Academic journal article Social Work

Indigenous People in a Multicultural Society: Unique Issues for Human Services

Academic journal article Social Work

Indigenous People in a Multicultural Society: Unique Issues for Human Services

Article excerpt

Discussions of a multicultural America abound in professional literature and popular media. Projections for increasing the diversity and the "browning" of America are plentiful as we approach 2000. There are many discussions about the changing waves of immigrants and their social services needs, but less commentary is devoted to the original inhabitants of North America, the Native Americans.

Human services providers who work with Native Americans must understand the unique issues of indigenous people in a multicultural society. Many people are not aware that the federal government and some state governments have specific moral and legal rights and responsibilities toward Native Americans, unlike other groups in the United States (Deloria & Lytle, 1984; Spicer, 1992). This article examines the unique status of indigenous peoples in the United States and explores the practice implications of that status. The article begins with an overview of the components of culturally competent social work with Native Americans, then examines specific issues with which social workers and other human services workers should be familiar to serve Native American clients effectively.

Culturally Competent Social Work Practice

For human services providers to be effective in their work with Native Americans, they must become culturally competent. Cultural competence can be summarized with three major principles: (1) The human services provider must be knowledgeable about the group in question; (2) the human services provider must be able to be self-reflective and to recognize biases within himself or herself and within the profession; and, (3) the human services provider must be able to integrate this knowledge and reflection with practice skills. (Browne, Broderick, & Fong, 1993; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992; Weaver & Wodarski, 1995; Weaver, 1997).

The knowledge component of cultural competence must include a sense of the history of Indian people, their values, and their norms. Given the diversity of American Indians, it is important that human services providers be knowledge-able about the specific tribe or nation of the client. Accurate information on specific Native American groups can best be obtained from the groups themselves. The practitioner should begin by asking the client about his or her cultural background and the role that cultural identity plays in his or her life. In addition, most reservations and urban areas have social services and cultural agencies that are willing to provide information to practitioners working with Native Americans. Such organizations also may sponsor relevant workshops and conferences.

In addition to possessing and applying technical knowledge, many professions such as social work require that practitioners demonstrate a type of artistry to be truly competent (Schon, 1987). This artistry is developed through self-reflection. Many authors who discuss cultural competence emphasize the importance of social workers' ability to reflect on their own cultural backgrounds, to examine their biases and behaviors, and to analyze the implications of these factors for interactions with others (Chau, 1992; Hardy & Laszloffy, 1992; McRae & Johnson, 1991; Ridley, Mendoza, & Kanitz, 1994; Seliger, 1989; Van Soest, 1994). Recognition of biases begins with self-reflection. Human services providers must look critically at their own belief systems, values, and worldview and the ways in which they affect practice.

Similarly, it is important for social workers to reflect on the belief systems, values, and worldview inherent in the models and theories used within human services. A practitioner's discipline shapes the way that a situation is viewed and interpreted (Schon, 1987). Issues such as what is labeled as a problem, the origin of problems, the target of interventions, appropriate interventions, and desired outcomes are all grounded in a particular belief system that may be in-congruent with the belief system of the client. …

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