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A Resource to Help Researchers and Funders Understand Indigenous Children, Youth, and Families

Research BriefIndigenous Children & FamiliesOct 9 2023

This brief aims to provide information on Indigenous Peoples in the United States (U.S.) and U.S. territories for those who fund and conduct research, evaluation, and technical assistance. The brief is not only for those with experience engaging with Indigenous Peoples in these activities, but also for those seeking to engage with and fund Indigenous work. We hope that, with this guidance, individuals and organizations who work with Indigenous children, youth, and families—and those who fund this work—can begin to counteract the impacts of colonization, inadequate and/or harmful federal policies, and research abuses.

We begin this piece by describing the geographic distribution and overall demographics of Indigenous Peoples and then review how colonization and Federal Indian Law have impacted the well-being of Indigenous children, youth, and families. Next, we provide a brief background on current trends in education and health and on well-being, as well as possible ways that these areas can be improved—noting that other Child Trends resources provide recent overviews on Indigenous Peoples’ experiences of poverty, sexual and reproductive health equity, suicide prevention, and environmental justice. We encourage readers to visit those links to learn more about the lives of Indigenous families. We close with recommendations on how to draw on culture as a protective factor; on using Indigenous methodologies to engage with Indigenous Peoples in research, evaluation, and technical assistance; and on how to fund and evaluate research conducted with Indigenous Peoples.

Geographic Distribution and Demographic Overview of Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples inhabited Turtle Island, the land now known as North and Central America, long before colonization began in the late 1400s. Indigenous Peoples from the lands presently referred to as the United States include American Indians (from lands presently known as the contiguous 48 states), Alaska Natives (from lands presently known as Alaska), Native Hawaiians (from lands presently known as Hawaii), Pacific Islanders (from islands throughout the Pacific), and descendants of the Taíno (Indigenous Peoples living primarily in lands presently known as Puerto Rico). These Peoples are often labeled as Nations, Bands, Pueblos, Tribes, Communities, and Villages; we will use the term Indigenous Peoples throughout this brief to refer to them as the original inhabitants with ancestral connection to these lands. Within these communities, there are 574 federally recognized Tribes, dozens of state-recognized Tribes, and many other communities that had their recognition removed or were never recognized at all, including some Indigenous communities that remain under U.S. territorial occupation in the Pacific, having never made treaties with the United States or ceded their land.

According to the 2020 Census, Indigenous Peoples make up approximately 2.9 percent of the U.S. population (or 9.7 million people). Indigenous children and youth under age 18 make up approximately 1 percent of the U.S. child population, or around 754,000 people. The states with the largest proportions of Indigenous children and youth are South Dakota (53%), Alaska (47%), North Dakota (43%), and Montana (36%). Colonization (explained below) has resulted in significant loss of Indigenous lives, cultures, and languages, which heavily impacts well-being. The most recent Census data (2006-2010) on American Indian and Alaska Native languages found that 372,000 people (15% percent of the population) spoke one of 169 different Native languages. The 2010 Census found that Hawaiian was spoken as the dominant language in 24,000 households. Other Pacific Islander languages include, but are not limited to, Carolinian, Chamorro, Samoan, Tokelauan, Tahitian, and Tongan; however, data on the number of speakers for these languages area limited and/or unavailable.

Impacts of Colonization and Indian Law on Well-being

Indigenous experiences of colonization and its consequences

Indigenous Peoples in the United States and U.S. territories have experienced and continue to experience colonization. Past experiences of colonization have included diseases; wars; disconnection from traditional homelands, foods, and medicines through forced removal, land theft, and relocation policies; slavery; forced attendance at boarding schools and other assimilation policies; criminalization of spirituality; racism; and legislation suppressing Indigenous languages. While many of these injustices are no longer overtly part of federal policy, modern colonization includes environmental injustice through use of Indigenous lands for resource extraction; continued limitations on access to and use of traditional homelands for housing, food, medicinal, and cultural purposes; gentrification leading to displacement of Indigenous peoples; ongoing racism and discrimination; continued breaking of treaties; and appropriation of Indigenous cultures for economic gain.


The process by which external powers established control and dominance over the lands, resources, and societies of Indigenous Peoples. This process often involved the imposition of political, economic, social, and cultural systems that subjugated and marginalized Indigenous populations, leading to significant impacts on their lives, cultures, and rights. It often included territorial dispossession and settler colonialism, political subjugation, economic exploitation, social disruption and violence, slavery and genocide, and cultural assimilation.

