Career Counseling for Native Americans

The need for effective career counseling and related research among Native Americans is striking. Census data show that Native Americans have the highest unemployment rates of any minority group with the exception of African American males. Unemployment approaches 50%, and the number of children living below the poverty level exceeds 50% on many reservations. Likewise, American Indians have the lowest rates of persistence in postsecondary education. Despite evidence of academic ability, postsecondary dropout rates are higher for American Indians than for any other minority. American Indians are also under-represented in graduate programs. Other researchers have found that American Indian students have a lower rate of academic achievement than students in other minority groups. Despite these obvious challenges, relatively little research has focused on Native Americans’ career development.

Scholarly writing on career-related issues among Native Americans can be roughly divided into two historic foci. Early research focused primarily on understanding Native Americans’ career development vis-a-vis existing theories and used instruments that assumed universal constructs. These efforts could be labeled modern perspectives on Native Americans’ career development. More recently, career research and practice have used more contextual and culture-driven perspectives. These efforts can be grouped as postmodern perspectives on Native Americans’ career development. Both of these paradigms have generated findings that have important implications for career counseling with Native Americans.

Modern Perspectives on Native Americans’ Career Development

Early researchers (pre-1990) focused on similarities and differences between the mainstream population’s and Native Americans’ career development. Some researchers worked to demonstrate the universality of career development constructs by showing similarity between assessment results from mainstream populations and Native American populations. A common assumption in these studies was that the construct being researched (e.g., occupational values, career maturity) and the assessment used to assess the construct (e.g., Kuder, E., Self-Directed Search, Career Maturity Inventory) were valid and appropriate for the Native American participants. Such assumptions were characteristic of the positivistic perspective taken by many researchers and practitioners over much of the last century. Interestingly, the discussion of these studies often included questions about the viability of the constructs and instruments of the dominant culture.

Some researchers took traditional career assessment instruments and proposed the possibility that diverging worldviews of minority groups, including Native Americans, could challenge the validity of their use. Such questions gave rise to the postmodern perspectives that became more common in both research and practice around the turn of the century.


Dennis West conducted a study that related the career maturity of Native American college students to their academic performance. West also compared these correlations to those of non-Native American students on the same variables. The study found that Native American students scored lower on assessments of career maturity and that career maturity ratings were related to academic performance for all students. However, West was confused by the fact that Native American students’ career maturity ratings did not seem to increase with age and academic standing as they did with non-Native Americans. He concluded that constructs such as career maturity, at least as they were defined by current research and assessment instruments, may not be appropriate for Native American populations.

Postmodern Perspectives on Native Americans’ Career Development

The past 2 decades have seen a marked shift in assumptions about career development among many researchers and practitioners. Frustrated with the positivistic and universalistic assumptions of the modernist paradigm, many have turned to more postmodern perspectives. These alternative perspectives have focused more on the culture, context, and constructions relevant to Native Americans’ career development. Rather than take constructs from the existing understanding of career development in the dominant culture and apply them to Native American cultures, these postmodern efforts have worked to understand Native Americans’ career experiences from a culturally situated perspective.


Cindy Juntunen and colleagues conducted a study of American Indian women’s perspectives of their career journeys. Responding to questions about the relevance of career constructs based in the dominant culture, this qualitative study explored the idea of career from the perspective of the participants. The study found that participants had culturally situated definitions of career and that various supportive factors and obstacles impact Native Americans’ ability to live in two worlds—the dominant White culture and Native American culture. Biculturality was seen as an inevitable part of a career development, as most workplaces are based in European American values and culture. The use of a qualitative method that reflected the researchers’ postmodern leanings led to culturally relevant, context-bound findings. This research also led to recommendations for models and programs of career development that are similarly culturally relevant.

Rod M. McCormick and Norman E. Amundson made a progressive attempt to develop a culturally relevant model of career development for First Nations People (aboriginal peoples in Canada). Their model reflects a postmodern perspective in its attempt to account for cultural values common among First Nations People as well as career development factors common across many cultures.

The growing body of postmodern perspectives on Native Americans’ career development includes some culture-specific implications for career counseling and career education. These implications, in addition to some of the implications of modernist perspectives, are outlined below.


Although many have questioned the validity of mainstream career assessments for Native Americans, evidence suggests that traditional ways of conceptualizing and measuring interests (e.g., Holland’s RIASEC— Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional—model) are viable with Native American groups. This research suggests that while Native American groups may have idiosyncratic response patterns related to cultural identity, rural locations, or tribal affiliation—the general construct of interests with varying degrees of interrelatedness among them, seems to have utility with Native Americans. This, in turn, suggests that counselors might use Holland code-based assessments with some degree of confidence in both their validity and utility.

Another general implication, supported by both modern and postmodern research, is the importance of considering social connections in career counseling. Native Americans often include tribe, community, or family in the process of career decision making and career development. This collectivist perspective may also color one’s values. For example, a Native American client from a reservation may put a high value on homeland—both the importance of living in a certain physical place and the importance of contributing to one’s home community through one’s work. Some suggest that career counselors include parents, family members, or tribal leaders in the career counseling process.

Like many people of color, Native Americans often experience the challenge of becoming bicultural as part of their career development. This challenge involves maintaining a commitment and investment in one’s traditional culture and at the same time becoming fluent in the dominant culture in order to enhance one’s career development. Regardless of one’s linguistic background, the process of becoming bicultural can be likened to the cognitive and emotional difficulty involved in learning a new language.

An Important Caveat

While it is important for counselors to consider how cultural factors might affect Native Americans’ career development, it is also important to avoid thinking of Native Americans as a homogenous group. There are more than 500 different tribes in the United States, with more than 250 languages. Canada has 50 First Nations along with other aboriginal groups. Obviously, there is considerable diversity within the broader Native American culture. Career counselors, while considering general aspects of Native American culture, should also attend to specific cultural identity factors such as tribe, community, and language.

Despite these inherent challenges, the recent pluralization of research methods and the breadth of implications they can provide seem to provide a foundation for increasingly more productive research and effective career intervention with Native Americans.


  1. Herring, R. D. (1990). Attacking career myths among American Indian college students. School Counselor, 38, 13-18.
  2. Hoffman, L. L, Jackson, A. P., & Smith, S. A. (2005). Career barriers among Native American students living on reservations. Journal of Career Development, 32(1), 31-15.
  3. Jackson, A. P., Smith, S. A., & Hill, C. L. (2003). Academic persistence among Native American college students. Journal of College Student Development, 44(4), 548-565.
  4. Juntunen, C. L., Barraclough, D. J., Broneck, C. L., Seibel, G. A., Winrow, S. A., & Morin, P. M. (2001). American Indian perspectives on the career journey. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48(3), 274-285.
  5. Martin, W. E., Jr. (1991). Career development and American Indians living on reservations: Cross-cultural factors to consider. Career Development Quarterly, 39, 273-283.
  6. McCormick, R. M., & Amundson, N. E. (1997). A career-life planning model for First Nations People. Journal of Employment Counseling, 34(4), 171-179.
  7. Turner, S. L., Trotter, M. J., Lapan, R. T., Czajka, K. A., Yang, P., & Brissett, A. E. (2006). Vocational skills and outcomes among Native American adolescents: A test of the integrative contextual model of career development. Career Development Quarterly, 54, 216-226.
  8. West, D. K. (1988). Comparisons of career maturity and its relationship with academic performance. Journal of American Indian Education, 27(3), 1-7.

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