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Home-School-Community Communication With Indigenous American Families

By Paul Dauphinais, Elvina Charley, Carol Robinson-Zañartu, Olivia Melroe, & Sally Baas

Members of the Indigenous Americans Group of the Multicultural Affairs Committee Indigenous Americans typically identify by individual nation, tribe, band, clan, and/or community. Because we/they are the first people, and in fact indigenous to the Americas, and because the term Indigenous American recognizes the roots of cultural wisdom and the connection of indigenous people with what Deloria and Wildcat (2001) refer to as the critical cultural relationship between power and place, we have chosen to use and introduce this term to NASP members and readers. In this way, we recognize the common roots and bonds between what has been previously referred to as Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, First Nations, and Native American Indian. We recognize as well common elements among these groups and those indigenous to Central and South America, and that indigenous peoples from other continents and from many Island nations also share many parallel experiences and issues, including those central to education.

         Indigenous Americans come from cultures rich in traditional knowledge, survival, resilience, and healing. Most Indigenous Americans experience “living in two worlds,” that of their traditional or tribal culture and that of the dominant culture. Although many other groups straddle two cultures, for Indigenous Americans the differences across the two worlds are vast, encompassing differences in basic values, ways of being with one another, belief systems, as well as in languages and behaviors. This biculturalism reflects and requires maintaining language, oral culture/traditions, and spirituality within a dominant society. As school psychologists working with indigenous communities, it is critical to have a fundamental knowledge of the ecosystemic (micro/macro) factors that contribute to the current spiritual, social emotional, cognitive, and physical needs and resilience of the youth, families, and communities, as well as that need to walk and live in “two worlds.”

Diversity Among Indigenous Americans

The United States “recognizes” over 500 distinct tribal groups in the United States through treaty. Other tribal groups do not have existing treaties with the U.S. and are therefore not “federally recognized.” The use of the term nation is sometimes used to acknowledge the sovereign and parallel status that indigenous groups hold in relationship to the U.S. government. Because of the large number of tribal groups, one cannot make assumptions that what is true for one tribal group is true for another. Tribes have distinct languages, cultures, traditions, and beliefs; degrees of acculturation vary widely. In addition, intermarriage among tribal groups and life in urban centers has created pan-Indian cultures. Local indigenous ceremonies may come from a tribal group dominant in the area, but not be distinctive to one’s own tribal group. For example, in many parts of the country the Lakota language is used in ceremonies even though many participants are not Lakota or even Sioux. Many Indigenous Americans living in urban areas rely on these pan-Indian traditions to provide the balance and spirituality they seek.

         There was a period of time when it was not in one’s best interest to be identified as Indigenous American (or Indian or Native), and in some locales this identity still inspires stereotypes and mistreatment. Therefore, the language, traditions, mannerisms, ways of knowing (epistemology), and ways of living were not shared readily with children and grandchildren. However, more recently, as it has become apparent that affirming one’s culture, language, and tradition supports resilience, this trend has begun to reverse. Most of those who have Indigenous heritage now take great pride in it.

         In interacting with Indigenous American children and families, one cannot assume universality in describing any one family or child. Given this caveat, a school psychologist’s interaction with Indigenous American youth may be influenced by recognition of differences in communication styles, help-seeking behaviors, and attribution of their child’s disability. While we are able to make some distinctions among these various contexts, communication with Indigenous American families and children transcends all of these situations. While school psychologists’ cross-cultural interaction may be unique for each family or young person, we must be cognizant of the variation and differences among all families. To make these interactions successful, we must make adjustments. Some general suggestions are offered that we hope may be helpful. Traditional Indigenous Americans generally think in holistic terms; all things are related. Thus, keep in mind that these separate contexts (communication, help seeking, attribution) are not distinct from one another and that Indigenous Americans do not have distinct constructs to describe and communicate about them. Rather, their communication will be reflective of their help-seeking behaviors and beliefs about why their child has or may have a disability.

