Lower Thy Head – Ancient Wisdom on Community Engagement

—By Somia Sadiq

A very old wooden hut with an entry way

This week, I had the incredible opportunity of visiting the Baltit Fort and Altit Fort in Hunza Valley, in the Gilgit-Baltistan region in my homeland, Pakistan.

The forts date back ~800 and ~1100 years respectively. Both forts are strategically located overlooking the Hunza Valley. The Altit Fort underwent significant restoration work courtesy of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2006 and attracts tourists from around the world.

Everything about these forts is stunning, to stay the least, with so many interesting elements of history, geopolitical significance, and smart architecture. For example, one of the windows was placed such that the cool air from the glacier close by would keep the rooms cool in summer (sadly, the glacier is now gone).

What really stuck with me, though, was the size of the doors. They’re small. Surprisingly small. I’m clumsy at the best of times, so needless to say, there was some tripping and banging my head. As life goes though, every head-bump means an important lesson.

Our guide, Karim, said there were three reasons for these small doorways:

  1. For defense – anyone entering would likely be slowed down if the entryway was limited, thus allowing those inside the time to prepare to respond.
  2. For temperature control – In hot summers, the small doorways would help keep the insides cooler and in harsh winters help keep the heat in as much as possible.
  3. For respect – Anyone entering the room would have to lower their head in order to enter the room, thus offering respect to those inside and giving those inside time to gauge where the person entering would need to be seated based on who they were, how old they were, what their position was, etc.

While reasons 1 and 2 are great, it’s reason number 3 that really stuck with me in the context of the work I do in impact assessment and community engagement, and quite simply as my place as a newcomer, as a settler on Indigenous lands in Canada. I imagined how I would have entered the room 1100 years ago. The only circumstances under which I would have charged into the room would have been if I were attacking the fort. And I’d make a clumsy soldier, so I’d just be a liability anyway. In literally every other scenario, I’d follow the protocol – slow down, lower my head, watch my feet, enter the room slowly.

A very old wooden door in a dimly lit stone room

So why do we then think it's okay to just barge in on Indigenous lands?

Time after time, I find myself trying to answer the question, ‘how do I engage community X, Y, Z in order to propose project X, Y, Z. And I always say the same thing – ‘go say hi, introduce yourself, get to know folks, and know that no means no.’

As a person entering someone else’s land, someone else’s territory, someone else’s room, in order for me to have any seat in the room whatsoever, I’d need to take the time, show some darn respect at the door, lower my head, i.e., exercise humility, wait to be invited in, and told where to sit and likely how to engage. I would be expected to speak the truth and behave with integrity. I would most definitely bring gifts with me as a token of respect (coming empty-handed would feel straight up lame).

Moral of the story – when contemplating anything on Indigenous lands, take the time to learn the protocols surprise, surprise they may be different from one community to the other, one group to the other, and then make the effort to follow them, i.e., stop at the door, watch your step, lower your head, and wait to be invited inside.

Somia Sadiq, Founder | Principal Partner