Native American Women Raising Children off the Reservation

Review of Literature

Parenting styles vary all over the world. There are culturally divergent philosophies on child-rearing, and all of them are influenced by one’s history as well as the current factors that prevail as one joins the mainstream. Through this chapter, I will explore the background of Native American women and the factors which may be influential in their child-rearing practices. I will anchor the research on a conceptual framework based on the theories on Historical Trauma, Systems Theory, Acculturation Theory, and the Strengths Perspective.

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In order to understand how the contemporary Native American woman has evolved and her attitudes and behaviors with regards to raising her child, historical events in the lives of the Native American families need to be chronicled, which I will attempt to do.

By use of this chapter, I shall also raise some issues of Native American women and the challenges they encounter as they raise their children outside the Indian reservation and into mainstream society.

Historical Background

Native American Indian culture has been embedded with positive values and traditions such as strong respect for elders, the community, and their beliefs regarding the sacredness of the conjugal relationship. Such values have made their society stable through their history (Day, 2007; Red Horse, 1997; Rivers, 2005). When such values are strengthened, the people remain resilient against the threats to the dissolution of their dignity as an ethnic group such as higher violence rates (Greenfield & Smith, 1999), suicide (Olson & Wahab, 2006), and substance abuse (SAMHSA, 2010). Most Native American family and cultural bonds have been severed by the forced institutionalization of thousands of Native American children into boarding schools and indoctrination into the Caucasian culture, stripping them of their own cultural birth heritage (Campbell & Evans-Campbell, 2011). Consequently, the Native American people lost their resilience resulting in higher rates of substance abuse (SAMHSA, 2010), violent victimization (Greenfield and Smith, 1999), and teenage pregnancies (Berry et al., 2000). There was likewise a higher rate of suicide, depression, and anxiety among Native American Indians (Olson and Wahab,2006).

The Native American descendants are usually born in circumstances that are not favorable to his or her ideal growth and development. Historically, their fate was seized by the government and mandated their removal from their own family, with the goal of sending them off to a much better condition. The 1900s marked the mass migration of Native American children to boarding schools (Duran and Duran, 1995) where they were to adopt mainstream American behaviors. These children were subjected to torturous punishments, isolation, abuse, and neglect (Glover, 2001; Lonczak et al., 2007). Most of them were transferred to foster care and were adopted by Caucasian families, making them lose their adaptive Native American culture and heritage and embrace a culture that was hostile to their own race (Gray et al., 2013).

Margaret Jacobs (2013) chronicled the saga of Native American children from the time they were forcefully removed from their families because it was believed their home environments on the Indian reservations were unfit for child-rearing. Native American parents and elders were deemed negligent and abusive and are unable to provide for the basic needs of their children because they were destitute themselves. Indian mothers were adjudged as having poor mothering and home-making skills, and the fact that there were a great number of young, unmarried Indian mothers exacerbated the situation, validating the policy of having Native American children reared in proper boarding schools or their adoptive Caucasian families.

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The relocation of Native Americans as mandated by government acts had a great impact on their self-sustainability. The industrialization of America caused the concentration of wealth into the cities and off the Indian reservations, leaving the reservations in great poverty (Campbell and Evans-Campbell, 2011). Gray et al. (2013) concluded that the cumulative degenerative conditions of the Native American families, their culture, economy, and social networks represent generations of collective, traumatic experiences of their people leaving residual effects on present generations. These dire experiences suffered jointly as a people have created a “historical trauma” that has significantly affected Native Americans for many generations (Brave Heart and Debruyn, 1998).

Conceptual Framework

Historical Trauma

Native Americans have been historically traumatized from their negative experiences of being ousted and relocated from their homeland throughout history. Unlike personal trauma, their people’s historical trauma is focused on their collective trauma as families, and this trauma has been passed and even amplified from one generation to the next (Brave Heart and Debmyn, 1998; Campbell and Evans-Campbell, 2011). This affected both the people’s collective and personal identity formation and relationship patterns in successive generations (Cowan and Cowan, 2005).

Systems Theory

Another theory that can explain Native American historical trauma is the Systems theory. It premises that each member in the Native American family system plays a role that contributes to the synchronized functioning of the system (Gray et al., 2013). Each member keeps his or her role so children who have imbibed the role in a relationship pattern will likewise form similar relationships with others who can operate within the same family system (Bowen, 1985). Hence, if traumatic experiences altered family relationship roles, then it may also negatively influence succeeding relationship patterns. For example, if a child grows up being accustomed to his parents being intoxicated most of the time and he is left in the care of his grandparents, then, he may follow the same modeled pattern when he grows up. Alcoholism may be accepted as a way of life, and parenting responsibilities may be left to the grandparents. Studies of Campbell & Evans-Campbell (2011), Holman and Birch (2001), and Yoshida and Busby (2011) found that an individual’s view of his parents’ marital quality, relationship quality with each parent, and the impact of his family of origin on himself can predict his own marital stability and satisfaction in life.

The Systems theory, which supports intergenerational transmission of historical trauma, likewise suggests that an individual’s perceived impact of his family-of-origin moderates the quality of his own later relationship patterns (Cowan and Cowan, 2005). Weak parent-child relationships due to parental silence on their traumatic histories arrests bonding between parents and children and make them feel ashamed of their heritage (Bar-On et al., 1998). The children’s sense of identity, in turn, becomes negatively impacted which consequently affects how they relate to others (Brave Heart & Debruyn, 1998; Campbell and Evans-Campbell, 2011).

