considered a binding contract. Using tobacco in this way is a powerful and honourable method of establishing connection, fostering communication, and arriving at agreements on a corporate level.

It’s important to first understand the history and significance of any sacred medicine or other indigenous gift you intend to give.


Gifting Other Sacred Medicines

While tobacco comes to mind as a long standing method of sealing contracts, there are a variety of situations that might be suitable for indigenous gift giving.

Smudge kits -- known for their healing and cleansing properties -- can also be a great gift for anyone experiencing a loss, a sudden life change, or a big transition.

Demonstrating a knowledge of indigenous tradition, teachings, and practices through the gifts you give can be a great way to not only thoughtfully acknowledge an employee, client, or corporate leader, but a way to integrate indigenous tradition into the workplace.

You will also find that the intentional giving of indigenous gifts can build new relationships with indigenous groups that ultimately help expand your business and your network.


Tips for Relationship Building With Indigenous Groups

While navigating differing cultures, terminology, and social practices can be difficult and sometimes uncomfortable, it’s pivotal to learn how to better communicate and connect with different cultures in order to build better relationships.

Let’s talk about some basics for establishing strong, respectful connections with indigenous groups.


Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation

You’ve probably heard the phrase “cultural appropriation” before. It comes up a lot in the media today.

Indigenous people have a rich and vibrant culture. However, this culture has long been subject to replication in a disrespectful way. While it’s possible to adopt the traditions and practices of indigenous people in a kind and respectful manner, it’s important to know where the boundary line is.

Cultural appropriation is when someone takes elements of a culture that is not their own and remakes or reduces it into a trend, stereotype, or pop culture item. Think: wearing headdresses as a trendy accessory or dressing up in native face paint to attend a concert or festival.

Cultural appreciation, however, involves taking the time to research and learn about the culture you are interested in. Being informed demonstrates that you seek to honour the culture instead of take advantage of it.

Cultural appreciation emphasizes knowledge, respect, and awareness -- NOT mass marketability.

You can further strive for cultural appreciation by:

  • Including indigenous people in the conversation
  • Asking thoughtful questions about indigenous culture
  • Taking the time to learn the collective history of your country including the history of its native people

Learn More About Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation In This Video

Most often, disrespect of a culture is purely a symptom of a lack of knowledge about that culture. You can do your part by learning about, understanding, and appreciating indigenous culture in a respectful and responsible way.


How to Address Indigenous People

Not all indigenous people come from the same place. Additionally, not every indigenous person prefers to be addressed in the same way. That’s why the best thing you can do is learn a little bit of context and history surrounding the most common names that refer to indigenous people and when best to use them.

Some common names or phrases include:

1) Indigenous

Indigenous is used across the world to describe people, plants, or other living things that originate in a specific place.

In Canada, indigenous people refers to First Nations people, Metis, and Inuit -- the original people who first inhabited Canada.

Often, young generations prefer to identify as indigenous, as well as urban native people.


2) First Nations

First Nations, like Metis and Inuit, are a subset of indigenous peoples. Nations are used when talking about various tribes; for example, the Anishinabek Nation or the Dakota Nation.

Nations are groups of people, traditionally referring to the groups that were first present in Canada. You’ll often hear government organizations use the term “first nations peoples” as a way to demonstrate political correctness.


3) Indian

Indian refers to people from India. However, indigenous people were often called Indians because the original settlers believed they had arrived in India. The name has stuck with native people ever since.

In Canada, the term Indian is most often used in reference to the Indian Act that was put into place by the Canadian government to integrate native people into the culture, lifestyle, and society of the European settlers.

Some members of older generations might still prefer to refer to themselves as Indian because it was how they were raised; it is the way they were taught to refer to themselves and therefore is what they’ve known their entire lives.


4) Native American

Native American refers to the native peoples of all of North America. It is most often used in the United States of America, where indigenous people also refer to themselves as American Indians.

Indigenous Americans from the United States more often prefer this name than indigenous Canadians do.


5) Aboriginal

Aboriginal is synonymous with indigenous and First Nations. Government organizations have used the term aboriginal in a lot of their communications, laws, policies, and programs over the years.

You might hear government organizations and educational institutions use this term, but it is quickly becoming outdated. Today, most people prefer indigenous over aboriginal.


While there is no general rule or consensus as to which name is most appropriate, everyone can agree that your desire to address the person you are talking to correctly and respectfully is paramount.

Don’t forget, if you’re not sure, you can always ask! It’s better to ask a person’s preference than to make an incorrect assumption or stereotype. Everyone is going to have a different background and a different preference.

What matters most is the intent behind addressing someone. If your goal is to be kind and respectful, the person you are speaking to will return that kindness and respect to you. This is the absolutely best way to foster communication, understanding, and respect of different cultures in order to build better relationships between groups of people.