Voices of Native Youth

Hoping for a Future without Poverty on the Reservation

Native youth perpetuate the negative beliefs of living on the reservation and maintain its stagnant poverty. Native youth grow up witnessing the poverty and are conditioned into this hopeless belief. Because they have no faith in a better future, it is impossible for an effective reform for change. I believe Native youth should be the driving force behind reformation on the reservation. I think there are ways we can break the cycle and the “Rez mindset” that has permeated through modern native culture.

Native youth have adopted the “Rez mindset.” The unemployment rate on the Navajo Reservation is 42%; and 43% of Native Americans live below the poverty rate. In all the places that I’ve lived (over 20 different locations in four separate states), the reservation has had the biggest poverty issue. Native youth witness the state of poverty on the reservation first-hand throughout their childhood. 

Children and adolescents on the reservation have the highest rates of lifetime major depressive episodes and highest self-reported depression rates than any other ethnic group. Native American youth have grown up into believing that improving their condition in life is hopeless. This carries on into their adulthood and prevents the reservation from getting any better. The “Rez mindset” has permeated the young generations and causes them to believe that the reservation cannot be helped.

The 'Rez mindset' has permeated the young generations and causes them to believe that the reservation cannot be helped. #nativeamerican Click To Tweet

Don’t Fall Victim to the Pygmalion Effect

Believing in the hopelessness of the reservation creates and perpetuates this form of self-fulfilling prophecy. This phenomena, known as the Pygmalion effect, can cause negative or positive things to happen as a result of people’s projected expectations. Living on the reservation and seeing its poor conditions gives its residents reason to accept their environment. All too often  you hear the phrase, “Well, that’s the Rez.” The terms, “rezzed out” or “rezzy,” have become synonymous with “bad” or “poor.” 

Most residents believe that the reservation has reached an insurmountable state of poverty. Because our youth have grown to accept this belief, nothing is being done to help. As we grow, we carry this perspective of the reservation into adulthood by continuing to believe that the reservation’s poverty issues are unsolvable. That is why, as a community, improving the reservation is an intimidating challenge because we have made it out to be impossible. Life has conditioned us to accept poverty on the reservation with no hope of it getting better, thus it won’t get better.

Improving the reservation seems impossible because we believe it is impossible. #poverty #rezlife #nativeamerican Click To Tweet

A Call to Break the Cycle of Poverty on the Reservation

As a new generation, we need to start taking action to break the “Rez mindset” and its cycle. Out leaders need to encourage Native youth and tell them that change and reform are possible. When Native youth start helping in their communivties from a young age, they will carry that resolve into adulthood. With a generation of willing young people, we can hope to improve the reservation. 

As adults, we may look at poverty on the reservation as a hopeless problem. But what if we changed our attitude and empowered youth? #nativeyouth #navajo #nativeamerican #poverty #change

The Navajo Nation community should begin more programs and initiatives that will encourage Native youth to produce change. In our nation’s past, President Roosevelt created the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Project Administration) programs. Native Americans who participated help amend the economy on the reservations substantially. Programs like YCC (Youth Conservation Corps) and other restorative programs benefit the community and the applicants. 

I’ve participated in a Youth Conservation Corps reconstruction program for Native youth and have seen the results myself. Native youth just need the push of strong encouragement to excel. Therefore, I believe that the reservation should make inspiring Native youth and the public to restore the reservation a priority.

Every generation raised on the reservation continues to ignore its dire poverty conditions. Each generation raised on the reservation has grown into accepting the “Rez mindset” and believes that change is impossible. The reservation will never improve if Native youth resign themselves to a future without hope.

To break the cycle of poverty on the reservation, our elders need to encourage Native youth to help out in their communities in a beneficial way. The reservation is not hopeless. Native youth should be the driving force bring about the reform to diminish poverty on the reservation.

native americans in history
Jolina is a college-bound high school senior. She comes from a multiracial family that consists of mainly Hispanic and Yaqui heritage. When she isn’t dancing to 80s music, she is working to combine her passions for writing and photography by becoming a photojournalist.