Acculturation Theory

When people are uprooted from their native culture and transported into a new one, they undergo acculturation or adaptation to the new culture. Gordon (1964) theorized that immigrants assimilate the language and behaviors of the people in the host culture first followed by structural assimilation. This involves the social and economical integration into the new culture. Finally, some immigrants get to the last stage of assimilation which makes them identify with the new culture and abandon their identification with their culture of origin. Gordon suggested that assimilation may affect more first-generation adult immigrants than their children who are born into the new culture. He also enumerated the components of language, behavior, and identity as indices of acculturation.

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The cultural identity of individuals caught in between two cultures may be measured in a number of ways by acculturation and ethnic identity experts (Phinney & Devich-Navarro, 1994). Two components of cultural identity are identified as self-designation as a group member of one culture and positive feelings for such identity as a group member (Birman & Trickett, 2001).

Over time, it is likely that an acculturation gap grows between children and parents of immigrant families, with the parents holding on to their traditional culture and the children acculturating to the new culture (Ranieri, Klimidis, & Rosenthal, 1994; Szapocznik et al., 1986). Children have less difficulty picking up the new language and learning the traditions and cultural behaviors of the people in the new culture. Consequently, their culture of origin, being less exposed to them, diminishes in terms of the effect on their growth and development unless their parents consistently push it to them (Birman & Trickett, 2001). To apply to Native American families, it must be taken in the context of those who were relocated from their places of origin or from the reservation they have come from and how they adjust to their new homes outside the reservation. An example is a Native American child’s interaction with new adults in his new school may not reinforce the customs and traditions that his parents have shown him leading to the cultural discontinuity between the home and school. In extreme cases, Native American children are asked to choose between their native heritage and school success and such dilemma leads to disastrous effects (Reyhner, 1992). Problems like drug and alcohol abuse ensue due to unresolved internal conflicts coming from teachers pressuring students to give up their native culture, or at the least, not acknowledge it. To reduce high dropout rates of Native American youth, it is important that teaching methods and school curriculum be adjusted to mitigate cultural conflict between home and school (Reyhner, 1992). This helps even the Native American mothers who may still retain some of the values, customs, and traditions they were born into and plan to pass on to their children even if they are already living outside the reservation in order to preserve their cultural heritage.

Strengths Perspective

In a study by Mileviciute et al., (2013), it was found that the way people explain their state of life reflects their outlook and disposition. It was concluded that the relationship between one’s negative life experiences manifested depressive symptoms strongly on one’s explanatory style. Native American youth were more likely to express their situations in the context of internal, global, and stable explanations for the negative events instead of more positive ones showing more depression than those who are more positive in their communicative patterns. More positive youth were more resilient to the depressive effects of their previous experiences. In order to overcome the negative experiences one has withstood in life, his competencies, resilience, resources, and protective factors that lead to positive developmental outcomes should be emphasized (Leadbeater et al. 2004). The Strengths Perspective is a theory that purports to assist people in identifying, securing, and sustaining their internal and external resources to help them achieve their goals and establish mutually enriching relationships with the community (Kisthardt, 2002). This is achieved by strengthening existing assets and/or facilitating the development of new resources to accomplish pre-established goals (McMahon et al., 2013). With regards to Native American individuals who have suffered enough negative experiences in the past, the Strengths Perspective can become a tool to lift them up from their state and help them to still be productive.

Conceptual Framework of the Study
Figure 1: Conceptual Framework of the Study

Native American Families

Reports from the Indian Country Diaries (2006) claim that Native American families are more likely to live in poverty and their children are more likely to drop out of school, be involved in drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy as well as experience violence as compared to other cultural groups. Several of these children are supported by only one parent or are raised by their grandparents. Due to the prevalence of teenage pregnancies, the Native American families are younger, with about 34% of the population being under 18, and the median age of Native Americans is 28.7 years old. The white population’s median age is ten years older (Indian Country Diaries, 2006).

High relationship quality, as measured by how stable and satisfying a couple’s relationship is, has become a protective factor for psychological well-being not only of the couple but also their children (Busby, Holman, and Taniguchi, 2001). On the other hand, low relationship quality may lead to negative outcomes such as high rates of substance abuse, suicide, and violence both in general and among Native Americans (Brave Heart and Debruyn, 1998; Nontasak & Frese, 1978). Such negative outcomes may be indicators that these individuals have experienced historical trauma which has negatively impacted the couple’s relationship quality (Campbell and Evans-Campbell, 2011).

Native American families value the significance of the extended family system especially in supporting children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relations or clan members normally take part in the upbringing of the Native American child in the reservation (Jacobs, 2013). Thus, children raised in the reservation grow accustomed to such care and guardianship wherever they go. However, once family units are relocated outside the reservation, they miss out on the extended family support systems of their home communities. When they encounter problems due to lack of education, training, and employment, they are forced to turn to social services agencies that may not provide the same personal care and assistance that they are used to.

Grandparents have been increasingly relied upon to be caregivers of their grandchildren while their adult children go away to work or as custodial caregivers while the parents of the children have lost their custody due to neglect or substance abuse (Kopera-Frye, 2009). In Native American culture, grandparents are regarded as conduits of tribal cultural values and present knowledge of the younger generation (Schweitzer, 1999). Apache grandmothers, in particular, actively preserve their customs, beliefs, traditions in their cultural history and pass them on to their grandchildren. They enjoy an elevated status as agents of cultural transmission and socialization (Bahr, 1994). However, the influences of media have undermined Apache grandmothers’ passing of the torch to the younger generation. Time spent educating the young ones on Native American traditions has been replaced by watching television, listening to popular music, or being involved in social networks (Bahr & Bahr, 1995).

