Cultural Responsiveness When Working with Native American Families

Eduardo Duran, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Bozeman, MT

Summary: The author describes the way that language shapes cultures and the importance of understanding these cultural language differences when working with Native American families.



In the past few years there has been much discussion, writing and speculation on the topic of cultural relevance, sensitivity and other ways of describing the task of being competent, effective and able to ameliorate issues in Native American families and other families of color. Results of the collective efforts have yielded useful as well as not-so-useful methods, and the process continues to unfold in an evolutionary manner. In my view there are some root issues that must be addressed if the evolution of competency is to bring about changes in the way we work and in the lives of the families that we work with.

Different life-worlds

After many years of clinical work with Native families, I have become aware that there are some basic differences in the manner that Native families conceptualize the life-world. A traditional Native life-world is deeply rooted in how the life-world is perceived and interpreted. Some of the epistemological differences are reflected in language and that language affects how we perceive and become conscious of the life-world.

English is the language of the culture in which we find ourselves and is the driving force behind how we understand concepts. Ideas are formulated through the use of nouns to structure basic communication. Nouns label objects. I refer to this as nouning. This nouning makes the world static.The effect that nouning has on the life-world is that it allows for the separation of the life-world from our experience of living. We objectify all of reality, including our own awareness and consciousness of the world.

Many of the languages that make the Native life-world are different from English. In these languages, verbs are the root of how concepts are transmitted. When based on verbs, the life-world is no longer static. While nouns are permanent, verbs describe change. The life-world is in movement and we are not separated from the world. Our relationship to the movement of the world forms the spatial and cognitive reality that the Native person lives within. For example, in the western life-world, when we refer to a woman, the term woman makes the idea of woman static and the idea can then be objectified. In the Native life-world a woman would be referred to as “womaning is happening.” I call this verbing. It is obvious from this example that if the world of verbing is the root epistemology, the world and our relationship to it is very different from the western way of being and understanding reality.

Child protective workers, as part of a legal team, need to be aware of how they proceed to diagnose parents who are involved in maltreatment of children. In a nouning context, the diagnostic process labels parents and by doing so give them a new identity and script that goes with the new identity of being a “violent parent prone to explosive disorders, etc.” When diagnosis is done in this manner it leaves little room for the parent to be able to understand that this is an event in their lives and is not who they are. In my work I attempt to change the metaphor of western diagnoses into one that does not freeze the person in a temporal fashion. For example, a parent who has maltreated a child would be told something along the lines of: “The spirit of violence that has come down through the generations has become active in your family system.” At this point I would explain to them historical trauma and how the inherited violence of the boarding schools and other systems of oppression have become activated in their family. This approach liberates the parent from the curse of being the violence; instead they are a person who has participated in something that has a historical context that can be healed. This healing process includes healing their ancestors as well as descendants, and the parent is empowered with a tremendous sense of existential connection and ability to heal history.

So what does this have to so with court and the law?

A most valid question. Most jurisprudence in the western world is based on western philosophy, which evolves out of a language system that allows the world to exist outside of ourselves. Jurisprudence epistemology is not within the realm of the verbing world; therefore, the Native family caught up in the machinations of the system may not relate to the root metaphor of the system. Another issue that emerges out of nouning in the legal system is that the system fundamentally places the person involved in the system in an adversarial relationship to the jurisprudence life-world. It is every man for himself. Labels (nouns) are applied to parents and these labels become permanent stigmata (e.g., child abuser, alcoholic). Again, the basic psychology of harmonious relationships is juxtaposed with an adversarial life-world and the Native family may not be able to relate fully with the process. The Native life-world values relationship above all else, and the court team needs to realize that the sense of relating has been damaged by the events of historical trauma and must be addressed in this manner.  

Because the Safe Babies Court Teams Project has facilitated the interaction—if  not the integration—of jurisprudence and healing, it follows that we need to gain insight and understanding into how to make this a reality in the life-world of case management and the actual court situation. This integration will require more thought and space than allowed in this brief article, in which my intent is merely to draw attention to the root metaphors that guide our different realities as we navigate our respective epistemological life-worlds. This process can be further complicated when we begin to think about how the trauma of history also interacts with the problems facing the case manager and judge on any given afternoon when judgment needs to be rendered as to how a Native child is to be cared for and by whom. I hope that this brief analysis will stimulate dialogue about how to improve our systems of caring for the most sacred ones in our life-world: the zero to three children.

Author biography:

Eduardo Duran has been working in Indian Country for 30 years. He has been instrumental in developing clinical theory and methods that integrate ancient traditional approaches with modern western strategies in an effort to make healing relevant to Native peoples. Duran has published several books and articles that are bringing much-needed dialogue to the discipline of psychology and is inspiring new interpretations of issues that afflict all human beings. In his latest book, Healing the Soul Wound, Duran takes traditional thought and metaphor and applies these towards the development of a hybrid epistemological approach that inspires a new vision for healing of our collective soul wounds.



National CASA Association | 800.628.3233 | 100 West Harrison, North Tower, Suite 500, Seattle, WA 98119 |

National CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) ©2015. The National CASA logo, CASA ®, "A Powerful Voice in a Child’s Life," "Stand Up for an Abused Child," "Speak Up for a Child," "Light of Hope" and "Give the Light of Hope to a Child" are all registered trademarks of National CASA.