Career and Academic Guidance for American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. ERIC Digest.

ERIC Identifier: ED458062
Publication Date: 2001-10-00
Author: Shutiva, Charmaine L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.

Career and Academic Guidance for American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. ERIC Digest.

Full of determination and courage, American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students strive to maintain their heritage while learning to be successful in the dominant culture (St. Germaine, 1995). Although academic and career success are worthy goals, AI/AN students can bear a heavy price to achieve them. Outwardly and inwardly many AI/AN students face challenges to their "Indianness," especially in relation to their ongoing ability to use their tribal languages; participate in religious ceremonies; take pride in tribal, clan, and family ancestry; and remain faithful to tribal beliefs and value systems (Baruth & Manning, 1992; Locust, 1988; Rodriquez,1997).

To provide effective and responsive career and academic guidance for AI/AN youth, teachers and counselors need to be aware of underlying cultural values and beliefs that can affect students' choices about academic success and pursuit of a career. This Digest briefly describes (a) current demographics and trends in AI/AN education, (b) cultural values and beliefs that provide a context for education and counseling, and (c) effective and responsive career and academic guidance practices for working with AI/AN students.


The 2000 Census revealed the population of American Indians and Alaska Natives to be 2.4 million people, which represents about 0.9 percent of the total U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). AI/ANs are a relatively young population, with about 34 percent under the age of 18, compared with the total population, which has about 26 percent in this age category (Meyer, 2001). More than 49,000 students attend Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)-operated or funded tribal schools, while nearly 400,000 (89 percent) attend public and private schools (U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, 2001). About 38 percent of AI/AN students attend rural schools (NCES, 2000).[1]

There is some very encouraging news about AI/AN educational participation:

* AI/AN enrollment in colleges and universities grew by 67 percent between 1976 and 1994--a remarkable increase; the number of bachelor's degrees awarded grew by 86 percent, and the number of associate degrees awarded grew by 95 percent during that same time period (Pavel, et al., 1998).

* The average salary in 1994 for AI/AN bachelor's degree recipients was slightly above the average for all recipients; and the three most frequent fields of study were business and management, social sciences, and education (Pavel, et al., 1998).

* In the fall of 1996, 134,000 non-Hispanic American Indians were enrolled in colleges and universities, up from 84,000 in 1980 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

Along with the good news are some areas of concern:

* Only 65.6 percent of all AI/AN persons 25 years old and over have a high school diploma or higher and only 9.4 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the 1990 census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

* SAT scores were below the national average--though above scores of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and two other Hispanic groups (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).

It is evident from these brief statistics that educational progress has been made in the past few decades but challenges remain.


Locust explains,

"The belief system is the bond that holds civilizations together, and is the small voice inside of each of us that urges us to be true to what we have been taught. As Native people, we cannot separate our spiritual teachings from our learning, nor can we separate our beliefs about who and what we are from our values and our behaviors." (1988, p.329)

An understanding of Native traditional values and beliefs that influence AI/AN students' behavior is key to providing them meaningful career and academic guidance (Bearcrane, Dodd, Nelson, & Ostwald, 1990; Sanders, 1987;Szasz, 1991).

Giving and sharing. Tribal leaders across the United States advise youth to go to college or technical school, get an education and "then come back and help your people." In giving this advice, tribal leaders are expressing the values of "giving and sharing" that have enabled tribes to maintain group unity and survive.

Giving and sharing are expressed in many different ways. In the traditional American Indian world we are taught to share our goods (car or truck, ceremonial items, meals, education) and good fortune (work earnings, casino winnings) for the betterment of the family and community. Examples include using your vehicle to take grandma to the grocery store, or auntie to the laundromat, or cousin-brother to catch his ride to go firefighting (of course, never asking for gas money). Going away to college to get a degree and then returning to the reservation or the city to develop or work for programs that serve the community are also expressions of giving and sharing that are valued and "respected."

Giving and sharing are the principles expressed in pow-wow giveaways, in the feast days of New Mexico's Pueblos, and in the potlatches of the Northern coastal tribes. It is considered an honor to be able to give away items that families may have worked days, months, or years preparing, saving for, cooking, or baking. In the AI/AN world it is better to give than to receive.

