Cultural Practices Within Indigenous Communities That Help Teens Thrive

The strength of Indigenous peoples comes from our bloodlines and our diverse cultures. It is the power within our cultures that continues to carry us through the trauma, shifts, and challenges that our people have been confronted with since the beginning of colonization. Monica Tsethlikai, PhD, an enrolled member of the A:shiwi (Zuni) Nation and Associate Professor at Arizona State University in the School of Social and Family Dynamics says, “The most healing thing for me was my culture.” Her words resonate with the truth of many of our people, collectively. 

Indigenous cultural practices vary depending on which family, community, and nation one comes from. Yet, there is this deep-seated knowing within all of us that our culture heals. And ultimately, our culture is the medicine many of our families, and young people, use when times get challenging. “We have experienced so much trauma. We survived by holding onto our culture, by knowing that we are always guided by our ancestors. Our ancestors and loved ones are with us and we honor them everyday.” Monica shares. 

For me, this teaching is confirmed when I witness my daughter steeped in our traditional practices to the point that she speaks softly to the plants below her feet as she navigates through the bush, and as she gives thanks to the Land for the rocks, collecting them in her pockets. She reminds me to say my prayers as we collect the rabbits in our snares in the winter time, thanking them for their life and making soup for her moshums and kokums (grandfathers and grandmothers). 

It is our culture that guides us in how to be the best parent we can be, following the original instructions provided to us by the Creator. In the context of our traditional laws, in many Indigenous cultures, it was historically against the law to treat others from a place of unkindness and cruelty, to raise one’s voice, or to see oneself as superior over others. Children are seen, and treated as, a gift from the Creator. It was from those laws that we learned how to relate to, and raise children. It came from a space of kindness grounded in the abundance of teachings that we had, and still have to this day.

We have experienced so much trauma. We survived by holding onto our culture, by knowing that we are always guided by our ancestors.

In today’s day and age, things have shifted dramatically. Toxic projections of our historical or personal pain too often hurt the children and teens in our lives. They do not deserve exposure to violence or to experience yelling or controlling behaviors from us. If we fall back on our old ways, we can begin to remember that “the best way to support our teenagers is to be there to love them and connect with them on a daily basis. They are trying to establish independence, and parents and caring adults can help. By giving a hug and saying, “Hey, I am still here for you. I love you. How are you doing today?” while at the same time giving them space to explore and discover, we help them become a force for good in our communities and society. This practice aligns with our traditional laws and cultural practices as Indigenous peoples. 

The invitation that exists is to begin to recognize where these toxic behaviors in ourselves as adults originally stemmed from, and to know that healing is possible. When it comes to Indigenous families specifically, it often stems from colonialism and the ongoing attempts of colonization. It comes from boarding schools and residential schools which were really just genocidal camps for Indigenous kids. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “How do we navigate this?” 

“We need to reclaim what has been taken from us so we can be who we are meant to be. I really do believe this cultural knowledge stays in our blood, and if we listen, we can hear our ancestors speaking to us,” Monica told me in a recent interview. ”I think today’s parents are returning to and reclaiming traditional ways. We see healing as parents return to ceremony and enroll their children in language immersion programs so that their children get to learn their language and know who they are. Research shows that the more we return to who we are, by learning our languages and our cultural ways of being, we see more positive educational outcomes and better mental health,” she added. Practicing our cultures on our traditional territories as Indigenous peoples becomes a direct channel for healing. By returning to our original instructions and practices, we start tipping the scale back towards the positive – towards resilience. Connections to families and homelands are positive healing forces. 

When I was a teen, struggling with a toxic dynamic between myself and my mother, I was depressed and turned to suicidal ideations. Yet, what pulled me out was my mother bringing me to ceremonies, powwows, and to our homelands. The reality is, we often see dramatic shifts and changes in our children and teens when they’re deeply immersed in our cultures and traditional practices. 

The work of Jessica Ullrich, Ph.D. an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a descendant of the native village of Wales and tribal member of the Nome Eskimo community of Nome, Alaska highlights this point too. She says,“This aspect of our relational identity is really connected to knowing who you are and where you come from. Many of us have heard those instructions from our elders — to know who you are and where you come from.” This has been the medicine that has carried many of our young people through hardship and challenges.

We carry this deep knowing on just how our people survived through genocide. For us, the answer is clear and simple. Culture, ceremonies, language, and family. Monica states that, “One of our greatest strengths is that we have a very collectivist approach to family. Family is not just Mom and Dad. My nephew’s daughter, I’m raising her and she has two moms, she has me, and she has her biological mom. She calls both of us Mom. And that’s a beautiful thing. 

Oftentimes, we need help as parents, and we can rely on each other to give each child the love they need to grow and flourish. Just like a plant requires light, water, pruning, weeding, and tending, “We want to honor them, their spirit, and the contributions they’re going to make to our family and to our people. The more people that we can involve in parenting and loving them, the better off they’re going to be,” according to Monica. 

The interweaving of cultural practices, traditions, our languages, and our kinship practices collectively ground and nourish Indigenous young people when life gets tough. If it wasn’t for my culture, for the teachings that were kept safe in sacred ceremonies, I can honestly say I would not be here today. It is the same for many, many Indigenous young people.

As Monica stated, “Culture is what heals us when we forget who we are.” And for this, we are eternally grateful. We will continue to commit to practicing the culture, the teachings, the languages, and the practices, for as long as we can for today’s young people and the future generations to come. 

This piece was written by Andrea Landry, a member of the Pays Plat First Nation and part of the Anishinaabe Nation (Ojibway).  

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