A “Seven-Generation” Approach to American Indian Families

Walter T Kawamoto & Tamara C Cheshire. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

My grandfather once told me a story about how our tribe would gather the very young to preteen children and take them to another camp without their parents. They were supervised by a few elders, who explained to them that they were there to learn a very important lesson. They were told that they would be away from their parents and the main camp for some time, representing the times when they would need to rely on and trust their extended family and other tribal members. The children were also informed that there would be limited food, representing the times when the tribe would have little food. To keep warm, all of the children stayed in the same tipi. Many of the younger children became frightened and homesick the first night. They relied on the older children for comfort. It didn’t help much that the children were not fed that first evening. The next day, the elders came to the children with a small amount of food. They explained that the amount of food they had was very little, but that their families had worked hard in seeking out the buffalo and had given up the choicest of meats for their children, the buffalo tongue. The meat was cut into small cubes. There was not even enough meat to give each child one small cube. The elders explained that each child would be given the choice to either eat their fill or pass on the food. They were also told that there might not be any food to eat for the next few days and that by eating even one cube they would be taking food from the other children, their relatives. The elders lined up the children, the oldest to the youngest, and began to give each child a choice as to what he or she would do. The older children were instructed to look at the younger when they made their choice, and the younger children were instructed to look at the older when they made their choice. The reason was that the children needed to see how their action would affect other members of their tribe and ultimately the survival of their nation on through to the next seven generations. The older children decided that they would give up the food so that the younger ones could survive, and ultimately the tribe. The younger children also witnessed this self-sacrifice for the good of the tribe and knew that when their time came, they would also consider the next seven generations when making even individual decisions (originally told by Phil Lane, Sr., Lakota elder, to Tami Cheshire).

The term seven generations is relatively common among American Indians. There are several meanings of this term, some ancient and some contemporary. As in this story, seven generations can refer to individual decisions that affect the survival of the tribe into the next seven generations, implying an eternal responsibility. Although each person represents one generation, each one is the legacy of his or her great grandparents (three generations ago), and his or her actions have an impact on his or her great grandchildren (three generations to follow). Another ancient use of this phrase is the Ojibwa prophecy that it is the choice of each person whether the time of the seventh fire (generation) will be a time of great enlightenment or great suffering. Currently, the term seven generations refers to the Iroquois principle to consider the impact of major decisions on the next seven generations. The concept of seven generations has inspired the American Indian Institute and an organization called the Seven Generation Youth Society in Oklahoma that works with American Indians on justice issues (“Rally for Justice Held in Stilwell,” 1994). It is with the philosophy of seven generations in mind, taught to us by an elder of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Oregon, that we look into the past and the present and suggest a few indicators of the future of American Indian family research.

Research on American Indians

The recent history of the study of American Indian families, regarded by many as the self-determination period (Garrett & Herring, 2001), is peppered with methodological challenges. There are not many studies of American Indian families, perhaps because most researchers interested in American Indians have had limited resources with which to work (Cheshire, 2001; Hennessy & John, 2002; Kawamoto, 2001b), and American Indians often are not identified as a separate ethnic group in national studies (Gruber, DiClemente, & Anderson, 2002).

Demographic Changes

Although the study of American Indians has gone through many changes over the last few decades, demographic characteristics of American Indian communities also have undergone change. For example, Parke and Buriel (2002) reported a dramatic increase in the census count of American Indians, from 345,000 in 1940 to 2,000,000 in 1990. Over the last several decades, American Indians have moved from rural to urban areas; most (as many as 78%) live in urban communities (Banks, 1991; Gruber et al., 2002; Parke & Buriel, 2002). This migration has been attributed to federal policies between 1953 and 1968 that forced American Indians to move from the reservations in search of jobs to support their families (Cheshire, 2001; Pevar, 1992). Although urban and reservation communities differ in many ways, American Indians, regardless of where they live, maintain complex connections with each other (Parke & Buriel, 2002).

Another demographic change has been a dramatic increase in life expectancy for American Indians over the last 40 years (Hennessy & John, 2002). Life expectancy has increased to 73.2 years, 3.3 years less than whites (Baldridge, 2001). However, American Indian communities are disproportionately younger than other communities, increasing the likelihood of youth-related risk behaviors (Wallace, Sleet, & James, 1997). Compared to white Americans, Indians are 4.6 times more likely to die of alcoholism, 4.2 times more likely to die of tuberculosis, 1.6 times more likely to die of diabetes, and 0.51 times more likely to die of pneumonia (Baldridge, 2001).