Elders who are tasked to be the caregivers of their grandchildren have tendencies to nurture and keep them secure because it is their main role in the family. Because of this commitment, they usually resent the time when their wards grow older, leave the home every day for school, and become adolescents. It is usually the parents’ role to help the children with their school. Berlin (1987) surmised:

“Elders respected by children often have little use for school since they see it as taking their children away from tradition into a destructive and alien world. Thus, many Native American children throughout their school experience, especially in adolescence, find there is no one to support their eagerness to learn or their special talents, and their cognitive development goes unnurtured” (p. 301).

Native American Children and Youth

Berlin (1987) recounts that in most of the Native American tribes and cultures studied, child-rearing methods promote the culture’s survival. Infants and toddlers are often exposed to several cultural activities in Native American life. This is carried on by older children and adults who model the same to younger children, assumed to take over such roles in the future. The continuation of the cycle greatly depends on the effective transfer of traditional heritage from the older to the younger generations, as well as the skills required to keep the tribe surviving despite life’s challenges.

The deterioration of Native American cultures resulting from the cultural challenges brought on by Western influence has affected the child-rearing practices of parents. Dealing with actual physical displacement from their homes in the reservations and the emerging Anglo-cultural values and clamor for material comforts, Native American parents have been caught between traditional child-rearing practices believed to have developmental purposes for the children and the new lifestyle changes necessitating the satisfaction of daily needs which often conflict with tradition (Berlin, 1987). In some tribes, traditional tribal ways have been successfully retained despite some serious economic changes, and child-rearing has remained to be relatively smooth. However, in most other tribes, changes brought about by relocation have drastically transformed the usually peaceful child-rearing ways. For the few adolescents who remained on the reservation, they were abandoned by their parents to seek employment outside, and when they come back as failures, turn to alcohol and become indifferent to their previous roles as caregivers to their children. In such cases, adolescent development becomes adversely affected (Attneave, 1979; Beiser, 1972).

The rate of enrolment of Native American children has significantly increased at present with around 92% attending school. However, it does not necessarily follow that all these children graduate from high school. Although graduation rates have also improved from the past, it still does not measure up to the numbers of graduates of White Americans and Asians. Dropout rates remain to be high (about 3 out of every 10) for Native Americans whether in urban areas or in some reservations. (Indian Country Diaries, 2006). Rehyner (1992) encouraged teachers to get to know and interact with their students and customize their curriculum to meet all students’ needs.

Teachers need to understand where each of their students comes from and make the effort to study their cultural attitudes and beliefs so they can incorporate these into their curriculum. That way, the children feel that they are valued regardless of their cultural background and become proud of their cultural heritage instead of repressing it. (National Caucus of Native American State Legislators, 2008). When cultural understanding and a positive school environment are achieved, student resiliency and achievement follow (Gentry et al., 2012; Ogbu, 1981; Powers, 2005; Schunk et al., 2008; Thornton & Sanchez, 2010). This implies that opportunities to participate in activities and programs encouraging one’s own cultural practices, native language, and cultural arts, etc. should abound in schools (Demmert, McCardle, Mele-McCarthy, & Leos, 2006).

Fuchs & Havighurst (1972) note the inconsistencies of teachers and school authorities in their cultural expectations in the curriculum. Children are placed in ambivalent positions when they are asked to choose between their Native American heritage and schooling. They realize the great dilemma when they choose to propagate the practices of their heritage because this causes them to fall behind in school and eventually drop out. On the contrary, if they abandon their heritage and choose to adopt the culture of their new environment, they suffer from guilt and psychological problems because their own people become offended. This results in being shunned by their families and tribesmen, making them turn to drugs and alcohol abuse. Berlin (1987) also noted the same thing with Native American children adopted by white families. Their prolonged separation from their people, even with brief intermittent visits, makes them feel different and alone in their situation. They cannot claim to be either “White” or “Indian”, which translates to not belonging to any specific culture completely. It was found that they are more likely to develop psychotic depression, serious mental illness, and suicidal tendencies than their counterparts who never left the reservation (Berlin, 1978; Goldstein, Freud & Solnit, 1973; Mindell & Gurwitt, 1977).

Tribal community members were open enough to discuss the challenges and problems encountered by the Native American youth in their reservation community. One was a problem identified was depression which brought about academic underachievement, substance abuse, conduct/oppositional behavior. Another was hopelessness manifested by sadness, apathy, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, and low initiative (Mileviciute et al., 2013). In another study, though, the Native American youth in the Northern Plains reservation generally reflected a positive disposition about their personal lives and identified more strengths despite the challenges they face in their communities (McMahon et al., 2013). This was quite surprising considering the adverse circumstances they need to live with. The findings of the study showed that these youth were embedded with a variety of adaptive developmental assets to cope with their dire situation and helped them develop resiliency (McMahon et al., 2013).

The concern of tribal leaders of Native American communities with child development being a key to tribal survival has moved them to action. They advocate for parents to be more active in their children’s education. One tribe has started the tradition of giving recognition rewards for academic success as well as the provision of travel experiences to motivate the children to study better. In tribes where arts and crafts are specializations, programs to engage younger children in Native American arts and crafts are offered to unleash artistic talent early. Providing such opportunities to young children somehow cushions them from the difficulties of adolescent growth and development (The Third National Indian Child Conference, 1981).

