Harnessing the Strengths of Native Communities

Headlines from our Nation's Tribal communities can often be discouraging. As in many rural areas in the United States, opportunities for economic advancement on and near Tribal lands are harder to come by than in urban and suburban centers. Resulting poverty and joblessness can fuel a host of other problems, including poor health, substance abuse, and high rates of violence and incarceration.

While some strides have been made in recent years, J.R. Cook, executive director of United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), Inc., says the effects of such social ills on Tribal youth is too often "negative peer pressure and wasted talent." With more than a third of the Native American community currently under the age of 18, that's no idle concern.

That's why UNITY and a number of Tribal and non-Tribal organizations across the Nation are working with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF), and its Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), in a collaborative effort to build upon the strengths of Native youth and their families.

As a result of their efforts, a number of innovative initiatives are being born throughout Tribal communities addressing the persistent problems that have hampered the positive development of Tribal youth. Some of the most promising are based on several key components:

Tribal problems are best addressed with Tribal solutions.

With 562 Federally recognized Tribes in the United States, each with a different cultural and historical background, trying to create one-size-fits-all solutions, or introducing non-Tribal programs to Tribal audiences, is often not as effective as tailoring programs to meet specific Tribal needs. FYSB's Family Violence Prevention and Services Program, for example, has found that family violence shelters that are run on Tribal lands by Native American staff are better able to respond to the needs of the women and children from the local community (see article on page 10) than shelters in non-Tribal areas.

Cultural pride and identity should be respected and promoted.

While not all Native Americans feel strong ties to their cultures, many of the most promising Tribal initiatives have allowed youth to explore aspects of their heritage that emphasize strength and pride.

  • The Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, for example, developed the Young Horsemen Program in an effort to teach youth, ages 14 to 21, about the art of good horsemanship, horse management practices, and working with horses as a career, while at the same time reviving and passing along a traditional strength of the Nez Perce Nation.
  • In Washington State, the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe started teaching its young people how to dig out and man the ocean-going canoes that participate in a ritual known as the Tribal Journey. During the trip, canoes from more than 20 traditionally seafaring Tribes travel down Washington's Olympic coast, a voyage that revives and reaffirms their canoe cultures.

Young people should be given opportunities for Positive Youth Development in a culturally and spiritually appropriate setting.

Research continues to show that young people who have access to opportunities that allow them to build skills and demonstrate leadership are better able to make the transition to a healthy and productive adulthood. UNITY, for example, has a roster of more than 200 Tribal youth councils across 34 States that serve as the local organizers and leaders of two major initiatives:

  • Celebrate Native Health is the justlaunched second stage of a program to encourage healthy lifestyles in Tribal communities. During the first stage, Celebrate Fitness, Tribal youth councils across the country undertook such projects as building walking paths, organizing health fairs, and convincing Tribe members to relinquish their TV remote controls. Celebrate Native Health will focus on proper nutrition.
  • Funded by the Administration for Native Americans within ACF, Preparing Native Youth for Life's Journey is a series of training sessions aimed at providing life skills and leadership training to UNITY youth so that they can return to their communities with concrete tools to help them undertake development projects. So far, several hundred youth have attended the training sessions in four States. A written training guide is also being developed, a draft of which can be downloaded from www.unityinc.org.

Strong adult role models should be mobilized in each community.

In order to reverse the low expectations that can hamper progress in Tribal communities, successful programs often turn to Tribal and other local leaders to usher in change. Grantees from FYSB’s Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program, in particular, rely on local adult role models, including business professionals, police and fire department staff, and Tribal leaders to provide the stability and direction that can often be missing from the lives of these young people (see article on page 6).

With these strategies, Native American groups are working to harness the positive energy of their communities, especially their young people.

“People often say that the youth are the future, or that they are our leaders of tomorrow,” Cook says. “We think thatyouth are leaders now, and we feel that it is very important for Tribes to get them more involved in leadership positions, where they can start working to solve the problems that affect their communities.”

American Indians and Alaskan Natives by the Numbers

Total American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) population in the U.S.: 4.1 million

AIAN as a percentage of U.S. population: 1.5

Number of Federally recognized Tribes: 562

Number of recognized Tribes in Alaska alone: 227

Number of square miles of the U.S. held in trust for Native American Tribes: 86,000

Area of the state of Minnesota in square miles: 87,000

Approximate percentage of Native American population living on reservations or land trusts: 13

Rank of California as State with the most Native Americans: 1

Rank of Vermont: 50

Percentage of the Alaskan population that identifies as Native American, the highest percentage in the country: 19

Percentage of AIAN population under 18 years old: 34

Percentage of U.S. population under 18 years old: 26

Percentage of AIAN over 25 with a high school diploma in 1990: 66

Percentage with a high school diploma in 2000: 71

Percentage with a bachelor's degree: 11

Poverty rate in percent among AIAN in 1990: 27

Poverty rate among AIAN in 2000: 24.5

Poverty rate in the U.S. as a whole in 2000: 12.5

AIAN unemployment as a percentage of population: 12.4

U.S. unemployment rate: 5.0

AIAN median household income in 1990: $21,750

AIAN median household income in 2000: $32,116

U.S. median household income in 2000: $44,389

Number of Native-owned businesses in the U.S.: 200,000

Percentage of Native-owned businesses owned by women: 27

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Bureau of Indian Affairs

Top 30 American Indian and Alaskan Native Tribal Groups, 2000*

(The 30 most populous tribal groupings make up 60 percent of American Indian and Alaska Natives in the United States.)

Rank Tribe Population Principal Location(s)
1 Cherokee 729,533 Oklahoma
2 Navajo 298,197 Arizona
3 Latin American Indian 180,940  
4 Choctaw 158,774 Oklahoma, Mississippi
5 Sioux 153,360 Dakotas
6 Chippewa 149,669 Michigan
7 Apache 96,833 Arizona, New Mexico
8 Blackfeet 85,750 Montana
9 Iroquois 80,822 New York
10 Pueblo 74,085 New Mexico
11 Creek 71,310 Georgia
12 Lumbee 57,868 North Carolina
13 Eskimo 54,761 Alaska
14 Chickasaw 38,351 Oklahoma
15 Seminole 27,431 Florida
16 Potawatomi 25,595 Oklahoma
17 Yaqui 22,412 Arizona
18 Tlingit 22,365 Alaska
19 Tohono O' Odham 20,087 Arizona
20 Comanche 19,376 Oklahoma
21 Alaskan Athabaskans 18,838 Alaska
22 Cheyenne 18,204 Montana, Oklahoma
23 Aleut 16,978 Alaska
24 Delaware 16,341 Oklahoma
25 Osage 15,897 Oklahoma
26 Puget Sound Salish 14,631 Washington
27 Crow 13,394 Montana
28 Paiute 13,532 Nevada, California, Oregon,
Idaho, Arizona, Utah
29 Shoshone 12,026 Idaho
30 Pima 11,493 Arizona

*Respondents were allowed to select more than one Tribal affiliation
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000; Tribal Web sites