Two years ago I began working with a Native American organization. I was concerned about it, because I am not Native American myself. For 300+ years people from other places have told Native Americans what they should do and how they should be, so there is understandably resentment about non-Natives giving advice or being in positions of authority. You have to earn your reputation as someone who understands how things work, who can keep confidences, who will listen, and who can be trusted. This takes time, and can be damaged if you mess up. Non-Native workers come and go — it’s a job. Native Americans look for someone who is in on the long-haul.
The mistrust comes from hundreds of years of genocide. Maybe you think that is a strong word, genocide, but that is what it was. There are historical documents that show the United States government was waging a war against the Native Peoples on many levels, including sanctioning killing or enslaving women and children. And when the government stopped blatantly killing Native Americans, they continued taking away their lands and their ability to take care of their families with pride. They took away the children and forced them to live in boarding schools (where very bad things happened), in an attempt to destroy Native American culture and families. They almost succeeded, and many Native American Nations are struggling to reclaim their language and their history. The problems some Native Americans have now with drugs and alcohol come directly from the problems created in those boarding schools, where children were not taught how to be parents and have self-respect, but how to seek escape from the daily tortures. It is a testimony to their strength and determination that we have as many healthy Native American families as we do today.
I have already mentioned the need to listen, learn about the culture, have respect, and earn trust. But the biggest issue to stay away from is any hint you might come between a Native American parent and their child. Because of the boarding schools, this is a very hot button topic. This is why the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) exists, to make sure that Native American children remain with Native American families, even if they are foster families. It’s not smart to use it as a threat, even if you are trying to change the parent’s behavior. It is more apt to send the parent off the deep end, and make their negative behavior more pronounced. If it comes about as a consequence, so be it, but never mention the possibility lightly.
I’ve heard some well-intentioned non-Native people say, They should get over it; it’s been 100 years. Actually, no, it’s only been 40 years. That’s when the last Native American children were forcibly removed from Native American families and shipped off to non-Native families in other areas. These wounds are still fresh. And it takes more than one generation to heal cultures that have been this badly damaged. Maybe you know someone who lived through tough economic times, or were raised by parents who did, so they tend to be very careful with money and expenses — do you really expect them to get over it and move on that easily? We are talking about damage deeper than that.
I am honored to have this job, and to work with co-workers and clients who are Native American. It is true, I will never completely understand the culture, because I was not raised in it. But I respect it, I listen, and I do what I can to help.