Briggs: Codifying a Native worldview

Kara Briggs
2/11/09

Terry Cross, the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, came to the field of social work in the radical 1970s when a Vine Deloria-brand of Indian consciousness was reshaping ideas about Indian child welfare.

In the years leading up to 1978 and the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act, between 25 and 35 percent of Indian children were living outside their tribal families in non-Indian households or institutions.

And among young Native social workers the desire to keep children in Indian homes was not only ideal, it was imperative if the future of Indian nations depended on the health and welfare of Indian children.

“It was right after Wounded Knee and it was a hotbed of political and cultural resurgence,” Cross said. “We were the angry generation. My mother is 83, her generation devised coping strategies. I think my generation, because of the civil rights era, because of the American Indian Movement, we found a voice.”



Indian children were living outside their tribal families in non-Indian households or institutions.


Thirty years later, Cross, who is Seneca, remains the soft-spoken, intellectual at the helm of the national Indian child welfare non-profit that he founded in 1983. NICWA, as it is commonly known throughout Indian country, trains Indian child welfare workers, facilitates tribes’ efforts to develop mental health programs and evaluates such programs.

Based in Portland, Ore., NICWA is also the national organization that takes the media calls whenever a fire storm about tribes having authority over the placement of Indian foster children hits.

In recent years Cross has also increasingly engaged in an ambitious effort to reconcile mainstream social work’s problem-focused model with an Indian worldview.

If the mainstream social work is based on a linear, European-American thought process which at its core is a logical cause and effect model, then the Indian model is a circle. The circle is intuitive and fluid. The idea for what he calls the Relational Worldview first came to Cross in the 1980s, in a dream.

For his teaching materials, Cross drew a circle then one line horizontally, and one vertically. In the resulting quadrants, Cross wrote one word each: context, mind, body, spirit. Context relates to social history; mind to knowledge and self-esteem; body to health and genetics; spirit to innate characteristics.

These four quadrants, Cross has explained in his writings, are in constant flux. He is fond of saying that we are not the same person at 4 p.m. that we were at 7 a.m. Our level of sleep is different, our nutrition is different and our context is different. We are different when we are at work performing a concentrated task than we are at home greeting a child.


The idea for what he calls the Relational Worldview first came to Cross in the 1980s, in a dream.

If the linear worldview is about solutions, the Relational Worldview is about finding balance in circumstances.

“Vine Deloria made reference in one of his books to a cyclical way of indigenous thinking,” he said. “Vine said that the white world functions in a line, the Indian world functions in a circle. Because the circle is so inclusive, every line in the white world crosses the circle. Every intersection is a position for dialogue.”

Cross is engaging that dialogue in his trainings of Indian and non-Indian social service providers, while NICWA Senior Community Development Officer Nadja Jones brings into the organizations projects with tribal nations.

“It takes into account the inter-relatedness of things,” said Jones, who is Comanche and Onondaga. “I always ask, ‘How many days can you live without your washing machine?’ As a working mother that adds another layer. If someone asked me what they could do to help at that moment, I wouldn’t say ‘I need a vehicle.’ I would say; ‘I need a washing machine.’”

The washing machine example gets used a lot. Cross likes to say, only half jokingly, that many challenges in Indian families could benefit from the addition of a working washer.

In the last seven years Cross has taken the model beyond the family into organizations. The Relational Worldview quadrants turn from context, mind, body and spirit to environment, infrastructure, resources and mission. A healthy organization balances these quadrants.

The important innovation of this work is that by codifying a Native worldview, Cross has built a bridge for Native organizations to mainstream funders, including the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA now uses the Relational Worldview in the reporting on specific grants to Indian social service agencies.

In a recent training, Cross explained the importance of his model in evaluating programs. He said an alcohol treatment program might use a sweat lodge as part of its program, but you wouldn’t want to try to evaluate the success of the sweat for a grant. With the Relational Worldview the program could document the obvious benefits of the sweat lodge ceremony to body and mind without intruding upon the intangibles of spiritual practice.



 The Relational Worldview quadrants turn from context, mind, body and spirit to environment, infrastructure, resources and mission.


For Cross, the social worker and the Seneca, the Relational Worldview is his own medicine wheel, his own circle of reconciliation between his own formal training, his experience of human behavior and his deeply Native cultural understanding.

“It’s as much about my own spiritual journey as it is about my work,” Cross said. “In many ways, you know how our culture teaches that everything you do is an expression of your spiritual self. For me this is a way to understand the world from our traditional teachings.”

Kara Briggs is a columnist with Indian Country Today. She also owns Red Hummingbird Media Corp., and is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association.

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