Historical Context

During the period of colonization, the “power and place” (Deloria & Wildcat, 2001) of Indigenous Americans was fragmented through relocation, genocide, and forbidding the practice of ceremony and native language. Historically, school was traumatic and demoralizing for indigenous youth (now parents, grandparents, and community members). Overt discrimination was the norm. The Bureau of Indian Affairs established Indian Boarding Schools (late 1880’s and well into the 20th century), which ignited the harsh process of assimilation, as children were taken from their families and homelands to be indoctrinated into Western thought and stripped of home culture, language, tradition, dress, and parental contact. Indigenous identity was suppressed through corporal punishment, which translated into internalized oppression. Duran and Duran (2000) describe the remnants of this period as intergenerational trauma, since multiple generations have been and continue to be affected. The outcomes are witnessed in underachievement and multiple distresses and dysfunctions. High rates of poverty persist. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and mental and physical illness for Indigenous Americans are twice the national average. Their resilience, however, is found in wellness movements and\ the slow but upward trends in well-being, school graduation levels, and achievement. Decolonization and indigenization are essential processes of healing for Indigenous Americans.

         The U.S. Government’s Indian Relocation Act (1954) relocated indigenous people to major cities across the country with the intent of providing increased opportunities for self-reliance and economic success. Today, Indigenous Americans continue to reside in some of these major cities (e.g., Los Angles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York) and maintain strong intertribal communities. Thus, it is not safe to assume that most tribal members reside on their ancestral land or federally reserved (reservation) lands. Many people transit border towns in rural and urban locales in addition to residing within large cities. This often causes “invisibility” within educational settings for many Indigenous American students.

         The Indian Education Act (1972) inspired a new movement of self-sufficiency and self-reliance that began the restoration of healing and empowerment within indigenous communities. Today we find different forms for education on the tribal reservations, from state public/charter and tribal grant to Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools.

Resilience and Healing

Indigenous American nations have endured genocide and continue to survive within a dominant world through the knowledge of their ancestors or passing on of oral traditions. Indigenous communities continue to practice spirituality and hold strong to kinship/clanship as a foundation for healing and resiliency. Relationships within clans and extended kinship relationships are far more extensive than in conventional Western families; thus, school psychologists need to recognize those as central to the “family” as they seek and value family participation. Traditionally, children are reared and disciplined by extended family members, such as “aunties,” uncles, and grandparents. This social structure ensures that each family member has a respected role in contributing positive characteristics and personality for a well-rounded and respectful child. Making room for extended family constellations in school meetings is reasonable and helpful.

         In contrast to the triadic linguistic and cultural traditions of most mainstream schools and school psychologists (e.g., three main points, three examples, Holy Trinity), the medicine wheel or four-direction way of being in the universe is an intertribal modality found in most indigenous cultures and communities. Each cardinal direction is sacred and holds specific knowledge and essential spiritual, social-emotional,cognitive, and physical wellness. The life cycle incorporates the universe, four elements (air, water, fire, earth), and all living beings (four legged, winged, amphibians, reptiles). In this circle, every being has respect and its place, purpose, and spiritual significance. Striving for balance in this life circle is the ultimate purpose for an indigenous way of life.

Communication Styles

Communication with Indigenous American parents and community members, like their worldviews in general, tends to be highly contextual and relational. That is, no one thing is seen as causative or caused in a linear way; rather, more complex attributions may well exist and need to be heard and respected. For instance, culturally constructed linguistic traditions and styles dictate things like what is humorous, what is appropriate, and when it is appropriate to say certain things. If our linguistic tradition as school psychologists is different and we don’t understand that, then we are likely to misinterpret a particular behavior as meaning something that it doesn’t mean. Although only about 18% of Indigenous Americans speak a language other than English (Federal Register, 2002), the infl uences of those languages are evident for multiple generations (Leap, 1993). Over 200 languages are spoken. Ancestral infl uences on tribal English should not be mistaken for “bad English.”

         Often, mainstream school psychologists use Western rhetorical styles to “win over” or to “make the case” for assessment fi ndings, Individual Education Plan (IEP) goals, or other common educational recommendations. When one takes this stance with Indigenous American parents and community members, the responses may not be an overt rejection or acceptance, but one that is refl ective and reticent. Silence in response to one’s presentation should not be assumed to be approval or disapproval. We must remember that an approach that provides for “informed consent” is mandatory. The school psychologist must provide the time necessary for refl ection and understanding; there must be an understanding that the family member may want to consult other family members (often extended family) not present at the meeting. So often in the context of a meeting, we hear, “Johnny’s grandpa (aunt, uncle, grandma, etc.) doesn’t believe in that . . .” or “(s)he is like that because . . .”

