ERIC Identifier: ED459988
Publication Date: 2002-01-00
Author: Clarke, Ardy SixKiller
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Social and Emotional Distress among American Indian and Alaska Native Students:
Research Findings. ERIC Digest.
Many American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth are repeatedly exposed
to opportunities to participate in self destructive and illegal behaviors.
This Digest examines risk factors associated with the four contexts within
which AI/AN students grow and develop: peer groups, families, schools,
PEER GROUPS AND RISK-TAKING BEHAVIORS
A 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS)
reported the following rates of participation in a variety of high-risk
behaviors among AI/AN youth aged 12 to 17 years in 1999-2000: (1)
* "Illicit drug use" was more than twice as high (22.2%) as the
national average (9.7%).
* "Binge alcohol use" was higher (13.8%) than the national average (10.3%).
* "Heavy alcohol use" was higher (3.8%) than the national average (2.5%).
* "Driving under the influence of illicit drugs or alcohol in the past
year" was slightly lower (10%) than the national average (11.2%).
* "Use of cigarettes" was more than twice as high (27.2%) as the national
* "Getting into at least one serious fight at school or work in the
past year" was higher (22.1%) than the national average (19.9%).
* "Taking part in at least one group-against-group fight in the past
year" was higher (22.4%) than the national average (16.1%).
* "Carrying a handgun at least once in the past year" was about the
same (3.3%) as the national average (3.2%).
As these figures demonstrate, illicit drug use among AI/AN youth continues
to be far more common than among their non-Indian peers. Beauvais reported
in 1996 that, although overall drug use decreased from its high levels
of the 1970s, about 20% of Indian adolescents continued to be heavily involved
with drugs--a proportion that had remained steady since 1980. Alcohol use
varies considerably across reservations and tribes. Overall, however, alcohol
use appears to be a less severe problem than illicit drug use, and while
still a cause for concern, is not as severely out of sync with the national
average as is the rate of drug use. However, aggregated data can disguise
acute problems in some locations by balancing them with successes in others.
Data point to a pattern of reckless living among youth in Indian Country.
Motor vehicle and other accidents are the leading cause of death among
AI/AN persons aged 15-24, whose rate of death due to accidents is almost
three times higher than the rate for the total U.S. population (USDHHS,
1999). Among youth attending Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools, there
is lower-than-average usage of seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, and bicycle
helmets (Shaughnessy, Branum, & Everett-Jones, 2001).
Data also indicate the presence of despair. Suicide is the second leading
cause of death for AI/AN youth in the 15-24 age group; currently the suicide
rate is 2.5 times higher for AI/AN people than the combined rate for all
races in the United States (USDHHS, 1999). In the BIA study, 19% of AI/AN
high school youth had seriously considered suicide during the preceding
year. Although still a strong cause for concern, this statistic does represent
an improvement over the 29% reported in the 1994 survey (Shaughnessy, Branum,
& Everett-Jones, 2001). National studies show homicide and legal intervention
are the third leading cause of death for Indian youth (ages 15-24); the
homicide rate among American Indians is 1.2 times that of the general U.S.
population (USDHHS, 1999).
While there is considerable anecdotal evidence of increasing gang activity
among AI/AN students, no national studies provide reliable data about levels
of participation. In a study based on a convenience sample of nearly 14,000
youth in 50 tribes located in 12 states, 15% of reservation American Indian
youth reported some level of gang activity, with younger teens participating
at higher levels than older teens (Children, Youth and Family Consortium,
1992). A more recent study conducted on the Navajo Reservation concluded
there was wide variability among youth who identified themselves as gang
members. Some gangs were simply street-corner groups while others had hardened.
Sociodemographic conditions were a strong factor in creating a context
for gang formation around a small number of antisocial individuals. The
researchers concluded that "gang prevention is not simply, or even fundamentally,
a law enforcement issue. It is a public health issue in the broadest sense"
(Henderson, Kunitz, & Levy, 1999, p. 258).