The Cycle of Poverty and its effect on Native Youth

The Cycle of Poverty Creates Vulnerability

When I was a little girl, my family was not rich and we lived in a one-bedroom house—you could say we lived impoverished. Also, we had no running water, which made it hard for everyone in my family to stay clean. The poor environment we lived in made us weak and strong at the same time, but mostly it made us vulnerable.

For example, we were vulnerable to being absent from school, sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and making friends. This affects the mind, body, and identity, which makes it harder for youth to break the cycle of poverty.

What You Might not Know About the Cycle of Poverty

People don’t know that poverty causes depression and psychological problems. One reason poverty causes depression is we get bullied for it. I went to a public school and no one knew my past, but once they did, they would avoid me. I was only a fourth grader, but this led me to feeling depressed.

Recent research helps to unravel how growing up poor causes psychological problems. A study by Margaret Sheridan of Romanian children who lived in orphanages but eventually found quality foster homes says, “Increasingly we are finding evidence that exposure to childhood adversity has a negative effect on brain development. The implications are wide ranging, not just for institutionalized children but also for children exposed to abuse, abandonment, violence during war, extreme poverty and other adversities.”

Another study shows that the psychological effects of childhood poverty are likely connected to smaller brain volumes in areas associated with emotion processing and memory. From the scans, scientist found that the distress of poverty physically changes a child’s brain. In other words, poverty causes mental hardships.

The Physical Dangers of Poverty

The cycle of poverty can't be changed like settings on your washing machine. Three things we all need to understand about those who live in poverty. #poverty #resiliance #nativeamerican #nativeyouth

Poverty also brings danger to our physical health. Children and teens living in poorer communities live with an increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems. For instance, a poor child may have low birth weight and lack of access to healthy food. This combination can lead to obesity and other chronic health conditions. The environment of poor neighborhoods discourages outdoor activities and poor children will watch more television, thus leading to an increased risk of falling prey to marketing by obesity-promoting products. All of this can lead to increased violence, suffering or death. 

According to The Food Research and Action Center, “many low-income people still are uninsured and lack access to basic health care.” Most families who live in poverty are not able to pay medical bills. If you live in a poor environment, you’re likely to get a disease or get sick frequently. This can also lead to suffering or death. We can lose our physical health, something we need to thrive, because we live in poverty. 

Lost Family Relationships

Poverty forces us to lose interest in our own family and have an identity crisis. Some people are ashamed of their families because people equate poverty with failure. For example, someone I knew wanted to stay away from his family as much as possible because they had a way of bringing him down. He wanted a way to help his family, so he helped his parents with jobs and his siblings with education. He found a way help his family without allowing them to bring him down.

Eric Jensen, in an online article, states, “Unfortunately, in impoverished families there tends to be a higher prevalence of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care, all of which lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant (van Ijzendoorn et al., 2004) and, later, poor school performance and behavior on the child’s part.” Poverty can cause youth to feel insignificant in their family, and this leads to other problems. If you can’t find who you are, then you can’t find the career that’s right for you and you may drop out of school.

The cycle of poverty can't be changed like the settings on your washing machine. #poverty #nativeamerican Click To Tweet

Poverty has a hard effect on youth. It causes mental hardship. It also takes away our physical health. Poverty confuses who we are. Clearly, living in poverty as a child would most likely make youth live in poverty as an adult and this continues the cycle of poverty. 

Deidra Nez is a Navajo. She is currently a junior in high school. She’s learning how to play the violin and she’s also passionate about music. In college she wants to major in music and dentistry. She doesn’t like grapes nor being on stage.

A Growth Mindset Might Not Be Enough for Native Youth

Native youth struggle with becoming successful even if they have the right growth mindset. One of my friend’s cousins has struggled, even though she had goals in life. People’s negative expectations kept pulling her down. She struggled because of the lack of resources in her family and eventually she wandered down the path of alcohol and drug use.

Her story made me think of why Native youth struggle so much. We might not reach our goals because of negative expectations, environmental factors, and lack of resources.