Native American Women

In more recent studies, Hoefel (2014) argues that traditionally, Native American women’s identity and role as caretakers and culture bearers were all based on the principles of spirituality, extended family, and tribe. Because of their association with food and its supply, the women gained power and status and it increased with age and wisdom. They were revered for their views on sacred matters, herbal medicines, and tribal history.

However, in contemporary times, such heightened reverence for women has immensely decreased. A Native American woman has earned the reputation of being an inadequate mother. The “unmarried Indian mother” was usually convinced to give up her child for adoption. This, in the context of being given a “choice” and the consideration of the possibility that the baby will have a better life. He or she will be with parents who have the resources to provide for him or her (Jacobs, 2013). The Indian Adoption Project (IAP) was more successful in recruiting unmarried Indian mothers to relinquish their unborn babies for adoption and provided increased social services such as allowing them to live in maternity homes while awaiting the birth of the children instead of staying on in the reservation. Most young mothers opted to avail themselves of the services of the maternity homes (Jacobs, 2013).

Native American women are more likely to suffer violent crimes, as domestic violence and abuse are very rampant in their culture (Indian Country Diaries, 2006). In a study by Bowker (1992), the Native American women participants all reported being exposed to several social problems while growing up on the reservation. It is because of such exposure that they become desensitized to a variety of attitudes, situations, and issues which ordinary girls in mainstream society may deem as huge, insurmountable issues. Their early exposure to alcohol abuse, child abuse, neglect and sexual abuse, legal disputes of parents and relatives, and teenage pregnancies make them immune and desensitized that these are not considered deviant behavior anymore. It is no different in schools. There, they enter a world of people whose values may be different from theirs. They encounter uncaring teachers, low expectations of their skills and knowledge, insensitivity, and abuse. The low expectations of their skills conflict with high expectations of handling adult responsibilities which are inappropriate for them because they are far beyond their chronological years (Bowker, 1992).

Native American minority groups in the country have the highest birth rate compared to other ethnic groups. Most of them live in poverty at a much higher rate than their Caucasian counterparts. It is worse for women because they are discriminated against in the workplace. Native American women get jobs, if at all, which pay very low because the majority of them are not equipped with the skills and education for higher-paying jobs. They are miserably paid for their efforts. To illustrate, average Caucasian women earn 59 cents as compared to the 17 cents earned by Native American women for the same job. It was also found that Native American women had the lowest percentage of employment in the workforce with only 35% of them employed. Add to that, about 25% of Native American families are headed by single mothers (Kikingbird, 1986).

In an effort to support Native American teen mothers, pilot programs spearheaded by mental health consultants have been developed. Pregnant adolescents remain in school during their pregnancies and earn credits when they take courses in child and personality development associated with practicum experience in a specified preschool or daycare center (Berlin, 1987). There, they learn to care for infants and young children hands-on and the adverse effects of inadequate nurturance such as infants suffering from neuro-developmental problems. They also learn to relate to babies and children and gain experiences in caring for them. They learn how to stimulate them by holding, playing, entertaining, talking to them, and observing their behaviors in various settings. Even after these adolescents give birth, they continue on with their education with their own babies. Lessons available for them include dealing with motherhood, relationships, and relating to adults. Sometimes, their boyfriends, often their children’s fathers, attend sessions with them to bond and learn more about parenting (Goldstein, 1974; Kohler, 1971).

In recognition of the pathetic state of Native American Women, President Bush in January 2006 mandated the Violence Against Women Act with special provisions for such indigenous women. Under this act, Native American women are protected from assault, as anyone who commits such violence against a Native woman will be tried in federal court and penalized for up to a decade in federal prison. Serial sex offenders in tribal nations shall be tracked and entered in Indian Country sex offender registries. Domestic abuse against women shall also be prevented and the victims shall be supported by new grant programs. The Act also calls for funding for a baseline study of domestic abuse to get to the core of the problem and address it so domestic abuse will be significantly reduced, if not eradicated (Bowker, 2009).

Being people of color, Native Americans are usually subjected to racial discrimination. This means their racial reputation precedes them and they are adjudged accordingly, and it follows they are treated based on such reputation (Brooks, 1994). Some stereotypical labels given to Native Americans are “drunk Indian”, “the squaw” and the “Indian princess” (Schiffer, 2014). The drunk Indian stereotype stemmed from the historical time when Native communities traded alcohol with colonists, but due to their inexperience with the substance, they easily got inebriated to the point that they cannot function normally. This stereotype portrayed Native Americans as “naturally inferior, lacking self-respect, self-control, dignity and morality” (The Ignoble Savage, n.d. as cited in Schiffer, 2014, p.1217). The drunk Indian woman, on the other hand, is seen as dirty and negligent of her family in favor of alcohol. Another stereotype for Native American women is the squaw, which means she is primitive, ugly, and lacks grace. She is an unattractive and haggard, subservient, and abused tribal female who is considered the tribe’s prostitute or harlot, perceived to be of very low moral character (Merskin, 2010). She is the opposite of the Indian princess, another stereotype of Native American women, drawn from the character of Pocahontas, made popular by the Disney movie of the same title. This stereotype is portrayed as the “noble savage”, who collaborates with white men to subdue her own people (Lajimodiere, 2013). Although it seems that the stereotype for the Indian princess is positive, it is actually a euphemism to demean the successes of Native American women. These stereotypes spring from a white colonist viewpoint rather than from the first-hand experiences of Native American women.