Counselors can support these values by providing financial advice as part of career counseling. Students may need to set up saving accounts so they can contribute necessary items when ceremonies arrive and not be stressed financially. Also, even for students it is important to contribute to family and community life in a variety of ways, such as providing car rides, using new skills to work for programs that help the Native community, or sharing talents by making cultural items (e.g., rattles, drums, moccasins, potteries). Continuing to give and share can help an AI/AN youth to blend his/her two worlds and ultimately succeed in both.

Glory to the group. Another important traditional value is "group cohesiveness" or glory to the group, not to individual attainment. This value is based on the core belief that wellness is harmony in spirit, mind, and body (Locust, 1988). Students who are singled out for an outstanding academic accomplishment can experience confusion because rewarding the individual can jeopardize group cohesiveness. To help support this value and reduce cultural conflict at school honors assemblies, teachers and counselors should consider also asking parents, guardians, and grandparents to standup and be recognized as each student receives an award. This type of honoring is exhibited at pow-wows when head dancers are honored.

Time to observe and reflect. Adequate "time to observe and reflect" prior to participation and communication is another important value shared by many AI/AN tribes. This value, too, is based on the core belief that wellness is harmony in spirit, mind, and body, and is also grounded in a world view that is circular rather than linear. Many AI/AN students learn to do things through observation, imitation, and direct experience of real-world activities. As a result students may not be highly verbal or overtly involved in classroom or counseling discussions. This "does not" mean they are not learning.

Providing opportunities to learn through hands-on cooperative experiences will support their success. For example, a group counseling experience to teach about careers could involve students designing and building a model bridge. This counseling method would effectively teach the various types of work roles involved, such as being a surveyor, an architect, a highway safety inspector, a truck driver, a welder, a construction worker, an environmentalist, and a geologist. These are all examples of careers that are valuable and needed on Indian reservations as well as in cities. Providing career counseling that can help students observe and reflect on the possibilities for employment on their respective reservations is also strongly endorsed and supported by tribal leaders.

Other needed time to reflect, much supported by tribal leaders, includes participation in the traditional religious ceremonies that help AI/AN students to affirm their tribal identity. It is not uncommon for an AI/AN student to participate in a traditional ceremony one day and attend high school or university the next. Many ceremonies and rituals are based on the belief of a prevailing wellness-unwellness duality that surrounds and permeates the ceremonial functions. The primary focus of these ceremonies is to maintain a harmonious balance between mind, body, and spirit of all living things (Locust, 1988). Religious ceremonies can sometimes take many days. Because participation in these ceremonies may affect an AI/AN student's attendance and academic work it is recommended that counselors assist AI/AN youth by helping them plan to (a) set up tutorial services if necessary and (b) communicate ahead of time with teachers about the reason for the absence so teachers can become more respectful of and sensitive to cultural differences. Counselors can also support students by understanding and affirming participation in religious ceremonies, even when participation poses a risk to academic or career success, acknowledging the importance of ceremonial life for the maintenance of wellness.


A variety of other efforts can help teachers and counselors provide effective and responsive career counseling:

* encourage strong and regular involvement of elders and tribal government leaders in the teaching and counseling of Native students

* provide consistent training of non-Native teachers and counselors in the cultural values and social factors affecting AI/AN students as they pursue their educations

* ease restrictions that block schools from employing valued Native community members who can serve as positive role models

* increase AI/AN students' knowledge about their options by providing a more accurate understanding of how tribal cultures interact with the complex, multicultural American society

* validate both the traditional and contemporary cultures of students, recognizing the contributions that AI/ANs have made in shaping the larger multicultural society

* develop and seek scholarship funds that attach social obligations for AI/AN students to give something back in return

* develop long-term mentoring relationships between students and AI/AN professionals

(1) This statistic was derived by calculating the total number of AI/AN students who attended schools designated in locale codes 6 (small town) and 7 (rural) as a percent of the total number of AI/AN students counted on the Common Core of Data for the 1997-98 school year.


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