American-Indian Families

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American-Indian Families

American Indians are the indigenous peoples of the United States. According to archeological estimates, bronze-skinned women and men from northern Asia had been exploring and settling the Americas for 10,000 to 50,000 years. By the fifteenth century, descendants of these women and men from northern Asia had spread southward to populate both continents (Nabokov 1999). When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, North America had already been home to an estimated two million to ten million people. These Native-American peoples had developed over 300 distinct cultures and had the equivalent of some two hundred distinct languages. The majority of these peoples had settled along the western coastal strip known today as California. The second most populated region was the southwest, followed by regions east of the Mississippi.

By the time Columbus arrived, an array of Native-American civilizations existed, exhibiting a variety of lifestyles and practices among them. For example, the groups had different methods of gathering food, different dwellings, and different cultural and religious patterns, as well as population sizes. All this changed once the Europeans arrived and began to establish their own settlements.

American-Indian groups had established their own forms of tribal or group government for keeping order among themselves and as a means to interrelate among and between each other. When Europeans first arrived in the northeast, they came into contact with the five Iroquoian tribes that had established a permanent political union. Known as the Great League, their style of government was so formidable that the British and French had no choice but to deal with these Indian groups as separate but equal sovereign entities. When Europeans ventured into the southeast, they encountered the Creek Confederacy, which was made up of thousands of Muskogean-speaking Indians (Nabokov 1999). Some of the more well known among the Muskogean-speaking tribes were the Creek, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and the Seminoles (Beach 1910). In Louisiana, European settlers met up with the aristocratic Indian group known as the Natchez. The Natchez had a hierarchical type of society and were ruled by a monarch called The Sun. The Powhatan Confederacy was based in Virginia and consisted of two hundred villages and thirty different tribes, while in California, European settlers found numerous independent and isolated Indian groups who had different dialects and varied greatly in size.

It is important to bear in mind that first contact, a term used by anthropologists, between American Indians and Europeans occurred at different times and in different regions of the country. For example, first contact was earlier in the more eastern and southern locales. Accordingly, the Hopi Indians of Arizona and the Hurons of eastern Canada both had experienced their initial contact with the Europeans by the 1540s. Conversely, the Sioux Indians of the Dakota plains would not have their first encounter with Europeans until the 1690s, about 150 years later than the Hopi and Huron, while the Wintu tribe of northern California did not have their first contact with Europeans until the mid-1700s. Finally, the last known first contact occurred in 1818, when the polar Eskimos encountered a British naval expedition. It was then that the Eskimos learned that they were not the only humans on earth. By this time, virtually every American-Indian tribal group had made some form of contact with and accommodation to the European settlers and traders. Some American-Indian–European relations fared well while others were extremely hostile and ended in tragedy for the American-Indian men, women, and children.

General Points of Interest

Today, the total population for American Indians alone is 1,865,118, a figure that increases to 2,475,956 after combining the total population for American Indians and Alaska Natives. The average family size for American Indians across the fifty states ranges from a low of 2.99 in West Virginia to a high of 4.18 in South Dakota (U.S. Census Bureau 2000). As far as birth rates, the American-Indian and Alaska Native birth rate for 1994–1996 (the latest available) of 24.1 births per 1,000 population was 63 percent greater than the United States in general, all races birth rate for 1995 of 14.8, and 70 percent greater than the rate for the U.S. white population of 14.2 (Indian Health Service 1998–99).

In terms of health-related concerns, statistics show that the top leading health problem areas among American Indians are: diseases of the heart, malignant neoplasms, accidents, diabetes mellitus, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. The two leading causes of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives (1994–1996) and the United States, all races and white populations (1995) were diseases of the heart and malignant neoplasms. Conversely, the ten leading causes of death for decedents of all ages among American Indians and Alaska Natives within the Indian Health Services (HIS) area, from 1994–1996 based on a rate per 100,000 population, were: (1) diseases of the heart,
(2) malignant neoplasms, (3) accidents, with motor vehicle accidents having the largest number, (4) diabetes mellitus, (5) chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, (6) cerebrovascular diseases, (7) pneumonia and influenza, (8) suicide, (9) chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and (10) homicide and legal intervention (Indian Health Service 1998–99).

