The Lived Experiences of Native American Women Parenting Off Reservations

Subject: History
Pages: 5
Words: 2732
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: PhD

Problem Statement

It is often interesting for researchers to study various populations of people to see how they live and compare it to others. I have found that there are special considerations that make Native Americans different from the rest. Some researchers are especially interested in the needs of such individuals who live on Native American reservations. For example, the social and economic aspects of their lives (Raheja, 2010) are worth studying.

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Previous studies have been aimed at examining the experiences of Native American women (Kuntz, Hill, Linkenbach, Lande, & Larsson 2009; Pallacios, & Kennedy, 2010) yet these studies tend to examine only one specific issue affecting the life of Native American women living in reservations. Bowker (1992), for one, examined dropout rates among these females. This researcher noted that dropout rates among women from the reservations were high compared to other women in the United States (Bowker, 1992).

This trend has been observed by other researchers as well. For example, Elizabeth Stearms (2006) noted that Native Americans are more likely to leave school before graduation. In part, this phenomenon can be attributed to the differences in attitudes toward education. Also relevant, Light and Marrin (1985) conducted a study that focused on the upbringing of children on reservations. Their study did not specifically concentrate on the parenting behavior of Native American women, but it provided an overview of how children are brought up off the reservations.

The studies that I have outlined in the literature review indicate that more attention should be paid to the needs of Native American women who have decided to raise their children off the reservation. Researchers such as Giles-Sims & Lockhart have acknowledged that there are “culturally-shaped parenting strategies” (2005, p. 196). They also note that cultural factors can be associated with economic forces. Such studies fail to cast light on the specific experiences of groups that have long been isolated from the mainstream culture and have been marginalized.

It is critical to focus on a set of challenges that are faced by Native American females. It is important to examine how these women raise children of the reservations (Hodge, 2009; Rizos & Krizova, 2007). Researchers often overlook the problems encountered by various sub-groups that are included in the Native American population. The sub-groups I am concerned about within this study are Native American women and children living off the reservation.

One can argue that such groups have been marginalized by the state (Hooks & Smith, 2004). My study will enable Native American women who are currently residing off the reservation to share the experiences that they have gone through living both in and off the reservation (Swischer & Hoisch, 1992; Pallacios and Kennedy, 2010). These are the major themes that I will be currently identifying.


Cultural identity shapes the daily lives of people. This argument is especially relevant when referring to the needs of Native Americans (Champagne, 2000). The purpose of this study is to gather information about the exact experiences that women from reservations face after they have left their comfort zones and are currently living outside the reservations.

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In keeping with the phenomenological and qualitative nature of the study, I aim to examine the attitudes that Native American women have in raising their children off the reservation. My findings during the course of this research are only applicable to the narrow population group identified by the study and should not be applied to other cultural groups. These limitations should be taken into consideration by any person reading the study.

There are several reasons why it is important to examine the topic. The findings of this study can be used by legislators, politicians, and public administrators to understand the challenges faced by Native American women living off reservations. This study can also be used for policy development and decision-making for the welfare of women and their children. Non-governmental organizations concerned with improving the living standards on Native American reservations will also find this study relevant to their mission.


Selected articles relating to the lives of Native Americans both on and off the Native American Indian Reservations that have been consulted for this study are described as follows:

