Tribal Youth Program: Empowering Youth in Indian Country

Tribal Youth Program: Empowering Youth in Indian Country
Tribal Youth Program: Empowering Youth in Indian Country


The Tribal Youth Program is a prevention program supported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) at the U.S. Department of Justice that serves at-risk American Indian and Alaska Native youth. The Tribal Youth Program provides funds to federally recognized tribes to support and enhance tribal efforts to prevent and control delinquency and improve the juvenile justice system for youth ages 10-17, largely through prevention-based afterschool programs.

The American Youth Policy Forum and OJJDP undertook a study to evaluate current Tribal Youth Programs (TYPs) and assess their needs for the future, which culminated in the publication of the report Strengthening Indian Country Through Tribal Youth Programs. This forum, which coincided with the release of the report, focused on the effects that TYPs are having on youth in Indian Country and highlighted recommendations for the Tribal Youth Program in the future.

Jeff Slowikowski, Acting Administrator for OJJDP, discussed the implementation of the Tribal Youth Program, how it has changed over time, and plans for the future. Since 1999, OJJDP has awarded grants to help tribes develop and implement culturally sensitive programs. The grants are used by the tribes to provide a wide range of services to youth that allow young people to be in safe environments, learn more about the history and culture of their tribe, and support their academic success. Slowikowski pointed out that the program currently serves 207 out of 565 federally-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes; he emphasized the need for the program to expand to serve the half of the tribes without TYPs. Currently, most of the work that has been done with TYPs is in the areas of prevention for at-risk youth and intervention for court-involved youth.

The Tribal Youth Program has experienced a substantial increase in funding in recent years, as allocations grew from $10-12 million before 2008 to approximately $25 million in Fiscal Year 2009. Recently, the TYP has focused on expanding its work in the area of targeted mentoring programs; it has worked to build partnerships with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Boys & Girls Clubs of America to bring those programs to reservations. Another new project that the Tribal Youth Program is working on is a Tribal Juvenile Detention and Reentry Green Demonstration Program. Grantees will use activities that focus on environmental sustainability to facilitate culturally appropriate re-entry programs that provide education and training in green technologies. Two areas in which OJJDP and the TYP want to focus more in the future are helping children who have been exposed to violence and providing increased mental health and suicide prevention support to tribes. OJJDP has also placed an emphasis on funding research about the effects of TYPs on communities, so that in moving forward there is data to support effective TYPs.

Laura Ansera, the Tribal Programs Coordinator for OJJDP, addressed challenges Native American youth and communities are facing and explained how Tribal Youth Programs can help them overcome these challenges. According to Ansera, children in Indian Country today are “at war with each other and themselves,” as evidenced by increased gang activity and high suicide rates. For American Indian youth ages 15-24, suicide rates are triple those of other minority youth. Ansera talked about feelings of hopelessness among many Native Americans, and the difficulty of maintaining their traditional cultural practices. She also addressed the high rates of physical illnesses such as diabetes and obesity among Native Americans.

To aid tribes in developing programs that would help Native American youth succeed and grow despite these challenges, OJJDP held focus groups with tribal youth and their parents. A theme that was repeated in these meetings was the fact that adults have a responsibility to give youth moral guidance and put them on the right path. TYPs have attempted to do this by reconnecting the youth to the traditional values and spiritual ways of the tribes. Ansera believes the strength of the TYP is that it works with the tribes directly and respects the spirit of the tribal organizations. It helps tribes develop programs that are right for them and builds on existing strengths and traditions. For example, some TYPs include traditional canoeing and dances, while others incorporate guided spirituality and sweat lodges. These dynamic activities create a positive force in the lives of the youth, connecting them to their history, each other, and their larger communities. The TYP is one of the few federal programs that gives funds directly to the tribes and relies heavily on the contributions of individual tribes in designing their programs.

