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Thank you Mina Blyly-Strauss — researcher and artist

Dear colleagues,

I am excited for Mina Blyly-Strauss to share some of her dissertation study results with us. Mina has been sharing her talents with Extension as part of the Children, Youth and Family Consortium (CYFC) for six years — two years as a graduate student volunteer then four years as a graduate research assistant. Soon-to-be Dr. Blyly-Strauss when she defends her dissertation at the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development (OLPD) in September, Mina is ready to launch the next phase of her career supporting children to thrive in the community. Though she is leaving Extension, the work she has been part of at CYFC will benefit scholars, professionals and families for many years.

Mary Marczak and Mina Blyly-Strauss
Mary Marczak and Mina Blyly-Strauss

I’ve had the pleasure of following Mina’s dissertation journey to uplift the voices of Native American caregivers about raising healthy and culturally whole young children. I listened to her as she described in wonder the profound experiences and knowledge of these caregivers. I empathized with her as she struggled to shape the complex and fluid knowledge she was gaining into an academic, “fit things into boxes” storytelling. Throughout, she consistently fought for delivering the story in the caregivers’ voices, even when it meant having disagreements with her faculty committee members – the courage! In the end, there is so much to learn from the Native American caregivers who lent their voice, as well as from the struggles Mina experienced crafting ways to help the rest of us understand what it means for our work.

Thank you Mina for writing the following blog based on your dissertation, and weaving your beautiful artwork into the story.

Mary Marczak, director of urban family development and evaluation

Lifting up the voices of Native American caregivers

By Mina Blyly-Strauss, research assistant

As I wrap up both my work at Extension CYFC and my Ph.D. program, it seems fitting to share a bit about the dissertation research that I will be defending in mid-September. My study focused on caregiver values and experiences of raising healthy and culturally whole young Native American children in an urban context. This is a big topic that the ten (tribally diverse, though with heavy Ojibwe influence) community members I interviewed had a lot to say about—my findings section of my dissertation is over 100 pages long. For the purpose of this blog, I briefly walk you through one piece of the findings that relate to the contextual areas of development for young Native American children. Rather than being two ends of a linear spectrum, each of these contextual areas appears more like a plane composed of two elements—that is, an individual can be impacted by both factors to greater or lesser degrees simultaneously.

The first contextual area is that of child and adult, with young children at times being placed in different spots than they were believed to be in the dominant non-Native culture. One example of this was a child who was preschool-aged in the physical world but had an old man’s spirit. Another example brought up was that young Native American children may be ready to learn things not typically taught in schools until students are much older chronologically, owing to a traditional Native upbringing where observation, participation, and nurturing a child’s interests is prized.

Artwork by Mina Blyly-Strauss with adult, child, and a flower collage.

The second contextual area is that of the spiritual and physical worlds. Infants were often reported to have spirits new to the physical world so care is taken to prevent their spirits from returning to the spirit world—e.g., not taking them to funerals. Throughout the life cycle, though, many participants reported that this connection between spiritual and physical connection continues. For example, a child’s ‘Indian name’ was seen as reflecting their spirit’s purpose here in the physical world. Parents’ jobs were frequently reported to be supporting that child in achieving what their spirit came here to do—not enforcing their own will on the child’s spirit to send them on a different life path.

Artwork by Mina Blyly-Strauss with a leaf, words physical and spiritual.

The third contextual area is that of the past and present which were seen as impacting young Native American children simultaneously. One example of this was the cyclical nature of parenting practices that a number of the participants discussed. For young children whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. had grown up steeped in tribal traditions and avoided the boarding schools, this past was reflected in their relatively strong possession of tribal identities, languages, and cultural values and practices. Conversely, for young children whose descendents had gone through the boarding schools, they were perceived to be more likely to have a lack of knowledge of their tribal identities and cultures, to experience a greater degree of shame about being Native American, and to be born into families impacted more by such things as substance abuse, poor relational skills, and/or molestation.

Artwork by Mina Blyly-Strauss of American flag with words past and present.

The last contextual area is that of Native and non-Native cultures—with young children needing to learn and navigate both. A common—though not universal—example that several participants shared had to do with time. While many Native American people function on ‘Indian time,’ which focuses on the present moment and taking care of social and other obligations in your current context, non-Native schooling and employment institutions are often more future oriented with a focus on dividing and scheduling time. Learning social rules for both time contexts helps young children grow up with both strong Native American identity and an ability to function successfully in the worlds of public school and later employment.
Artwork by Mina Blyly-Strauss with flower with words Non-Native and Native.

While it is interesting to look at each of these four areas alone, it is important to consider that they all interact at the same time in a young Native American child’s life. These contextual planes intersect at different places for different individuals around different situations and at different time periods. This intersectional model depicts the three planes of present/past, Native/non-Native, and spiritual/physical intersecting in the center of the image. Around the outside of the image is the child/adult plane, as this contextual area is always in play during an individual’s life in this world. In my dissertation research, 18 themes emerged that could be placed onto this model based on which places they primarily intersected with.

Artwork by Mina Blyly-Strauss collage of flag and color, words adult and child.

So what does this all mean to you? I think that the answer to that question would largely depend on your own background. To me, it is a reminder to think holistically about development through cultural lenses from which children and families come. While there is a lot of research out there about child development, much of it does not take into account the cultural values of the children I have often worked with. For example, while ecological systems theory is great for some things, it would not account for the important spiritual context of development that came up repeatedly in interviews for my dissertation research. Therefore, to me, it seems important to take another look (or two or ten) at child development from perspectives not often well represented in the literature. Perhaps it is there that the keys to service mismatches and ongoing disparities can be found.

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