In an interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge, Harper sought to dampen expectations for the meeting — the first time the prime minister is to meet a cross-section of chiefs since he issued a formal apology for residential schools.
Much of the one-day session next Tuesday will be taken up with ceremonies and regional break-out sessions that Harper hopes will lead to an agenda for future work together.
About 150 chiefs are expected to attend, but others can join in via the Internet.
Harper said economic development and governance of reserves will feature high on the agenda.
But he also says the gathering will try to deal with the chronic housing crisis on reserves.
"Significant change needs to happen," he told CBC. "Aboriginal people in this country are not anywhere near where we want or need those communities to be.
"That said, my own experience is that it will not be grand visions and declarations that achieve these things. It will be moving forward one step at a time."
He added: "There will be a number of sessions and tables, discussing very specific aspects of things like economic development, labour opportunities, challenges in housing and services to governance."
Substandard housing has been a long-standing problem for most reserves across Canada. Internal government audits and reports as well as the federal auditor general have all highlighted the dismal state of federally funded housing and acute overcrowding in many communities.
Last fall, the James Bay community of Attawapiskat declared an emergency, after overcrowding forced several families to move into wood-frame tents even with the onset of a fierce winter.
The federal government eventually responded with some emergency aid and sending in extra houses, but Ottawa also removed the First Nation's control of its finances. Harper accused the band of mismanaging federal money, prompting an outcry from First Nations across the country.
Many had feared the gathering next Tuesday would gloss over the issue in order to avoid conflict and find common ground.
But no one should expect big announcements, Harper warned on Monday.
"We're trying to find a way of getting willing partners, and continuing to move forward. But there's a lot of work to be done. This is a long-term challenge."
Education is also expected to figure prominently in next week's meetings, but again, expectations are being lowered.
Indeed, a crucial report intended to pave the way for major improvements in First Nations education won't be ready in time for the gathering.
The joint panel report was to be ready by the end of 2011, in time for chiefs and government officials to digest its recommendations and agree to act.
But the report has been delayed until February, leaving the meetings with Harper without the hoped-for starting point.
"We simply can't get our work done," said Scott Haldane, chairman of the joint panel named by the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations.
He said the three-person panel appointed last spring was overwhelmed with information from across the country. Hearings lasted until the first week of December, and now the panel is pulling together information, writing a report and sending it for translation.
So it can't be published until some time in the first half of February, Haldane said.
"We're trying to make sure our report is something that will make a difference, that can help both parties to make a change and to produce something on a schedule."
Still, Haldane says the findings of the panel are no big secret, since he has spoken frequently about his observations. Both the government and the Assembly of First Nations also had staff at all the hearings.
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the panel report was never specifically commissioned to be ready in time for the Harper meeting.
And the AFN points out there are other reports to draw on, including a Senate committee report recommending Ottawa set up native-run school boards.
Indeed, the meeting next week is widely expected to endorse the Senate report, even before the joint-panel report is in hand.
The Senate committee recommends Ottawa pass legislation that would set up school-board style arrangements run by First Nations themselves, and change the funding formula for schooling.
But there is no specific funding attached to the Senate recommendations, and First Nations have long complained that their schools receive significantly less funding than non-native schools.
"The least that can come of this meeting is an agreement to end discrimination in funding," said Carolyn Bennett, Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs. "At least make the commitment."
Some experts estimate First Nations children each receive $2,000 less a year in education funding than non-native children. Many bands go into deficit trying to match non-native salaries for teachers, while on-reserve schools often go without libraries, gym equipment or decent classrooms.
The joint panel on First Nations education has been controversial from the start. A first attempt at striking the panel collapsed a year ago because of protests over the panellists.
After an election-induced delay, a second panel was struck late last spring. But some prominent First Nations in Saskatchewan and Ontario refused to take part, saying it was time for action and not more reports. Some of them have issued their own rival report.
Harper has frequently stressed better education as key to improving living standards on reserves, in the hope that with better education, First Nations will build the skills they need to solve their own poverty problems.
But in order to improve education on reserves, many communities need to improve health and infrastructure at the same time, said Haldane.
"At the end of the day, it has to be an inter-sectoral ... broad-based response," he said. "We're going to have to point out that this is a complex problem."Suggest a correction