Tribal Mentors Pass Wisdom, Self-esteem to Children of Prisoners

Fishing on Medicine Stab Lake in Browning.Fishing. Trapping. Hunting. Dog racing.

Native young people in the mentoring program at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Fairbanks area in Alaska are learning that their elders have a lot more to offer than an hour of companionship a couple times a week.

They can teach pride and selfsufficiency with a healthy dose of fun.

"We have 16- and 17-year-old boys signing up to be Little Brothers," said Cindi Nation, rural expansion director at the Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter. "At that age, we're usually signing them up to be Big Brothers."

And it's not just the boys who are having all the fun. One mentor recently taught her Little Sister how to trap and skin a beaver in order to turn the pelt into a traditional pair of gloves and a hat.

Mentoring can be a powerful youth development tool in Native communities, where so much of the Tribe's history and identity is passed down through the knowledge and skills of the elders. The self-esteem and confidence that can come through a meaningful connection with older Tribe members can help children and young people grow into successful, productive members of the society. That's why the Family and Youth Services Bureau's Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCP) Program supports Tribal mentoring programs for the children of incarcerated parents.

Research has shown that children who suffer the long-term absence of a parent or parents are most at risk of experiencing the emotional, behavioral, and educational problems that could jeopardize their future success. Adding to the burden, Native youth also frequently face issues around poverty, illness, and alcohol and substance abuse. And while homelessness is not usually an issue on Tribal lands, overcrowding is.

"When there are an average of about 10 to 15 people living in a small twobedroom house, it's hard to have quiet time. It's difficult to have time for reflective action at all," said Milt Lee of the Maza Tiopa mentoring program on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Porcupine, South Dakota. "The idea of mentoring, to take these children out for an hour or two with nothing more in mind than building a relationship with an adult, is really powerful."

Indeed, mentoring programs have been proven to improve the futures of young people. Studies show they reduce first-time drug use by almost 50 percent and first-time alcohol use by 33 percent.

Mentoring also helps children to improve their relationships with their caregivers and peers. And mentored youth are more confident about their schoolwork and often improve their academic performance.

In Alaska, the outcome is far more fundamental.

"We have a way too high youth suicide rate in the State," said Taber Rehbaum, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Fairbanks Area. "We're not just helping them feel better about school; we are talking about life and death here."

The five Tribal MCP programs-the first of their kind-were funded by FYSB in 2004, and while Big Brothers Big Sisters is building on its ongoing activities, some other programs are still experiencing the start-up pains that are common to mentoring efforts.

One of the biggest challenges so far, grantees say, has been navigating the issues around recruitment. For Francis Onstad, director of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, word of mouth has been their primary source for recruiting.

"Kids know other kids who have parents that are incarcerated," says Onstad, "We also work with the courts and the schools."

The challenge becomes, Onstad says, convincing them to stay. Cultural sensitivity plays a large role not only in keeping the youth interested, but also maintaining discipline for up to 20 youth.

"The mentors are all elder Natives," says Onstad. She says the elder Natives don't have problems disciplining the youth, because their tradition teaches youth to respect their elders. "With the elders they just look at the kids and they behave," she says.

Elder mentor with youth.Teaming the youth immediately with elders as mentors helps them to feel grounded and lets them know there is someone interested in them, says Liz Sherman, director of the youth mentoring program for Blackfeet. Sherman says the elders greet the youth in Blackfeet language and teach them a word each day. The youth learn traditional and Tribal songs and dances and visit historical sites on the reservation.

Maza Tiopa staff in South Dakota are having a harder time finding mentors for their program. Some adults are cautious about volunteering because as mentors they are unclear about what would be expected of them.

"We really emphasize that the relationship is the intervention," Lee said. "These children need to have good relationships with adults who are going to offer mental, emotional, and spiritual support even though you might go 6 months with these children before they'll let their guards down."

In Alaska, Nation has found that her sales pitch works best when she explains the program in terms of Native custom. Most of the villages she enters, she says, already have a word for mentoring in their own languages and a tradition of intergenerational support.

"When the parents came to sign up the kids, they would say 'Oh, I can do this' and signed themselves up too," she said.

