A supervisor once told me that I can “build rapport with just about anyone.” It was the kind of off-hand comment that reveals something that’s always been there, but makes you aware of it perhaps for the first time. Building rapport is something that comes naturally to some and is more of an effort for others. Regardless of where you fit, learning about a subculture and/or identifying tools you can leverage will help you reach a wider range of clients.
Author Sherman Alexie provides both excellent insight into the Native American experience and several great tools for working with native kids. Alexie is kind of a David Sedaris for Native Americans. He’s witty and funny, sometimes darkly so. He’s the blues for Indians. There is so much sadness in the collective history of the Native American, yet he manages to not turn each tale into a sad song.
Alexie doesn’t play the victim and nor does he pull punches with his observations of Indian life. He just tells it like is. This is why I recommend that caregivers who work with native populations become familiar with his work. It has been a great way to relate to kids in treatment, and can also open one’s eyes to the disadvantages they face.
Movies are an easy entry point to literature, and in this case, culture. So start with Smoke Signals. Smoke Signals follows Thomas and Victor as they grow up on the reservation. They are not friends, but they are often companions, stuck with each other as much as they are stuck in the dysfunctional world of the reservation.
Equal parts sadness and droll humor Smoke Signals can give you understanding and material to work with to build rapport. Smoke Signals starts slowly and grows on you. And, much like Napoleon Dynamite, there are many lines teens recite later.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is another Alexie work great for native kids. Like Judy Blume did for suburban white kids by acknowledging divorce and sexuality in a manner not threatening to children, Alexie does the same for native kids addressing the social issues that so frequently define the Native American experience.
Alexie explores racism, alcoholism and tribalism through the eyes of Arnold Spirit Jr. as he decides to attend high school in the predominately white town to break free from the cycle of poverty and despair of the reservation. An outsider in his new school and a pariah on the reservation, it’s not an easy journey, but ultimately hopeful.
And, like so many of Judy Blume’s books, Diary of a Part Time Indian has generated resistance from parents for the issues it deals with and has been banned in schools or removed from libraries. But that only puts it in the company of other great books. It’s worth the read for kids and adults. If you’re working with a kid who doesn’t like to read, point this one out to them.
Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of short stories by Sherman Alexie and was the source material for Smoke Signals. In text, the stories are more stark and depressing. But you also witness the prose that defines Alexie as one of the better writers of his generation and more than simply an excellent voice for Native Americans.