Academic journal article Social Work

Culturally Informed Social Work Practice with American Indian Clients: Guidelines for Non-Indian Social Workers

Academic journal article Social Work

Culturally Informed Social Work Practice with American Indian Clients: Guidelines for Non-Indian Social Workers

Article excerpt

Social agencies mandated to provide services to American Indian populations are staffed predominantly by non-Indian social workers whose professional education may not have provided the tools to deliver culturally appropriate services. In a study of American Indian cultural factors in the interaction between Indian clients and non-Indian professionals (Miller, 1982), 65 percent of the professionals indicated that during client interviews there was no discussion related to Indian culture. Fifteen percent indicated that they did not need to ask for more cultural information to effectively provide services. Those who indicated the need for more cultural information stated that they did not know how much weight to place on cultural characteristics and were uncomfortable with gathering the information.

Alcoholism, child neglect, diabetes, incest, spiritual loss, suicide, and unemployment are but a few of the problems facing American Indians at disproportionate rates. Social workers must be prepared to address these issues while designing interventions for clients who may distrust the very agency they have come to for help. Fundamental to this process is the ability to design culturally sound interventions (Coggins, 1991; Locust, 1988; Yukl, 1986). This article provides guidelines that can assist social workers in this task.

American Indian Culture

American Indian educators and health care practitioners maintain that interventions are effective only when American Indian clients are encouraged to become responsible in ways that are culturally relevant (Coggins, 1990, 1991; French & Hornbuckle, 1980; Yukl, 1986). In undertaking such a task, social workers need to educate themselves about the historical traditions, beliefs, and behavioral norms of the community being served; determine an Indian client's degree of assimilation into the dominant culture; and understand what any loss of culture may represent.

Government Policies and the Protestant Work Ethic

Historical Western attitudes have caused cultural disruption and contributed to the alienation of American Indians from the mainstream of U.S. society. Early federal government policies, such as the removal policy of 1835, which displaced Indian populations to Indian territory, and the Dawes Act (Indian General Allotment Act), which made that same land available to white settlers two years later, separated Indians from their traditional lands and roles (French & Hornbuckle, 1980). Beginning in the 1870s and continuing for the next 100 years, the removal of American Indian children from their homes, attempts to eliminate native ways, and the urban relocation program of the 1950s have contributed to the image of the Indian family as impoverished and unstable (Herring, 1989). Such a depiction renders functioning kinship networks invisible and leaves unacknowledged the problems of poverty and urban displacement.

The first immigrants to North America were Protestant separatists who brought with them the values of hard work, piety, and frugality. The Protestant work ethic promoted the notion that poor people are usually indolent and in need of moral guidance (Adrian, 1990). This ethic was at odds with the American Indian tradition of sharing to strengthen social bonds (Coggins, 1991). In the Indian tradition, receiving was not stigmatized, and needy people were seldom divided into the categories of deserving and nondeserving. Left unrecognized, the rich spiritual life of the American Indian deteriorated as Western influences dominated.

Religious and Health Beliefs

Values can exert powerful influences on behavior and beliefs about what constitutes appropriate, positive, prosocial behavior in others (Coggins, 1991; Tropman, 1989). Most American Indian cultures have a high degree of integration of religious and health beliefs (Coggins, 1990); healing cannot be separated from culture or religion (Locust, 1988).

Basic to the concept of the treatment of disease among many American Indian tribes is the idea that humans are made up of body, mind, and spirit (Coggins, 1991; Locust, 1988). …

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