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Learning the Ways of Their Ancestors


After generations of forced separation from their families, many Native Americans have forgotten--or never knew--how their ancestors nurtured, disciplined and passed on values to their children. Terry Cross wants them to remember.

By interviewing 100 tribal elders across the country, Cross, a social worker and director of the National Indian Child Welfare Assn. in Portland, Ore., has blended their common principles with modern parenting techniques in a course called "Positive Indian Parenting."

The result is a "wisdom-based" approach to parenting, unlike knowledge-based techniques of the mainstream that tend to shift over time, he said. For Native American parents, he said, "It's reclaiming a lost heritage as much as learning special techniques."

Cross, a Seneca, said that despite huge differences in tribal cultures, most tribes share certain beliefs--that child-rearing is a spiritual task, that the extended family plays a role and that storytelling is the best way to teach values.

In some tribes, children were traditionally regarded as recent arrivals from the spirit world who should be treated with respect or else they might be taken away.

"[Children] are the ones who teach us about our true nature," said Janet King of San Jose, a Cherokee and one of 200 trained teachers now using the program on reservations at community centers.

"A very prominent Native American principle is to always have the child's future in mind. Whatever you do at the moment to discipline a child, you make sure it doesn't break their spirit. You don't use violence," she said.

Cross said that much of the dysfunction in Native American families today is partly a result of U.S. policies, administered during from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, that sent up to one-third of all children, sometimes as young as 3, to boarding schools. He estimated that half of all Native Americans today were raised or had parents who were raised in boarding schools.

"How do you learn about parenting if you're raised by one person with 90 kids?" asked Marsha Azure, Positive Indian Parenting training coordinator and a Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

Azure said teachers are encouraged to use the program as an outline and to bring in elders or their own storytellers to reinforce local traditions.


In the eight-session course, students learn the principles behind the old ways, such as how keeping infants in a cradle board, similar to a backpack, kept a child close, safe and calm.

They learn that many tribes used stories, rather than lectures, to impart moral lessons and to learn about living through examples of others and circumstances they happen to be in.

Said King: "The child gets to hear what needs to be fixed without having to be told directly what's wrong with him. So the child's spirit is saved. It eliminates the defensiveness of the child and he's more receptive to guidance."

Cross said that when his 5-year-old son misbehaves, he asks the child to tell him what he has done wrong, then to tell him the right way to do it, and then to ask if the child needs a punishment such as a time out.

"The intent from the old teachings is to instill the discipline within the child," he said. "When it comes from inside, it's life long. When it comes from outside, it only lasts as long as someone is there to provide it."

But if Cross' son chooses no punishment and keeps misbehaving, Cross said he asks him again. "The third time," he said, "I make the choice."

The lessons were often harsher hundreds of years ago, when children could be caught in life-or-death situations.

"The values were very clear, and if they didn't understand it, they could look up and somebody was doing it, modeling it for them," Azure said.

"Nowadays, a lot of people think individually, that what they do does not impact other people, but it does.

"One of the things we're trying to do with parenting is talk about how we have to start thinking as a group again."

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