Q&A: Serving Native American Youth

Gay Munsell is a specialist in Native American issues, cultural diversity, family preservation and support, and child abuse/neglect at the National Resource Center for Youth Services in Tulsa, OK. She is a member of the Kaw Nation, and a former clinical director of a model urban Indian child welfare program. She also serves on the editorial boards of the Family Preservation Journal and the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems. We spoke to her about the challenges of serving Native American youth in mainstream agencies. We interviewed Munsell in October 2002.

Q: In terms of providing social services, what makes Native American youth different from other minorities?
A: The mistake often made is that tribal affiliation is a racial or ethnic issue. It is not. It is an issue of political standing, of tribal sovereignty. In terms of child welfare, it is about the responsibility (the tribes) have to protect their children, and the right they have to determine the placement of these young people. The Indian Child Welfare Act has recognized the tribes’ right to be involved in cases of child abuse and neglect involving eligible Indian children and, if they choose, to be exclusively involved, under certain conditions, in permanency planning for these children.

Q: And the Act applies even to youth who seem disconnected from a tribe?
A: Often you have to work with the parents and the youth to determine their Indian Child Welfare status. The Act says a child must be a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe or the child of a member of a tribe who is eligible for tribal membership. Indian youth should not get to a group home without this eligibility being determined. Most states have a form on intake to check off, saying, ‘This is not an Indian child.’ If a youth or child falls under the protection of the Act, the tribe should already have been involved. That level of involvement, however, will vary. In some situations, tribes may have the child welfare case transferred from state to tribal court. If the tribe has few resources, however, they may choose to have more limited involvement. That involvement can range from having tribal workers make regular visits to the youth and submit reports to the court to simply monitoring the court proceedings by receiving reports from each judicial review.

Q: But what about adolescents who come into, say, a transitional living program? They’re not in the system, so their tribal status may not have been determined. And perhaps they don’t even identify with their Indian heritage.
A:The first thing to do is to try to determine what the youth considers his identity to be. In terms of American Indian youth, you are looking for a sense of connection here, a hint of some history there, some understanding of, knowledge of and respect for Native American or specific tribal tradition. There are general kinds of assessment questions – where are his people from, who are his people – that can guide this exploration. The answers can give you a feeling for the extended family – whether you’re talking about aunts and uncles and cousins – and where they are. There is always a chance that a youth has tried to cut himself off from family, tribe, and community, but it is almost impossible for Indian youth to severe these connections. No matter what you may have done, in the Native American community, you can almost always go home.

Q: For a youth who does identify with his or her heritage, the goal of independence so touted by white service providers doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
A: There is not an extended period of adolescence in the tribal community – you pretty much become an adult as soon as you are done being a child. As you enter your teens, you take on more responsibility for your community and family, you become more involved in spiritual activities and other kinds of ceremonies. You have to grow up in and remain a part of the Indian community in order to know about the roles and expectations of the tribe and to make a successful transition to adulthood. We know that Indian youth who go to college sometimes don not do well. Sometimes they are not academically prepared. Often, however, the reason they do not complete their education is that there are responsibilities at home. There may be a letter suggests that something is wrong and, ‘We need you.’

Q: What about Native American youth who come into an agency who don’t seem to connected to their culture?
A: There is an ethnic identity model that’s has been developed that staff can help these youth work through. It is a nice four-step model that looks at what their birth identity is that they cannot change, what their current identity is in their own eyes or what they think others might perceive it to be, and what their ideal identity is and how they can get there. It would be wonderful if their ideal identity ended up being their birth identity, but, as with other ‘minority’ youth, it sometimes is not. In this situation, they need help in making peace with the identity they were born with, even if it is not the identity they choose.

Q: That sounds like a difficult job for agencies that have little experience with Native American culture.
A: For an agency that knows it has Native American youth who come in from time to time, it is imperative for them to get cultural guides in place. They have to be reliable guides, and they should be individuals who are still connected to their tribal community and who have some knowledge of the population the agency is working with. If the guide is far away, this connection can be made by phone. When you locate that contact, someone on staff will need to work to develop a personal relationship with that individual. Typically, Indian helping relationships are relational models, even when you are working with youth.

Q: So how do you find a cultural guide?
A: You should not write a letter to a tribe and say you’re looking for a Native American resource. When you contact a tribe it is important that you have a name. You have to do some homework first. That will involve contacting entities that serve Native Americans. Some examples are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, and local school systems with Indian Education (Title IX ) or Johnson O’Malley programs. Whoever gives you a name should take responsibility for facilitating your connection with a potential guide.

Q: The feeling among some white workers is that those relationships can be hard to establish.
A: Historic distrust of governmental and social service programs is alive and well in Indian country. Some of that distrust has roots in the boarding-school era (a time when Indian children were forced to leave their communities to attend government schools for purposes of assimilation) and also the relocation effort that moved many families from reservations and rural tribal communities in the ’50s and ’60s to urban areas. Under the latter program, the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave stipends for housing and vocational training, and moved Indian individuals and families from rural isolation and poverty to poverty in large cities such as Minneapolis and Seattle. Often they were far from home and lost connections with extended family. A generation of ‘split feathers’ began to evolve. This is a group of Indian people who no longer know who they are or where they belong. We are seeing the grandchildren of those families now in urban shelters and transitional living centers.

Q: And there are simple cultural differences, too – different ways of interpreting what’s happening with a youth.
A: There is a traditional Indian philosophy of child-rearing that says, ‘You can choose your own path as long as it doesn’t interfere with somebody’s else path.’ Traditionally, individuals cannot be more important than their families. The family should be able to provide for all the youth’s needs. Help-seeking behavior outside the Indian community is rare. As clients, traditional Indian youth may be very passive. This is the way they present themselves to tribal healers and the healers do the rest.

Q: So are guides themselves sometimes resentful that youth have taken their problems outside the community?
A: That can happen. We tell guides, ‘The issue is not what you want for this child, it is what the child wants for himself. No matter what you believe – if only you could get him into a sweat lodge, or to a traditional healer – that’s not your decision.’ That can be so hard to accept.

Q: So the bottom line – no matter what the legal status of the youth – is that you need to explore cultural identity with him or her, and connect him or her with a cultural guide if that seems indicated.
A: You offer as many options as you have available. You may have a youth who says, ‘I don’t want to be an Indian, I don’t want any part of it.’ Later in his life, he may be ready. So give him the knowledge. He will either be accepting and appreciative of it at some point in time, or he will not, but at least he will know.

Whether or not the youth’s eligibility for membership in a tribe can be confirmed, being Indian is about what is in your heart and what is in your mind much more than it is about the color of your skin or your degree of Indian blood. When your heart beats with the beat of the drum and a flag song sends chills through you, you will come to know where you belong.

If you need technical assistance, contact the National Indian Child Welfare Association athttp://www.nicwa.org.