Learning about American Indian Culture
By Rebecca A. Clay
When outsiders venture into “Indian Country,” even the most open-minded and good-hearted can misunderstand what’s going on around them.
“Let’s say you’re a social worker or psychologist doing an assessment of an Indian person who talks very quietly and keeps their eyes on the ground,” suggested R. Andrew Hunt, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W., a public health advisor in SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). “That can easily be misinterpreted as low self-esteem, depression, or some other problem, when in actuality that person is just showing respect.”
Now Captain Hunt and a team of U.S. Public Health Service officers and American Indian professionals and community members have created a way to give Federal disaster responders and other mental health professionals a head start on understanding American Indian and Alaska Native cultures.
SAMHSA’s new “Culture Card: A Guide to Build Cultural Awareness: American Indian and Alaska Native” offers a basic orientation in the form of a publication the size of a playing card that folds out like a map. CMHS initially developed the card under its Eliminating Mental Health Disparities Initiative.
“This just isn’t on people’s radar screens at all,” said Captain Hunt, a member of the Lumbee tribe and a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service. “Most people are surprised to learn that there are more than 560 federally recognized tribes plus nearly 245 non-federally recognized tribes, not the 10 tribes they’ve seen on television.”
Most people don’t realize that American Indian people aren’t just members of a minority group, but citizens of their own sovereign nations, Captain Hunt added.
The culture card explains tribal sovereignty and much more. It also features a list of myths and facts, a look at customs and regional and cultural variations, and a set of dos and don’ts for outsiders. Don't ask intrusive questions early on in conversations, for instance. Learn to be comfortable with long silences. Explain what you’re doing when making clinical notes. And respect the tribe’s right to control information about itself.
“The card isn’t meant to give you everything you need to know,” said Captain Hunt, explaining that the team had to balance between being too general or too specific to be helpful. “This is what you need to know to get started.”
Tuck the culture card into your pocket when you’re heading into a crisis, study it on the plane, and then seek out someone who can orient you to the specifics of that particular tribe or community, Captain Hunt suggested.
Although SAMHSA originally intended the card solely for its own staff’s use, said Captain Hunt, the first batch “started flying off the shelves.” Other Federal agencies got interested soon after that.
The Indian Health Service (IHS) gave its stamp of approval, said Captain Hunt. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) produced a version for its own staff. Recently, SAMHSA partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to print additional copies.
Download “Culture Card: A Guide to Build Cultural Awareness: American Indian and Alaska Native.” To order, call SAMHSA’s Health Information Network at 1-877-SAMHSA-7. Ask for publication number SMA08-4354.