Research has found that colonization leads to historical, intergenerational, and cultural trauma in Indigenous people through the buildup of cumulative stress that is passed down from generation to generation. Epigenetic research has even found changes in the DNA of each new generation, which is believed to also play a role in passing down trauma. This trauma negatively impacts Indigenous community, family, and individual well-being and results in the many deficit-oriented outcomes commonly focused on in behavioral, physical, social, mental, and relational health research. While many approaches use these deficit statistics to label and define Indigenous communities, we at Child Trends discuss these as current community conditions, which are of the present and able to be overcome. We situate Indigenous well-being within this broader context to highlight how present-day statistics and indicators typically used to monitor the health, well-being, and success of individuals and communities are a result of colonization and ongoing policies.

This discussion of colonization can also help those working with Indigenous populations understand the importance of conducting research “in a good way” without further traumatizing communities. There is a long history of research abuses that have harmed—and continue to harm—Indigenous communities. Research abuses have occurred when researchers or organizations ignore Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination (e.g., they do not seek free, prior, and informed consent) and ignore data sovereignty (e.g., they take data or samples without appropriate consent; do not return data, samples, and/or results). Other research abuses have included emphasizing community deficits or blaming deficits on the community through misrepresentation of data and stereotyping Indigenous populations. These abuses also foster mistrust, which presents a barrier for conducting beneficial research and evaluation that could strengthen well-being. In the next section, we explain an aspect of ongoing colonization—U.S. Federal Indian Law—and how it could be changed and improved.

Key statutes, case law, and policies impacting Indigenous health and well-being

Indigenous children, youth, family, and community well-being is intricately tied to policies that either harm or support well-being (visit this link to see our extensive exploration of U.S. federal policies and their impacts). Below, we mention and briefly explain a few examples of federal and international policies. The first list gives examples of Federal Indian Law that negatively impact Indigenous Peoples’ well-being. The second list gives examples of Federal Indian Law that have the potential to positively impact Indigenous well-being. In the United States, some of the most problematic aspects of Federal Indian Law are based on decisions made over 100 years ago. These historic decisions have set precedent and have not been overturned or rewritten, so continue to cause harm. Additionally, the United States has continued to underfund programs for Indigenous communities and break signed treaties, creating many adverse current community conditions.

Examples of statutes, laws, and policies with negative impacts on well-being:

Examples of statutes, laws, and policies with potential positive impacts on well-being:

Due to ongoing Federal Indian Law and the lack of full funding for developing potential positive policies, we continue to see Indigenous communities face adverse current community conditions. In the next section, we explain deficits in Indigenous community education, health, and child welfare outcomes and discuss positive approaches that have been used to better community conditions.

Approaches for Improving Indigenous Child and Youth Outcomes

Education trends for Indigenous children and youth

Looking at education opportunities, several systemic issues hinder Indigenous children and youth’s access to high-quality education. For example, Indigenous students are less likely than White students to be taught by someone of their own race and ethnicity, which may expose them to culturally inappropriate teaching practices and classroom content. Moreover, data on school suspensions and law enforcement referrals reveal that Indigenous students have disproportionately high rates of out-of-school suspensions and arrests. Data also show lower reading and mathematics scores for Indigenous students relative to White students, which is especially true for Indigenous students in Bureau of Indian Education schools.

However, not all schools or systems are the same, and some may represent models or approaches for improving outcomes. Indigenous students in Oregon and Oklahoma, for example, perform at reading levels three times higher than those in Alaska and Arizona, suggesting that some school systems provide supports that facilitate Indigenous student success. Culturally oriented learning environments offered by Tribal Head Start and language immersion schools—as well as initiatives that increase access to early education, like the universal pre-K program in Tulsa, Oklahoma—may also mitigate educational inequity. Despite obstacles faced in primary and secondary schools, 22 percent of 18–24-year-old Indigenous students still enroll in college. A noteworthy avenue to support Indigenous students pursuing higher education includes attention to services for parenting students. More than one in four Indigenous undergraduate students are parenting, with 31 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students and 18 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students having dependent children, respectively. Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are twice as likely to offer on-campus child care to their students than other institutions, demonstrating a culturally responsive commitment to supporting the needs of students.

