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.

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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.

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