Boarding Schools

There have been several generations of both physical and psychological parental loss affecting American-Indian families. This parental loss has occurred across tribal communities, whether on reservations or in urban centers, in which a large percentage of American-Indian families live. There have been three primary contributing factors that can be attributed to this parental loss for American-Indian families: the abrupt removal and placement of Indian children in foster and adoptive homes, the education of Indian children in boarding schools, and the impact of alcohol on American-Indian families.

The forced removal of Indian children from their families of origin by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, and later missionaries acting on behalf of the government, was the single most damaging action taken against American-Indian families. Boarding schools were initially established in the late nineteenth century and continued to exist throughout the mid- to late 1960s. These schools were meant to educate American-Indian children in the European-American tradition.

The government's strategy was to remove American-Indian children from their families of origin and place them in boarding schools, sometimes hundreds of miles away from their families and communities, with the goal of breaking up the traditional family as well as the transmission of their cultural way of life. If the children were not around for the parents to teach cultural ways, then slowly, over time, the government would achieve its goal of exterminating American-Indian culture and traditional family life and replace it with total assimilation to European-American society. Parents had sporadic or virtually no contact with their children while they were in the boarding schools.

Over the years, the impact of the boarding school experience on American-Indian families and their children has been of interest to researchers, educators, family scholars, and the more than five hundred tribes in the United States. Families were tragically disrupted; the children were raised in an institutional setting that promoted isolation and lack of appropriate interaction between females and males, as well as various methods of assimilation tactics. Often, when children were released from the boarding school environment they had no knowledge or skills to survive in the larger society. If they did find their way back to their families or tribal communities, they often experienced ostracism and feelings of not belonging due to perceptions of being a "red apple"—red on the outside for Indianness and white on the inside for acting according to the ways of the European-American society. Parents of these children did not know how to deal with them and often could not communicate with their children because they did not speak English, and their children no longer spoke their native dialect.

The end result was loss of family, parents suffering from unresolved grief and loss, high incidence of mental health problems and alcoholism, children who grew up not knowing their culture or how to parent when they became adults, identity struggles, and generational transmission of the ramifications of boarding school experiences from fear or shame about identifying as an American Indian to an inability to be good parents to their children through healthy and nurturing relationships.

Family Life Today

In many respects, the history of the past has influenced and helped to shape the structure, roles, and meaning of family to American Indians today. American Indians would define family as members made up of fictive and nonfictive kin (blood related and non-blood related), extended family, tribal community, and the nation of American Indians as a whole today. In this regard, one is never alone or without family, a kinship network. Some tribes are patriarchal and patrilocal; others are matriarchal and matrilocal in structure.

The structural context of the family is immersed in history and traditional cultural values (Red Horse, Lewis, Feit, and Decker 1978; Red Horse 1980). For example, American-Indian women were often viewed in the context of expressive roles; namely, childrearing, domestic tasks, and the overall concerns of the family (Hanson 1980; John 1988). American-Indian men were often cast in roles of leadership outside the home; as medicine men and spiritual guides, and as leaders in tribal community matters.

Today, some believe that the centrality of the culture is maintained in American-Indian women (Allen 1986). This is a progressive and feminist view that does not apply across all tribes in the United States. For example, women of tribes in the west and southwest have lower status than those from tribes from the east and south. Others view the role of women as based on an ethic of care (Gilligan 1993) in which women are principally concerned with the responsibility and activity involved in the care of others and their development. In essence, American-Indian women see themselves as providing an integral role centered around an ethic of care that is the connection between relationship and responsibility.

The contemporary role of American-Indian women is very much rooted in their role historically, but in a more modernized version due to the changing times.

Women's activity—in relation to others—is more aptly depicted in language such as "being able to encompass the experiences and well-being of the other" (Miller 1986, p. x). What American-Indian women have been doing in life is best described as "active participation in the development of others" (p. xx).

This active participation occurs daily; as the women interact with adults and children they engage in a relational connection. By looking at the conventional ways women have been socialized to carry out the expressive activities and functions of the so-called female role—that is, wife, mother, nurturer, responsible for child rearing and the private sphere of home—it is clear that these expressive activities are focused on serving others' needs. For American-Indian women, then, ties to others represent affiliations based on an ethic of care: the connection between relationship and responsibility (Silvey 1997).

