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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 32, #8
June 2004

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 colonizationIn 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.  

Resiliency. Despite 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, 2003). Contemporary 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 (George-Kanentiio, 2000).

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, 2003).

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, 2000).

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, 1988).  

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, 1999).  

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%)

Higher education. 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.