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Student Connections

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.

Sweetgrass Method
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, 39(1), 24.

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. Bilingual Research Journal, 25(3), 251–274.

Isaac, P. (2010). Respecting traditional healing: A journey of understanding where spirituality and cultural competence intersect. American Psychological Association Communiqué eNews Journal. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ pi/oema/resources/communique/2010/08/ index.aspx