Understanding the Career Development Journey for Native American Clients

By Jenna Crabb and Lamarita Vicenti


Little research has been done on how to effectively assist Native American clients on their career development path. What we do know is often limited to what we learn in our multicultural counseling classes or if we are lucky through our experiences working with this population.

According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Report (2015), “American Indian and Alaska Natives made up 1 percent of the labor force.” For our state, “New Mexico has 219,512 Indian citizens, which represent nearly 10.5% of the state's entire population” (New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, 2016). It is important to understand the native population and what is needed for their career success.

Supportive Relationship

It is important to establish a supportive, positive, and trustful relationship. Native clients are drawn to openness, approachability, dependability, understanding and humor. Native clients will appreciate your encouragement and your ability to make them aware of their strengths through empowering them through their career journey and decision making. Positive re-enforcement, empathy, focusing on their strengths, and self-efficacy/confidence help build and support the Native client; they will be more likely to grow and be enthusiastic about their future goals and career fields.

Family And Community

Family dynamics are important topics to discuss because Native clients typically want to stay close to their communities. They usually have a close family and community connection which is significant to them. While exploring career fields, client’s beliefs, values, and spirituality should be a part of the discussion so they know what to expect in the field of study and/or their chosen career.


Coaching and guiding the client on how to approach the job search or interview with cultural norms that the recruiters/employers may not understand (i.e., hair, dress, and traditions) is crucial to the client continuing on in their career field. Most Native clients have a goal to return to their home community after they complete their degree; therefore, understanding the job market and the community needs can help with the client’s career field decision.

Suggested Models

There are two career models that stand out when assisting Native clients: Holistic and Narrative Career Construction. For many Native American nations, one must always address the person holistically. Therefore, subscribing to a more eclectic perspective when working with this population will enable the career counselor to meet their needs.

Integrative Life Planning

Sunny Hansen’s Integrative Life Planning model (ILP) “addresses diversity issues related to ethnicity, race, gender, socioeconomic status and spirituality…[by] integrating the mind, body and spirit” (p. 109, Niles and Harris-Bowlsbey, 2013).

Career Construction

Career construction theory involves the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a tradition that is vital to many cultures, especially the Native American life. “People use stories to organize their lives, construct their identities, and make sense of their problems” (p. 9, Savikas, 2015). “As clients give voice to their stories, they hear what they already know and find the answers which they seek. From their own knowing emerges a new perspective that enables clients to envision a revised identity story” (p. 9, Savikas, 2015).

It Takes A Village Example

A male Native American client came in to my office upset as he needed to change his major. Once we sat down to discuss what was going on – he informed me that he was needing to consider other majors as he was not going to be able to complete a required class due to his cultural beliefs and values. Once we started processing what this meant, he informed me that as a pre-medical student, he needed to take a class where the students would be working with cadavers. It was against the beliefs and values of his culture to work with cadavers. He was very upset about this and spoke with the professor as well as the academic advisor about this required class. They all informed him that there was no waiver or substitution for this class. His ultimate career goal was to become a doctor and take his knowledge back to his community. There had to be a way to make this work. The client and I came up with a plan to propose to his program advisor, his professor and the elders of his tribe. He would conduct his class expectations (specifically for this required class) Monday through Friday here on campus, but on the weekends he would return to his tribe and meet with the medicine men to “cleanse his spirit” from Friday night through Sunday then return to classes Monday morning. His home was within a few hour’s drive to and from campus. He would do this throughout the semester. He was dedicated to make this a success. All those involved agreed to this proposal; his professor even allowed him extra time to complete assignments due to not being able to complete homework over the weekend and his medicine men dedicated their time to him on weekends. He was able to continue with his career goals.

This was a prime example of pulling together as an academic group as well as a community group to help this client meet the obligations and expectations from both his academics and his culture for his career path.



Niles, S. G. and Harris-Bowlsbey, J. (2013). Career development interventions in the 21st century (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NUJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, 2016 website: Retrieved from http://www.iad.state.nm.us/history.html

Savikas, M. L. (2015). Life-Design Counseling Manual. Retrieved from http://www.vocopher.com/LifeDesign/LifeDesign.pdf

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS Reports, November 2015, Report 1057. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/race-and-ethnicity/archive/labor-force-characteristics-by-race-and-ethnicity-2014.pdf


Jenna Crabb, PhD, LPC, NCC, GCDF, is the Director for Career Services and adjunct faculty for Counselor Education at the University of New Mexico. University of New Mexico has 7% Native American students on its campus (2015-2016). Jenna has worked in higher education for over 20 years and specifically in Career Services for the past 14 years. She has served on various community organizational boards around employment, career development and counseling. She can be reached at jennas@unm.edu

Lamarita Vicenti, MA, is the Guidance Counselor at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) Bureau of Indian Education, a National Indian Community College and Land Grant Institution serving American Indian and Alaskan Native students (100% Native American students). Lamarita is a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Lamarita has worked in the career counseling field for 10 years. Lamarita has worked at the Pueblo of Sandia Education Department as a Liaison/Scholarship Coordinator for three years. She can be reached at Lamarita.vicenti@bie.edu



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Charles Lehman   on Monday 09/05/2016 at 01:11 PM

Good insights on counseling a special group.

Olivia Taylor   on Friday 09/09/2016 at 12:33 PM

This was very informative.

Silas E. Acosta   on Sunday 09/25/2016 at 07:39 PM

Thank you very much for your insight, empathy and compassion.

Diane McClinton   on Tuesday 02/14/2017 at 09:57 AM

This was very informative. I am currently a Career Advisor for the State of NC, and I am currently taking courses for my CDF credentials. I chose a project that targets a specific ethnic group in Career Services. So this article was very helpful as I approach my project.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.