Significant Partnerships With Native American Students, Parents, and Schools: A Sweetgrass Method
By Mark Standing Eagle Baez
Native Americans have considered sweetgrass as sacred for a very long time.
Sweetgrass consists of blades of grass that have been dried and braided for
use in purifying ceremonies. In some Nations, sweetgrass is used in prayer,
ceremonies, dancing, and to honor individuals during a rite of passage; while others
incorporate the burning of sweetgrass as a significant step in the daily activities of
purification, protection, strength, and prayer. In my personal experience, sweetgrass
is used in spiritual cleansing. As the smoke rises, our prayers rise to the spirit world
where the grandfathers and our Creator live.
When I smudge myself with the ashes, negative energy, feelings, and emotions are
lifted away. Sweetgrass is also used for healing one’s mind, spirit, and body as well as to
harmonize energies. Elders from my community describe its use as a means to cleanse
our eyes and hearts so that we see and feel the truth, beauty of earth mother, and love
shared through our families, friends, and communities. The ceremonies help us to grow in
harmony and balance, and to feel compassion, gentleness, and thoughtfulness for others.
Similar to our roles as school psychologists and educators, I believe that as Native Americans
we appreciate the value in clearing negativity, promoting harmony, and providing a
welcoming atmosphere with compassion and gentleness. The purpose of this article is to
explain the application of the Sweetgrass Method to my role as a school psychologist and
how it serves as a means to communicate, collaborate, and continue healthy journeys.
Culturally Responsive Parent Outreach
Parental involvement in the education process is a critical component of an effective
school. Implementing strategies such as providing transportation, evening meals, day
care/babysitting, parent support strategies, special events, and a place in schools where
parents can visit may facilitate greater parental involvement. If parents are made to feel
welcome, they are more likely to get involved. School personnel can strive to increase
parent involvement among Native families in culturally sensitive ways such as through
letters, phone calls, home visits, providing transportation, emotional and social support,
and respecting ceremonies. Another related goal is increasing parent involvement on
multidisciplinary teams. Parents can speak about behaviors the child demonstrates in the
home and community, and can share their perceptions as to whether these behaviors are
consistent with those expected of same-age peers in the community (Baca & Cervantes,
2004). Partnerships between families and schools can be solidified if we continue to braid
these services and involve families directly in the ongoing educational process.
C. Allison Baez (personal communication, September 5, 2010) suggests that by looking
at the “Sweetgrass” Method, “we look at braiding the strands of introspection (looking
within oneself), collaboration with families (reaching out to others), and continuity
(providing continued support).” What this means is, as practitioners, we braid the introspective
(self) with collaborative and continual support efforts to create a culturally responsive
service delivery system. Sometimes however, what we say we are going to do as
practitioners and educators may not be truly happening. Clinical psychologist and parent
Vicky Lomay states that some Navajo families do not see the word services as a partnership.
Families are told by schools to attend a meeting where services for their child will
be discussed, rather than invited to be part of a team process (personal communication,
September 25, 2010). The importance of active participation from students, parents, and
schools is crucial. In my school district, Native and non-Native school psychologists braid
relationships and services with the student, parent, and school through an invitation for
active participation, thus creating a healthy weaving of the three strands.
Introspective strand (self). Consciously or subconsciously, we as Native people
braid with our Earth Mother and God our Creator for daily strength and protection. We
become well grounded within our “introspective braid.” When we are well grounded,
we are taken care of. When we take care of ourselves, we then can take better care of
others (positive mental health). If we continue to take care of others and neglect ourselves
(spiritually, emotionally, mentally, physically), we exhaust all energies without
replenishing ourselves (negative mental health). It is important to make time to connect and ground ourselves daily with the Earth and the Creator (introspective braid),
thus bringing understanding, clarity, and preparedness for what comes our way. Practitioners
can do the same by embracing what empowers or strengthens them.