Another significant change has been in family structure. Reddy (1993) reported that the percentage of single-parent households was 50%, whereas Banks (1991) estimated that in 1980 the percentage of two-parent families was 70%.

Adolescent Problems

Gruber et al. (2002) indicated that American Indian adolescents tended to have higher rates of antisocial behavior (violence, shoplifting, running away from home, and vandalism) and substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana) than European American and African American adolescents but not higher rates of sexual activity. The age of first sexual activity for American Indian adolescents was significantly older than for European American adolescents. Urbanization and contact with other ethnic groups have facilitated changes in attitudes (Sage, 1997) and behaviors, contributing to higher rates of antisocial activities for urban American Indian adolescents than for reservation-dwelling adolescents. This suggests that adolescents living off reservations experience higher rates of acculturation stress (Yates, 1987).

Identity and Cultural Transmission

Personal strength is derived from knowing oneself and one’s culture: the bases for identity. Identity is strongly associated with family roles, relationships, and responsibilities; American Indian children are taught roles and obligations in the family and society mostly from their mothers. Children’s views of themselves as Indians and the positive or negative connotations associated with those views are due in part to their mothers’ identities as Indians and in part to societal views of Indians. The American Indian mother’s transmission of a positive sense of self to her child is extremely important, not only for the child as an individual who needs to overcome institutional and social oppression, but for the survival of the culture and ultimately the tribe (Rodgers, 2001; Wilson, 2002). Cultural identity in children is fostered and valued to preserve the culture and empower the next generation to fight the injustices of oppression (Cheshire, 2001). Urban American Indian mothers foster a strong sense of identity and pass on their culture to their children in many ways, such as encouraging observation and modeling (Garrett, 1996). Women’s roles in American Indian families are complex; they are mothers and sources of cultural tradition to tribal leaders (Kawamoto & Cheshire, 1997; LaFromboise, Heyle, & Ozer, 1990).

Rodgers (2001) argued that traditional Indian family dynamics have been destroyed by premeditated assimilation strategies of European Americans, citing increased rates of domestic violence, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and the loss of cultural identity and pride as examples of problems. However, American Indian parents are beginning to realize the impact of culture on their children and are “mending the hoop for the children of the future” (p. 1514).

According to Harjo (1993), American Indian parents are more likely to have children taken away than non-Indians. Government officials have repeatedly disrupted Indian families, knowing the damage they would inflict on family structure, parenting, and the maintenance of American Indian culture and hoping it would further assimilation. Such assimilation strategies began in the late 1800s and early 1900s with creation of the boarding school system (Szasz, 1996). Indian children were kidnapped and placed in federally sanctioned, church-operated boarding schools, where they endured “emotional, physical and sexual abuse” (Baldridge, 2001, p. 1521). When these children grew up, they were not able to teach traditional values or serve as cultural role models for their own children. In fact, many attempted to hide their Indian heritage because of their lack of positive Indian identity and because they did not want to see their children experience the same abuse they had endured. Many American Indian elders, products of the boarding schools, engaged in risk-taking behaviors that led to health dangers for themselves and their children (Beauvais, Oetting, Wolf, & Edwards, 1989; Blum, Harmon, Harrish, Berguisen, & Resnick, 1992; Gruber et al., 2002; McShane, 1988). Today, many boarding schools have been reclaimed by American Indian families; they are safe havens where Indian youth can be supported and can have access to tribal-specific and intertribal cultural traditions (Dinges & Duong-Tran, 1994; Kawamoto, 2001a).

Extended Family

Extended family members play significant roles in the survival of American Indian families. Elders, whether biologically related or created kin, are important to a child’s care, upbringing, and development, contributing to family cohesiveness and stability (Rodgers, 2001). They help maintain cultural norms by serving as mentors and advisors who reinforce culturally specific roles and responsibilities (Baldridge, 2001). Out of respect for their commitment to communities and families, elders are cared for by adult women and other extended kin (Hennessy & John, 2002; John, 1988).

Federal policies to assimilate American Indians have changed the roles of family members. Once Indians were forced to relocate from reservations, they had little access to extended family support (Baldridge, 2001). To adapt, urban Indians created community organizations and formed their own pan-Indian, intertribal support groups. Indian families now have access to a larger group of elders from many different tribes who can help guide and advise them (Kawamoto & Cheshire, 1999). The newly developed community works to obtain resources to care for the elderly. To transmit and preserve culture, there must be adaptations. For instance, because urban American Indian families are more migratory than reservation families (Sage, 1997), American Indian elder Frank Merrill has identified pan-Indian urban events such as powwows as key opportunities for families to learn about their culture (Kawamoto & Cheshire, 1997).