Recruitment was enough of a challenge in the 16 Boys and Girls Clubs-hosted MCP programs run through a Navajo Nation grant that staff developed and conducted a series of trainings to help the programs find and convince potential mentors and mentees to sign up, according to Spencer Willie, program manager for the Expansion Office with the Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation. With the help of mentoring experts, they eventually developed an introductory video that the programs can show when they visit potential recruitments sites, such as fire stations or professional associations.

Recruitment may be easier for the Navajo programs, Willie said, since mentors and mentees always meet in the structured environment of the Boys and Girls Clubs, where activities are often planned and help is readily available.

"When the mentees bring up things about their own lives that the mentors don't feel trained to handle, we can immediately bring in club staff to help with individual issues," Willie said. The Boys and Girls Clubs also organize group activities and offsite trips to the movies to give mentors and mentees contact with and support from others in the program.

So far, many of the planned activities between mentors and mentees in the other programs have been around attending community events and dinners, as well as sports and homework. But over time, the new grantees plan to build in excursions that bring the participants closer to their cultures, like the Blackfeet program in Browning has begun to do. Sherman says they are in the planning stages of taking youth to the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow where they can dance with Native tribes from all over the country.

Camping on Chewing Black Bones campground near Glacier National Park.At Maza Tiopa, one of the pillars of the program will be reconnecting both youth and their mentors with the seven sacred sites of the Lakota, and the rites that accompany them. On the summer solstice, for example, Lakota go to Devil's Tower, a sacred rock formation in Wyoming, for a Sun Dance. But since it's 150 miles from Pine Ridge, most people don't have the resources to get there anymore. Lee says that Maza Tiopa will be organizing trips to take them there.

"Everything that we are doing here is a stepping stone toward building a child into somebody who is developmentally sound and a strong adult," Lee said.

Grantees also hope that mentoring programs will affect how Native American mentors parent their own children. Nation said that in one Alaska Native community she serves, a mentor had his Little Brother come over every Saturday morning so they could cook breakfast together.

"His stepson got mad and said it wasn't fair, that he wanted his own time," Nation said. "So now he's got Friday evenings."

Given the success of the more established Alaska Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Native Mentoring Children of Prisoners grantees have much to look forward to.

In one Alaskan village school, half the children now have mentors.

"The thing that excites us about that is that it is enough to make a difference in how the whole community interacts with youth," Rehbaum said, "and especially how they build Positive Youth Development into the community."

For copies of the Navajo Nation's mentoring manual or recruitment video, please contact Spencer Willie at or at (928) 871-6352.


Seeing Is Believing: Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program on Video

Washington to Texas, Arizona to Connecticut, Milt Lee has traveled the country with one goal in mind: Getting in to prisons. Why? As part of the Maza Tiopa Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Lee shuttles videotaped messages from youth to their incarcerated parents and back in an effort to build a connection that could help brighten all of their futures.

"The more connected people are to their children, the less likely that they are going to go back to prison," Lee said. "And the child really gains a strength that can keep them from following in their parent's footsteps."

While communicating with family is often hard from jail, Native prisoners have an especially difficult time maintaining relationships with their children. Since a number of crimes on the reservation are considered Federal offenses, infractions may land a mother or father in a Federal penitentiary thousands of miles from home. And while phone calls and letters are important, the power of seeing a parent or child on film is undeniable. Just ask the family in one of Lee's recent sessions, which resulted in a promotional video for the program.

The first time they were interviewed, the three adolescent girls were visibly angry and hurt. They were dismissive of their incarcerated father's role in their lives. "I'm not looking for a dad anymore," one of the girls said. "But if he wants to be my friend, I'll be open to that."

Their father, who has been in and out of prison their whole lives, was clearly shaken by their comments but responded with understanding. "I know I'm going to have to initiate this," he said. "If she wants to be friends, that's more than what I can ask for. That's more than what I deserve."

By the second round of video letters, father and daughters were laughing, sharing stories, and talking about a future together.

As the Maza Tiopa mentoring program grows to serve more young people, Lee hopes to expand the video letters service as well. One of the biggest challenges he has encountered however, is convincing prison administrators to let him in.

"They say they are afraid the inmate is going to say something that is going to hurt the child," Lee said. "Or they are afraid they are going to say things that are codes for drug deliveries and crimes."

Lee has assured prison officials that videos are edited for appropriateness before family members see them.

Then, the healing begins.