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Indigenous Youth Face Acculturation Stress

A substantial body of research has suggested that some of the poor mental health experienced by American Indian adolescents may be exacerbated by the difficulties associated with acculturation. Indeed, there has been a longstanding discussion regarding the relationship between acculturation and its effect on mental health in a variety of populations. Acculturative stress, or psycho-cultural stress because of cultural differences between two or more cultures, has been linked to diminished physical and mental health in individuals or groups undergoing acculturation (Boggs, 1953; Lefley, 1976; Nwadiora & McAdoo, 1996). It has also been shown to put ethnic minorities at risk for negative mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, feelings of marginality and alienation, heightened psychosomatic symptom levels, and identity confusion (Berry & Annis, 1974; Hovey, 1998, 2000; Hovey & King, 1996; Smart & Smart, 1995).

For American Indian adolescents, acculturation can often result in feelings of marginality and alienation. The term “walking in two worlds” is frequently used by both American Indians and non- Indians to describe the dichotomous manner of simultaneously operating within the mainstream world (non-Indian society) and the American Indian world. The metaphor describes the plight of American Indian youth who must “cross,” “straddle,” or “walk between” often colliding worlds (Henze & Vanett, 1993). One Hopi community member described youth who live off-reservation as “horizon children;” that is, caught at the horizon, neither sky nor earth, and suspended between two worlds (Deyhle & Swisher, 1997, p. 166). As this description suggests, American Indian adolescents often experience significant internal conflict as they try to live according to two (or more) distinct, and often contradictory, value systems.

Contact with the dominant culture often brings with it perceived prejudice as well as mainstream conformity pressures. When American Indian adolescents are confronted with negative stereotypes of their difference (i.e., their ethnicity and/or race), it may also result in a “stereotype threat,” in which fears of poor performance are fulfilled (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Many American Indians are very aware of the narrow—and, often, negative— sets of ideas and images about their group (Fryberg & Markus, 2003). Indeed, many scholars of American Indian mental health and education have noted the feelings of isolation, rejection, and anxiety that develops as American Indian children enter school and are confronted with the demands of a value system that is often incompatible with their own (Cross, 1986; Garrett, 1995; Lomawiama, 1994; Peshkin, 1997; Szasz, 2005). The result may be recurrent confusion, shame, alienation, and at times total withdrawal (Sanders, 1987), but the consequences can also be much worse.

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ and parents’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally sustaining practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic youth-centered environment that honors the unique values of your students and parents, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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