Today, American Indian elders are dealing with a multitude of issues ranging from poverty to poor health and minimal access to services in both urban and reservation areas (Baldridge, 2001). Many elders are also experiencing abuse or neglect from informal caregivers (Baldridge & Brown, 1998). Although elders from reservations are asking for Abused Elderly Protection Teams (National Indian Council on Aging [NICOA] 1998 National Aging Conference, cited in Baldridge, 2001), elders often do not recognize abuse as a crime because it is a new phenomenon for American Indians. Brown (1989) found that elders who were victims of financial exploitation often refused to accept this as abuse because of the cultural value of sharing resources with other family members.

Recently, many elders have once again become primary caregivers and providers for their extended families (Baldridge, 2001). This is difficult because they often must try to find jobs to supplement their fixed retirement budget; they often go without medical services because they cannot afford them. In particular, American Indian women elders, who are more likely to be divorced or widowed, are at higher risk for economic hardship (John & Baldridge, 1996). Many American Indian families feel they have little control over issues related to elder care, but they seem to place more emphasis on the positive aspects of caregiving by accentuating acceptance and adaptation rather than dwelling on control (Strong, 1984).


Today, instead of diseases brought by the Europeans, such as smallpox, measles, and influenza, or even modern diseases such as diabetes and asthma, behavioral health issues dominate mortality statistics for American Indians (Baldridge, 2001). The current leading causes of death for Indians 55 to 64 years old relate to lifestyle choices and behaviors such as alcoholism and poor diet (Baldridge, 2001; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1997). Changes in mortality statistics have significant implications for elders, their families, and Indian public health care providers.

Alcoholism is an important behavior-related disease with historical connections, as American Indians have used alcohol to deal with post-traumatic stress unique to their communities (Kawamoto, 2001a). Alcoholism has led to problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and child abuse (Dixon, 1989) and many other concerns such as homicide and suicide (Wallace et al., 1997).

To address alcoholism and other behavioral issues, helping professionals must be cognizant of at least three key characteristics of American Indian families: cultural identity, sense of humor, and attitudes about seeking help (Garrett & Herring, 2001). Humor serves many purposes beyond relaxing tense situations, improving the atmosphere, and reaffirming a sense of connectedness and humility (Garrett & Garrett, 1994). Humor provides a positive way of coping with stress, which is critical because few traditional American Indians seek counseling, and many perceive counseling as a threat to the maintenance of cultural values (LaFromboise, 1988).

Although treaty rights included provisions for a government-run Indian health care system, “Indian Health Service budgets are discretionary, and must be reauthorized every year by Congress. The result is a pattern of chronically insufficient funding, resulting in the Indian Health Service being unable to meet… immediate … care needs” (Baldridge, 2001, p. 1523). The Indian health care delivery system does not provide a geriatric focus; it offers no individual case management; and it has not, over five decades, created an infrastructure for long-term care (Baldridge, 2001). The burden of long-term care is heavy: tribal values emphasize familial obligations and interdependence (Red Horse, 1980), so family members often undertake demanding tasks caring for and preventing the institutional placement of older relatives (Manson, 1989).

Aside from substance abuse, diabetes is the disease that has had the greatest impact on Indian families. The Indian Health Service Diabetes Program reports that more than 20% of Indian elders have this disease, and in some communities, more than half of the residents over 50 suffer from diabetes (Baldridge, 2001), a rate four times the national average. Some Arizona reservations have the highest rates of diabetes in the world. Diabetes has a cultural as well as a medical impact on American Indian family life. When we were in an Indian student group at Oregon State University, we were among several who were running behind with preparations for a university powwow. Everything was running late, including the meal that is usually given to the elders, the dancers, and others. One of the elders chastised the group for getting the food ready late because many of the elders had diabetes and needed to take their medicine with food. Feeding the elders first at an event was no longer just an issue of cultural tradition; it was also a matter of medical necessity.

As a way of dealing with contemporary mental health issues, programs that focus on a wellness model inspired by ancient traditions have been developed. The wellness model is a “holistic integrated approach to health and well-being” (Rodgers, 2001, p. 1513). It encompasses four components, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness (Cross, 1998), called the “Circle of Life” or the “Four Winds/Directions of Life” (Garrett & Garrett, 1996). Within the last 12 years, this movement has acquired thousands of followers. In fact, Indian communities have had wellness gatherings, and conferences as well as most powwows are now drug and alcohol free. According to Rodgers (2001), “[T]he wellness model has helped many native people become healthy, assisted in empowering them, and diminished a sense of hopelessness while utilizing a lifestyle model that is culturally significant” (p. 1514). Such wellness programs reflect a desire to integrate numerous relevant contemporary Western systems with aboriginal systems (Angus, 1999).

