A strong cultural identity supports and deepens the well-being of American Indian and Alaska Native youth. Research shows that Indigenous youth with links to their traditional culture are more resilient and emotionally healthy, and less likely to engage in substance use.
In northwest Montana, the Blackfeet Nation's Tribal Healing to Wellness Court Project has created new programming designed to strengthen the cultural connectedness felt by both youth and adults engaged in the system. Blackfeet Nation Tribal youth programs have always tried to integrate traditional culture into activities, but the new initiative is uniquely significant, according to Charlene Burns, Cultural Advisor to the court project. It offers participating youth the opportunity "to restore themselves to the community, to their families [and] with the universe," she said. "So there's always hope." Ms. Burns spoke at a June 2021 virtual training event held by the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.
With an emphasis on healing and family, Tribal juvenile healing to wellness courts focus not on a single act or crime, but on the root causes of addictive or abusive behavior that lead a youth to court involvement. Traditional methods look beyond individual accountability and seek to hold the community accountable for its youth, said Tasha Fridia, Assistant Director of the Tribal Youth Resource Center, who also spoke at the virtual event.
"Traditional methods that focus on healing often involve family, extended family, and community in the healing process."
—Tasha Fridia, Assistant Director, Tribal Youth Resource Center
Many Blackfeet youth have little knowledge about their culture and feel no connection to it, according to Chaniel Grant, Coordinator of the Blackfeet Nation's court project. Reconnecting clients to their Tribal culture is a critical component of Tribal juvenile healing to wellness courts.
"Oftentimes we talk about 'walking in two worlds,'" said Ms. Fridia. "The juvenile healing to wellness court is a prime example of where we can weave those two worlds together to maximize how we're supporting our youth."
Before developing the new programming, the Blackfeet Nation's Tribal healing to wellness court conducted a community readiness assessment. This entailed forming an advisory circle of community stakeholders, interviewing Tribal leaders who work closely with Blackfeet youth, and meeting with Tribal elders and cultural advisers. The effort found a "huge desire" among Tribal stakeholders to integrate cultural programming into the court's curriculum, Ms. Grant said. The court hosted community forums with Tribal "knowledge holders" to learn which teachings would best help youth develop cultural connectedness. It then developed 13 "cultural learning modules" focused on the Blackfeet Nation's customs, language, and spirituality.
Tribal communities must measure their members' cultural connectedness, Ms. Grant emphasized. The use of cultural connectedness scales facilitates an understanding of the role culture plays in enhancing youth health and wellness, better preparing Tribes to treat individuals who misuse drugs and alcohol, she said. The Blackfeet court adapted an existing tool to test its youth participants.
The Blackfeet court anticipates introducing the new programming in the coming months. Plans to introduce it earlier were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch a video of the conference session, "Engaging a Culturally Responsive Approach to Support Juvenile Healing to Wellness Court Participants."
OJJDP's Tribal Youth Resource Center provides free training and technical assistance to help Tribal communities plan, develop, and implement Tribal juvenile healing to wellness courts. Additional resources are available on the Tribal Law and Policy Institute's Tribal Healing to Wellness Court website.