Ask NCFY: How Can My Organization Reach Out to Native American Youth?

A Native American student.

Q: I think it's important for my youth-serving organization to be culturally competent in its dealings with all young people. But when it comes to Native youth, I'm not sure where to start.

A: For Tribal and non-Tribal organizations alike, cultural competency is essential to serving young people with respect and dignity. But with 564 Federally recognized Tribes in the United States, each with its own culture and history, building your organization’s ability to work with Native youth can feel overwhelming.

Brighton Ncube, who directs health promotion activities at Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health recommends spending time with Tribal leaders to learn about a Tribe’s customs and ways of life. Ask someone to drive you around a reservation, he says. If you’ve never been and you don’t understand what life is like on a reservation, you really can’t plan programs for people who live there.

J.R. Cook, founder and executive director of United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc., known as UNITY, agrees. “Having respect is most important,” Cook says, “respect for individuals and respect for Native culture.”

While not all Native American youth feel strong ties to their culture, sincere attempts to recognize young people’s backgrounds can help them feel understood and valued. Reach out to Tribal leaders and Native American young people to better understand what they want and need. Building those personal relationships is key to cultural competence. Some simple steps can go a long way.

  • Acknowledge the diversity of each individual’s different experience as a Native young person. Native youth who grew up in rural areas or on a reservation will have a different perspective than Native youth who live in cities or suburbs.
  • Ask young people about their cultural backgrounds, personal beliefs, and values. Do they participate in tribal dances? Do they speak a Native language? Or have they had very little exposure to Native culture? Many effective programs—both Tribal and non-Tribal—have allowed youth to explore aspects of their heritage that emphasize strength and pride.
  • Invite a Tribal youth to prepare a traditional meal, and provide opportunities for young people and staff to ask each other questions about their cultures and backgrounds. Be honest with yourself about your personal beliefs and any misconceptions you may have, and encourage young people to do the same.
  • Have Tribal youth in an advisory position on your board, or invite Tribal youth to attend a board meeting. Spend some time with the young people before the meeting, and explain what will happen so they feel comfortable expressing their opinions.
  • Invite Tribal elders or representatives to train staff to be more culturally sensitive and to provide guidance on outreach, facilities, policies, and services, Ncube says. Don’t just hang up images that you think “look” Native American. An owl, for example, might be a good omen for one tribe and a bad omen for another.
  • “Don’t do something for Tribal youth but with Tribal youth,” Cook says. That is, involve Native young people in decisions that affect them, from drafting a diversity statement for your organization to planning your physical space to scheduling everyday activities.
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