Growth Mindset Starts With People’s Expectations

Having a growth mindset might not be enough for a Native youth to achieve his or her goals. Three other factors (ones you can help with) play a part. #pygmalioneffect #growthmindset #nativeyouth #education

People’s negative expectations hold Native youth back. Projecting negative expectations onto Native youth puts the Pygmalion Effect into action. The Pygmalion Effect is when expecting certain behaviors makes them more likely to occur. A study on the Pygmalion effect (also referred to as the Rosenthal study), took place at an elementary school where students were given intelligence pre-tests. Twenty percent of the students showed potential for growth, but a group of students were actually randomly picked and placed in a class for exceptional students. All of the students showed growth when they retook the test, showing that when we expect students to do well, they will live up to our expectations. 

The opposite can also happen. For example, when my older sister Kayla was in the fifth grade, her teacher told her, “Your sisters are better at math than you. You’ll be repeating middle school while your sisters go to high school without you.” Kayla struggled in school all because of a comment which unknowingly put the Pygmalion Effect into motion, causing her to get bad grades after she completed the fifth grade. Now that she’s at a new school, where everyone expects her to do well, she’s finally finding success. Putting your negative expectations on Native youth may not impact you negatively, but it does have a very negative impact on Native youth such as Kayla.

The Debilitating Effects of Poverty

We as Native youth are held back by our environment. According to a 2013 article on the American Psychological Association’s website, “In 2009, poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income (top 20 percent of all family incomes) students.” An astonishing 33% of Native youth come from families living below the poverty line (compared to 14% of the general population). This means that Native students will have a harder time in school because they are suffering from the effects of poverty. 

Statistics don't lie. Native American students start school at a disadvantage. No wonder they fail to thrive. #nativeamerican Click To Tweet

The type of environment that you live in affects your ability to achieve your goals. Poverty can not only impact school success but mental health, too. The stress of poverty can put a strain on a kid’s mental health with the constant worry of having sufficient funds to do well in school. Stress of poverty can also lead Native youth to drop out because they will need to help provide for their family. Poverty can impact not only school success, but mental health, too, which can hold native youth back from achieving their goals.

Family Support is Pure Gold

Native youth don’t have the resources we need to achieve our goals. Support from family is a resource Native youth often don’t have. Support from family isn’t very common because we really aren’t expected to go to college. Some of the Native youth’s family members expect them to stay home and watch over their younger siblings and take care of the house. Even if we choose to go to college, distance and financial support will make it even more difficult. 

When I was younger my mother went to University of New Mexico (UNM), while we stayed at our grandma’s house, who was still living in Crownpoint at the time. My mom drove herself to and from the school for her classes, she also used student loans to pay for school which she is still paying off, but it was all worth it, because she is now a nurse. Native youth might not have the right resources such as support from family or financial support which could cause Native youth to struggle with achieving their goals.

We Have Dreams, Too!

Native youth feel like they aren’t able to achieve their goals because of several factors holding them back. Projecting your negative expectations onto us will make it more likely that we’ll fail. Poverty will make it more difficult for us to succeed, and it impacts our mental health. When we don’t have support from family or financial support, it makes it difficult to reach our goals despite our growth mindset. Native youth might struggle with these things, but we want to dream big and work hard so we can achieve our goals. 

Keira is a fifteen-year-old Navajo girl with two sisters. She is the middle triplet, and hates it when people think she’s exactly like her sisters. She loves being unique. Her hobbies are reading, drawing, listening to music and watching TV, which she thoroughly enjoys doing.

The Importance of Good Role Models for Native Youth

How Important Do You Think Good Role Models are to Native Americans? 

Most people have heard about Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon. But not everyone knows about his early life. According to one article about Ben Carson, “The family was very poor and to make ends meet Sonya sometimes toiled at two or three jobs simultaneously in order to provide for Ben and Curtis.” He grew up in the ghetto but stayed focused every time he felt down. As Ben grew up, his mother played a great role of being a mother and providing what she could. She was always lifting her boys up when they needed it the most. His mother always encouraged Ben to do his best. Despite all they have gone through, Ben Carson became successful as a neurosurgeon. 

