How Indigenous Culture Supports Positive Teen Development

Monica Tsethlikai, PhD, is an enrolled member of the A:shiwi (Zuni) Nation and an Associate Professor at Arizona State University in the School of Social and Family Dynamics. Her work focuses on the importance of culture among Indigenous children and their families. She spoke with writer Andrea Landry, a member of the Pays Plat First Nation and part of the Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people, about a range of topics including the role that culture plays in promoting positive development in teens, healing the adolescent brain following trauma, and the challenges within Indigenous communities due to historical trauma. Here we share their important conversation. 

Monica Tsethlikai, PhD

Andrea Landry: Miigwech (thank you) for taking the time to speak with me. Your work in the area of Indigenous kinship is monumental for the times we are living in today. Can you give an example of a cultural strength that Indigenous nations bring to raising our children today?

Monica Tsethlikai: I think one of our greatest strengths is that we have a very collectivist approach to family. Family is not just mom and dad.  I’m raising my nephew’s daughter. 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. In Indigenous communities, we rely on all of our family members and our communities to give each child the love they need to grow and flourish. 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 are going to be.

In doing research in Native American communities, we have these very westernized views of who the parent is. I’m always challenging these westernized perspectives. I think that is one of the beautiful things I get to do through my research; I get to show the strengths of American Indian families. Oftentimes, the research just focuses on the deficits. They don’t look at how our children are being supported. Even if mom or dad are struggling, there’s a whole community there that can come to embrace that child and help them reach their full potential.

AL: As Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous families, we have experienced all kinds of trauma, due to the ongoing attempts of colonization, how has this impacted your life?

MT: You know 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. That’s part of our cultural practices. Even though we’ve gone through all of this, we still have so much joy and love to give. It has impacted me personally. My dad was raised and horribly abused in boarding schools. It is important to note here that boarding schools for Indigenous children were not places parents wanted to send their children. They were forced to send them. Here in the United States, the founder of the first boarding school, Colonel Richard H. Pratt, stated the goal of the schools was to kill the Indian, and save the man. As a result, children were not allowed to speak their tribal languages or follow their religious and cultural practices. Many children died from abuse and starvation. As an example, at least two unmarked grave sites were found in Canada with 215 children found at one and 751 found at the other. Due in part to these findings, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called for an investigation into possible unmarked burial sites in the United States. As a result of the abuse my dad suffered, he struggled his whole life with alcoholism. I grew up in the city, but my dad would always bring us back and forth to the reservation. When I was young, I did not really value that even though my family was so generous, we never left without the car being packed with goodies for the trip home. But as a kid, you just see the things that are bad. When I became an adult, and I went to college, I finally learned about the real American Indian history and I finally saw the beauty and strength of our people. We have a rich intellectual heritage. In spite of all we have suffered, we are very generous people. We share everything we have with each other. It’s easy  to just focus on the trauma, but I learned to start focusing on the beauty.

In Indigenous communities, we rely on all of our family members and our communities to give each child the love they need to grow and flourish.

AL: Colonization has impacted our parenting styles, and how we relate to children today as Indigenous people. Is what we are seeing today different from how we used to relate to our kids before colonization happened?

MT: I think boarding schools did a lot of damage to our communities and our ability to parent. There is a whole generation that were not parented by their parents and their kinships because they were taken away. I know what that did to my dad. He struggled his whole life to reconcile the fact that he was born to be a religious leader for Zuni, but was told in boarding school there was never going to be a life for him on the reservation. I think that is why we see so much addiction in our communities. As a researcher, I try everyday to say there is a better way. We need to return to who we truly are. 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. I think today’s parents are returning to and reclaiming traditional ways. We are seeing 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.

AL: Based on your work, how do you feel healing impacts the brain developmentally, particularly in Indigenous young people.

MT: What we know about trauma and brain development is that chronic stress is bad for brain development. The prefrontal cortex, which helps us make good decisions and think logically, has a lot of receptors for cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Cortisol is a good thing in everyday life. If a coyote is going to attack you, cortisol will get released, and it will give you a boost so you can get away. Cortisol is not a bad thing. We need cortisol. However, when you have chronic stress due to poverty or addiction in the home and have continuously high levels of cortisol, your body has to regulate itself. So your brain will tell your body to stop making cortisol or it might flood your brain with cortisol which can negatively impact brain development. The prefrontal cortex has two key periods of development. One that occurs early and one that occurs during adolescence. When the brain is going through a growth spurt, it is vulnerable to stress. If there is a lot of stress going on, or if substance use starts, it is harmful to your brain. So, during these key periods of development, we really need to be surrounding our children with love, support, and positive activities. If we do not, and they get into negative activities, what they are doing is they are stunting their brain development. And that can lead to poor decision-making.  

