Harnessing the Strengths of Native Communities


Clip art of a Native American dreamcatcher.Headlines from our Nation's Tribal communities can often be discouraging. As in many rural areas in the United States, opportunities for economic advancement on and near Tribal lands are harder to come by than in urban and suburban centers. Resulting poverty and joblessness can fuel a host of other problems, including poor health, substance abuse, and high rates of violence and incarceration.

While some strides have been made in recent years, J.R. Cook, executive director of United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), Inc., says the effects of such social ills on Tribal youth is too often "negative peer pressure and wasted talent." With more than a third of the Native American community currently under the age of 18, that's no idle concern.

That's why UNITY and a number of Tribal and non-Tribal organizations across the Nation are working with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF), and its Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), in a collaborative effort to build upon the strengths of Native youth and their families.

As a result of their efforts, a number of innovative initiatives are being born throughout Tribal communities addressing the persistent problems that have hampered the positive development of Tribal youth. Some of the most promising are based on several key components:

Tribal problems are best addressed with Tribal solutions.

With 562 Federally recognized Tribes in the United States, each with a different cultural and historical background, trying to create one-size-fits-all solutions, or introducing non-Tribal programs to Tribal audiences, is often not as effective as tailoring programs to meet specific Tribal needs. FYSB's Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, for example, has found that family violence shelters that are run on Tribal lands by Native American staff are better able to respond to the needs of the women and children from the local community (see article on page 10) than shelters in non-Tribal areas.

Cultural pride and identity should be respected and promoted.

While not all Native Americans feel strong ties to their cultures, many of the most promising Tribal initiatives have allowed youth to explore aspects of their heritage that emphasize strength and pride.

  • clip art of a horse.The Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, for example, developed the Young Horsemen Program in an effort to teach youth, ages 14 to 21, about the art of good horsemanship, horse management practices, and working with horses as a career, while at the same time reviving and passing along a traditional strength of the Nez Perce Nation.
  • clipart of a fishIn Washington State, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe started teaching its young people how to dig out and man the ocean-going canoes that participate in a ritual known as the Tribal Journey. During the trip, canoes from more than 20 traditionally seafaring Tribes travel down Washington's Olympic coast, a voyage that revives and reaffirms their canoe cultures.

Young people should be given opportunities for Positive Youth Development in a culturally and spiritually appropriate setting.

Research continues to show that young people who have access to opportunities that allow them to build skills and demonstrate leadership are better able to make the transition to a healthy and productive adulthood. UNITY, for example, has a roster of more than 200 Tribal youth councils across 34 States that serve as the local organizers and leaders of two major initiatives:

  • Celebrate Native Health is the justlaunched second stage of a program to encourage healthy lifestyles in Tribal communities. During the first stage, Celebrate Fitness, Tribal youth councils across the country undertook such projects as building walking paths, organizing health fairs, and convincing Tribe members to relinquish their TV remote controls. Celebrate Native Health will focus on proper nutrition.
  • Funded by the Administration for Native Americans within ACF, Preparing Native Youth for Life's Journey is a series of training sessions aimed at providing life skills and leadership training to UNITY youth so that they can return to their communities with concrete tools to help them undertake development projects. So far, several hundred youth have attended the training sessions in four States. A written training guide is also being developed, a draft of which can be downloaded from www.unityinc.org.

Strong adult role models should be mobilized in each community.

Clip art of a solar symbol.In order to reverse the low expectations that can hamper progress in Tribal communities, successful programs often turn to Tribal and other local leaders to usher in change. Grantees from FYSB’s Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program, in particular, rely on local adult role models, including business professionals, police and fire department staff, and Tribal leaders to provide the stability and direction that can often be missing from the lives of these young people (see article on page 6).

With these strategies, Native American groups are working to harness the positive energy of their communities, especially their young people.

“People often say that the youth are the future, or that they are our leaders of tomorrow,” Cook says. “We think thatyouth are leaders now, and we feel that it is very important for Tribes to get them more involved in leadership positions, where they can start working to solve the problems that affect their communities.”

National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth | 5515 Security Lane, Suite 800 | North Bethesda, MD 20852 | (301) 608-8098 | ncfy@acf.hhs.gov