Putting A Name To Cultural Resilience

May 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 14-4: Cultural Resilience
By Marjane Ambler

"Think" "Why Die" signs are posted along the highway on the Pine Ridge Reservation and throughout South Dakota.

Tribal college faculty stands at the front lines in the battle for students’ lives. After attending two funerals for students in six months, one instructor told us, “When you say, ‘Have a good weekend,’ you never know who you will see on Monday.”  Another said, “Your heart can only break so many times.”

Most of the deaths result from car accidents, sometimes involving alcohol or drugs and sometimes not; often no one was wearing a seat belt. Sometimes it’s complications of diabetes, occasionally suicide and murder. Students occasionally write essays and poetry revealing terrible tragedies.

Research by Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, MT, found 40% alcohol and drug abuse in the tribal adult population and indications that one-third of the student body at the middle school had been involved in an incident of violence. A survey by the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe found that 33% of the respondents had a family history of substance abuse; 48% had a family history of violence; and 28% had considered attempting suicide.

American Indian youth have the highest suicide rates of all ethnic groups and are twice as likely to die from alcohol or other substance abuse as other racial groups in the United States, according to research cited in this issue. Males are three times more likely to die from vehicle crashes or other unintentional injuries than any other ethnic or age group in the country.

Outsiders looking at such statistics usually feel the situation is hopeless. The poverty rate in reservation areas is 60.3%, three times the national average. Onlookers may know that poverty goes hand in hand with self-destructive behavior, and they may know something about the historic trauma suffered by Indian people. Understanding such causes, however, does not ease the feelings of despair. They might believe that the students would be better off if they left their family, community, and culture, and assimilated into the mainstream.

Yet, there is another story. The instructors and staff who stay at the tribal colleges and universities year after year see some students thrive, despite the odds against them. They read a poem about a young man’s love for his daughter and her unconditional love for him despite his mistakes. They watch hundreds of people attending the funeral for a 16-year-old, gathering the family into their collective embrace. They see the grandmother who won’t let her granddaughter quit school, driving the student to college and taking care of the great grandchild each day. They wonder at the young woman with the bruised, swollen face who has the spiritual strength to defy her boyfriend’s attempts to keep her away from class.

In the past, we have not known what to call this underground support system. In more recent years, scholars in the fields of education, social work, and psychology have identified it as cultural resilience. Once named, educators experience the instant click of recognition.

Long before they had a name for it, tribal colleges made students proud of their heritage, provided tribal elders and educated tribal faculty as mentors, and offered prayers to bless the students and their families. One woman said tribal college “put her back together” after a traumatic attack that almost destroyed her. Despite stoic stereotypes, students and faculty always know whom to turn to for a good dose of Indian humor.

Now many tribal college communities are taking advantage of this underground support system and using it to tackle violence and self-destructive behavior. Research conducted at four reservation-based tribal colleges in Montana found that two-thirds of the Native students had family obligations serious enough to interfere with their schooling, according to Iris HeavyRunner. Instead of seeing this as a problem, however, the Family Education Model staff perceived these students as responsible members of their community. The model nurtures the families, including them in campus events to encourage them to support education. When a student feels compelled to drop out because of trouble finding childcare or reliable family transportation, the college helps her address the problems.

Now Fort Peck Community College has expanded its services into the local middle school to reduce the potential for violence, which had been documented by the college’s research team.  The project focuses on helping parents and other adults to become more active participants in the children’s lives through mentoring, leadership training, sports, apprenticeships with tribal artists, and participation in Assiniboine and Sioux traditional activities.

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) is located in Santa Fe, NM, hundreds of miles from most students’ families. Its health survey found that a startling 76% of respondents felt that spirituality was a very important part of their lives, and 35% said they coped with stress by speaking to a religious leader, counselor, or elder. After conducting the survey and documenting problem areas and sources for strength, IAIA developed strategies that rely upon culture, spirituality, and community. Each week, they have a talking circle and candlelight dinner in the Healing Circle building. The dinner helps the students learn to lean on one another and the staff for issues such as recovery, homesickness, and academic difficulties.

On the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota, the tribal chairman, Robert Peacock, studied resilience as part of his doctoral work. Peacock, who is also on the tribal college board, has used these studies to work with faculty at the tribal school and with adolescents at a regional correction center to instill cultural pride. One-quarter of the children at the correction center are Indian even though Indians represent only 3% of the population. To explore their identity as young Anishinaabeg, Peacock gave them the word for warrior (ogichidah) and asked them to discuss leadership in contemporary society.

Such strategies will not eliminate the needless deaths in Indian Country overnight. Too many spirits are broken by daily encounters with racism from non-Indians and by the lateral attacks inflicted by one Indian person against another. Too many Indian families are haunted by the trauma suffered by their ancestors. The poverty is extreme, and there are never enough resources for improving the mental and physical health of Indian communities. While health care for the general population averages $3,800 per person a year, the IHS provides about $1,300 per person for American Indians.

Through the heroic efforts of tribal college faculty and staff, however, education saves individual lives everyday. Educational institutions everywhere teach students the names for trends and processes, from oxidation to metamorphoses, from regression to digitization, from calculus to triangulation, from the dark ages to the renaissance. Tribal educational institutions also put names to sociological and psychological processes in their communities. When they learn about oppression, lateral violence, historical trauma, and colonization, students can make sense of the symptoms they witness, and by naming them and writing about them, begin to defuse their impact.

By putting a name to cultural resilience, the colleges help the students recognize what gives them strength for rising above the heartbreak.  By conducting the resilience research, sharing the results, and acting on them, education gradually will transform these communities.

Marjane Ambler has been editor of Tribal College Journal since 1995. Thanks to Robert Peacock, Jim Fisher, Carrie Moran McCleary, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Sherry Red Owl, and Tom Davis, whose thoughts contributed to this essay.

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