Native American Culture in Child Rearing

The comparison of value orientations of modern Anglo-American values and traditional Native American values differ much in their relationship with nature, tradition and group practices, family relations, thinking, and communication inclinations. BigFoot & Funderburk (2011) recount how very personal as well as communal raising a Native American child is within a tribal unit:

“When an Indigenous woman discovered she was carrying a child within her, she would actively engage in song and in conversation with the yet unborn child. This ensured that the infant knew it was welcome and planted early seeds of respect and love. This new life was viewed as being eager to learn, a willing seeker of traits that would guide understanding of the self and others” (p. 311).

Each child is traditionally believed to have what it takes to grow into a worthwhile person. The whole tribe expects a child to manifest good behavior and this becomes the child’s motivation to be good and to feel that they belong to the tribe (Atkinson, Morten & Sue, 1998). As suggested by the attachment and family systems theories, a child’s warm reception by his family and the establishment of positive relationships are crucial to his development. His identification with the tribe takes precedence over his own individuality (Atkinson, Morten & Sue, 1998; Wilbum, Ballew & Sullivan, 2004). Raising the child with indigenous practices is a cooperative communal effort (Forehand & Kotchick, 1996; Glover, 1999; Masse et al., 2004) of not only the child’s parents but also his grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, younger aunts and uncles and even adopted relatives (BigFoot, 1989) Children have a very special place in society and they are considered gifts from the Creator. The parents and caregivers are tasked to nurture the children and implant in them seeds of honor and respect. When children grow up practicing respect for others, their parents and caregivers are confident that when they are returned to the Creator, they have fulfilled their mission. This may be reinforced by honoring them through ceremonies, giving them worthwhile and meaningful names, or recognizing them in special events such as in honorary dinners, dances, or giveaways (Bigfoot & Funderburk, 2011). Giveaways entail giving the child a special item to honor him and his good deeds. Many times, a caregiver would remove personal items of clothing, jewelry, or other possessions to give to a child while commenting, “I am giving this to you because you are consistent in cleaning your room and obeying your parents.”

The way parents and relatives speak about the child, often within his hearing range, affects how he behaves so positive language is used to develop his initiative and self-esteem. Seeds of desired traits a parent implants in the child should be nurtured well by repeatedly acknowledging such traits when they are manifested. When the child grows into adulthood, the traits will stay on with him and guide him to live a peaceful life. (BigFoot & Funderburk, 2011). Appropriate behavior is encouraged when parents say “My daughter makes me proud because of how she helps me in the kitchen to prepare dinner for the family. Her siblings are kept healthy by her willingness to extend her assistance”, or “My son is considerate of my weak knees because when I try to stand up, he readily assists me”. Even very simple efforts of children to help out are honored by the people around them and partake in “tending the good seed”. Such positive language is usually accepted with gladness by the children. It also serves as a cue to behave accordingly.

Disciplining Native American children are practiced in direct and indirect forms. One form of discipline which is believed to teach children the consequences of their own actions is ‘noninterference’ or letting things happen the way they were meant to happen (BigFoot, 1989). This concept does not imply inaction in the face of grave potential harm but allows a person to have a choice. For example, if a child refuses to eat, then the logical consequence is for him to be hungry. The parent allows it because the child has made a choice which eventually he learns something from. BigFoot (1989) differentiates noninterference from ignoring. When a child continues to misbehave, he is ignored or removed from the environment that used to enforce desirable responses from him so he feels deprived of such positive conditions. When he continues with his inappropriate behavior, he becomes shunned by the community. His behavior is considered as deliberate disobedience to the rules and expectations which were made clear from the beginning. His punishment matches the gravity of his misdemeanor. Often, chastisement becomes the duty of an uncle or elder instead of the parent in order for the parent-child bond to be kept intact and avoid straining their relationship (BigFoot-Sipes & Willis, 1993). Children are not considered “bad” because of their misdemeanors. Parents and community members prefer to see it as a lack of understanding on the part of the child, hence, he or she needs to be guided accordingly of what is right. He is made to understand that his actions affect the people around him whether they are positive or negative. Hence, more desirable behaviors are encouraged. Discipline, in indigenous beliefs, is associated more with the instilling of self-control and following rules rather than the imposition of punishment when a child strays from the righteous path (BigFoot, 1989). Big Foot & Funderburk (2011) contend:

“Discipline is the broader concept and punishment is a narrow response to a specific behavior. For many tribes, self-discipline is highly prized as demonstrated by traditions of fasting, vision quests, endurance during ceremonies, and self-denial leading up to ceremonies and feast days” (p. 313).

The Reservation

Life in the reservation is typically described as hard and impoverished. Krupat (1996) reports that Native Americans experience:

“twelve times the U.S. national rate of malnutrition, nine times the rate of alcoholism, and seven times the rate of infant mortality; as of the early 1990s, the life of reservation-based men was just over forty-four years, with reservation-based women enjoying, on average, a life expectancy of just under forty-seven years.” (pp.30-31).

Such dire conditions are echoed in the literature, with the U.S. Census Bureau (2009) reporting that while the national poverty rate is about 10% for Caucasian families, the poverty rate for Native American families in the reservation is about thrice that rate. Unemployment rates have reached 50% or higher (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). The economic deprivation brought about by poverty results in “low educational attainment, substance use, incarceration, child abuse, teen pregnancy, school dropout” (Evans, 2004 as cited in Mileviciute, 2013). However, to counter such negative effects, Native American communities make use of their traditional cultural values and practices to offer their youth the resources they need to still develop optimally despite their dire circumstances (Whitbeck et al., 2002).

