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Excerpted From: Addie C. Rolnick, Resilience and Native Girls: A Critique, 2018 Brigham Young University Law Review 1407 (90 Footnotes) (Full Document)


AddieCRolnickThe concept of resilience is in vogue, and it is often employed to refer to at-risk children and Native women. A billboard installation in Canada titled "Resilience: The National Billboard Exhibition" celebrates it. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America convened a panel and issued a publication to guide clubs in supporting the resilience of Native youth. The University of Alberta is home to the "Indigenous Women and Youth Resilience Project." A Washington high school's changed approach to school discipline is described as "resilience practices." The National Congress of American Indians recommends that a "model of traditionally-grounded, trauma-aware, and community-centered resilience frameworks could and should be replicated into juvenile justice" systems serving Native youth.

Like Native individuals, Native nations are also described as resilient, capturing two intertwined concepts--the resilience of Native people and that of their communities. As described by the creators of the billboard project, "resilience usually refers to the ability of Indigenous people to overcome the adversarial and enduring impacts of colonialism." But if the goal is to ensure that Native people, especially women and children, are resilient because they are what makes Native communities resilient, it is important to stop to ask whether the concept of resilience benefits individuals as well as Native communities.

The term resilience is often used with reference to Indigenous women and Indigenous youth. Native girls are included in each of these categories but are rarely the main focus of a campaign. Their triple vulnerability (gender, indigeneity, and age), however, means that the focus on resilience is often greatest when applied to them. This Article centers them. It traces the development of resilience in the (non-Native) ecological and psychological literature. Although resilience is used across many different disciplines, it is especially prominent in ecological literature about resilient institutions, such as communities and cities, and in psychological literature about resilient individuals. This Article then examines the way resilience has been applied to Native girls, particularly in the context of juvenile justice, and cautions against potentially damaging implications of what is almost uniformly imagined to be a positive and complimentary label.

Part I briefly considers whether the concept of institutional resilience provides an accurate framework for addressing tribal survival. It then compares and contrasts the institutional concept with the individual concept.

However, the ultimate focus of this Article, discussed in Parts II and III, is how resilience is applied to individual Native girls.

Other articles in this volume address the way institutional resilience might be reframed from a Native perspective; Part IV of this Article, which addresses potential reframing, focuses only on individual resilience.

[. . .]

While it seems uncontroversial to describe Native girls as resilient in the face of personal and historical trauma, this Article demonstrates that resilience is a loaded term and one with many possible meanings. Though the academic literature in psychology acknowledges that resilience is a complex concept, its meaning in popular psychology is thinner, veering toward personal self-improvement practices that can be taught to anyone and away from a contextual, process-based or outcome-based definition. Its popularity as a tool of juvenile justice sometimes seems to reflect this thinner view of resilience as a set of teachable skills that anyone can use to turn adversity into growth. As it is used by Native women to describe themselves, such as in the billboard campaign, it takes on a richer meaning that understands survival (without a requirement of personal growth) as a manifestation of resilience, as in the institutional resilience literature, and links the idea of individual resilience to the long-term resilience of Native communities. Juvenile justice policymakers would be wise to wrestle with this more complex definition of resilience instead of simply treating it as yet another skill set to be delivered to Native girls via punitive intervention. 

Professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law.