Native Elder and Youth Perspectives on Mental Well-Being, the Value of the Horse, and Navigating Two Worlds


  • Mary J Isaacson South Dakota State University
  • Rebecca C Bott-Knutson South Dakota State University
  • Mary Beth Fishback South Dakota State University
  • Angela Varnum Colorado State University
  • Shelly Brandenburger Presentation College



Purpose: Native American youth experience significant challenges to mental well-being. As part of a larger study to evaluate hope and resilience in a Plains tribal population, the purpose of this study was to learn from Native American elders and youths what they feel is needed to for youth to grow up healthy on the reservation, and to identify connections between horse use and mental well-being.

Sample: Six Native American elders and eight Native American youths from the same Plains tribe.

Method: The research team conducted Talking Circles with youths and elders. During the Talking Circles, participants identified community-specific questions for inclusion in a resilience measurement and provided personal stories regarding the relevance of the horse to well-being.

Findings: Both groups felt cultural traditions and language, education, relationships, and interactions with horses have significant roles in enhancing identity development and resilience in youth. However, elders indicated that tribal youth seem to struggle in navigating two worlds. Elders expressed that for youth to be well, they need to return to traditional ways within the realms of culture, language, education, and relationships. On the other hand, the youths were more confident in their ability to navigate two worlds, and wished to seek opportunities to blend their traditional and contemporary lives.

Conclusion: The challenges of navigating two worlds for Native Americans are experienced across generations. Both youths and elders said that resilient youth are able to successfully navigate these challenges when they: (a) know their indigenous identity, (b) participate in cultural activities, (c) have strong family ties, and (d) are able to learn in an environment where their culture is championed. We propose that future efforts must include community-based participatory methods in the development of interventions that include use of the horse to strengthen Native American youth resilience and foster health and well-being.

Keywords: American Indian health, resilience, identity, mental well-being, horses


Author Biographies

  • Mary J Isaacson, South Dakota State University

    PhD, RN, CHPN
    Assistant Professor, College of Nursing

  • Rebecca C Bott-Knutson, South Dakota State University

    Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College Dean and Associate Professor, Department of Animal Science

  • Mary Beth Fishback, South Dakota State University

    Masters of Public Health Program Coordinator

  • Angela Varnum, Colorado State University

    DVM Student

  • Shelly Brandenburger, Presentation College

    Associate Professor, Division of Health and Natural Science