Reservation schools usually integrate culture-centric practices in their curriculum as they educate students within their culture (Mackety, 2011) as opposed to dominant-culture schools outside the reservation which are less likely to include strong cultural contexts in their lessons (Gentry & Fugate, 2012). One example is the mandate given by the Navajo Sovereignty in Education Act of 2005 to its Navajo tribe schools. This mandate expects schools to incorporate their native language, culture, history, government, and K’e (Character) in the curriculum (Mead et al, 2010). It is believed that in doing so, preservation of the Navajo language and culture is ensured for the benefit of future generations of the Navajo people (Navajo Nation DoDE, 2011). Thus, people from the tribe should be welcome to offer their support and contribution to the school to enhance children’s knowledge of their culture.

Life Outside the Reservation

Relocating from the reservation into urban areas has overwhelmed several Native Americans who were first exposed to a life outside the reservation. Most relocates, were not prepared for the urban trappings of technology and progress. It was exciting to find out about these. However, some who preferred to stay in the reservation warned those who went out about the deterioration of their Native American culture if they become too impressed with the White lifestyle.

Miller (2013) explained that instead of dismissing their traditional Indian values as a hindrance to their success in modern America, some native relocates appealed to tradition being their source of strength. Former Bureau of Indian Affairs field agent and military policeman, Benjamin Reifel encouraged his Native American constituents to be hopeful and resist the urge to fail and advocated for a change of attitude in creating the necessary cultural adaptation in order to function within the economic and social systems of the mainstream society (Miller, 2013).

Still, the reality of the difficulty in finding a job, urban congestion, language barriers, and geography was strongly felt despite the relocates enthusiasm for their new environment and the encouragement to be brave. Many returned to the reservation but several also achieved varying degrees of success in their relocated homes (Miller, 2013).

Native American Parenting

In analyzing parent-child relationships in Native American families, especially the mothers raising their children single-handedly, it is worthy to look into attachment theories. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (1969) explains that an individual’s experiences with his or her significant relationships in the earliest stages of life are responsible for his or her survival functions as he or she grows and develops throughout the life span. Bowlby (1969) identified four kinds of attachment styles, namely secure, avoidant, ambivalent/anxious, and disorganized. Those who have formed secure attachments have no difficulty establishing close relationships with others. They form healthy, happy, and trusting personal relationships without any fear of being too dependent on them or being abandoned. This is because they may have grown up in nurturing and responsive homes with early attachments having all three components of closeness, care, and commitment. In contrast, some people establish negative, avoidant behaviors towards the people they have relationships with. Their avoidant attachments formed early in life made them reluctant to open up emotionally because they feel uncomfortable getting close to other people. For these individuals, their independence and self-sufficiency should be maintained because, from the time they were younger, they have been exposed to cold, unattached caregivers who did not provide them with the love and security they craved, hence, they learned to fend for themselves. People who have formed ambivalent attachments may be inconsistent in relating to others as they may have grown in an environment where their caregiver has also been inconsistent in giving them love and affection, and have developed insecurities due to this. The same goes for those who formed disorganized attachments. As young children, they were exposed to caregivers who have not organized themselves and have passed this trait on to the children. They usually engage in unhealthy relationships and develop dysfunctional behaviors (Brodie, 2012).

Berlin (1987) points out that distressed Native American mothers, mostly still adolescents, tend to lash out at their babies because they are not equipped with the maturity to handle the demands of an infant. They become irrational and angry and hurt their children to stop them from crying or simply abandon and neglect them (Beiser, 1981). In turn, the infants and children are left poorly cared for, and healthy attachments are not formed. This results in their inability to trust anyone nor develop the confidence they need to ensure their own well-being.

“The resulting developmental delays cause such a child to be deficient both in curiosity and in the physical ability necessary to explore and to become an avid learner. The anger, hostility, depression, and isolation that may develop instead tend to destine the youngster never to learn to trust others or to make sustaining relationships.” (Berlin, 1987, p. 302).

Other outcomes of poor or abusive parent-child relationships, coercive parenting, and caretaker rejection are suicidality (Walls, Chappie, and Johnson, 2007), greater problem behaviors in children (Momper and Jackson, 2007); the inability of children to become good parents themselves as adults (Libby, Orton, Beals, Buchwald, and Manson, 2007). On the other hand, strong parent-child relationships prevent adolescent delinquent behaviors and their related problems (Mmari, Blum, and Teufel-Shone, 2010) among Native American families. Such impact of the parent-child relationship on a child’s future relational well-being supports the systems theory of intergenerational transmission of relational patterns.

In terms of academic performance, Gentry & Fugate (2012) contend that when parents and families are involved in their children’s schooling, children manifest improvement in their behavior, motivation, and academic achievement no matter what socio-economic background they have (Levin, Bear-Tibbetts, & Demaray, 2004). Successful parental involvement included:

  1. Parenting (assisting parents in creating supporting home environments that foster student success);
  2. Communicating (keeping open lines of communication between school and home);
  3. Volunteering (recruiting parents to become involved in school and classroom programs);
  4. Learning at home (informing parents of effective practices in helping students with homework and other curricular activities);
  5. Decision-making (engaging parents as advocates for both student and school success);
  6. Collaborating with the community (providing parents with access to community resources). (Epstein, 2001, cited in Gentry & Fugate, 2012, p. 635)

