Resilience, recovery, and the Red Road: Native American youth refiguring tribal identity

Rhonda Ramirez
School of Education, University of San Francisco
July, 2006


A plethora of research studies have pointed to the prevalence of alcohol abuse among Native American teens, but solutions have not materialized to improve this situation. This study with an interpretive perspective shaped by critical hermeneutics recognizes and accepts the challenge to come up with solutions. It seeks to discover how the path of the Red Road encompassing tribal identity and traditions as a means of gaining and maintaining balance and harmony with the world may help offset the initiation of alcohol use. The object of the hermeneutic approach to this research was 'to create collaboratively a text that allows us to carry out the integrative act of reading, interpreting, and critiquing our understandings. This act is a grounding for our actions' (Herds 1999: 86). I arranged for conversations between myself and fourteen adolescents between the ages of 15-18 years and three adults between the ages of 26-56 years. I wanted to compare teens living in a city in the San Francisco Bay area with those living on a reservation in northern California, comparing especially the strength of their identification with a tribe. All conversations were recorded and transcribed, and analyzed according to the three research categories of Narrative Identity, Tradition, and Imagination. Because the links in the Native community are so strong everyone is affected by alcohol abuse whether or not they, themselves, are alcohol abusers. These teens all speak from direct knowledge of some facet of alcohol abuse. I conclude with four primary research findings: youth yearn for a voice; tradition and heritage continue within a fractured identity; tribal identity is a powerful positive force; and imagination fuels hope. To shift from a deficit-based model of cure that is emphasized in western medicine to a perspective of care and hope may aid in better understanding Native American adolescents. It behooves educators to foster an approach to teaching and learning that encompasses the joy and power of myths and storytelling, an approach that need not be restricted to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, but would be rewarding to all those in an educational system without the creativity necessary to develop self-aware adults.