In working with Native Americans, individuals need to understand the culture and traditions of the students they are working with. There are similarities in certain aspects of their traditions/customs, yet there are differences which help to distinguish one tribe from another. There are social, economic, and educational factors which influence each individual which in turn determines the degree of acculturation.

There are varying degrees of acculturation of Native Americans. Characteristics of a traditional Native American could be used for the understanding of varying degrees of acculturation. At the opposite end would be an individual who is assimilated and who knows the English language but does not speak his Native language. In between a traditional and assimilated individual would be the varying degrees of acculturation. Hopefully, the following three examples will help clarify the concept of acculturation. There may be some overlapping in the areas of language, education, spirituality, and social/religious activities, but it is not limited to these areas.


Example 1: A Native American individual may come to Phoenix and live with a relative and decide to go back to school. The individual may go home to the reservation on weekends for social gatherings or to help parents/grandparents with crops, livestock, and chores at home. The family utilizes the Indian Health Service when in the city but will go home for traditional healing ceremonies when needed. To most Native Americans home is the reservation where they were brought up or where their parents/grandparents (usually mother/grandmother) have been raised. Some tribes have a clan system into which they are born. Navajo is a matriarchal society which means the child takes the clan of the mother and land is passed on to the family through the mother's side. This individual will probably be traditional to some extent but yet also acculturated in the sense that the individual is getting an education and living in the city.


Example 2: An individual resides on the reservation in a traditional dwelling with grandparents who speak only their Native language. He helps his grandparents with the livestock which involves hauling water for the livestock and rounding them up on a regular basis. This individual attended boarding school in his early years. The family utilizes traditional healing methods which may include a spiritual leader or medicine man for illnesses. The family attends regular meetings in their community addressing different issues. They see many of their relatives at the meetings so they also get a chance to socialize at these meetings. Sometimes, the meetings may take most of the day. They make weekly trips into town (about 30 miles one way) to do their grocery shopping. There is a small convenience store but the prices are high so most of the time they just get their gas and necessities when needed. This individual may be considered somewhat more traditional because he/she would have to converse with grandparents in Native language and still practice traditional ways/methods of healing. He resides on the reservation.


Example 3: This individual lives with parents and five siblings in the city. Both parents have a high school education and some college or technical training. Both parents work long hours and sometimes week-ends. This individual has many friends who are Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo. Since both parents are busy with work, they do not get to go home frequently because the drive to the reservation is cumbersome. When they do go home it is usually when they can get days off or on holidays when the children are not in school. There are not many Native Americans in the neighborhood they live in. They usually have to go to social functions sponsored by some Native American organizations to socialize with other Native Americans. They go to church where the pastor is Native American. Sometimes, the children may go to their relatives/grandparents for a week during the summer. The parents speak both English and their Native language. Their children prefer to speak English so they are limited in their Native language. This individual is more acculturated as compared to individuals in examples 1 and 2. He is forced to live in the city because of his parents' jobs. Language is a major factor as is limited exposure to their Native American culture/reservation.


Understanding Native Americans: Characteristics of a Traditional Native American


Speaks Native language

Understands tribal customs/traditions

Participates in tribal religious/ceremonial/social activities

Acts in appropriate ways at religious/ceremonial/social activities

Practices traditional spirituality

Feels emotionally connected to tribe(s)

Socializes with other Native American people

Chooses to live in Indian communities (reservations)

May grow crops or have a farm

Immediate and extended family very important to individual

Table of Contents

Teaching and Learning with Native Americans

Culturally Relevant Curriculum