Parents don’t realize how important it is to be good role models for Native youth. Teachers and parents need to be good role models because their kids watch what their teachers and parents do, more than they listen to what they say. Parents and role models need to be aware of the burden of poverty, family influence, and family involvement.

The Legacy of Poverty

Parents don’t realize that their life of poverty affects their children. For example, my grandparents only finished eighth grade and some of high school.  They didn’t notice that their lack of education would set a poor example for my parents. My parents didn’t finish high school and it continued the cycle of living in poverty. Since my parents didn’t finish high school, it is very difficult for them to find steady work. Good jobs require high school diplomas and that was something my grandparents and parents don’t have. In other words, I am at risk to continue the cycle of poverty and dropping out of school. 

Negative family actions influence kids to repeat the same behavior. For instance, some of my relatives act violently, make bad decisions, and drink alcohol. Their examples have affected us younger ones to act in negative ways. Seeing our older relatives act this way makes it difficult for me to resist acting the same way.

Teachers as Role Models

Family members have the opportunity to act as good role models for Native Youth. One high school student explains how. #ownvoices #nativeyouth #navajo #nativeamerican

As a Native American woman, I’ve experienced some teachers who wanted us to be successful and some who didn’t want us to succeed as a person. In the fifth grade, I had a Native American teacher who would put students down because they weren’t focused enough. I personally think older adults, like parents and teachers, should show good examples to kids who want to become better people. I’ve never been shown a good example from my relatives, and I could be capable of not showing good examples for myself and younger family members.

Families tell their kids to behave in a certain way, but their actions provide a different role model. For an example, my family has always told us kids to behave ourselves everywhere we went. When we’re in school, my siblings and I act in a good way because my family want us to do well, but sometimes they don’t act the way they expect us to act. They don’t realize that since their actions speak louder than words, it could affect our behavior everywhere else.

Relatives push us to do our best and to be really focused on what’s in front of us, but when they use alcohol, it drags us down with them. It affects my ability to stay positive and have a good mindset when relatives put me down because it hurts me. My personal opinion: I deeply feel like my relatives should be the ones lifting me up and encouraging me to keep striving for what is good for us. But sometimes they are the ones that make us feel worse by putting us down. Sometimes I put people down and continue the negative behavior that I have seen, but that’s not who I want to be. 

Native youth need good role models in order to succeed. Their families need to lead the way. #nativeyouth #rolemodel Click To Tweet

Actions Yell, Words Whisper

Based on my examples about my family, I still think families should be more involved in their children’s lives and should be able to be there for them in many different ways. I believe family support is important for Native youth. My family has lived in poverty, therefore, I am at greater risk of living in poverty, as I get older. That’s something I want to change as a person. Due to family influence, I haven’t gotten the chance to see with my own eyes what good family role models looks like. 

I have that power to show a great example to my younger siblings and show them what is good and to not act in a negative way. I also didn’t realize that God wants us to love everyone like he loved us, even if they are putting you down. Therefore, I want to become a better person and avoid the cycle of poverty. I want to provide a good role model for my younger siblings and avoid acting like the role models I’ve had in my life. I want to be the change in everyone’s eyes and show people that there is a bright side in life and that it’s not always about spreading negativity.

Aliandra has a Navajo-Mexican heritage. Her favorite things about high school are sports, doing math, journaling, singing, sleeping and taking photos. Her biggest goal is to become successful as a brain surgeon and for her voice to be heard in writing because sometimes it’s difficult to express yourself out loud. One of her pet peeves are BUGS and people with no fashion sense.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Seems Impossible

Poverty and Native Youth

Native youth are subjected to all kinds of challenges and many hardships, but one thing is certain: poverty. It effects our Native youth in many ways. The reservation is full of the evidence of dysfunctional societies, from drunks to the chronically unemployed. The situation make Native youth feel helpless.

