NASP Communiqué, Vol. 32, #8
Journey to Thinking Multiculturally
The Native American Culture: A Historical and Reflective Perspective
By Grace Tsai & Luisa Alanis
In cultural research we don't share our stories enough. It is
our hope that our personal stories will provide additional insight as to
why we're passionate about Native American culture.
Color of My Skin: Grace Tsai (Chinese American Female)
Coarse black hair, deep brown skin, oval eyes, strong ridged jaw, and
broad shoulders: these are my characteristics. I have been consistently
identified as partially Native American due to both the ignorance of my
white peers and my non-typical physical characteristics. These labels deterred
my self- esteem development as a Chinese American as well as created intrigue
about the Native American ethnicity that I was often associated with. These
mislabels also expressed an unseen connection between myself and the Native
American population. The exploration of the Native American population
continued as I learned about their history, family role and educational
opportunities, and suggested counseling interventions through interviews
and personal experiences with their culture.
Searching: Luisa Alanis (Mexican American Female)
In search of learning about my ancestors I have learned about the Indians
in Mexico and their
history. Through taking courses in Chicana/o Studies and traveling to Mexico I
have learned about the Mexican Indian tribes, the devastating conquest
of Mexico and its
aftermath. In my Chicano classes I was briefly introduced to Native Americans
when we were learning about the Spanish expeditions to the north in search
of Cibola. Many Spaniards encountered Native American people
in their expeditions to the north in search of gold. From that brief introduction
I was intrigued to learn more about these people who were experiencing
similar abuses as my people and who were being forced to abandon their
traditions, values and beliefs. As a result of my brief introduction and
exposure to the culture I developed an interest to learn more in order
to educate myself and to become more culturally competent in order to not
only be a better practitioner but, overall, a better person.
Native American Populations: One Name, Many Tribes
The U.S. Census Bureau (2000) states that approximately 4.1
million residents of the United States identify themselves as American Indian
or Alaska Natives (2.5 million report only American Indian or Alaska Native
heritage; another 1.6 million report mixed heritage including American Indian
or Alaska Native). Although there are many tribes in the United
States, there are approximately 116 tribes with more
than 1,000 members federally recognized by the United
States government (U.S. Census, 1990).
History of Racism and Oppression
Loss of land. Native Americans have experienced a history
full of oppression and racism. Since the period when Native tribes were found
on this continent at the time of its "discovery," European governments have
never fully acknowledged nor regarded Native Americans as the owners of the
territory they occupied (Zaferatos, 1998). For example, The Iroquois people occupied very fertile
land in the Untied States and Canada (Spring,
1997). The British and Americans used their power to separate the autonomous
Iroquois by regulating trade, demanding land cessions
and enforcing criminal jurisdiction, thus, taking their lands and
destroying their people. Moreover, through federally mandated regulations,
150 million acres were taken from the Native Americans (Turner, 1997).
Oppression through colonization. In addition
to land restriction and servitude, other oppressive acts include the obliteration
of native language and culture. Teaching the English language to Native American
populations disenfranchised and further served colonization purposes (Keeshig-Tobias,
2003). The Indian School system was developed as a way to further institute
alienation and forced assimilation that denied and decimated Native American
culture and legacy (Turner, 1997). Another example of colonization through
oppressive acts against the Native American people was sexual violence. From
historical accounts, the federal government noted that Native American's were "dirty" and
therefore viewed as subhuman (Smith, 2003). Countless recorded narratives from
English settlers noted rape and sexual mutilation of Native American woman.
these horrific acts committed against Native Americans they have managed to
build resiliency (George-Kanentiio, 2000).
After reviewing texts, interviews with Native American individuals and other
experiences, we noticed that Native American groups adopted several resilient
strategies against possible oppressive acts. The central Iroquois
philosophy of collaborating together provided them with a central force to
work with or against the "Non-Native" populations. A Navajo classmate's thoughts
on his tribe's resiliency further exemplifies the Native American cultural
mentality. He noted that his cultural pride was in his tribe's adaptability.
In all areas, he noted, his people were able to work with and reside in different
groups and environments. In contrast to European cultures' competitive perspectives,
Native Americans utilized their own beliefs as core solutions to potential
problems, recognizing that if they were forced to be educated under
Western thinking, they could use this to "learn what White people were all
about, and fight them with their own knowledge" (Brent Toadlena, personal communication,
November 13, 2003).