While levels of risk-taking behaviors continue to be higher than the
general population and a cause for serious concern, long-term trends in
the BIA study of high school youth show some improvement, and as AI/AN
youth mature, their participation in such behaviors tends to diminish (Shaughnessy,
Branum, & Everett-Jones, 2001).
Several studies have provided evidence that families with strong traditional
values positively impact the academic success of AI/AN students (for a
review, see Demmert, 2001). However, for many AI/AN families, the interruption
in the intergenerational transmission of traditional culture imposed by
the Indian boarding school era--which separated generations of American
Indian children from their tribes and families--continues to have effects
today. Many American Indian women missed out on role models for nurturing
and child rearing (Ing, 1992). Further, some families continue to feel
alienated from mainstream educational purposes and institutions, which
reduces their involvement in their children's educations (Cummins, 1989).
A final family factor affecting educational outcomes of AI/AN students
is the high incidence of Indian households headed by women (45%), 42% of
whom were younger than 20 when they had their first child (LaFromboise,
Choney, James, & Running Wolf, 1995). These factors not only contribute
to the incidence of poverty in AI/AN families but also increase the demands
on female heads of households, who may lack time and resources for active
involvement in the education of their children.
While there are no recent data about AI/AN drop-out rates, national studies
from a decade ago indicated that Native student rates were higher than
other groups in America (Hillabrant, Romano, Stang, & Charleston, 1991).
It is important to look beyond the youth themselves and examine conditions
in the schools they attend. Bowker (1993) reports that students who drop
out cite several school-related problems: failure or inability to get along
with teachers, dislike of school, inability to get along with other students,
boredom, feelings of not belonging, and suspension. According to Caine
and Caine (1997), students who are confronted with racist threats on a
regular basis often lose a positive sense of cultural identity and begin
a process of "downshifting," which eventually leads to dropping out. Similarly,
Irvine (1990) suggests that when there is a cultural incongruity between
the school and the student, miscommunication and confrontation often occur
among students, teachers, and families, resulting in hostility, alienation,
and eventual dropping out.
Many AI/AN youth live in communities that continue to experience long-term
economic and social distress. High rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic
abuse, child neglect, substandard housing, and lack of job opportunities
are common conditions in Indian communities. Violence on Indian reservations
is often regarded as the norm. The dimensions of this phenomenon are described
in a recent Department of Justice study, "American Indians and Crime" (Greenfield
& Smith, 1999), which reported that the rate of violence in Indian
Country is well above that for all other ethnic groups and more than twice
the national average. Multiple studies have shown the adverse effects
of chronic exposure to violence on a child's ability to learn (see Massey,
1998, for a concise review). Massey, reporting research by Prothrow-Stith
and Quaday (1995), points out that
Learning itself is an essential tool for violence prevention. Children
who achieve in school and develop important reading, critical thinking,
problem solving, and communication skills are better able to cope with
stressful and perhaps dangerous situations. Also, academic achievement
enhances the development of a positive self-esteem and self-efficacy, both
of which are necessary for children to experience emotional well-being
and to achieve success. (p. 2)
Unemployment, which is often associated with high levels of crime and
substance abuse, is high in Indian communities, ranging up to 85% on some
reservations (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999). Nearly a third (31.6%)
of Indian people live below the poverty level, compared to 13.1% of the
general population (USDHHS, 1999). Apple (1996) refers to situations of
high unemployment and poverty as "a reality of crisis, an economy that
increases the gap between rich and poor" (p. 71) and points out that in
poor communities, schools are poorer and less able to motivate students
and their parents.
Addressing root causes of conditions that put AI/AN students at risk is
the best long-term solution to challenges facing youth and communities.
However, even in communities where dangers remain pervasive and severe,
measures can be taken to protect children exposed to community and family
distress. Research on resiliency has shown the importance of individuals
and organizations in providing protection and hope to young people, while
helping them to "find the good path" and lead fulfilling lives (Benard,
1997; Bergstrom, Cleary, & Peacock, 2002). These protective individuals
and organizations can be associated with any or all of the four domains
just discussed--peer groups, families, schools, or communities. (1)
The statistics cited here are means for the years 1999 and 2000 combined.
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