This article focuses on the initial stage of a longitudinal study whose eventual aim is to produce educators with the capacity, knowledge and cultural competence to engage effectively with Indigenous students in cross-cultural environments. The initial stage of the study involved 24 second-year pre-service teachers working individually with students from Kindergarten to Year 6 with their reading twice weekly for 8 weeks in an Indigenous Australian housing estate. The Elder and two community members were the gatekeepers who negotiated with and between the community and the university and supported the pre-service teachers. The analysis of data from semi-structured questionnaires completed by the pre-service teachers and the two community members, informal interviews with the gatekeepers and informal, on-site observations indicated that how language was used was critical to relationship-building between the pre-service teachers and the students, gatekeepers and parents and to pre-service teachers' development of culturally appropriate pedagogical practices. The findings have implications for teacher education because they highlight the importance of providing pre-service teachers with meaningful experiences in community, with particular emphasis on the critical role of language for building relationships, establishing trust and respect and learning. These factors must be in place before effective, cross-cultural engagement can begin.