Patrick Dunckhorst, a Program Manager with the Demonstration Programs Division of OJJDP, spoke about funding the TYP and future goals of expansion for the program. Dunckhorst addressed the challenges to Native youth; he highlighted the high rate of comorbidity of mental health issues and drug and alcohol use in this population.

Dunckhorst also talked about the increase in funding in the past two years. He said that OJJDP has done a good job in listening to the ideas of the tribes and supporting those ideas with funding. On the recommendation of the tribes, OJJDP made the decision to stratify funding so that tribes with 6,000 or fewer residents are now eligible for awards of up to $400,000, and tribes with more than 6,000 residents are now eligible for awards of up to $500,000. The tribes also recommended that the prevention programs be targeted to younger adolescents, which OJJDP is now implementing. Dunckhorst addressed the challenges of making connections with tribes in some geographic areas, especially the east coast and the south east, in order to establish TYPs in those areas. He said that OJJDP would be increasing efforts around outreach to new tribes in the future.

David Fullerton, the Tribal Social Service Department Manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, spoke about the challenges and successes of his community’s TYP. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have received three TYP grants. The first TYP grant, which was awarded in 2002, was earmarked for prevention services for at-risk youth; it helped the Grand Ronde tribe create their first prevention program. The second and third grants, which were awarded in 2005 and 2008, focused on combating the methamphetamine epidemic and preventing gang involvement. The Grand Ronde were able to successfully leverage other funds for their prevention program to supplement the TYP funds, including state and local funding, drug, tobacco and alcohol addiction prevention funding, and gang prevention funding.

Fullerton spoke about how the Grand Ronde tribe suffered greatly from the policies of termination when the Federal government revoked the legal status of many reservations and tried to integrate Native Americans into mainstream American life. Termination resulted in a loss of cultural identity for many tribes. The Grand Ronde tribe was terminated in 1954, and its status was not restored until 1983. The tribal community is still in the process of re-building its identity and bringing traditional practices back into the everyday lives its members, and the TYP has been an integral part of this process. One of the main features of the Grand Ronde tribe’s TYP is the annual 2 ½ week canoe trip. The youth in the canoe club work year-round to prepare for this trip, building the boats and practicing for the journey that they will undertake with tribes from across the country. Fullerton noted that the canoe program especially encourages mentoring relationships, because the youth are sitting next to a mentor in a canoe for eight hours at a time.

In reporting and evaluating the success of Grand Ronde’s TYP, Fullerton cites both the protective factors and the risk factors for youth in his tribe. He said that he likes to focus on the protective factors, instead of just talking about the negative issues facing Native American youth. An external evaluator found that Grand Ronde’s TYP had significantly decreased risk factors such as academic issues and substance abuse and increased the protective factors such as positive peer interaction and mentoring relationships for youth on the reservation. This evaluation helped the Grand Ronde tribes provide evidence of the success of their TYP and forge even more positive relationships with funding partners, which include the State Government of Oregon. However, Fullerton noted that it is hard to demonstrate to some potential funders that the TYP is using evidence-based practices, as most research on prevention programs does not take into account the positive effects of culturally-based activities. He believes that further research needs to be done to show that cultural sensitivity and norms can be a valuable part of prevention programs. He added that there are significant barriers to documenting cultural practices in order to prove that they are effective, because many such practices are sacred and private for the tribe.

Sarah Pearson, author of the report Strengthening Indian Country Through Tribal Youth Programs and Deputy Director for the Coalition for Community Schools, spoke next about the findings of the report and recommendations for the future of the TYP. She said that the goal of the publication was to show where the federal funds are going and to provide policy staff in Washington information about TYPs as far flung as Alaska and New Mexico through case studies. Pearson described some unique practices of TYPs, including the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe program where youth learn survival skills, traditional medicine, and basket making and the TYP in Old Harbor Village, Alaska where youth learn to hunt, fish, and prepare meat and pelts.