In their role as American-Indian women, women are viewed as the carriers of culture, or put another way, keepers of the culture. As such, the women are not suppressed in their role, but the same cannot be said for American-Indian men. The cultural context of the outside, larger society has negatively affected the role and status of the American-Indian male compared to that of the American-Indian female. From a historical perspective, the net result over time has evinced a cultural context of adaptation and evolution in the role and status of American-Indian women and men, as opposed to tradition.

American-Indian men have a harder time finding their niche in contemporary society. The status of the Indian male has not risen anywhere near that of the Indian female. It is much harder for men to find employment that has the opportunity for career advancement. American-Indian males have been known to be great on their feet and have been sought out as ironworkers and for various jobs in the construction field. More often than not, the Indian male will find himself relegated to providing for his family through various means of manual labor and work in blue-collar industries. It is rare that American-Indian men can be found working in white-collar occupations and jobs that tend to hold status and prestige, all symbols of very successful and upwardly mobile men by today's standards. Many American-Indian men are in prominent roles within their tribal communities as tribal judges, tribal chairmen and administrators, and in mental health and casino positions. Some men have gone on to become lawyers and work for their tribe or types of Indian legal services. Others have very strong creative and artistic abilities and have become entrepreneurs.

However, it is still far easier for American-Indian women to find jobs that enable them to provide for their families and establish a career ladder at the same time than it is for American-Indian men. Historically, the role of American-Indian men as providers for their family was much easier, and held more status, than it is or does in contemporary society.

The structure of American-Indian families is often misunderstood and confusing to non-American-Indian people. The expansive nature of the family structure, inclusive of extended family systems, is confusing because of the number of non-blood-related members inherent in the family. Not all members may be primarily of American-Indian descent or of the same tribal affiliation. A nonblood or fictive member may be an elder who is referred to by other members as an uncle, but who in fact has no biological relationship to other members.

Confusing to the non-American Indian is the number of people who reside together and that it is not always possible to tell by looking at members which ones are fictive and nonfictive (Red Horse 1980; Silvey 1997).

The goal of family and parental support, within the context of the American-Indian family of origin, is to foster interdependence. The family serves as a facilitator in the development of its members and does so according to family or cultural role, not necessarily according to age (Red Horse 1980). Family and parental support encompasses cultural and spiritual maintenance, satisfaction of physical and emotional needs, and the themes of providing care, being cared for, and preparing to care for, throughout the lifespan. In this regard, the family is strengthened and lifelong interdependence among members is fostered. This approach to familial support contrasts with European-American family support in that the goal of the latter is independence of members rather than interdependence among members.

American-Indian Child Welfare

One of the most heart-wrenching legacies from the past was the effect of the boarding schools on American-Indian families and children. In part, the unwarranted removal of children from their family of origin by missionaries and the U.S. government helped to bring about activism and outcry from American-Indian communities for something to be done to save their children, families, and tribes. In 1978, Congress enacted P.L. 95-608, which has come to be known as the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (George 1997). The legislative intent behind this law was to stop the unwarranted removal of American-Indian children from their families and to set minimum standards for the removal and placement of the children in the event removal was necessary (Myers 1981). From oral and written testimony given before Congress, it was determined that American-Indian children were being removed at an alarmingly high rate—a rate five times higher than any other group of children. It took action by the U.S. federal government to intervene in the form of passing this statute to help ameliorate the large rate of unwarranted removal of Indian children. This federal law is still in effect and governs how social service agencies remove children if necessary, what services are to be provided and by Indian providers and/or organizations where possible, and stringent placement guidelines for Indian child welfare cases in the event removal is necessary. As a federal law, this statute takes precedence over all state laws in child custody matters involving American-Indian children, except in the case of divorce and delinquency matters unless termination of parental rights occurs at the same time in the case of the latter.

In the case of foster care, it has long been a tradition among American-Indian families to care for the children of other families should the need arise. It is a system that operates much like an informal fostering or adoption network, wherein arrangements are made privately between the families without involving a lawyer or court system. One could liken it to practices in today's society where grandparents are often raising their grandchildren, not only within the American-Indian culture, but also across various cultures in the United States, on an informal basis. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) requires that social service agents find clear and convincing evidence for removal of an Indian child, whereas state standards require a lesser burden of proof based on the preponderance of the evidence. No longer may Indian children be removed solely on the basis of environmental poverty or alcoholism, as was frequently done in the past. There must be clear and convincing evidence that some type of abuse or neglect has occurred.

