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Traditionally within many tribal communities, the responsibility of parenting relied heavily on an extensive kinship network working together to ensure the healthy development of children. Each entity had a role in shaping the child. This kinship network involved not only parents, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grandparents, spiritual leaders and, for some tribes, those connected by a direct clan kinship. The role of each of these caregivers was to provide a stable structure to nurture, love, connect, role model and instill important teachings.

This still stands true for many tribal families across the nation. However, due to the impact of colonization and trauma-related experiences (historical, intergenerational and current trauma), this has disrupted the thriving environment allowing tribal children and families to connect.

What is trauma and how does it impact our families? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.

What does this look like for an American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) community? One well-known example with a lasting traumatic effect was the forcible removal of AI/AN children from their families and placement in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding schools, prevalent from the 1890s through the 1970s. Many of schools were located hundreds of miles from a child’s tribal community. In these schools, children were not allowed to wear their traditional attire that signified the people they came from, or to speak in their traditional language. Their hair was cut short and they were placed in clothing that was foreign to them. While in these BIA boarding schools, there was little to no contact with family members. The environment of these schools was sterile, strict, abusive, hurtful and deadly for some children.

Imagine being forcibly removed from everything you know. Never knowing when or if you will ever see your child or parent or family. What happens to the children, the parents and the family members? What happens to the community?

Disconnect. Grief. Loss. Mistrust. Depression. Addiction. To name a few.

Passing through the generations, this disruption left tribal families with an inability to fulfill their role as nurturers, caregivers and providers to the children and grandchildren who came after them. The detrimental impact of traumatic experiences affects not only AI/AN communities, but for many culturally diverse communities, impoverished populations and those who are at higher risk for adverse life experiences.

The Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center’s Native Connections program, on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) in Mission, is focusing its efforts to remember and revitalize the traditional tribal aspects of parenting through cultural adaptation of the Conscious Discipline model. The program, for all ages, prenatal to elder, is presented in the Umatilla language; it is called Pašápattawaxša kwiíkwit ki, which translates to “raising children in truth.”

In addition, Native Connections is proactively connecting with community and stakeholders to bridge gaps and break down barriers that might prevent development of a healthy environment and community. The Conscious Discipline model has deeply rooted components of traditional tribal practice, helping to:

• Create healthy connections

• Openly discuss what is causing emotions/feelings

• Establish nurturing relationships

• Role model teaching

All of these provide a safe, nurturing, and supportive environment for children, families and communities to thrive. In this work, Yellowhawk Native Connections is so thankful to be building partnerships and collaborations that will allow children in Eastern Oregon to be their best selves.


Ashley Harding is the Native Connection Project Manager at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, a partner with the Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub, working to bridge early childhood resources and prepare children for kindergarten. For more information, visit www.bluemountainearlylearninghub.org.

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