Mackety & Linder-VanBerschot (2008) found from their focus group interviews that Native American parents identified two types of school involvement namely school-oriented involvement and home-oriented involvement. The school-oriented involvement included parents being active in communication with teachers and other school personnel, actively attending school events, volunteering their time in school, and advocating for their children. Home-oriented involvement, on the other hand, refers to helping their children with school work, showing interest in their children’s educational concerns, encouraging their children to do their best in their studies, and enjoining other members of the family and community members in the educational processes of their children. Some parents complained about certain barriers in their involvement such as not feeling welcome in their children’s school, their own negative experiences in their school history, observations of the school’s nonchalance about their parent involvement, gaps in cultural sensitivity, and barriers in language and communication. Other parents identified their own limitations in being more involved in their children’s school such as financial constraints, lack of child care for those lefts at home, lack of resources and facilities to do work for the school, and transportation problems in going to school (Macekty & Linder-VanBerschot, 2008).

Epstein (2001) emphasizes the value of collaboration between the home, school, and the community as it is bound to result in the best outcomes for children. This is summarized in the following:

“The responsibility for improvement is shared by all of those involved in the education of Native students—public, tribal, and federal school and government officials; parents and students; and community members” (The Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, 1991, p. 32).

Children benefit much from increased parental support and involvement in their schooling as it strengthens student motivation, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. It conveys the message that school is important and should not be taken for granted (Epstein, 2001).

Parenting Interventions

From the foregoing discussion, Native American parenting has been mostly affected by historical trauma, and to prevent further damage cascading down to the younger generation, some parenting interventions have been designed taking into account the cultural and environmental context of Native American families living in more contemporary times. Braveheart (1999), for example, developed a psycho-educational intervention for parents to manage the damage derived from historical trauma. The intervention exposed them to traumatic memories and cognitive integration in light of the tribe’s culturally accepted parenting practices to make them aware of the impact of historical trauma on their own parenting skills. The intervention provides opportunities for the parents to reconnect to their tribal culture and values, strengthens their kinship to their extended networks, and empowers them as parents (Goodkind et al., 2012) to know what to avoid with their children that they know will create much damage.

Dionne et al. (2009) created an evidence-based parenting program called “The Incredible Years” specifically designed to incorporate traditional Native American beliefs and values as well as discussion of historical trauma and current injustices experienced in contemporary society. Significant improvements in parenting and child behavior were manifested as compared to a control group, proving that parenting interventions that are developed with the backdrop of historical trauma and a healing framework are effective.

Another parenting intervention is the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) developed by Sheila Eyberg, Ph.D. She originally created this program for families with very young children who have disruptive behavior disorders. The program fused two prominent child therapy models at the time namely Axline’s (1947) traditional play therapy which focused on the child’s behavior and free expression of emotions in a safe environment; and child behavior therapy, which focused on the parent with the role of change agent based on social learning theories (Patterson, 1975). This model aims to foster strong bonds between parents and their children and to build up parenting skills on setting limits and providing structure in reversing negative behavioral patterns.

BigFoot & Funderburk ‘s (2011) belief of the need to go back to consulting the old wisdom in the raising of children as the center of the Circle is consistent with the PCIT’s principles of “Honoring Children” and the structure of “Making of Relatives”, which are Native American values. The Circle Theory known to include old wisdom regarding relationships, care for the environment, affirmations, identity, and inclusion, has been valued to be essential to the Native American race. These principles have been applied to past generations, but were interrupted when the social composition of the indigenous people was threatened and almost shattered (BigFoot & Funderburk, 2011).

PCIT has been found to be compatible with traditional Native American parenting practices. PCIT combines approaches from social learning theory, family system theory, and play therapy techniques which are all acceptable theories that natives already practice. Both focus on behaviors, relationships and acknowledge children’s developmental levels with minimal cultural bias (BigFoot & Funderburk, 2011). It teaches parents to be keen observers of their children as well as become good role models to them. This is parallel to the teachings of Albert Bandura who claimed that people acquire behaviors through observation and subsequently, imitation of what they have observed. The same principle has been practiced by Native Americans who taught children to “watch and listen” because it is by doing so that they learn (BigFoot, 1989).

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, combined with motivational interventions is well suited for families devastated by substance abuse (Chaffin et al., 2009), which many Native American families are. Parents who have substance abuse issues are usually guilty of child physical abuse and neglect, disrupting their family’s peace, harmony, and stability (BigFoot & Funderburk, 2011).

Native American principles of Honoring Children-Making Relatives are relevant to the foundations of PCIT especially when it applies similar principles from the Circle Theory and Old Wisdom. The Parent Training Manual of PCIT was incorporated with traditional Native American cultural beliefs and concepts in parenting to create a program to enhance the intervention for Native American families (BigFoot, 1989).

Goodkind et al. (2012) reported the responses of parents to a community-based, culturally grounded mental health intervention for Native American youth. The intervention called “Our Life”, was run once a week for six months and it promoted the mental health of youth and reduced violent tendencies by involving parents as well as youth aged 7-17 years. They were involved in four kinds of activities namely:

  • recognizing and healing historical trauma;
  • reconnecting to traditional culture and language;
  • learning and sharing culturally appropriate parenting practices and social skills for youth; and
  • building relationships between parents and youth through horse-assisted and other experiential activities. (Goodkind et al., 2012, p. 470)

Most parents welcomed the idea of exposing their children to their traditional culture and expressed their desire to raise their children with its values. Many admitted their lack of knowledge of some traditional parenting philosophies and practices, having embraced more modern culture and wanting to be reacquainted with their roots. Parents reported better parenting habits as learned from the program. Some claimed they have increased their warmth and encouragement for their children so they develop better self-esteem. Their discipline techniques have also become more positive instead of negative and rules are better explained as well as the consequences of their actions are discussed to teach them life lessons. Less effective parenting practices were also reported to have decreased significantly such as the constant use of punishment, not involving the children in decision-making, or being overly permissive to them. They also shared that there is an increase in their knowledge of resources that support them in their parenting such as some government agencies, other parents who provide helpful information and even articles read from the internet that provide them with guidelines on better parenting.