Help-Seeking Behaviors

Indigenous Americans often have ways of seeking help different from those in the mainstream, especially when there are personal issues involved. Often, Indigenous American children and adults will seek out close relatives to find answers to troubling questions before seeking a person from the school. Parents may seek help from a close relative or elder. Some traditional families may seek help from respected community members such as a medicine man. Respecting and understanding the perspective of the family is critical.

         Warnings against equating lack of conventional parental involvement with lack of interest began in the 1980’s. Robinson-Zañartu and Majel Dixon (1996) found parents extremely concerned with the education of their youth, and spoke of long traditions of Indian respect for education. Indigenous American parents expressed great frustration that school personnel did not appear to want to hear their perspectives or learn about their cultures, which were seen as central to the education issues of the child (remember that all things are seen to be related). It is also important to remember that both children and parents can be perceived as indirect (from a Western or mainstream cultural perspective) in making points or asking for help. If you experience wondering what the point is, it may be a function of the relational communication style; thus, listen to the whole story first.

Attribution of Disabilities

When considering special education classification or placement, school psychologists must consider possible cultural mismatches. For instance, Locust (1988) pointed out that many if not most traditional indigenous languages do not have words for mentally retarded, disabled, or handicapped, and that many communities not only do not attach labels such as mentally retarded to their children but in fact assure that these children have roles with which to contribute to their societies. Some families express concern about overrepresentation and express suspicion about the real existence of disabilities (Robinson-Zañartu & Majel-Dixon, 1996).

         Like all families, Indigenous American families are concerned about whether their child is living with a disability. However, it is not uncommon for school psychologists serving Indigenous American families to hear them report reasons for their child’s disability—usually consistent with cultural perspectives. For example, a parent or community member may attribute a disability to disharmony caused by tension, to the presence or intrusion of a particular spirit or being, or to someone in the kinship/clanship system having done something considered wrong. These will vary considerably from tribe to tribe or may not occur at all. Nonetheless, they must be considered with respect, and in addition to what the school would like to do to support the student, the school psychologist might ask if there is a traditional way to deal with this that the family will engage in. There are no attribution universals with the diversity of cultures that exists within the larger group of all Indigenous American people.

Suggestions for Effective Cross-Cultural Collaboration and Advocacy

Collaborating with parents in the advocacy for their child is important for all people. However, because our (Western) society is power-based, many Indigenous American families and children (and those of other nondominant groups or those living at lower SES levels) may not have access to the same opportunities that others in the general population may have. This access issue can be so subtle that it is difficult to recognize, but is played out, for example, in such issues as Indigenous American overrepresentation in programs for children with disabilities and underrepresentation in gifted programs. Advocacy can be complicated, but generally it is not. Following are some examples of the advocate role that school psychologists can take beginning with the initial family meeting.

  • Use appropriate welcoming and greetings to introduce everyone present. Many Indigenous American community members use a nonaggressive handshake or a simple head nod in greetings that may not be accompanied by eye contact. For example, Navajo school psychologists may introduce themselves in their own language and by stating their clan(s) of origin, which is important in identifying their own identity within the tribe. This sets the tone for a respectful relationship with the parents.
  • Some communities open important meetings with a prayer or invocation of the Creator, and in the case of team meetings, may use the name of the child/student as part of the prayer.
  • Seek parent input and interpretation of school-based concerns, and involve them in the interventions.

         At IEP and other team meetings, presentations should

  • Begin with discussions of the child’s strengths
  • Explain results in everyday language with examples
  • Avoid using specific scores (Individual scores are unnecessary; focusing on them can be interpreted as attempting to label a child with a number, totally removed from the child’s broader context. A focus on specific scores is extremely reductionistic, in total contrast to the holistic thought that characterizes indigenous epistemology and worldview.)
  • Use graphs and other visual aids
  • Consider using four-part examples rather than three-part or three-point examples (in keeping with the four-part medicine wheel and tradition of thought)
  • Elicit parent/extended family members’ perspectives and questions
  • If parents or guardians are non-English speakers, have a translator present who is able to translate and clarify what is presented in the language of the family (e.g., cultural broker).

