American Indian and Alaska Native Youth

American Indian and Alaska Native Youth

According to the National Congress of American Indians (2018)i there are 573 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States, and as of the last Census, there were 5.4 million people in the United States who identified as American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) composing 2 percent of the total population.ii About 32 percent of the AI/AN population is under the age of 18.iii Some states, report much higher concentrations of AI/AN individuals than others—for example, 19.4 percent of the total population of Alaska identifies as AI/AN, with 13.5 percent in Oklahoma, 10.4 percent in New Mexico, 10.1 percent in South Dakota, and 8.0 percent in Montana.iv

Unfortunately, AI/AN youth are at a greater risk of entering the juvenile justice system than their non-Native counterparts, in addition to facing higher rates of mental and physical health issues, poverty, alcohol and substance abuse, suicide, and exposure to violence.v This indicates a serious need for mentoring relationships beyond those afforded naturally in the community through elders and extended kinship structures. As noted below, OJJDP has made considerable investment in mentoring for AI/AN youth over the last few decades in an effort to stem juvenile justice involvement, mitigate the impacts of historical trauma, and increase academic and career outcomes both in tribal communities and beyond. 


What does the research say about mentoring for AI/AN youth?

In 2018, the National Mentoring Resource Center released a review of the research base related to mentoring AI/AN youth. This review examined research on the effectiveness, mechanisms of influence, and implementation of efforts to date to improve the lives of AI/AN youth. The research available was limited in scope, but it did provide several key findings about the impact of mentoring and the ways in which mentors can best support AI/AN youth. These findings from this research emphasizes that:

  • Mentoring for American Indian and Alaska Native youth appears to have the potential to improve academic outcomes (e.g., academic performance, school attendance), health outcomes (e.g., mental health, obesity), interpersonal strengths (e.g., confidence, leadership), and social relationships among this group, although the experimental or well-controlled quasi-experimental designs needed to most rigorously assess possible benefits are lacking.
  • Research supports the role of culture in all types of mentoring for Native youth, including traditional mentoring programs (such as Big Brothers Big Sisters) and informal or natural supports, such as those that may be provided through tribal elders and extended family and community members. Examples of ways of emphasizing culture in the programs studied can possibly include traditional storytelling and activities, giving back to the community, cultural dances and ceremonies, as well as reflecting on historical trauma and current hardships.

The review also describes information to consider when developing and implementing mentoring programs for Native youth. Historically, many Native communities have been affected by assimilationist policies and programs that separated children from their families (e.g., boarding schools and foster care/adoption programs). As a result, programs should be aware of the potential for cultural mistrust, which could pose challenges to engaging in relationships with mentors who come from outside the community. Therefore, mentoring programs should carefully consider recruitment, engagement, and retention efforts that include incorporating the cultural perspective and family and community support, as well as collaborative relationships with existing and trusted agencies. Preparing mentors to understand the importance of building and maintaining trust, and operating from a strengths-based and culturally attuned perspective, may be critical elements of mentoring programs for this population. These tips for mentors and program developers are detailed more thoroughly in the Implications for Practice section of the review.

Beyond these highlights, the review offers a wealth of research-based information and actionable ideas for those looking to begin to serve AI/AN youth more effectively.


What does the NMRC offer on mentoring for AI/AN youth?

Broad Evidence Reviews

Reviews of Relevant Practices

  • Mentors serving AI/AN youth may benefit from training to strengthen their cultural competence and ability to weave tribal traditions and ways of knowing into the mentoring relationship. Read the practice review of Mentor Training for Cultural Competence and insights for practitioners.

Blog Posts

Webinars and E-Learning Modules

Implementation Resources

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)’s Investments in Mentoring
for AI/AN Youth

OJJDP has funded a wide array of programs and initiatives that support tribal nations and promote positive outcomes for Native young people. Their Tribal Youth Programs and Services help tribal communities prevent victimization and juvenile delinquency, reduce violent crime, and improve tribal juvenile justice systems.

The Department of Justice's Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS) combines funding from bureaus/offices within the Office of Justice Programs, the Office on Violence Against Women and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. CTAS includes two primary funding sources from OJJDP for federally recognized tribes that focus on youth. 

  • The Tribal Youth Program (FY99-FY16): Supports the ability of tribal governments to prevent juvenile delinquency and respond to, and care for, justice-involved youth.
  • Tribal Juvenile Healing to Wellness Courts (FY15-FY16): The overall goal is to enhance the capacity of tribal courts to respond to the alcohol and substance use-related issues of youth under the age of 21. This can include the development of a new or enhancements to an existing juvenile healing to wellness court.

