Ethnic Identity: Protective Factor for First Nations Adolescents’ Development

Native American adolescents are at a high risk for a variety of negative outcomes. However, being aware of their traditional cultural identity might serve a protective factor.

By Margarita Azmitia

Ethnic minority adolescents encounter discrimination and prejudice in their everyday lives, often live in poverty, have high school drop out rates, and have high incidences of behavioral, social, and psychological problems. Native American adolescents are especially likely to experience these developmental risks. Unfortunately, due to a history of governmental pressure to assimilate and a loss of cultural traditions, Native American adolescents have the lowest ethnic identity scores of all ethnic minorities. Incorporating Native American cultural, historical, and linguistic content into the educational curriculum on reservations and in schools with a high percentage of Native American students can promote ethnic identity development and potentially, reduce developmental risks.

In this study, Gfellner and Amstrong (2013) investigated age- and gender-related differences in ethnic identity in a Native American, i.e., First Nations, reservation in Canada. Participants included 227 fifth through twelve graders (mean age 12.5 years, 59% female) attending schools in the reservation. Participants completed three ethnic identity scales, a measure of prosocial behavior, an index of participation in First Nations’ traditions, a checklist of problem behaviors, and a measure of alcohol and drug use. High school students completed the surveys in the classroom and middle school students completed the surveys in small groups.

ANOVAs yielded no age or gender differences in the three ethnic identity measures; the authors suggest that this was probably due to a restricted age-range. As predicted, ethnic identity was positively correlated with prosocial behavior and participating in traditional activities and negatively correlated with alcohol and drug use; contrary to hypotheses, the correlation between ethnic identity and problem behaviors was not significant.

According to Berry’s ethnic identity statuses classification, early adolescents (5/6th graders) were more likely to fall in the marginalized (i.e., identifying with neither white nor indigenous culture) and traditional (i.e., identifying with indigenous culture) statuses, middle adolescents (7/8th graders) were more likely to fall in the traditional status, and late adolescents (9/12th graders) were more likely to fall into the bicultural and traditional statuses. These age-related patterns are consistent with prior research on ethnic minority adolescents’ ethnic identity development.

That marginalized status was significantly correlated with negative outcomes and traditional status was correlated with positive outcomes highlights the protective role of ethnic identity for First Nations adolescents. Finding ways to increase First Nations and other Indigenous adolescents’ knowledge of and participation in cultural activities by developing programs in schools may reduce developmental risks and increase positive pathways in First Nations adolescents in Canada and other nations with high percentages of Indigenous populations.

Read more about this important study in

Gfellner, B. M., & Amstrong, H. D. (2013). Racial-ethnic identity and adjustment in Canadian indigenous adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 33(5)635-662. doi: 10.1177/0272431612458036.