A strong cultural identity contributes to well-being for indigenous youth

  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

This is a reprint of an article originally published on Feb. 22, 2019.

CULTIVATING a strong cultural identity in indigenous youth could be the key to preserving their physical and mental health, according to an article written by Lisa Wexler, head of the Community Health Education program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She lays out the connection between cultivating indigenous culture and enabling young indigenous people to traverse life’s hardships in her brief but fascinating paper “The Importance of Identity, History, and Culture in the Wellbeing of Indigenous Youth.”

“Indigenous people have experienced profound disruptions, including epidemics, forced relocation, cultural colonization, and genocide over the past few centuries,” she writes. “These historical events have been linked to acculturation stress and identity conflicts, and rapid social change has been associated with significant health problems among Indigenous young people.”

As evidence of this, Wexler points out the disproportionately high youth suicide rates among indigenous populations around the world and references research establishing a clear connection between suicide rates and the level of cultural loss or historical trauma experienced by an indigenous community.

On the opposite side, she says that strong cultural identification has been found to be related to youth well-being and “higher levels of psychological health,” which in turn “encourages individuals to meaningfully engage with larger societal issues.” 

“Cultural identification includes recognizing one’s cultural attributes — beliefs, values, practices, norms, traditions, and heritage — along with understanding how they are (and are not) reflected in one’s self,” she explains. “These cultural attributes are both internally and externally defined, as they come from personal choices as well as ascriptions of others.”

“As Indigenous young people negotiate these different (sometimes contradicting) notions of selfhood, they are engaged in a creative endeavor. They are constrained by ideas of the past and the present — those found in their traditional culture as well as those embedded in the dominant society. The outcomes of these processes — the development of a clear sense of self — can be fundamental in supporting healthy development.”

She writes that part of developing a clear sense of self is understanding of the history of one’s people, which “provides groups not only with a platform for mutual affinity, but also with a sense of collective meaning-making about who they are, where they came from, and what future direction they should take.”

This is because an indigenous society shares a sense of ethnic identity by developing a common understanding of its history, so that certain practices and beliefs can be elevated to core values which are claimed by the community at large.

“Collective/cultural memory helps individuals find their place in larger temporal and social contexts and situates them as actors in their community and in the world,” Wexler writes. “This is important developmentally since young people tend to do better if they identify with values that transcend themselves. This means that youth are more likely to thrive if they relate to values that supersede family and self and that have historical continuity, commanding respect from others who have lived before and who will live after them.”

She adds that cultural identification also emphasizes young indigenous people’s membership to a group, which in turn casts them in “socially-defined roles that call for moral and civic responsibility, and ways to enact these roles in service of a greater purpose.”

“In combination, recognition of a positive, socially defined role and enactment of that role based on a moral and civic identity are linked to thriving,” she writes.

“Affiliation with one’s Indigenous culture can provide a framework in which individuals can locate themselves in relation to others, to a larger shared context, and to history… For individuals, this has translated into feelings of connection, belonging, and purpose which have been associated with resilience and well-being in many different age groups and peoples.”

And understanding their people’s history also makes it easier for indigenous youth to identify to what extent their communities’ problems are connected to colonial oppression.

“Indigenous adults’ and elders’ understanding that historical events and experiences (e.g., the trauma of boarding schools, outlawing of traditional languages, and the spread of disease) are the root cause of many social and health problems,” she writes. “Indigenous young people are much less apt to make this claim. Instead, young Indigenous people often understand their communities’ present difficulties as arising from personal and collective failure, rather than emerging from historical trauma and ongoing colonization.”

“This is perhaps because contemporary oppression is ambiguous, embedded in the everyday structures of school, business, media, etc.,” she continues. “This makes it invisible to many…[who] do not understand their experiences as embedded in larger historical and social realities that include war, forced relocations, outlawing of Indigenous languages, and genocide.”

“This does not provide them with clear ways to understand their own and their communities’ difficulties. This inability to make connections can lead to collective recriminations and self-depreciation. Having a strong cultural identity can provide Indigenous young people with a historically grounded, stabilizing way to understand their people’s and their own past and the present.”

“When young people have a clear understanding of their cultural past, present, and future, it is easier for them to sustain a sense of connectedness and commitment to their future,” Wexler concludes.

You can find a full digital copy of Lisa Wexler’s “The Importance of Identity, History, and Culture in the Wellbeing of Indigenous Youth” at


previous arrow
next arrow

Read more articles

Visit our Facebook Page

previous arrow
next arrow