Frontline Initiative Diversity

Searching for Harmony and Balance:
A Navajo Perspective of Direct Support


Eugene R. Thompson is Executive Director of St. Michaels Association for Special Education, Inc., a school and home for Navajo people with disabilities located in St. Michaels, Arizona. Mr. Thompson has 23 years of experience in special education, administration, and not-for-profit management for Navajo people.

Understanding the Navajo people and their views of disabilities requires a different perspective than many non-Navajos have. The word “disability” is absent in the Navajo language. An individual who may appear to have disabilities in a structured setting (e.g., classroom) often are not considered to have a disability by family members. Navajo people have a strong spiritual belief in and emotional attachment to Dine Bi Keyah—the Navajo land. However, in the past, many Navajo children with disabilities had been placed into distant, off-reservation institutions or confined to their families. 

Beginning in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, four reservation-based not-for-profit organizations had been created to provide special education and services for Navajo children with disabilities. The new organizations were located right in the Navajo land so that consumers could be close to their families and embraced by the Navajo culture. These organizations also provided a base for the development of other disability service programs on the Navajo reservation including schools, independent living, advocacy, partnerships, vocational training and rehabilitation. With increased public awareness and acceptance came a broader effort to facilitate the inclusion of Navajo people with disabilities into all aspects of the Navajo life.

The distinct culture of the Navajo people profoundly affects the way they perceive and use paid support services. Therefore, it is important to implement the programs in a culturally sensitive manner. Navajo people depend on their providers to explain and deliver the support services that are culturally relevant. Many deep-rooted traditions are expected to be integrated into individual support plans when appropriate, and providers must be conscious of behavioral taboos. For example, tribal members perform healing ceremonies to bring an ill individual back into harmony with nature and the universe. A person observes this process shall not wash or bath for four days and can only eat certain types of food. Another example is that Navajo individuals identify themselves with a maternal clan, a paternal clan, a maternal grandparent clan, and a paternal grandparent clan. Navajo people may not want anyone beyond their extended family to come and see their homes. As a provider, it is vital to understand and respect this clan structure and the kinship system as a whole. 

Closely related to the kinship system, there is a hierarchy of preferred service providers for Navajo people with disabilities. Typically, a first-choice provider would be a Navajo individual who speaks the language, understands and respects the culture — the tribal kinship system, in particular. Second in the hierarchy would be another Native American outside of Navajo tribes. Providing support services within their own tribal communities is part of the tribal sovereignty, which is not only a political issue but an effort to preserve a different way of life in reservation based programs.

As Navajo families prefer support services provided by their own people or at least those they have established a relationship with, non-Navajo support providers are likely at a natural disadvantage. They usually don’t have prior knowledge of the Navajo culture and haven’t had the time to develop rapport with those they support. Therefore, non-Navajo providers are expected to be properly trained not only in supporting people with disabilities, but also in communicating the cultural appropriateness of the service. They can learn by studying the structures and values of the Navajo society. Listening, observing, and showing interest and respect would be appropriate behaviors for non-Navajo providers to be accepted. Talking too much would not be, though making genuine efforts to speak the Navajo language might give a non-Navajo provider an inside track. The providers are also expected to help tribal members recognize the strengths of their culture. And most importantly, every effort should be made to keep services close to home to help enhance family own capacity of providing proper care. Traditional Navajo people do not open up immediately to outsiders before observing them for a period of time. However, once you are accepted by a Navajo person, you have a friend for life.