The ICWA sets minimum standards and guidelines for the placement of American-Indian children once removal is indicated. These placement priorities apply to foster care and adoption procedures. The first placement priority is always with a relative or extended family member. If this cannot be achieved, which in the majority of cases it can be, then the second placement priority is placement with an American-Indian family of the same tribal affiliation as the child; for example, a child of Ottawa or Odawa descent is placed with a family of the same descendency. If this priority cannot be achieved, then the third and final placement priority is for the Indian child to be placed with an Indian family of a different tribal affiliation than the child; for example, a child of Ottawa or Odawa descent with a family of Chippewa or Ojibwa lineage. It is only as a last resort, and only after placement in one of the first three priorities cannot be met, that an Indian child may be open to placement with any family of any descent as long as it is in the best interests of the Indian child. To date, this is the only federal law in place that affords children the rights and protections of being placed with families, and receiving services from providers, who are of the same racial ethnic heritage—the American Indian. There is no other federal law that affords the same rights and protections to any other group of children in the United States. Children are viewed as the most valuable resource while American-Indian elderly are revered and accorded honor, within the context of the family. American-Indian children are reared with the mindset that there is no gender inequality within the family. For example, Indian males learn to be self-reliant in tasks that are typically considered in the domain of the female role, such as cooking, rearing children, doing laundry and grocery shopping, and cleaning house. American-Indian females are raised knowing how to mow the lawn, perform various mechanical repairs around the home and on their own vehicles, and in other tasks typically regarded as belonging to men. What is most important in raising male and female children is that they learn to be self-reliant and self-sufficient in a variety of tasks so that they are able to take care of themselves in the event that they do not marry, or there is no one else around to help them. For example, among some Woodland Indian tribes, males are taught how to cook, clean, do laundry, and be self-reliant without a female, whereas females are taught how to do basic mechanical maintenance on cars or household items, as well as to paint and perform general repair work (Silvey 1997).

American-Indian families may be found to consist of all types of family forms, as is the case with other populations. There are two-parent, single-parent, and blended families, families without children, live-together partners, foster and adoptive families, and lesbian and gay family members. American-Indian lesbian and gay members, also known as two-spirit people, are accepted and often extolled by Indian tribal groups. The families of American-Indian lesbian and gay persons do not usually abandon or ostracize them, thus helping them face a generally unaccepting American society (Brown 1997).

American-Indian families are not immune from divorce. It is not the preferred family dynamic but it is also not discouraged in the case of domestic violence, substance abuse, abandonment, or irreconcilable differences, for example. Among American Indians, it is not uncommon to hear a divorce or relationship breakup spoken of in terms of "split the blanket," meaning a couple has split up.

Throughout life, American-Indian families have various rituals or ceremonial practices. However, these ritual and ceremonial practices are not universally accepted or practiced by all American Indian tribal families. For example, the southwest Navajo tribe has a practice of using cradleboards for their infants. They also have a ritual wherein the person who is the first to make a newborn or infant smile is then honored by throwing a special feast for the child. Among the eastern and woodland tribes, the firstborn daughter becomes the keeper of the culture, keeper of the family, and in charge of the overall responsibility for their family members when in need, as she advances in life. Additionally, many American-Indian tribes partake in a naming ceremony where an individual tribal member is given his or her Indian name. Usually, a revered elder or spiritual guide is the person who bequeaths the Indian name to the individual based on what is known about the individual's character and potential.


The interrelationships between European Americans and American Indians have sometimes been smooth and sometimes conflicted. American Indian families are very diverse according to which tribe they belong to. In fact, it can safely be said that there is as much diversity within American Indians as there is between American Indians and other groups. There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and families are very diverse according to which tribe they belong to. Despite the lack of universal practices and dialects, there are some commonalities among the various tribes and American-Indian families. For example, there is a shared history of oppression that still affects contemporary families in the United States, much as it affected earlier generations.

See also:Canada First Nations Families; United States


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le anne e. silvey

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American-Indian Families

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