One of the principal distinctions between urban and reservation American Indians is that tribal sovereignty has had a more significant role on reservation communities. For American Indian nations, sovereignty is the power of self-determination, considered to be the supreme power from which other powers are derived (Pevar, 1992). Contemporary attempts to create more efficient tribal government structures have affected elders’ roles on many reservations Baldridge, 2001). Once the principal determinants of tribal policy and the center of power, elders’ influences may have begun to fade, although efforts to strengthen traditions in urban settings suggest otherwise (Cheshire, 2001).

Unifying/Distinctive Traditions

In this last section, we focus on a few specific ancient traditions that are being reinterpreted as unifying pan-Indian and/or distinctive tribal nation principles for modern Indian families. These common worldviews are essential to a sense of Indianness (Garrett & Garrett, 1994).

Parke and Buriel (2002) identified the pan-Indian tradition of respect for elders. Although male elders are very active in families (Kawamoto & Cheshire, 1997), female elders are especially responsible for the oral tradition of storytelling, which is recognized as a key component of survival and is often referred to as passing down memories (Wilson, 2002). History-based stories are especially important, as evidenced by the frequency of their use. Storytelling has other impacts as well. For example, stories help define roles of responsibility in extended families (Wilson, 2002).

Although the traditions of respect for elders and storytelling are widespread among American Indians, the ways in which storytelling are enacted are distinct from one group to the next. For many reservation-based communities, stories help maintain connection to land and place (Wilson, 2002). Also, the way in which storytelling happens can differ. For example, some communities regard a talent for storytelling as an innate gift, whereas Dakota tradition holds that the oral tradition is an acquired skill (Wilson, 2002). Many communities feature trickster stories in their oral tradition, but the trickster takes different forms (Goble, 1988; Wilson, 2002).

Another pan-Indian principle is identifying with the group. Although Parke and Buriel (2002) focused on tribal identification, we suggest it can also be a regional/intertribal identification, as exemplified in the contemporary intertribal confederations in Oregon (Kawamoto, 2001b) and in urban intertribal communities in Sacramento, California. This sociocentric nature is cited in numerous other studies (Baines, 1992; Hennessy & John, 2002). Connected to it is the pan-Indian principle of cooperation and partnership within the group and family (Parke & Buriel, 2002; Red Horse, 1980). Group identification and cooperation also have served to create a sense of interregional or intertribal competition. Traditionally, families socialized younger family members with the values of interdependency and caregiving, although dependence was not valued more than independence (Hennessy & John, 2002).

Future Trends

Many of the methodological frustrations experienced historically in the study of American Indian families are being addressed today, which bodes well for the future of the field. One frustration has been the lack of valid, reliable instruments designed for use with American Indian families. One example of an instrument that has recently been developed is the Native American Cultural Involvement and Detachment Anxiety Questionnaire (CIDAQ), an instrument designed to measure American Indians’ culturally related anxiety. It has been tested in a variety of American Indian communities and in depth with Navajos. This instrument measures involvement within the American Indian community, economic stress, and interaction with non-Indians (McNeil, Porter, Zvolensky, Chaney, & Kee, 2000).

The trend of designing projects for American Indian families, often by Indian scholars, also has influenced practitioners. A Four Circles strategy in which the interconnected elements of a family are addressed has been developed (Manson, Walker, & Kivlahan, 1987); it is supported by research indicating that when American Indian families participate in treatment, members are better able to deal with depression, gang involvement, and substance abuse (Whitbeck, Hoyt, Chen, & Stubben, 2002), and chances for academic success increase (Whitbeck, Hoyt, Stubben, & LaFromboise, 2001).

Another concern has been the focus of most family scholars on nuclear families, ignoring extended families. Some researchers have attempted to include extended family members in studies (Baines, 1992; Cheshire, 2001; Hennessy & John, 2002; Lamarine, 1998). The future of family counseling looks promising, as clinicians become aware of the need to respect the role of extended families (Garrett & Herring, 2001).

This has been a brief overview of the current status of American Indian family scholarship. We take satisfaction in knowing that there is much more available and much more to come.