By Lindsey Getz
According to the Indian Health Service, American Indians have higher death rates from causes such as alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, accidents, suicide, and homicide than other Americans, and their life expectancy is six years lower than the U.S. average. Unfortunately, despite these health concerns, there remains an unmet need for more American Indians to enter health or social care professions.
According to the Council on Social Work Education, only 1% of all social work graduates are American Indians. The lack of American Indian social workers is a major hurdle in reaching this population considering their role in crossing the cultural divide. Fortunately, there have been efforts to make changes. At the College of St. Scholastica, a grant to fund the social work education of at least 17 American Indian students across northern Minnesota campuses will play a role in bridging the gap.
Challenges in Higher Education
American Indians pursuing higher education often face numerous challenges, including economic and social inequities that make the pursuit of higher education difficult. Even their worldview can pose challenges.
“Native Americans have a view in which family and community always come first,” explains Cynthia Donner, MSW, a social work instructor at St. Scholastica. “Americans use more of an individualized model where we focus on our own needs. For instance, it wouldn’t be uncommon in a Native American family that one household is not only raising their own set of children but also grandchildren and maybe beyond. Take the example of a family member’s death—the funeral may take four or five days. These types of scenarios can cause disruptions in the individual’s pursuit of academic goals. They put their commitment to their family and their community above all else.”
Disparities in previous education also pose a challenge. American Indians are not always prepared with the kind of writing or study skills needed for higher education, so additional assistance is often needed in those areas. As part of St. Scholastica’s initiative, the college is now working more closely with community colleges, including local tribal community colleges.
But the economic inequities may be one of the major barriers. And that’s where the grant that St. Scholastica has received from the Otto Bremer Foundation will really come into play. “We now have dollars to put forth should an emergency circumstance arise,” Donner says. “If someone doesn’t have the money to get to class one week or is in need of assistance for purchasing books or boosting technology, we have those funds available.”
A Stigma Toward Social Work
Beyond the challenges American Indians face in even entering into higher education—and finishing a degree—there also are barriers in getting more American Indians into the social work field, since there is some stigma associated with the profession.
“Social work doesn’t have a great history with Indian people, as it was the social workers who took children away from families,” says Michelle Robertson, MSW, LGSW, a social work instructor and coordinator for social work field education. “That’s often what Native Americans hone in on when they think of the term ‘social worker.’ When I worked for a tribe, we didn’t call ourselves social workers but instead called ourselves ‘family workers,’ and we were much more accepted that way.”
Another reasons it is important to have more American Indian social workers is that they may be able to better connect with their tribe. “They know their community’s traditions and beliefs better than anyone else,” Robertson says. “It’s going to be more effective to have their own people provide services within their community as opposed to what they may view as ‘outsiders’ coming in.”
And there are many areas where a social worker can help, Robertson adds. The issues that many tribes face, including mental health, chemical dependency, domestic violence, and aging, are ones in which social workers are often well versed. But the challenge is getting the various tribes to see it that way.
“In many cases I’m not sure the tribes really understand what a social worker can help accomplish,” Robertson explains. “They don’t realize just how valuable their help can be.”
One solution in directing more American Indian students toward the social work profession is being connected with the local tribal colleges, Donner says. “It’s so important to be in contact with the tribes and to try and form a partnership,” she says.
It also helps to get the field of social work on students’ radar early on, Donner adds. Reaching out in various ways helps let American Indian students know that opportunities in the social work field exist. Donner says St. Scholastica’s marketing department has been helpful in this area.
“Word of mouth counts for a lot too,” she adds. “We’ve graduated several American Indian students, and they’re telling others of the importance of involvement in the social work field.”
Lee Gustafson, PhD, LISW, chair of and an associate professor in department of social work at St. Scholastica, says embracing American Indians’ worldview, instead of viewing it as a challenge, is also a step in the right direction.
“When we talk about American Indians as being particularly tied to their families and their communities, instead of viewing that as a challenge, we turn that cultural phenomenon into an issue of strength,” he explains. “For example, when we hold orientations for new students, we always make sure to invite the extended family. We realize they are collaborators and they may hold part of the key to that student’s success.”
Donner adds that the grant also has enabled the college, through a partnership with Tribal Human Service, to create and deliver curriculum that wouldn’t normally be found in regular textbooks and courses.
“For example, the historical trauma of relocation and removal of tribes as well as its impact is a very important area,” Donner says. “In fact, we recognize that these issues are also important for non-Indian social workers. If you are a social worker in northern Minnesota, you will be serving the American Indian population at some point so these curriculums are extremely important. This grant has allowed us to get a little outside of the box and get critical information into our curriculum that may not be found in standard textbooks.”
While the grant’s duration is only two years, Gustafson says the college is fully committed to continuing these efforts whether they’re being funded or not.
“We’ve done it before and the grant has helped us to do more, but we will continue with these efforts even after the grant has run out,” he says. “Our goal is to produce confident social workers who are able to work within these important communities. Reversing the trends of an underserved population will continue to be our long-term goal.”
— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Social Work Today.