Specialization Spotlight: Native/Indigenous PopulationsIndigenous peoples are some of the most culturally rich populations in the world. However, due to long histories of colonization, forced assimilation, and societal exclusion, Native American populations in the United States and indigenous communities in other parts of the world are some of the  most marginalized and disadvantaged populations on a global scale. Students wishing to work with native peoples, in settings such as tribal governments, health services, and policy research should develop specialized knowledge of the historical and contemporary issues confronting these populations in order to engage with them effectively.

For social work students interested in working with native or indigenous individuals or communities, or in public policy related to these populations, a specialization in Native/Indigenous Populations is recommended. The Native/Indigenous Populations specialization varies by school, but is generally composed of the following key areas of study and practice.

Native Cultures and Values

In order to effectively practice social work with indigenous peoples, practitioners must first gain a profound understanding of native cultures and values. Students in this specialization will almost certainly be required to enroll in courses that focus on these topics, providing students with foundational knowledge about how native people’s view the world. These courses emphasize the diversity of cultural practices and societal norms across distinct indigenous communities, while drawing attention to the similarities that might exist amongst these populations with respect to underlying values, principles, and worldviews that inform daily life in native communities. For social work students, a focus on indigenous conceptualizations of health and mental health as well as relationships will be of key importance to understanding how to approach social work practice with these individuals and communities. Such specialized knowledge of native cultures and values will help to prevent cultural misunderstandings that often occur in offering health and well-being services to these populations, and allow students to understand more culturally-relevant and respectful ways of engaging these communities.

Students should expect to learn de-colonizing methodologies for engaging with native and indigenous communities that differ from traditional social work practice.

Historical Oppression and its Legacies

In the United States, Canada, and many other regions of the world, indigenous populations have been subjected to severe atrocities at the hands of colonizing peoples. Many native groups were viewed and treated as sub-human, subjected to slavery and forced assimilation of Western culture, and in the worst of scenarios, were massacred at levels that constitute ethnocide. One of the central goals of a specialization in Native/Indigenous Populations is to help students understand the complex and often appalling history of native peoples, and recognize the ways in which that history continues to affect indigenous populations’ social position and functioning. Students should expect to learn about historical trauma – the traumatic impact that such terrible histories of oppression carry from generation to generation.

Students will also come to appreciate other ways in which historical oppression lives on in indigenous communities today, through structural inequalities and disadvantaged social positions that make native populations, statistically, some of the most vulnerable in the world. Students will learn about current issues facing these communities – such as extreme health disparities, substance abuse, poor nutrition, poverty, and suicide – with an understanding of the ways that modern circumstances are impacted by legacies of historical oppression and trauma.

Tribal Policy

Students specializing in Native/Indigenous Populations will also gain expertise in Tribal policy and law, and learn how to be social justice advocates for native and indigenous populations within and outside of the tribal context. Tribal law in the United States operates very differently from U.S. law and policy, though the two operate in relation with one another. Native peoples generally have the ability to seek justice within their own court systems, rather than through the U.S. circuit, therefore, students must be knowledgeable about the legal processes specific to native populations. Many other parts of the world have comparable arrangements for native communities, granting them some level of autonomy from the state government.  Social workers must have a sound understanding of tribal policy in all its complexity in order to advocate for justice for their native clients. Policies related to health and children/families may be of particular relevance to social work students, but tribal justice-seeking processes for a range of case typologies will be pertinent information for those working with these populations.


Students who see themselves working with indigenous or native peoples should take care to gain the specialized knowledge needed to work effectively with these populations while in graduate school. A specialization in Native/Indigenous Populations offers students the opportunity to build or strengthen their knowledge of key areas of practice and policy relevant to these populations, and enhance their ability to engage with native peoples in culturally-relevant ways.

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Specialization Spotlight: Native/Indigenous Populations
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Specialization Spotlight: Native/Indigenous Populations
For social work students interested in working with native or indigenous individuals or communities, or in public policy related to these populations, a specialization in Native/Indigenous Populations is recommended.