Patricia Isaac, a school psychologist and a professor at SUNY Empire State College,
suggests the following guidelines for ensuring culturally responsive interactions:
- Enter the community in a respectful manner by not bringing your expectations,
judgments, or making assumptions about the community.
- Quietly observe and wait until you are approached by members in the community
(in some communities).
- Respect the use of spiritual healing.
- Be respectful of sacred places and where ceremonies take place (Isaac, 2010, p. 52).
The introspective braid (self) is necessary and important for practitioners in order to
lead by example when working with Native populations.
Collaboration strand. The second strand of the braid is collaboration, the work
we do with others. Students with disabilities or those experiencing other risk factors
may have problems at home that interfere with achievement. Duke Gitelman Brilliant
(2001) maintains that minority parents lack familiarity with schools and that schools
lack culturally appropriate research methodology and cross-cultural sensitivity. Developing
and implementing effective educational programs depends on effective collaboration
with parents. Furthermore, the collaborative efforts with parents and students
will help improve home–school partnerships, which in turn may lay a strong foundation
for academic achievement. The collaboration strand of the braid is a proactive
approach, with parents and teachers understanding each other’s perspectives and realities
in order to better serve the child’s academic needs.
Continuity strand. The third strand in the braid stands for continuity and how our
work constantly moves forward with and for others. When we look at braiding our relationships
(services) from a school perspective, it’s from a viewpoint of understanding
and developing quality efforts to improve the academic achievement of the students we
serve. This also means improving our curriculum and providing resources for students
and families. When sweetgrass is walked upon, it bends, but does not break. In other
words, schools should be more flexible and understanding with students and families,
showing cultural sensitivity to the ceremonial responsibilities. Our continued efforts can
focus on professional development, particularly in the areas of flexibility (with familial
ceremonial obligations). Since teachers are the primary link to parents, ongoing staff
development in healthy communication strategies with parents needs to be viewed as
a continuous strand in the braid of work toward meaningful family partnerships.
Christenson (2010) describes three defining features for engaging with parents.
First is acknowledgement that the family–school relationship is a separate piece to be
accounted for in the assessment-to-intervention link. The second feature relates to
the purpose of engaged family partnerships, which is cooperation, coordination, and
collaboration to enhance students’ learning opportunities, educational progress, and
school success in four domains: academic, social, behavioral, and emotional (Christenson
& Sheridan, 2001, p. 37). The third feature focuses on actions that join the two
socializing systems of youth: home and school (Christenson, 2010). As Native school
psychologists, we similarly understand the need for a continuous, coordinated linkage
with families that is based on an understanding and respect for cultural elements.
The Sweetgrass Method engages parents, students, and school personnel as the three
main contributors to the success of the child’s academic program. The focus is on making
sure that parents’ views are heard and understood. From my cultural perspective,
I see school psychologists as the braiders of methods that embrace positive change
among the student, parent, and school personnel. The Sweetgrass Method looks at
the introspective, collaborative, and continuous strands as processes for significant,
healthy, and engaging partnerships. Thus, the opportunity to use this approach will
eliminate negative energies, feelings, and emotions toward families and/or daily routines
with students. The clarity that sweetgrass gives us may also provide the balance
we need to serve students more effectively.
Baca, L., & Cervantes, H. (2004). The bilingual
special education interface (4th ed.). Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Christenson, S. L. (2010). Engaging with parents:
The power of information, responsiveness to
parental need, and ongoing support for the
enhanced competence of all students. Communiqué,
Christenson, S. L., & Sheridan, S. M. (2001).
School and families: Creating essential connections
for learning. New York: Guilford.
Duke Gitelman Brilliant, C. (2001). Parental involvement
in education: Attitudes and activities
of Spanish-speakers as affected by training.
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Isaac, P. (2010). Respecting traditional healing:
A journey of understanding where spirituality
and cultural competence intersect. American
Psychological Association Communiqué eNews
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