Through case studies, narratives
and studies of language, Native American researchers continue to adopt
resilient strategies to overcome acts of linguistic oppression against
their cultural group. Native American elders are instrumental in encouraging
the teaching of the Native language to their youth (Keeshig-Tobias,
poetry and fiction as written by Native Americans has been a major influence
in their resistance against the dominant culture's teachings. Thus, as
noted in research and experiences from Native American individuals, the
cultural group's resiliency is based on their abilities to collaborate
and create unity and pride for their culture.
Native American Family Practices, Beliefs and Traditions
The family structure varies from tribe to tribe including gender roles,
from the matriarchial structure seen in the Navajo to patriarchial structures. For example, among the Haudenosaunee people, women
are regarded as powerful physical beings in their matriarchail family structure
Family practices within the Native American culture are as diverse as
among the different Asian groups' family practices and traditions. Yet, despite
this enormous diversity, there seems to be common core values and beliefs
that characterize traditional Native American culture across tribal groups
and geographic regions. Most Native American families are extended and
often include mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
It is not uncommon to have adopted relatives in the household and all
living in very close proximity to one another (Allison & Vining,
1999). Native Americans tend to have a high fertility rate, a large
percentage of out-of-wedlock births, strong roles for women and families
headed by a single mother or another family female adult (Sue & Sue,
Native Americans highly value traditional beliefs concerning relation, harmony,
balance, spirituality, and wellness; as part of valuing "relation" all these
beliefs are interrelated.
Relation. Central to Native American spiritual traditions
is the importance of "relation" as a way of existing in the world.
The power of relation is symbolized by the Circle of Life, represented throughout
the traditions, customs and art forms of Native people (Dufrene, 1990). This
Circle of Life is believed, in many tribal traditions, to consist of the
basic elements of life: fire, earth, water and wind. These four points also
denote, as for example in Cherokee tradition, spirit, nature, body and mind,
referred to as the Four Winds (Dufrene, 1990). Brent Toadlena explained that the life
of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood, and that there are important
ceremonies that depict this (personal communication).
Also life, from a traditional Native American perspective, is viewed as
a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the inner circle, representing
our spirit. The next circle is family/clan. The third circle is the natural
environment and all our relations. And the fourth circle consists of the
spirit world. Considering the power of relation, all life exists in an involved
system of interdependence in a dynamic state of harmony and balance (Garrett & Carroll,
Harmony and balance. Among the many aspects of Native American culture
is the emphasis on unity through seeking harmony and balance both inwardly
and outwardly. Generally, Native American traditional values reflect the
importance placed upon community contribution, sharing, cooperation, being,
noninterference, community and extended family, harmony with nature, a time
orientation toward living in the present, preference for explanation of natural
phenomena according to the spiritual, and a deep respect for elders (Garret,
1999). While visiting the Barona Mission Museum, many displays reflected the general practices of
this beliefs and values of the Kumeyaay people. Displays illustrated their
thoughts about the earth and the family's responsibility to value one another
as well as their environment. For example, one display presented the use
of the land and protecting it as well as utilizing its resources and the
strength of oral traditions to perpetuate these practices.
Wellness. Traditional Native American views of healing
and wellness emphasize seeking harmony within oneself, with others and with
one's surroundings (Garrett & Carroll, 2000). In the traditional Native
American way, medicine can consist of physical remedies, but medicine is
also much more than a pill you take to cure illness or correct a physiological
malfunction. Medicine is everywhere; it is the essence of their inner being
that gives inner power (Garrett, 1999). The Native American elders often hold healing positions
such as medicine men and other authoritative positions in the community due
to their highly valued wisdom and experience.
Spirituality. Unlike Western spirituality, religion
is a way of life (Atwood, 1991). In many Native American languages, there
is no word for "religion" because spiritual practices are an integral
part of every aspect of daily life; spirituality is necessary for the harmony
and balance, or wellness, of the individual, family, clan and community (Locust,
Cultural identity. As in every culture, it is very important to consider the stage of personal identity development when looking at family practices, values, beliefs and attitudes. Although
many Native American elders assist in encouraging the identity development
of their children, there is still a growing disparity of identity development
within the Native American people. Colonization greatly harmed the Native
Americans' cultural identity adoption. Like most bi-cultural identity development,
Native Americans are often living in two different cultures. Often, individuals
intertwine the dominant culture and their Native American identity together. For
example, Native American museums such as the Barona Native American Museums
display the traditional ceremonies that were originally taught to colonize.