They are helpless because they are in careless and neglected environments. Kids who come from this environment look at themselves differently from other kids in modern society. What binds all of us like a silver cord is poverty, which many Native youth suffer from at this moment. Poverty is a horrible way to live, it gives Native American communities a poor economy, creates barriers to success, and the cycle endlessly repeats and starts over with new generations.

Kids live in poverty see themselves differently from other kids in modern society. #socialjustice #poverty #nativeyouth Click To Tweet

The Conditions of Poverty

One reason poverty thrives is the poor economy Native youth have to dealing with. My hometown is full of many drunks and unemployed people, because there aren’t enough jobs. I have alcoholic relatives who are unemployed and barely get by. There is little to no economic development on the reservation. For example, my community is building a new police station instead of a supermarket. 

Poverty creates more criminal activity. Two people I knew were recently shot and killed on the reservation. An article in the New York Times says that “310 reservations have violent crime rates that are two-and-a-half times the national average. Sexual assault is four times higher than the national average, and 43% of the Navajo Nation lives under the poverty line. While the national average household earns $43,000 a year, the Native household brings in almost half of that with $24,000 a year. Therefore, having a poor economy can affect the children in the poor communities that they and their families live in.

The other reason why poverty thrives is the environment that stops poor people from achieving goals. According to Partnership with Native Americans, the national average number of people with diplomas is 82% while the average for Native youth is only 69% (and only 53% graduate from Bureau of Indian Education schools).  Only 13% of Native Americans have college degrees. When people are in poor environments they struggle to learn about the world around them, the world beyond the Reservation. Bad schools, poor homes, violence, and people with bad influence affect Native youth in their surrounding environment.

Kids Can Adapt, but Should They?

Native youth can easily adapt to poverty and lose hope of ever having a better life. If a child is surrounded and raised in a bad environment, the more likely they can adapt and live with it when they are older. Parents on the Rez like to have fun, especially poor parents. But you can hurt your child by these careless acts such as leaving your young children home alone, or being emotionally distant when your children need you. If parents are aware of that their aciton will hurt their children, maybe they’ll think twice before acting this way. Adults need to think of the bigger picture, and possibly consider moving to a place where your kids will thrive and grow healthy.

The Failure of Governments

The system of self-governmnet on reservations contributes to the continuaiton of poverty. The Navajo and other Natives don’t improve or thrive, which perpetuates a whole new generation of people living in the cycle of poverty. Native governments and the national government should make lives better for its citizens. But both governments seem to be failing to do that for Natives. Sometimes Natives rely too much on the government and don’t put in the effort to succeed and thrive. But maybe that’s because no one expects more of us. 

A Native American high school student looks at poverty and how it affects him, his family, and his tribe members. His observations may surprise you. #nativeyouth #nativeamerican #poverty #socialjustice #educaiton

The Rosenthal Effect (also known as the Pygmalion Effect) shows that the behavior of other people can affect people around them. For example, if adults don’t expect much of children, the children won’t do much. Because of how the cycle keeps going it will continue unless we do something about it.

The way Native adults deal with poverty teaches their kids how to deal with it. And then those kids will pass it on to their children and the cycle of poverty will continue. Consequently, what kids hear or see can affect them and they will pass it on to their kids. We need to break the cycle that has bound us for future generations.

We need to do something about the poverty that affects our Native youth today. A poor economy can affect the Native youth that dwell in a poor region or area, creating a poor environment for Native youth. We perpetuate the cycle by what we do and pass on to new generations. 

Therefore, to ensure Native youth have a good future we need to get rid of the poor environments, break the barriers that stop them at key points in their lives, and stop the cycle of poverty from happening all over again. We need this for a better future for all Natives. Natives didn’t just survive all these hardships to be taken onto reservations and remain in a poverty. We survived and we will thrive with our hope for the next generation of Native American youth.

Montez is a member of the Navajo tribe. He spends most of his time in classes, and when he isn’t doing school work, he’s thinking of his family and missing them. When he isn’t stuck in a classroom, he’s on the Reservation with his family.