  1. White, (1995) & Ross, (2005) examined the idea of growing up like Native Americans amid a different civilization.
  2. Silko (1996) concluded that a person cannot easily integrate or reconcile two cultures. Consequently, Native American Indians who live off the reservations, have to adjust to a set of different behavioral norms.
  3. Several studies such as Hoffmann, Jackson, & Smith, (2005); Kuntz et al., (2009); Fox, Becker-Green, Gault, & Simmons, (2005) have been carried out in order to describe and explain the difficult economic conditions of people from reservations.
  4. Lankford & Riley, (1986) highlight the various challenges that Native Americans residing on reservations face on a daily basis. Among these difficulties, one can outline homelessness and poor living conditions to include the fact that many families have to live in houses that are too small to accommodate them. Reservations lack basic infrastructures like running water, good roads, and telecommunication.
  5. Rizos & Krizova, (2007) report that perhaps due to these concerns that some women believe that it is much better to raise their children off the reservations. Moreover, these people look for opportunities that can enable them to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
  6. Miller (2013) recounted how Native Americans who ventured out of the reservations adjusted to their new lives. Some fully embraced Caucasian culture in the belief that it will bring them better opportunities, while others used their traditional values as inspiration to succeed in life outside the reservation.
  7. Jacobs (2013) narrated the history of how Native American children were taken from their families to be shipped off to boarding schools and learn the “proper” way to behave in accordance with Caucasian culture. She also described how the parenting of Native American women was criticized as inadequate due to the fact that most of them are very young, inexperienced, and unmarried. She emphasized the importance of the extended family system in the proper rearing of Native American children.
  8. Gray et al. (2013) compared the factors that influenced the rearing of Native American Indian and Caucasian families. They claim that the traditional values and practices such as strong respect for tribal elders, family, and the tribal community as well as the sacredness of marriage and family can protect Native Americans from societal risks they may face outside the reservation. These risks include high violence rates, suicide, and substance abuse, among others.
  9. Campbell & Evans-Campbell (2011) claim that Native American children who have been forcibly separated from their families as they were institutionalized in boarding schools and introduced to Caucasian culture have become alienated from their native culture. This has resulted in the deterioration of their sense of identity as well as their personal affiliation to their tribal community.
  10. Realizing that there is a need for parenting interventions in some troubled Native American children and youth, Goodkind et al. (2012) studied a community–based and culturally grounded intervention that involved the children as well as their parents. The research discussed how the intervention impacted the children and their parents. It was found that re-introducing the children to their history and confronting the historical trauma their people endured through the years made the children understand the turmoil they have been going through. It was also therapeutic for parents to undergo the intervention and allowed them to strengthen the bonds with their children, resulting in improved parent-children relationships.
  11. Bigfoot & Funderburk (2011) explained the value of returning back to traditional Native American values of “honoring children” and “making relatives” and parallelized it to the parenting intervention approach of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy. It focused on more positive parenting strategies in raising more well-rounded and well-adjusted children.
  12. Gentry & Fugate (2012) discussed how gifted Native American students are negatively affected by their situation of being alienated for their unique cultural background, as they underperform in school and are under-identified and overlooked due to discrimination especially in schools outside the reservation. The researchers advocate strong parental involvement in their children’s schools and the incorporation of Native American culture in school curriculums.
  13. Despite the dire circumstances they are in, it was surprising to discover that some Native American youth developed resiliency in the face of their daily struggles. McMahon et al. (2013) found that such youth were embedded with positive adaptive mechanisms to help them cope with the challenges they are besieged with.

Theoretical Framework

Historical Trauma

Native Americans have been historically traumatized from their negative experiences of being ousted and relocated from their homeland throughout history. Unlike personal trauma, their people’s historical trauma is focused on their collective trauma as families, and this trauma has been passed and even amplified from one generation to the next (Brave Heart and Debruyn, 1998; Campbell and Evans-Campbell, 2011). This affects both the people’s collective and personal identity formation and relationship patterns in successive generations (Cowan and Cowan, 2005).

Systems Theory

Another theory that can explain Native American historical trauma is the Systems theory. Systems theory explores human experiences and behavior patterns. The theory states that humans seek out homeostasis. In relation to this study, it promises that each member of the Native American family system plays a role that contributes to the synchronized functioning of the system (Gray et al., 2013).

Each member keeps his or her role so children who have formed the role in a relationship pattern will likewise form similar relationships with others who can operate within the same family system (Bowen, 1985). Hence, if traumatic experiences altered family relationship roles, then it may also negatively influence succeeding relationship patterns. For example, if a child grows up being accustomed to their parents being intoxicated most of the time and they are left in the care of their grandparents, then, they may follow the same modelled pattern when they grow up. Alcoholism may be accepted as a way of life, and parenting responsibilities may be left to the grandparents.

Studies of Campbell & Evans-Campbell (2011), Holman and Birch (2001), and Yoshida and Busby (2011) found that an individual’s view of their parent’s marital quality, relationship quality with each parent, and the impact of their family of origin can predict their own marital stability and satisfaction in life.