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 that is why it is important for parents to step up more, give them a hug, and say, ‘Hey, I am still here for you. I love you. How are you doing today?’ Especially during this pandemic, we have to let them know, we have been through tough times before, and we will get through this as a family, and as a community. So when we do those types of things for our children, the brain starts to bring that stress level back down, and cortisol levels go back to where they need to be. It’s really important to have warm, supportive, loving relationships throughout life, and especially during  these key periods of development when the brain is vulnerable.  As parents and as a community, we need to be there for our kids to help buffer that stress for them. Staying connected to our cultures, to our languages, to our people, making sure our kids know who they are, where they come from, and helping them always know that they are loved are the most important things we can do to help heal the brain and support positive developmental outcomes. 

AL: We are raising our daughter with that sense of safety, security, love and with the basic teachings and laws we have as Indigenous peoples within our family systems, including forgiveness. What impact does forgiveness have on revitalizing our traditional teachings and our traditional family practices?

MT: Forgiveness lifts the burden that you are carrying from anger, hurt, and pain. It’s real. It is okay to be angry. There are plenty of bad things happening to be angry about. I think we have to honor that in our kids. We have to say “Yeah, it is okay. You should be angry about that.” When I was a juvenile probation officer, I used to tell that to kids all the time. I would say, “You have every right to be angry. But, what you do not have the right to do is go and hurt someone else because you are angry or hurt yourself.” When I was working with kids, I would tell them to find out who you really are and what your ancestors would say about how to deal with anger, because so many were turning to gangs and would claim “Brown Pride or Native Pride” as the reason they did bad things. I would tell them, your behavior is not “Native pride.” What you are doing is due to pain and anger, and you have to transform your anger and pain and use it to make things better. We have a better way to be. We have to reclaim tradition, ceremony, and the love we have for each other. So many of our parents were told they were not lovable, so how can they love their children? We have to transform this pain so we can love again.  Transformation, for me, has always been about reclaiming our languages, ceremony, and love. Understanding what my parents went through as kids, helped me understand why they treated us the way they treated us and allowed me to find forgiveness and transform the pain into something beautiful.

AL: What role does culture play in all of this?

MT: Culture is what shapes us, it makes us who we are, it is what heals us, when we forget who we are. When I was a young child I got lost for a while. By the time I was 13, I tried to end my life. I ended up in a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, on the adult mental health ward. They took us to the desert museum and I have always been drawn to the eagles so the aviary was the first place I went. While I was standing there, a golden eagle came right up to me and laid an egg. That vision told me I needed to live and I needed to do something positive with my life. I talk about this vision when I talk to kids on reservations, because so many of our kids are struggling. A parent once asked me, “How do you find the strength to live your vision? How do you find the courage?” It is not always easy. The stresses of life can take you off your path. You can lose the courage to live your vision. I know you can get beat down from the trauma in life. For me, the pathway to healing has always been through ceremony. For example, when my dad was killed, my aunties came from Zuni to prepare him for his journey to the next world. Through our rituals, through our ceremony, they took away all the pain that we saw on his face and in his body, and he went from a broken body to a beautiful spiritual being. They transformed him. It was so healing to see him restored. So for me, culture is everything. I don’t always get to live it, but I know my ancestors are always with me, they were with me as a young girl when I wanted to end my life, they were with me when my dad was taken from us, they are with me now as I try to use my research to help my people. My culture gives me the strength to stay on this journey of healing. It helps me talk to parents to tell them to forgive themselves, forgive their parents, and reclaim the culture and the love that has always been theirs. They have to gather power through participating in ceremonies and connecting to their ancestors and their communities so they can walk in beauty. 

AL: It is said that our children are sacred beings, they’re gifts from the Creator. How does this notion of how Indigenous people see our children benefit how we raise them?

MT: I think what I have seen in my work in communities is that some of us have lost that knowledge that our children are sacred due to colonization and boarding schools. In some cases, we have lost that innate love for our children so we have to return to original instruction, the instructions that were given to our people from the beginning of time that told us how to love and raise our children. When we return to original instruction, we embrace the sacredness in our child/ren and in ourselves. And, it helps us to heal and let go of pain. It helps us to not cause pain for the next generation. When we turn to drugs and alcohol to cope, we are not honoring the sacredness of our children and ourselves. What I see is we need to do a lot of healing so that we can really embrace that sacredness again.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Andrea Landry.

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