However, current groups now recreate these original non-native traditions with
their Native American influence. Native American identity development is also
connected to their religious practices and spirituality. A Native American
woman explained that her grandmother was
raised as a Christian but still attends Long-house meetings and ceremonies. Today,
Native American families may identify themselves as either traditional, bicultural,
or assimilated, which is largely based on the location of the household, language
spoken at home, and the participation in religious events (Allison & Vining,
Native American Education
Student cultural identity. Education
has always played a vital role in the Native American culture. Historically,
Non-Natives utilized education to "civilize" the group, thus belittling the Native American culture's
morals and traditional beliefs. Native Americans were further re-educated in
their religious and spiritual beliefs. Schools, in carrying out early
government language policies and in their efforts to "better socialize" the
Native Americans, were also instrumental in destroying the Native language
(Demmert, 1994). Church schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs forbid the
use of Native languages in the school environment and punished students for
speaking their traditional languages (Demmert, 1994).
School completion. Currently 90% of Native American students
attend non-tribal, public schools (Sparks, 2000). Unfortunately they have
some of the highest dropout rates of any minority group (Sparks, 2000) and
a disproportionate number are identified as requiring special education services
(Grossman, 1995). Several studies have demonstrated that tests and teacher
reports show that Native American children function at the average to superior
range up to the fourth grade (Cummins, 1992; Deyhle, 1992) and, beyond the
fourth grade, their academic performance rapidly declines (Cummins, 1992;
Sanders, 1987; Swisher, Hoisch, & Pavel, 1991), resulting in a 40% to
60% school dropout rate (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES],
1991). Several reasons for this trend have been suggested, including that
some students are ridiculed for pursuing higher education; they are accused
by their peers of just trying to "act White" (Sue & Sue, 2003).
In a study by Colodarci (1983), Native American high school students indicated
the following as reasons for dropping out of school:
- Student-teacher relationships (teachers do not care about me-37%; teachers
do not provide enough assistance-39%; disagreements with teacher-33%)
- Content of schooling (school is not important to what I want to do in
life-44%; school is not important to me as a Native American-24%)
- Lack of parental support (problems at home-44%; lack of parental encouragement-39%)
Currently, Native American students are also behind the
national average when it comes to higher education. Sue and Sue (2003)
indicate that a dropout pattern develops by the fourth grade. In addition,
only 7.6% have a Bachelor's degree, compared with 15.5 % of the total
population. Less than 4% of Native Americans have an advanced degree
in comparison to 9% of the total population (American Demographics, 2002).
However, this may change: higher rates of Natives have high school and
Associate's degrees than the population as a whole (American Demographics,
2002). The latter statistic might be associated with the high poverty
levels in the Native American population as many Associate degree institutions
may be a less expensive alternative. The dropout rate as well as the
lack of individuals with higher degrees may be explained by a lack of
scholastic interest from Native American students.
Circular communication and learning styles. Communication
and learning styles are collaborative factors in a Native American student's
progress in school. As discussed earlier, a student's lack of interest in
the school's curriculum or in their own abilities seem to be influential
factors in their academic development. A Native American community leader
expressed the Native American communication style as circular, instead
of the American culture's linear communication style. A Native American child
who has grown up in a family with a circular communication style may have
a difficult time learning from a teacher who is teaching via a linear learning
style. Like any bi-lingual or bi-cultural student in a dominant cultural,
linguistic and teaching environment, Native American students may also encounter
similar difficulties in learning through a lack of connection with the material.
Many Native American political groups have created new policies to help
their students' educational development through language acquisition. They
noted that cultural priorities were lost in schools, and further concluded
that tribal priorities must be included in programs that strengthen the Native
languages (Demmert, 1994). Parents, tribes, communities and schools in partnership
were encouraged to develop programs to strengthen surviving language and
traditional skills, and to rebuild skills that have been lost (Demmert ,
1994). As these educational leaders begin to incorporate more Native American
historical, cultural and linguistic studies into their curriculum, as well
as adopt more culturally appropriate teaching styles that cater to the Native
American students, they hope to stimulate the Native American students' interest
in their own academic progress.
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© 2004, National Association of School Psychologists. Grace Tsai and
Luisa Alanis are students in the school psychology program at San
Diego State University. This article
was prepared for their course in Multicultural Counseling, taught by Tonika
Duren Green, PhD, Co-Chair of NASP's Multicultural Affairs Committee. This
article is part of a series edited by Tonika Green featuring the course
projects of her students at SDSU.