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Acculturation Theory

When people are uprooted from their native culture and transported into a new one, they undergo acculturation or adaptation to the new culture. Gordon (1964) theorized that immigrants assimilate the language and behaviors of the people in the host culture first followed by structural assimilation. This involves the social and economical integration into the new culture. Finally, some immigrants get to the last stage of assimilation which in which they identify with the new culture and abandon their identification with their culture of origin. Gordon suggested that assimilation may affect more first-generation adult immigrants than their children who are born into the new culture. He also enumerated the components of language, behavior, and identity as indices of acculturation.

Over time, it is likely that an acculturation gap grows between children and parents of immigrant families, with the parents holding on to their traditional culture and the children acculturating to the new culture (Ranieri, Klimidis, & Rosenthal, 1994; Szapocznik et al., 1986). Children have less difficulty picking up the new language and learning the traditions and cultural behaviors of the people in the new culture. Consequently, their culture of origin, being less exposed to them, diminishes in terms of the effect on their growth and development unless their parents consistently push it to them (Birman & Trickett, 2001).

To apply to Native American families, it must be taken in the context of those who were relocated from their places of origin or from the reservation they have come from and how they adjust to their new homes outside the reservation. An example is a Native American child’s interaction with new adults in his new school may not reinforce the customs and traditions that his parents have shown him leading to the cultural discontinuity between the home and school. In extreme cases, Native American children are asked to choose between their native heritage and school success and such dilemma leads to disastrous effects (Reyhner, 1992).

Problems like drug and alcohol abuse ensue due to unresolved internal conflicts coming from teachers pressuring students to give up their Native Culture, or at the least, not acknowledging it. To reduce school dropout rates of Native American youth, it is important that teaching methods and school curriculum be adjusted to mitigate cultural conflict between home and school (Reyhner, 1992). This helps the Native American mothers who may still retain some of the values, customs, and traditions they were born into in order to pass these on to their children even if they are already living outside the reservation.

Strengths Perspective

In order to overcome the negative experiences one has withstood in life, their competencies, resilience, resources, and protective factors that lead to positive developmental outcomes should be emphasized (Leadbeater et al. 2004). The Strengths Perspective is a theory that purports to assist people in identifying, securing, and sustaining their internal and external resources to help them achieve their goals and establish mutually enriching relationships with the community (Kisthardt, 2002). This is achieved by strengthening existing assets and/or facilitating the development of new resources to accomplish pre-established goals (McMahon et al., 2013). With regards to Native American individuals who have suffered negative experiences, the Strengths Perspective can become a tool to lift them up and help them to still be productive.

Research Questions

My study will be aimed at answering the following questions:

  1. What does it mean for a Native American woman to grow up on the Native American Indian reservation?
  2. What experiences have led Native American women who grew up in the reservations to choose to raise their own children of the reservations?
  3. What challenges do women who grew up in the reservations face when they try to raise their children off the reservations?
  4. What may be the reasons for Native American women who grew up in the reservations for their decision to stay and raise their children off the reservations?

Nature of the Study

I will examine the experiences of Native American women living on and off reservations from a qualitative viewpoint. The qualitative approach is suitable in those cases when it is necessary to understand the opinions and attitudes of respondents and identify specific concerns of individuals (Creswell, 2003).

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By approaching the participants this way, it helps the researcher involve them in the discussion of various issues which may delve deeper than what may be known. This is why qualitative interview has been chosen as the method of research. The information will be collected during semi-structured interviews during which the respondents will be able to narrate their experiences of how they were brought up. In this way, one can understand the challenges they face. My study will also examine the experiences of Native American women who were brought up in the reservations, and are now living off the reservations.

I will also focus on the attitudes of these respondents towards child-rearing processes off the reservations. Through this research, I can provide illumination on how the experiences of children or adolescents can affect their parenting strategies (Huh, 2006). Such experiences may not be fully relevant to the needs of Native American females because they do not take into account their cultural legacies. This is one of the issues that should be considered. In the process of this study, I will generate my own data and information from the interactions with women living off the reservations.