         At IEP and other team or parent meetings, school psychologists’ discussions should reflect cognizance and sensitivity of the family’s lack of specific knowledge of testing and tests and the use of words that may seem quite common to the profession, but are far from clear for the lay person. During the meetings there are some simple protocols that create an atmosphere of collaboration rather than one that is adversarial engendered by defensiveness.

  • Do not assume silence means approval or understanding.
  • Understand that nonverbal cues may be very different from [your] own perception of that cue. For example, a lack of eye contact does not always mean avoidance or may not be a negative response. Time to contemplate does not always mean disagreement or not understanding.

         At the conclusion of the meeting it is important to obtain consensus based on informed consent.As school psychologists, we must be assured that what was discussed was understood by all and the implication of the action taken by the IEP team is truly each member’s wish. A summary of the meeting will help assure that everyone understands the outcome of the meeting and the next steps to be taken.


Context is central in understanding and communicating with Indigenous American families and youth. It is within broad contexts that traditional indigenous people think about and understand the world, and thus think about their children and their educational performance. That context is broad and deep; thus, understanding national and local historical contexts, from the boarding school era to local governmentally imposed long walks must be the first job of the school psychologist. Respect is one of the most universal values across indigenous communities; thus speaking with respect about the youth, cultures, and communities by heeding suggestions such as eliciting parental interpretations and listing the assets of the child first reflect that respect. Heeding cautions such as misinterpretation based on only seeing from one’s own cultural lens provides an opportunity for school psychologists to begin to heal the decades of mis-service or underservice to our Indigenous American youth and to help support the strong emergence of their resilience. Resilient Indigenous American youth and communities have the potential to bring broadly contextualized insights to world problems and solutions.

Paul Dauphinais is a school psychologist at Turtle Mountain Schools in Belcourt, ND.
Elvina Charley is a school psychologist at Ganado Unified School District and cochair of the NASP Native American workgroup.
Carol Robinson-Zañartu is Professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at San Diego State University and Director of their Native Scholars and Collaborators Projects.
Olivia Melroe is a Professor in the School Psychology Program at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Sally A. Baas is Director of the Southeast Asian Teacher Licensure & Hmong Culture and Language Programs and Coordinator of Special Education & ESL Programs at Concordia University, St. Paul, MN.

References and Resources

Bergstrom, A., Cleary, L. & Peacock, T. (2003). The seventh generation: Native youth speak about finding the good path. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse of Rural Education and Small Schools.

Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.

Cajete, G. (1994). Look to the mountain. An ecology of Indigenous education. Skyland, NC: Kivaki Press.

Cleary, L. M., & Peacock, T. D. (1998). Collected wisdom: American Indian education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Deloria, V., & Wildcat, D. R. (2001). Power and place: Indian education in America. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Duran, E. (2006). Healing the soul wound: Counseling with American Indians and other Native Peoples. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Duran, E., & Duran, B. (1995). Native American postcolonial psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Federal Register, Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (2002). Retrieved October 10, 2008, from http://www.census.gov/pubinfo/www/FRN02.pdf

LaFromboise, T. (2006). American Indian youth suicide prevention. The Prevention Researcher, 13, 16–18.

Leap, W. (1993). American Indian English. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Locust, C. (1988). Wounding the spirit: Discrimination and traditional American Indian belief systems. Harvard Educational Review, 58 (3), 315–330.

Robinson-Zañartu, C., & Aganza, J. (2000). Dynamic assessment and sociocultural context: Assessing the whole child. In C. S. Lidz & J. G. Elliott (Eds.), Dynamic assessment: Prevailing models and applications (pp. 433–488). Oxford: JAI/Ablex.

Robinson-Zañartu, C., & Majel-Dixon, J. (1996). Parent voices: American Indian relationships with schools. Journal of American Indian Education, 36(1), 33–54.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies. Research and indigenous peoples. New York: Zed Books.