Cultural Sensitivity in Counseling Native Americans

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Cultural Sensitivity in Counseling:
A Prospective on Native Americans
Kevin Canfield
Liberty University
October 12, 2010

Abstract

Three of the most popular techniques in use by the counseling profession were examined in relationship to Native American culture and worldview, in order to determine the reasons for their ineffectiveness among these people groups. The results indicate that a lack of understanding and sensitivity to Native American culture and belief systems by counselors may be the major contributing factors in the failure of these methods to produce lasting change. Three alternative methods were then investigated. Together, these examinations show that cultural sensitivity and an in-depth understanding of belief systems and practices are critical in helping Native Americans heal from historical traumas and affect real transformation within the Native American community.

Cultural Sensitivity in Counseling: A Perspective on Native Americans Why is it that many Native Americans fail to benefit from counseling? Why is there such an enormous “burn-out” rate among counselors who work with this people group? These questions are becoming increasingly more important in the counseling profession. There have been many studies on competencies and practices in multicultural counseling. One such study although dealing primarily with career counseling (Vespia, Fitzpatrick, Fouad, Kantamneni, & Chen, 2010), reinforced the necessity for training in developing a counselor’s competency with diverse cultures. Another study which dealt specifically with psychotherapy (Lambert, Smart, Campbell, Hawkins, Harmon, & Slade, 2006), echoes this sentiment. However, the cause of ineffectiveness may not necessarily be the incompetence of counselors, but their tendency to use inappropriate methods which fail to consider the unique cultural heritage of Native Americans. These culturally-insensitive methods can sometimes compel clients to violate basic personal values. For example, Native Americans place great emphasis on a harmonious co-existence with nature. If a counselor advocates individual responsibility for mastering the environment, he is, in fact, asking his Native American client to disregard a part of his client’s cultural belief system. Take the case of Robert Red Elk (not his real name), a White Mountain Apache, hired at a manufacturing plant in Phoenix, Arizona. Robert’s supervisor witnessed many instances where Robert’s fellow employees asked to share his lunch or complete their work assignments. Robert never refused and willingly overworked himself (to the point of exhaustion) finishing the tasks of others. Eventually, after several absences from work, Robert was referred to counseling by his supervisor. The counselor, after an initial assessment, enrolled Robert in assertiveness training. The counselor, however, failed to understand one very important aspect of Robert Red Elk’s value system: Native Americans are not individualistic. Their culture places great value on sharing and service.

There are over 500 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States. Each tribe has its own beliefs, customs and traditions. Many Native Americans have left the reservation and know very little of their tribal culture, having assimilated into White society. There are, however, many common threads running through Native American culture and philosophy, which if misunderstood can open a breach between counselor and client that can be difficult to heal. For the purposes of this paper, we will be dealing primarily with Native Americans raised and residing within traditional Indian reservation communities. These individuals have retained much of their cultural identity, as opposed to those who have moved into the cities and have become westernized into the White culture.

Nearly every tribe has wide-spread personal and social issues which are threatening lives and creating broken homes and...
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