Health and well-being trends among Indigenous children, youth, and families

Due to colonialism and ongoing trauma, Indigenous children and youth are overrepresented in the foster care system. Indigenous youth also have high rates of using alcohol and other substances, which are often linked to high rates of suicide. While it’s important to acknowledge these statistics, which tell part of the story of Indigenous families, research that only focuses on negative outcomes misses the inherent strengths, resilience, and hope present in Indigenous communities and cultures. Culturally responsive research and evaluation can help shift narratives to address current community conditions and highlight assets.

For example, in addition to producing data on the early learning environment within Head Start, the American Indian and Alaska Native Family and Child Experiences Survey (AIAN FACES)—which is guided by a Tribal working group—has found that children in Region XI Head Start programs (operated with grants to federally recognized Tribes and Tribal consortia) are culturally engaged in their families, communities, and classrooms. Seventy percent of Head Start children in this region had the opportunity to learn directly from Indigenous Elders and cultural practitioners, and 43 percent had opportunities to learn from Native language speakers. These Tribally operated Region XI Head Start programs—along with programs funded by the Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program—promote Indigenous early childhood development, healing, and thriving through the celebration of culture and language. Furthermore, these programs not only contribute to positive outcomes for children, but also offer essential familial support through coordination and referral to other services.

Drawing on culture as a preventative and protective factor

Despite a history of colonialism and historical and ongoing cultural traumas, Indigenous cultures serve as preventive and protective factors for Indigenous children and families by influencing identity and behavior. Immersing children in their culture provides them with nurturing and protective benefits that contribute to community healing and resilience, and which may prevent negative outcomes from occurring altogether. These strengths will continue to guide young people as they move from childhood into adulthood to have families of their own. Indigenous cultures help build resilience against adverse conditions and outcomes.

Researchers can engage with work that centers Indigenous cultures and funders can identify culturally based work as a priority for funding. There are six main areas of Indigenous cultures that are linked to preventative and protective factors: 1) enculturation and identity formation; 2) traditional games and activities; 3) relationships with the land, including subsistence; 4) social connectedness across generations and with community; 5) Indigenous languages; and 6) spirituality and ceremonies. This cultural connectedness is intricately related to Indigenous children’s overall sense of well-being and health.

Protective Factors for Indigenous Children and Families

Drawing on Indigenous methodologies

Indigenous methodologies present a way to fund and conduct research with Indigenous Peoples that is grounded in Indigenous epistemologies (ways of knowing), ontologies (understandings of nature and human existence), and axiologies (values, value judgements, and ethics). The goal of Indigenous methodologies is not only to have an Indigenous perspective, but to actually work from an Indigenous paradigm entirely. This paradigm is grounded in the Indigenous concept of relationality, or the relationships among all people and things. As Tess Abrahamson-Richards explained at a recent Native Children’s Research Exchange conference: “Indigenous methodologies are radically place-based; rooted in context; often oriented towards practicality; holistic and relational rather than reducing and separating parts of the whole.” They center Indigenous voices and experiences by engaging community members in the work and in evaluating grants for funding.

Recommended Research, Evaluation, Technical Assistance, and Funding Approaches

Building on our discussion of culture as a protective factor and the use of Indigenous methodologies, this section provides guidance on how people may respectfully approach work and funding relating to Indigenous populations. The goal is to begin to counteract the impacts of colonization, inadequate and/or harmful federal policies, and research abuses to move forward in “a good way,” centering Indigenous cultures and strengths. While each Indigenous community is different and there is no single checklist for respectful engagement, the recommendations below can lay the foundation for conducting research, evaluation, and technical assistance that benefits Indigenous children, youth, and families.

Funders, specifically, can support beneficial research, evaluation, and technical assistance that draws on culture as a protective factor:

  • Leverage the power of culture as a protective factor by investing in Indigenous culturally based projects, programs, and initiatives to address current community conditions.
  • Include culture as a protective factor in funding announcements and requests for proposals as a fundable approach.
  • Value Indigenous methods, methodologies, and culture as rigorous approaches in research, evaluation, technical assistance, and programmatic work.

Suggested citation

Gordon, H.S.J., Around Him, D., Martinez, D.N., & Yamane, C.Y.E.W. (2023). A resource to help researchers and funders understand Indigenous children, youth, and families. Child Trends. https://doi.org/10.56417/7763a5472r