Pearson spoke about how TYPs connect families and youth at community gatherings. She described how they empower youth to deflect discrimination that still occurs regularly in their day-to-day lives. TYPs are usually the only afterschool programming offered on a reservation; the federal grants first helps create TYPs and then aid them in leveraging local funds, building networks, and making connections until they are a very permanent institution in their communities. Pearson also addressed the connection between health care and the TYPs; she said that the staff members keep track of the physical and mental well being of program participants and help in areas in which they have training, but they also make referrals to other services if the need arises.

Pearson addressed several recommendations for the future of the Tribal Youth Program. She talked about the need for cultural sensitivity training among public servants who come into contact with tribes, particularly in areas that surround reservations. She also addressed the need for improved relationships between state governments and tribes and for interagency collaboration among agencies that deal with Native American issues. Pearson and other speakers spoke of the need for a universal reporting system and longitudinal tracking in order to better understand the effects TYPs have on youth throughout their lives. She emphasized the need for a longer-term approach to funding. A four-year grant period is barely enough time for a TYP to establish itself, and to be most effective, the programs need support for a longer time after having built capacity and established a place in the community. Finally, Pearson talked about the need to fund transportation to and from TYPs in rural communities.

Question and Answer Period:

A question was asked about the connection between the Tribal Youth Program and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the Department of the Interior. Ansera responded that TYP is part of the Law Enforcement Initiative, a joint initiative of Departments of Justice and the Interior to improve law enforcement and the administration of criminal and juvenile justice in Indian country. There is currently no direct collaboration between the BIA and OJJDP for the Tribal Youth Program; however, OJJDP and BIA do continue to work together on other programs that impact juvenile justice in Indian Country. One of the recommendations of the report Strengthening Indian Country Through Tribal Youth Programs is for the TYP to promote better interagency relationships and collaborations with other agencies that serve Indian Country, including the BIA.

A question was asked about whether OJJDP has a guide for other youth-serving organizations who want to incorporate cultural involvement into their services. Ansera responded that this was an issue the federal government is looking at across the board to improve relationships with tribal communities. There is currently a one-hour online training course from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management called Working Effectively with Tribal Governments that covers tribal government and culture and is available to the general public. Specifically in the area of mentoring, there are some technical assistance providers in OJJDP that come from Indian Country.

A question was asked about the fate of older youth on reservations who age out of the TYP. Fullerton responded that since TYPs involve families and communities, no one really gets left out. He added that multigenerational gangs have been presenting new problems on reservations, and because of this he would like to see direct services reach youth older than 18, especially in relation to gang prevention initiatives.


Laura Ansera is the Tribal Youth Program Coordinator, Office of Policy Development, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), U.S. Department of Justice. She is responsible for the overall direction, guidance, policy, and program development for the implementation of OJJDP’s Tribal Youth Initiatives, which include the Tribal Youth Program, the Tribal Juvenile Accountability Discretionary Grant Program, Tribal Youth Program Training and Technical Assistance Center, and Tribal Juvenile Detention and Reentry Green Demonstration Training and Technical Assistance. She serves as the Senior Advisor on American Indian/Alaskan Native issues and is responsible for the coordination of all OJJDP efforts to implement juvenile delinquency prevention and juvenile justice system improvement programs in Indian Country.  Ms. Ansera is a member of the Isleta/San Felipe Pueblos. She has been with the OJJDP, Washington, D.C. for more than 9 years and formerly worked for 10 years for the State of New Mexico Juvenile Justice Services Division.

