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Culturally Affirming Care for Rural Students During the Pandemic: A Karuk Perspective

August 2020

Siskiyou County, California

Siskiyou County, CA

Outbreaks of COVID-19 have reached all corners of the United States. With hotspots spreading to rural areas, some tribal nations in the REL West region are especially hard hit, like the Navajo in Arizona and Utah. In the small, geographically isolated villages along the Klamath River in Northern California, the Karuk tribe has thus far been spared from widespread illness, but long-standing vulnerabilities for its members, such as food insecurity, drug and alcohol use, and family violence, have been worsened by both the social isolation intended to slow the spread of the virus and the related health and economic fears. At the same time, the shuttering of schools with the shift to home-based learning has made it more challenging to give children and youth the support they need in these circumstances.

In Karuk communities, schools have been the hubs, not just for teaching and learning, but for providing children with food and health and mental health support. Now, with school buildings temporarily closed, tribal mental health providers are shifting from school-based to home-based support, because using virtual forms of outreach are largely unworkable. Most families don’t have smartphones or laptops, and connectivity is spotty in the forest and mountains. In rural California, 41 percent of students don’t have broadband access at home, and rates are even higher in high-poverty, remote areas like on Karuk land. For now, because distance learning is not an option for most students, local teachers are distributing paper packets with learning activities, and tribal mental health staff are adapting low-tech ways to tend to students’ emotional needs.

Maymi Preston-Donahue, a Karuk, is a social worker on the tribal mental health team, and she works directly with students. She recently spoke with REL West’s Senior Researcher BethAnn Berliner, who works with educators and student-support staff in rural California to adopt culturally responsive trauma-informed practices. They discussed the effects of trauma and the value of affirming students’ culture when caring for their well-being — issues of interest to educators and support providers across the country.

Trauma, Past and Present

Among the Karuk, as with other indigenous people, historical trauma is deeply rooted, and it may be triggered in the current context. Preston-Donahue explained that community members’ emotional responses to COVID-19 and the quarantine, such as fear, anxiety, and depression, are connected to a history of atrocities that include massacres, forced relocations from tribal lands, children being taken against their will to government boarding schools, and the introduction of New World epidemics. She spoke of “widespread [post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD] among students and families, which affects us in many ways.” Research shows that the effects of trauma that Preston-Donahue sees in her daily work aren’t unique to Karuk students and their families; it shows that trauma is a public health crisis with far-reaching and intergenerational effects on mental and physical health, employment, family abuse, addiction, and education.

Culture Matters

The key… “is meeting [children] where they’re at, both physically and emotionally.”

Both before and during the pandemic, Preston-Donahue’s approach to supporting student well-being was firmly grounded in Karuk culture. Her practices are strength-based and culturally meaningful, building on the tribe’s beliefs, customs, and natural environment. With online technology, and in some instances even telephones, being largely unavailable as a tool for connecting with her students and their families, she now finds herself driving the steep rugged roads to reach students in person at their homes and finding ways to interact while upholding social distancing and staying at least six feet apart from those she visits. The key, she explained, “is meeting them where they’re at, both physically and emotionally.”

One way Preston-Donahue teaches children to better understand the origins of their emotional health is through motivational interviewing, a counseling technique that encourages changing behaviors or feelings that prevent individuals from making better choices. As part of this interviewing technique, she helps students create a genogram — an extensively detailed family tree that, in addition to listing family members, extended kin, and community members, maps out major life events, the nature of family relationships, emotional and social connections, and personality traits. In doing so, the genogram reveals historical patterns that may be related to problematic behaviors or other trauma symptoms.

Another aspect of Preston-Donahue’s work while school buildings are closed is to assess for student safety and well-being while they’re at home. One approach she’s currently using is to engage a student in a scavenger hunt. “Sometimes I drive up a dirt road and honk my car horn when I get to a house of a student I’m worried about.” When the student comes out, she offers food and engages them in a game. She’ll ask them, for example, to show her something they like to eat as a way to find out about food availability, or something they’re reading to check in about school work. She’ll also ask to see an object that makes them feel safe, like a toy or a pet, and then pivots and asks if there’s something in the house that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. These type of questions allow her to look into a child’s home life to determine how best to support the child and the family.

Activities that promote mindfulness, such as fishing and gardening, and the use of traditional practices, such as storytelling, are among the ways in which she engages with students to help them self-regulate, and are approaches that can be carried out while social distancing. “For our kids with complex PTSD,” she said, “they’re addicted to drama and their behaviors are often reactions to spikes of adrenaline. I help them learn ways to calm down, to be happy being bored, to rewire their brains.”

Learning Losses, Learning Gains

Educators warn of the COVID-19 slide, the academic learning loss resulting from students having to learn from home followed by a long summer break. Despite this worry for her Karuk students, Preston-Donahue finds hope in another type of learning that’s taking place. She sees a resilience among the school-aged children and their families with whom she’s working. Through her outreach, she helps them “learn that they’re not defective but that they’ve been hurt, and that growth and healing are possible.” During this period when students are forced to stay home, she’s building trusting relationships with their families, and she’s seen them become more empowered to ask for the services and supports they need in order to get through the tough times. At the same time, they’ve become more self-reliant, turning to such traditions as basket weaving and storytelling that help affirm the Karuk way of life.

Preston-Donahue and the other members of the Karuk tribal mental health team put cultural affirmation at the center of their practices. For them, doing so comes naturally because they share the same cultural background as their students. But many rural California districts have diverse student populations, and the background of individual school social workers does not always match that of those they serve. Thus, to use culturally responsive practices across the board, they must first work to understand the backgrounds of all those with whom they work and to expand their own cultural competencies. For instance, they may need to learn how communication styles can vary by culture or to better understand how lived experiences can shape the way students and families acknowledge needing help or their willingness to accept it. While many districts are adopting trauma-informed social work practices in general, ensuring that such practices are also culturally affirming is critical, especially during this unprecedented public health crisis.

More from REL West

  • Read our blog post about how REL West is supporting improved access to high-quality preschool in Fresno County, CA
  • Learn about how REL West is supporting rural schools, districts, and school-based health professionals to improve education and health outcomes in California’s Central Valley

Access resources for educators and families on our COVID-19 Response resource page, including:

  • Resources for educators on how to engage and support families in at-home learning during COVID-19
  • An archived webinar on how to engage parents and students from diverse populations in the context of distance learning
  • A list of free digital resources for teachers, parents, and caregivers to support early math learning
  • Resources on how districts can promote a safe and secure digital learning environment