Possible Types and Sources of Information or Data

Information for this study that will strengthen the thesis shall be culled from various sources, specifically the following:

  1. Problem statements that will be explored with a thorough review of the literature, written at four key points in a doctoral student’s career: the premise, the prospectus, the proposal, and the dissertation writing stage.
  2. Ratings and reviews of the problem statements by an expert panel of doctoral faculty as well as their comments and recommendations.
  3. Interviews with a representative group of women who were brought up on the reservations and their descriptions of their experiences as they raise their children off the reservations.

Reference List

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Bowker, A. (1992). The American Indian female dropout. Journal of American Indian Education, 31(3), n.p. Web.

Brave Heart, M. Y. H., and Debruyn, L. M. (1998). The American Indian holocaust: Healing historical unresolved grief. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 8 (2), 56-78.

Campbell, C. D. and Evans-Campbell, T. (2011). Historical trauma and Native American child development and mental health: An overview. In M. C. Sarche, P. Spicer, P. Farrell, and H. E. Fitzgerald (Eds.), American Indian and Alaskan Native Children and Mental Health: Development, Context, Prevention, and Treatment (pp, 1 -26). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Champagne, D. (2000). Contemporary Native American Cultural Issues. New York, NY: Rowman Altamira.

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Fox, K., Becker-Green, J., Gault, J., & Simmons, D. (2005). Native American youth in transition: The path from adolescence to adulthood in two Native American communities. Portland, OR: National Indian Child Welfare Association.

Gentry, M. & Fugate, C.M. (2012) Gifted Native American students: Underperforming, under-identified, and overlooked, Psychology in the Schools, 49 (7), 631-646.

Giles-Sims, J., & Lockhart, C. (2005). Culturally Shaped Patterns of Disciplining Children. Journal of Family Issues, 26(2), 196-218.

Goodkind, J., LaNoue, M., Lee, C., Freeland, L., Freund, R. (2012) Involving parents in a community-based, culturally grounded mental health intervention for American Indian youth: Parent perspectives, challenges, and results, Journal Of Community Psychology, 40(4), 468–478.

Gray, A.C., Shafer, K., Limb, G.E., Busby, D.M. (2013). Unique influences on American Indian relationship quality: An American-Indian and Caucasian comparison, Joumal of Comparative Family Studies, 44(5), 589-607.

Hodge, F. S. (2009). Breast cancer–screening behavior among rural California American Indian women. American Indian culture and Research Journal, 33 (3), 35–42.

Hoffmann, L. L., Jackson, A. P. & Smith, S. A. (2005). Career Barriers Among native American Students Living On Reservations. Journal of Career Development. 32 (1), 31-45.

Holman, T. B. and Birch, P. J. (2001) Family-of-origin structures and processes and adult children’s marital quality. In H. B. Kaplan, A, E, Gottfried, and A, W, Gottfried (Eds,), Premarital Prediction of Marital Quality or Breakup: Research, Theory, and Practice (pp. 79-104). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Hooks, G., & Smith, C. (2004). The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans. American Sociological Review, 69 (4), 558-575.

Huh, D. (2006). Does Problem Behavior Elicit Poor Parenting? A Prospective Study of Adolescent Girls. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21 (2), 185-204.

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Jacobs, M.D. (2013) Remembering the “forgotten child”: The American Indian child welfare crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, American Indian Quarterly, 37 (1-2), 136-159.

Kuntz, S. W., Hill, W. G., Linkenbach, J. W, Lande, G. & Larsson, L. (2009). Methyl mercury risk and awareness among American Indian women of childbearing age living on an inland northwest reservation. Environmental Research, 109 (6), 753–759.

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Light, H. K. & Marrin, R. E. (1985). Guidance of American Indian children: Their heritage and some contemporary reviews. Journal of American Indian Education, 25 (1), n.p. Web.

McMahon, T.R., Kenyon, D.B., Carter, J.S. (2013). ‘‘My culture, my family, my school, me’’: Identifying strengths and challenges in the lives and communities of American Indian Youth, Journal of Child and Family Studies, 22, 694-706.

Miller, D.K. (2013). Willing workers: Urban relocation and American Indian initiative, 1940’s-1960’s, Ethnohistory 60 (1), 51-76.

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