Patrick Dunckhorst is a Program Manager with the Demonstration Programs Division of OJJDP, which is part of the Office of Justice Programs within the U.S. Department of Justice.  As a program manager, Mr. Dunckhorst is currently working with discretionary grants supporting grantees in Alaska, Montana, Oregon and Minnesota with a strong focus on serving Native American Tribes & Alaska Natives under the umbrella of Tribal Youth Programs offered by OJJDP.  He is responsible for programs impacting juvenile risk and protective factors, truancy, substance abuse and prevention, mental health and reentry.  More specifically, some of the programs and scope within his assigned states are Tribal Youth Programs, Drug Courts, Tribal Youth Courts, Field Initiated Research, Substance Abuse Prevention/Intervention and Congressional Earmarks to include working closely with EDC, Inc., OJJDP’s current Tribal Training and Technical Assistance provider serving all Tribes throughout Alaska and the contiguous 48 states. Prior to joining the Demonstration Programs Division, Mr. Dunckhorst served as a program manager in the Drug-Free Communities Support Program under the Office of National Drug Control Policy and as a Federal Project Officer on the joint federal agency staff of the Safe-Schools/Healthy Initiative addressing issues such as school safety, alcohol and substance abuse, truancy, youth violence, coalition building and developing community based solutions to leveraging resources in support of youth.

David Fullerton is currently the Tribal Social Service Department Manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, where he has worked since June 2001, He supervises the Social Service Department, which includes Indian Child Welfare, Emergency Assistance, General Assistance, Benevolence, USDA foods, Domestic Violence, PL 102-477 programs, Youth Prevention and Post-Treatment Services. Before joining the Grand Ronde Tribe, he was Social Service director for the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Wash. He also has worked as a Youth Court Probation Officer and Sociology Instructor at a Tribal College in Montana. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from the University of Montana in Missoula. He also has received specialized training in child sexual abuse investigation from the National Child Sex Abuse Coalition, behavioral interviewing and interrogation from John E. Reid and Associates, advanced Indian Child Welfare Training from the National Indian Child Welfare Association. David also currently holds the Governor appointment on the Juvenile Crime Advisory Commission for the State of Oregon.   David is known throughout the Native American communities in Oregon as an advocate for Tribes and Native American urban community members as well.  His knowledge and insight of issues involving youth enables the development of culturally appropriate programs and services.

Sarah S. Pearson is the author of the report Strengthening Indian Country Through Tribal Youth Programs. Ms. Pearson serves as the Deputy Director for the Coalition for Community Schools, housed at the Institute for Edu-cational Leadership (IEL), in Washington, D.C. As the Deputy Director, Ms. Pearson works to bring together leaders and networks in education, fam¬ily support, youth development, com¬munity development, government, and philanthropy to support a shared vision of community schools. Before coming to the Coalition and IEL, Sarah worked at the American Youth Policy Forum where she led national level discussions, conducted site visits, and served as the principle investigator of research on edu¬cation reform efforts, service-learning, juvenile justice, tribal youth, youth with disability, and other youth policy issues. Sarah is a published author of numerous policy briefs and reports.


Jeff Slowikowski was designated Acting Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) by President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. Mr. Slowikowski has served as Associate Administrator of OJJDP’s Demonstration Programs Division since May 2004. Under his direction, the division manages a variety of grants that support demonstration, research, evaluation, and training and technical assistance programs, including drug court, gang, juvenile violence, mentoring, reentry, tribal youth, truancy, and underage drinking initiatives. Mr. Slowikowski was instrumental in the development and implementation of the performance measure system that assesses the efficacy of programs funded by OJJDP. Mr. Slowikowski joined OJJDP in August 1990 under the Presidential Management Intern Program. From 1990 to 2003, he served in the Research and Program Development Division, as a Program Manager and, subsequently, as Deputy Director. Since joining OJJDP, Mr. Slowikowski has led the development and management of several demonstration and research projects, including the Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders and the Evaluation of the Partnerships To Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence. He also worked closely with the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to develop a Youth Focused Community Policing Program. Mr. Slowikowski earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Baltimore in 1987 and a Graduate Certificate in Police Administration and Master of Public Administration from the University of Baltimore in 1990.



  • Strengthening Indian Country Through Tribal Youth Programs by Sarah Pearson. This report examines how five Tribal Youth Programs (TYPs), supported by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) at the U.S. Department of Justice, are improving the lives of youth and strengthening their families. (October 2009).


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.