Taking a Cultural Approach to Supporting Native American Youth

Child Trends has a new partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) to work together on initiatives to support Native American communities. Founded in 2011 by former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, CNAY is dedicated to improving the health, safety and overall well-being of Native youth. Given that much of the research on this population has focused on negative outcomes and risk factors, we’re excited to partner with an organization that takes a positive and strengths-based view of Native youth.

For example, several Native youth have shared their personal stories through CNAY’s Champions for Change Program. Many are inspirational tales of how they overcame tremendous obstacles, and though the challenges described by these young people are often aligned with the risk and protective factors identified by research, one unique protective factor stands out—Native American culture.

As most researchers would do, we went to the research literature to see what has been published on this topic. We were pleased to find that there is a small but growing body of evidence that focuses on protective factors to promote resilience and wellness in Native youth. These studies generally support the importance of cultural values and customs when it comes to promoting the health and well-being of Native American youth.

After reviewing the research, we asked the folks at CNAY if any of their youth would provide us with a personal example of the role that their own cultural values have played in their lives.  Below is an excerpt from what Sarah Schilling, a young person who participates in the Champions for Change leadership program, had to say:

Having a connection to my culture and community has greatly shaped my worldview and all of my actions. For example, my culture helps me to combat something that a lot of college students face: a lack of motivation. My class load can get overwhelming and, as an art major, a lot of my homework is very time-consuming. When I feel this way I turn to my cultural values, which serve as my inspiration, and to my tribe, which motivates me to keep moving forward with my academic and personal goals.

Connecting with my culture through social and spiritual events, art forms, and language helps me to feel balanced in my life. Whenever I feel my weakest I know that participating in something connected to my culture will provide comfort and strength. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving thanks to my creator and the generations who came before me who fought for me to have the right to an education.

Sometimes, I find that prayer and the use of our sacred medicines provides me the strength I need in difficult moments. Other times, I might get comfort from a thought or recognition of my culture as it crosses my mind, visiting with a Native friend or family member, or speaking in my language. Even combining something modern with a tradition [is meaningful], like watching pow wow videos on YouTube while doing bead work.

My culture makes me feel more confident in who I am as a Native person and my healthy sense of self strengthens me whenever I face a challenge.

We were struck by all the different ways that Sarah was able to connect with her cultural values and traditions. Her description of the simple things that reinforced that connection highlights how important it is to promote those connections.

There is emerging evidence that interventions are more effective when tailored for individuals of a specific cultural or ethnic group. In fact, a few studies published in the past decade have concluded that cultural “enhancements” present in interventions were associated with positive outcomes. Given the well-documented disparities in health between Native American youth and the general youth population, it is critical that we develop and test more interventions that are tailored to address the risk and protective factors unique to Native youth.

While there are many opinions on how to ensure that interventions are culturally relevant, there are two primary approaches: culturally grounded interventions and culturally adapted interventions. These approaches can be distinguished largely by the stage in the development process in which cultural values and customs are considered. Culturally grounded interventions take culturally relevant values and customs as a foundation upon which to build a successful intervention, whereas culturally adapted interventions generally take an existing, effective intervention and modify it to incorporate culturally relevant terms and activities.

A culturally adapted intervention is generally less time and resource-intensive to develop; modifying an existing program with proven success is generally quicker than developing and evaluating a completely new intervention. In fact, it is likely that many organizations across the country that work with Native youth have found themselves making modifications to evidence-based programs that don’t quite resonate with the youth they are serving. If you find yourself in that group, you might want to refer to guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on adapting evidence-based programs.

There are also evidence-based programs that have already been adapted for Native American youth. For example, Child Trends’ What Works/LINKS database contains a number of programs that have been adapted for Native American youth and families, including the FAST (Families and Schools Together) American Indian Adaptation. While FAST was designed to improve the behavioral and academic outcomes of early-elementary school students, as well as the bonds between parents and schools, this version of FAST was specially adapted for an American Indian population and reviewed by members of the American Indian Language and Culture Education Board of Wisconsin.

By contrast, culturally grounded interventions are built upon cultural values and customs. This approach can ensure that both the objectives and the content of an intervention are relevant. For example, the Bicultural Competence Skills Program is a substance abuse prevention program designed to promote “fluency” in the two distinct cultures in which Native American children and adolescents live. The program trains participants in a variety of skills to promote social competence and positive identity. One experimental evaluation indicated that program participation had significant positive impacts on substance use, peer pressure resistance skills, and knowledge and attitudes towards substance use.  Another experimental study suggested that the program had a significant positive long-term impact on use of smokeless tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.

It’s important to note that, while the What Works/LINKS database contains rigorous evaluations of over 700 social interventions for children and youth, fewer than 20 of those programs included Native American as a group of study participants, and even fewer of those programs were developed specifically for Native youth. Given the need to address the alarming health disparities experienced by Native American youth, it is imperative to develop and evaluate more programs that address this population, and to disseminate the findings of those that do. As demonstrated by Sarah’s experiences, positive connections to cultural values and tradition can play an important role in helping youth to achieve their goals.

Contributions from Ryan Ward at the Center for Native American Youth