What are the Struggles of a Native Youth from a Single-Parent Household?

When I was younger I never knew why my mom worked so much. I always thought that it was because she didn’t like being home. The older I got, the more I realized that it was because she is a single parent.

She was the only one providing for the family. As my brothers got older, they  started working to help her with the bills. There are a lot of problems that come with being a single parent.

When one or both parents are gone it is hard on Native youth, because it affects our decisions in life, leads to money problems, and we have a lack of role models and people to encourage us. 

The Probability of Success Shrinks

When one parent is gone, Native youth will struggle to find success in life, sometimes because they feel guilt over the absent parent. Research shows that individuals who live in single-parent families as teens received fewer years of schooling and are less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than those from two-parent families.

For example, I live with my mother, and I never met my father. Sometimes, I feel like it was my fault that he left. But I realized that I can’t make decisions for other people. It was his decision to leave.

Research shows that 70% of children in low-income families have only one parent supporting them. The lack of encouragement for youth makes them feel like they’re not enough.

For instance, my three older brothers had a hard time in school, because my father was not around to teach them, and my mother was always working. Soon they dropped out and started to get in trouble. But eventually, they got their GED and started working.

They would have had better opportunities if they had their high school diplomas. As a result, the more encouragement from adults the better for Native youth in the future. 

Basic Provision Problems

A single parent has to work harder to provide for their families. That’s more stress on the youth, because they might have to take care of the younger siblings in addition to dealing with school. According to Science Daily, children in single-parent households have less family income and are more likely to be poor, than children in married-parent households.

Native Youth living in poverty don't want a handout, they want a hand up. What can you do to reach out and provide a hand up in their struggles? #poverty #nativeyouth #singleparent

In fact, the children of a single teenage mothers spent more time in poverty than children in any other family structure. For example, my mother is a single parent and has five children. When we were little she had to work two jobs to pay for bills, buy groceries, and provide clothing for us. When my brothers got to the age to work, they went and got jobs. All their money went to either paying bills or buying groceries.

Dr. Sakari Lemola and Dr. David Richter report that individuals who grow up entirely in a single-parent household will earn an average of 30% less than their peers who grew up in a two-parent household.

To illustrate, my mother is unmarried. I’m at risk of earning 30% less than my peers and staying in the bottom third of the income distribution. I intend to avoid poverty by finishing high school, and not getting pregnant at a young age. I know too many people who either got pregnant or didn’t finish high school. Now they still live with their parents. All in all, poverty is a big problem for youth in a single-parent households.

Role Models Needed

Youth need role models to have someone look up to. They can also learn a lot from their role model. An article on Livestrong.com  says, “Teenagers who have positive role models have greater self-esteem and perform better in school than teenagers without role models in their lives.” 

The lack of role models in a youth’s life have negative effects. The youth might get into drugs and start slacking in school, or maybe even drop out. Role models can be good or bad.

My role model is my mother. She did a lot to provide for my brothers and me. She encouraged me to be independent and to do my best in school, that’s why I’m still in school. If I didn’t have her as my role model, I probably would have given up and dropped out of school. So, role models can make a big difference in a youth’s life. 

Youth living in poverty don't want a handout, they want a hand up. Reach out and be the change. #poverty #youth #Native Click To Tweet

What Can YOU Do?

It’s hard on youth when one or both parents are gone. Native Youth will have a better future when there is more encouragement in their life. Poverty can also have a big impact on youth and single parent households. There can be some negative effect on youth, because of the lack of role models. Therefore, the more we help youth like me, the better chance we have of succeeding in life, so be a role model and encourage more youth to be successful.

  • Support legislation that supports programs that help disadvantaged youth.
  • Make friends with people who aren’t like you. Ask questions. Provide experiences and opportunities. Role models have to earn their place.
  • Lose your preconceived ideas about what youth living in poverty need or want. Get to know some real people instead.
  • Remember that youth living in poverty want a hand up, not a handout.
Makenna writes from Holbrook, AZ
%d bloggers like this: