Native Divide: Serving Culturally Diverse Populations
Metropolitan Community College
America has long been viewed as a melting pot, a place where the world’s tired, poor and abused sought refuge and a better life. The weaving together of diverse cultures into a shared heritage is often thought to be what makes America great. The main principle that “all men are created equal” as stated in the Declaration of Independence is still a draw, over 200 years later.
Yet the nation’s 4.9 million American and Alaskan Indians might beg to differ. (US Census Bureau, 2009). Equitable social services, strong families, and the pursuit of happiness through economic independence have largely detoured around reservations. A predominant reason is the importance placed upon retaining the Native American cultural identity, which has been a mixed blessing. The social worker who wishes to work with the American Indian and Alaskan population must have a good grasp on the proud traditions and tribal law that keep tribes rooted in poverty.
Lila Downs discovered a renewed connection with her cultural identity while completing her Census form. A member of the Mixtec tribe, one of 16 tribes residing in Oaxaca, Mexico, Lila has experienced a crisis of identity depending on who’s asking about her hometown. Downs explains that due to societal bias against Native Americans and Mexicans, she would deny her Mexican heritage in the U.S. and her Indian heritage in Mexico. Mixed ethnicity has proven both a curse and a blessing. The denial of heritage, Downs believed, opened more doors and prevented awkward moments with others. While studying anthropology in college, Downs experienced Oaxacan weaving and found her identity. When Oaxacan women weave, they weave a symbol of historical significance into the fabric. The realization that she was on this earth to make a mark has led Downs to embrace her multicultural heritage. (Downs, 2010).
Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first female President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, can attest to cultural challenges that exist even within the tribal unit. “The arrival of the Europeans to this land was the beginning of the end of Native people’s way of life and the destruction of their culture. They insisted on converting Native peoples to Christianity, often forcefully, which resulted in changing the structure of the Native family and community.” (Cox, 2010).
It could be argued that Native American marriage customs have further contributed to the disparity in gender equality and the overrepresentation of American Indian children in the foster care system. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2007 there were 537,500 American Indian and Alaska Native families in the U.S. While sixty percent were married-couple families with children, less than half of those parents live with their biological children. A higher share of Native American births is to a never-married mother (58.4% compared to 33.2% for the US as a whole). The Native American teen birthrate is twice the rate of non-Native American teens.
While Native American culture places great emphasis on family, the expectation of marriage is not a cultural norm. Likewise, the definition of what constitutes “marriage” differs from tribe to tribe. The Navajo, for example, use the clan concept which could best be described as “it takes a village to raise a child”. In the Navajo tribe, elders engage in child rearing and pass on traditions to the young. As a result of ambiguous definitions of marriage, it is hard to measure the rates of out of wedlock birth rate. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007).
Angela Fasana, director of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde CASA Program, points out that governmental policies intended to change the Native American way of life have contributed to poverty, unemployment and other ills. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, American Indian/Alaska Native children experience a rate of child abuse and neglect of 16.5 per 1,000 compared to 10.8 for Caucasian children. They also account for 1.6 times the non-Native American rate of child abuse cases.
From the early 1800s through the early 1970s, policies which aimed to “tame” American Indian children resulted in nearly 35% of Native children being placed in foster care by the 1970s. Placements were not made with the cultural identity of the child at heart. The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978, mandated that children be placed in homes that keep the cultural customs alive and safeguards citizenship within the tribe. Yet nearly 4 decades later, the act is unfunded and tribes are largely responsible for enforcement. Many tribes, however, fight lack of resources. Because tribes are considered sovereign, they can pass their own laws. Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, has recognized the need for advocacy in the tribal courts and volunteers receive the both standard and additional cultural training. The ability to build relationships within the tribe and to understand the tribe’s policies, as well as open-mindedness and a willingness to learn is one of the strongest benefits a child can have besides a sense of belonging.
The American melting pot has long accepted many nationalities and expected assimilation in return. The cultural genocide of the Indian culture has existed over many generations. Racism, poverty, incarceration and abuse have contributed to the genocide. Social workers and other helpers, through understanding and advocacy can help return these proud people to their right place of honor.
Austin, Lisette. (2009, winter). Serving Native American children in foster care. The Connection. Retrieved from http://www.lisetteaustin.com/pdfs/CASA_ServingNativeChildren.pdf
.Cox, Dolores. (2010, March 31). Native women fight to reclaim equality. Worker’s World. Retrieved from http://www.workers.org/2010/us/native_women_0408/
Downs, Lila. (2010, April 13). Identity is about leaving a mark, a sign, a sound. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/04/13/downs.mexican.american/
Infoplease. (2009). American Indians: Census Facts. Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease. Retrieved from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/aihmcensus1.html
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center. (2007). Marriage in the Native American community. Retrieved from http://www.healthymarriageinfo.org/marriage-and-culture/native-americans#NA%20Marriage