Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA7

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Reaching Native Americans

Working with Native American audiences or any culturally diverse group means Extension educators must adapt their traditional methods for reaching traditional audiences. While the strategies for taking a different approach may not be difficult, implementing them is a challenge requiring a high degree of commitment to cultural understanding.

Joyce L. Alves
Extension Home Economist and 4-H Youth Development
Cooperative Extension
University of Arizona, Apache County, St. Johns, Arizona

Extension agents often feel frustrated when Native American clientele don't respond as other clientele to their programming efforts. Some believe programming must be approached differently, while others claim regular types of programming can be done. My experiences on the Navajo reservation suggest it's difficult to generalize because Native Americans are unique as individuals and in their tribal cultural heritage. So, educational programming should differ from tribe to tribe and from community to community. However, to have the opportunity to teach Native Americans, Extension must first reach them. This article describes several strategies that Extension faculty can use to achieve success in teaching and programming for Native American clientele. Some of these strategies may also apply to Extension programming with other diverse groups.

Building Trust

Adamcin said of her work with low-income, culturally diverse people in South Tucson that, "Prevention programs and those that target low income must rely on acceptance by the community we wish to serve. Trust must exist between agencies and clientele."1 The same attitude applies to working with Native Americans and probably many other culturally diverse groups. Recognizing contributions of clientele, being willing to become part of their lives, and working with them are ways to develop trust. Agents may initially have to be "unproductive" in terms of traditional programming to nurture a trusting relationship.

The time required to develop trust and the accompanying lack of success can be frustrating. I've traveled 100 miles to appointments only to have clientele not show up. Some of my workshops organized and marketed in the traditional Extension way were poorly attended. Saturday 4-H community meetings had different children attending each time. Many of the children lived 30-40 miles away and their families didn't have transportation to bring them to each meeting.

Building trust often involves a willingness to do unusual activities. Last summer, we held a 4-H clothing workshop in the Lukachukai Mountains. To get there, I drove a two-wheel drive pickup on a four-wheel drive road. There were pickups along the side of the road that didn't make it. Once there, we used a generator to run the sewing machines.

Mahan says that, "Indian people tend to cooperate more with those Anglo teachers who supplement their professional role with community involvement, friendship building and two-way sharing of thoughts and perceptions."2

Recently, I created a button-badge to promote "5 A Day" fruits and vegetables, and included some with Navajo words. Even though many Navajo people only speak and are unable to read or write their language, presenting materials in their language indicates to the recipients someone recognizes their language.3 It's also a visible sign that an agent is trying to engage in a two-way, cultural-sharing process.

Attending community events is another way to create visibility and develop trust. I was invited to an elementary school fashion review fund-raiser in Chinle, 135 miles from the Extension office. Attending would help me become familiar with the traditional Navajo clothing being modeled. But it was equally important for me to go because the person who had invited me would be honored if I came.

Family Networking

Networking, which is useful to agents in any community, takes on added significance when working with Native Americans. At the Chinle fashion review, for example, I was acknowledged as a guest from the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. After the program, a retired woman introduced herself and said she'd been a 4-H leader and active in Extension homemakers many years ago. She said she'd like to get the people in Chinle involved in home economics programs and 4-H. This woman arranged for several home economics workshops for adults I conducted. I sent her fliers about the programs, which she posted around town and delivered to her relatives and friends. With her help, the workshops were well-attended. The woman's daughter is now a community 4-H leader and all of her grandchildren are enrolled in 4-H.

A primary strategy for reaching Native Americans with Extension programming is to first involve key people who then invite their extended family members. Family members often make up most of the clientele at each workshop. Native American educators have noted that, "The extended family is a major factor in Indian communities, which may include three or four generations in the same household."4 A successful Extension educator will find networking in the Native American community means networking with families.

Using Extenders

Another useful strategy for education in the Native American community is to use extenders of Extension information. In discussing programming in California, Laughlin maintained that,

Volunteers have been known to increase outreach beyond all reasonable expectation, contacting people who might never have been served by Extension, bringing greater diversity to our clientele, and targeting specialized groups.5

Similarly, networking with other organizations within the Navajo tribal system has increased outreach and brought people to Extension programs that may never have been reached.

Save the Children, WIC, Headstart, Navajo Food Distribution, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, schools, chapter houses, and Navajo Youth Development are all potential extenders of Extension information. Last year, Extension sponsored a workshop about youth at risk at a location 100 miles from the Extension office and arranged for by a nutritionist from Navajo Headstart. Each of the agencies were provided with fliers and brochures about the event which they distributed to their clientele. I received calls from people I'd never heard of or known about and 57 Navajo people attended, including teachers, parents, school assistants, youth workers, bus drivers, and Headstart personnel. Compared to previous meetings and workshops, that event was a success because working with extenders helped market the program on a topic of concern in the community.

Workshops for organizations serving the Native American community have also been successful. Attendance was high and the participants extended the information. A nutrition educator with Navajo food distribution, for example, taught people how to make whole wheat bread in a bag at tailgate workshops after attending an Extension training program. Navajo food distribution workers drive trucks out into the remote areas of the reservation to distribute food and present food preparation lessons literally on the truck tailgate.

Continual Communication

Continual communication is also important. Everyone attending Extension workshops is put on a newsletter mailing list. Keeping in regular personal contact with key people in the various agencies and communities such as Navajo Food Distribution, Save the Children, 4-H leaders, and Headstart is a necessity. To maintain visibility and contact, I don't miss the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line, giving him or her a ride, or speaking at a community event.

Attitude and Sensitivity

An Extension agent's attitude and sensitivity to other people are key factors in working with Native Americans. Extension agents need to carefully consider how their words and actions are perceived. For instance, one visitor from Extension told some Navajo people he'd taken cultural classes in college and could do research about them. Another wouldn't mingle with the Navajo people at a field day until it came time for pictures. Another not only refused to eat Navajo food served at a field day, but made disparaging remarks about it. As Pepper and Coburn said, "It is important to have a sincere belief in and an appreciation of people that are different."6 Failure to demonstrate appreciation of difference destroys trust between the Extension worker and the Native American audience.

My involvement in working with Native Americans has been an experience in positive personal growth. I agree with Kincheloe and Staley that, "No one leaves the culture without changed attitudes and beliefs."7

Working with Native American audiences or any culturally diverse group means Extension educators must adapt their traditional methods for reaching traditional audiences. While the strategies for taking a different approach may not be difficult, implementing them is a challenge requiring a high degree of commitment to cultural understanding.


1. Julie C. Adamcin, "An Inner-City Harvest-A Coalition Approach to Youth-at-Risk Programming," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Summer 1990), 13.

2. James M. Mahan, "Major Concerns of Anglo Student Teachers Serving in Native American Communities," Journal of American Indian Education, XXIII (May 1984), 19.

3. Daniel C. Pfannstiel and Stanley M. Hunter, Extending Cooperative Extension Education to Mexican-American Families Program, Methods and Evaluation (College Station: Texas Agricultural Extension Service, 1967), p. 71.

4. Floy C. Pepper and Joseph Coburn, Effective Practices in Indian Education (Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1985), p. 13.

5. Susan Laughlin, "The Challenge of Working with Extenders," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Fall 1990), 29.

6. Pepper and Coburn, Effective Practices in Indian Education.

7. Joe Kincheloe and George Staley, "Teaching on a Rural Reservation: An Authentic Learning Experience," Momentum, II (February 1983), 18.