Anger management was also addressed in the intervention and parents reported an increased ability to manage their anger. One parent reported:

“I learned a lot of how I shouldn’t take out my anger on my daughter, or even when I’m sick. I’ve got to take a moment and pull myself together when I’m tired, and always be willing to listen to her, and just be there for her”. (Goodkind et al., 2012, p. 474).

Communication between parents and children was also enhanced. After the intervention, the parents found themselves with increased contact with their children, and more frequent shared dinners, family meetings, and bonding experiences occurred.

One parent eagerly shared:

“I also did this mostly for my other, youngest daughter, because she was Going through a period of depression… and that’s why I went into this program with them to learn about their culture…. That really brought out a lot of her thoughts and her feelings, and helped her cope a lot better. She’s been doing pretty good ever since. She started doing good in school. Outspoken. A lot brighter person—happier person. We can communicate more than before we started this program. I’m trying to just interact with my girls, to be closer I guess you could say. I pretty much am very busy and thought maybe they’ll do everything on their own because they were getting older, but probably that’s why I missed it. That’s why I wanted to be involved in this program—maybe it would help them, especially my daughter. It did. It really did help her.” (Goodkind et al., 2012, p. 475)

This quote sums up the common sentiments of the parents in the intervention. Aside from the improvement of parent-child relationships, the parents observed overall positive outcomes for their children’s behavior and well-being. School performance improved and there was a significant reduction in delinquent behavior. Generally, the intervention resulted in commendable outcomes and was responsible for bringing the families involved in the program closer together (Goodkind et al., 2012).

The interventions discussed are recommended for environments that cater to troubled Native American families especially those headed by women in single-parent households raising their children off the reservations.

The Crow Indians of Montana

This study shall focus on the tribe of Crow Indians from the Northern Plains of Montana, as the women to be interviewed are from that tribe. This section now focuses on the history and lifestyle of the Crow Tribe in Montana.

The Crow Indians of Montana agreed to cessation with their land in 1868. Although they were a peaceful people when they were ousted from their land at that time, within fifty years, they had representatives lobbying in congress to save their last remaining property (Hoxie, 1991)

The Crows persisted to keep their culture, as exhibited by anthropologist Fred Voget, author of The Shoshoni-Crow Sun Dance and other cultural articles, including one on the description of the Crow people’s personality types (Hoxie, 1991).

Like most Native American tribes, the Crows are very family-oriented. Members can rely on traditional clan and kin for support and protection of orphaned children, poor parents, or disabled elderly members. This kind of close-knit value system amazed George W. Frost who, when he was the superintendent of the Crow Reservation in 1877, observed a prevalence of marital infidelity. Polygamy was common and socially accepted, with the men taking as many wives as they can support, as adultery was not considered a crime. However, statistics reflect that Crows valued marriage. It was reported that 20% of Crows married four or five times or more and for each marriage, it was for a long-term union (Hoxie, 1991).


Native American families have gone through much pain in the history of their people. It was discussed in this chapter the events that caused the deterioration of the once-solid family structures that embraced traditional values and communal child-rearing of tribal units. Aside from the forced separation of children from their parents to be sent off to boarding schools or adopted by White families, migration outside of reservations of families seeking better opportunities has further contributed to the decline of traditional Native American culture, values, and practices. These have once been woven into the fabric of the integrity of the Native American Indian people.

Downtrodden, Native American families who have had no luck with opportunities outside the reservation have succumbed to lives damaged by unemployment, alcoholism, substance abuse, and other negative factors. These have greatly impacted the parenting capabilities of Native Americans, especially the mothers who are often left on their own to raise their children. Historical trauma has left deep scars that have been passed on from generation to generation. Children imbibe them through family systems exposing them to the negative outcomes of the traumatic experiences of their ancestors. In addition, such children contend with acculturation problems especially in school where their culture of origin is mostly shunned causing most of them to feel shame. It is with little doubt that such circumstances have caused a great number of Native American children to underperform or drop out of school.

Still, the strengths perspective theory gives much hope that Native American families are able to rise from the ashes of their devastating experiences to achieve their goals and be contributing members of society whether they live in the reservations or have relocated outside. Mothers especially can find strength in their heritage of old wisdom in strong parenting values passed down from their Native American elders if they only become open to it. The parenting interventions presented show evidence that such strengths can surface and serve them well.

Due to the dearth of research on the perspectives of Native American women raising their children outside the reservation, this study will endeavor to conduct interviews to explore how they are doing and what the state of their relationship with their children is. Each person has a story to tell, and this study hopes to collect a wide variety of stories of such women.

The theoretical framework that this study is built on shall guide the researcher in understanding various cases and help her put herself in their shoes. In hearing Native American women’s perspectives, information about their individual and common problems, parenting approaches, dilemmas, hopes, and dreams for their children and themselves shall be unearthed. Such information shall be shared in this study as well as the possible action that can be done to address their issues and concerns.


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Native American Women Raising Children off the Reservation
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