In addition to those grants available directly to federally recognized tribes through CTAS, OJJDP has funded demonstration mentoring programs, and research and evaluation programs focused on tribal youth. These include:

  • Tribal Youth Mentoring Program (FY08-FY11): Aims to build the capacity of tribes to develop and strengthen tribal youth mentoring programs.
  • Tribal Juvenile Detention & Reentry Green Demonstration Program (FY09): Supports demonstrative program services with an environmental focus for tribal youth residing within or reentering from tribal juvenile detention centers.
  • Tribal Youth Field Initiated Research & Evaluation (FY09-FY12): Practitioner- and policy-maker oriented research and evaluation studies of effective programs, policies, and strategies for the prevention and intervention of tribal youth delinquency.
  • National Intertribal Youth Summit (FY10-FY12): OJJDP hosted an annual youth leadership conference for American Indian and Alaska Native youth (ages 14-17) that focused on critical issues in tribal communities. Building on the successes of these annual events, OJJDP launched the National Intertribal Youth Leadership Development Initiative (FY13-FY17) to further expand leadership development support to tribal youth through regional and national learning events that strengthen the ability of tribal youth to initiate, contribute to and participate in culturally relevant efforts that reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors in youth, schools, communities and families.
  • Mentoring Opportunities for Youth (FY15-FY16): This solicitation supports non-profit applicant organizations as they strengthen and/or expand their existing mentoring activities. Mentoring activities include direct one-on-one, group, peer, or a combination of these types of mentoring services for at-risk and underserved youth populations. Mentoring promotes positive behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes for youth and reduces risk factors. Applicants under the National Mentoring Programs category must develop and implement a plan to serve American Indian and Alaska Native youth, both on and off reservations.
  • Defending Childhood American Indian/Alaska Native Policy Initiative: Supporting Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice Systems for Tribes (FY16): This solicitation directly addresses several recommendations included in Ending Violence So Children Can Thrive, a report from the Attorney General's Advisory Committee on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. These recommendations call for tribal alternatives to detention, including use of facilities where children and youth can find safety and easily access services (safe houses); development or revision of tribal juvenile codes to promote trauma-informed, culturally specific and individually tailored care for youth; and wider application of culturally adapted, evidence-based, trauma-informed screening, assessment, and treatment services in tribal juvenile justice and related systems.

Visit OJJDP’s Funding Opportunities page to view current solicitations and opportunities.

Through OJJDP-funded projects and initiatives, there are a wide variety of training and technical assistance opportunities available to programs serving tribal youth and their communities.

  • OJJDP’s Tribal Youth Training and Technical Assistance (TY TTA) Center offers a comprehensive menu of TTA based on the value of Indigenous knowledge, scholarship, and technology. The TTA Center offers tiered levels of TTA to OJJDP Tribal grantees plus all federally recognized tribes to develop sustainable tribal-based/indigenous tribal strategic plans that more effectively and efficiently address the long-term issues of trauma, violence, and resulting delinquency issues. The Center promotes cross-site peer-to-peer replication of best practices and the implementation of national strategies to support youth leadership and widespread education and policy advancement for tribal juvenile justice. Learn more about the Center by visiting their website here.
  • OJJDP’s The Resource Basket—Alaska Native Youth Provider Network and Community Connection is managed by the Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurAL CAP). The mission of this TTA project is to reduce Alaska Native youth delinquency rates by increasing tribal community and youth-serving organization capacity to nurture positive youth development and support strength-based and data-driven juvenile justice approaches. The Resource Basket TTA Center works to serve rural communities to support healthy, resilient, and culturally connected Alaska Native youth. Learn more by visiting their website here.
  • The Tribal Youth Program Resource Center (TYRPC), managed by the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, provides culturally based, trauma-informed training, support, and technical assistance to all OJJDP-funded tribal youth program and juvenile healing to wellness court grantees, as well as other interested federally recognized tribes. This free TTA is designed to help tribes enhance their capacity to develop, expand, improve, and/or maintain their juvenile justice continuum with a particular focus on improving outcomes for tribal youth. Access online resources from the Tribal Law and Policy Institute via their website here.
  • The Tribal Youth Leadership Development Initiative, managed by the United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY), builds on the successes of the past OJJDP National Intertribal Youth Leadership efforts and the Today’s Native Leaders program. The initiative supports and enhances Native youth engagement, coordination, and action related to public safety issues, with a focus on juvenile justice and delinquency prevention in Indian country. UNITY recruits a diverse group of youth leaders and mentors, who design and facilitate intensive training in critical aspects of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention efforts for cohorts of youth throughout the country. As an OJJDP TA Provider, UNITY provides year-round technical support to its membership comprising of 225 youth councils and 30 individuals. Learn more about UNITY by visiting their website here.
  • The University of Montana's National Native Children's Trauma Center, the American lnstitutes for Research, and the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice collaborate on OJJDP’s Defending Childhood 2016 American Indian/Alaska Native Policy Initiative TTA effort, which supports the development and implementation of innovative, culturally appropriate, and sustainable trauma-informed response models across child-serving systems in tribes participating as Category 1 Policy Initiative demonstration sites. AI/AN expert consultants provide expertise on such topics as youth voice and family engagement, tribal courts and juvenile systems, tribal child welfare and crossover youth, the incorporation of cultural practices, and co-occurring trauma and substance abuse issues. Learn more about the initiative here.

Select Additional Reading


i National Congress of American Indians (n. d.). Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction. Retrieved from http://www.ncai.org/about-tribes

ii United States Census Bureau (2015, November 2). Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2015. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2015/cb15-ff22.html

iii U.S. Census Bureau, (2010) Census Redistricting File 

iv United States Census Bureau (2015, November 2). Facts for Features: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2015. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2015/cb15-ff22.html

v U.S. Department of Justice, (Nov. 2014). Violence Report: Ending Violence so Children Can Thrive. Available at http://www.aisc.ucla.edu/iloc/report/files/A_Roadmap_For_Making_Native_America_Safer-Full.pdf.          

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