Circle of Courage

In their book, Reclaiming Youth at Risk, Augustana Professors Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern proposed a model of youth empowerment called the Circle of Courage. The model is based on: contemporary developmental research; the heritage of early youth pioneers; and Native American philosophies of child care. The model is encompassed in four core values: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

Anthropologists have long known that Indians reared courageous, respectful children, without using aversive control, based on the values of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. Nevertheless, Europeans coming to North America tried to civilize indigenous children in punitive boarding schools, unaware that Natives possessed a sophisticated philosophy that empowered children. These values are validated by contemporary child research and compare favorably with Coopersmith’s basis of self-esteem. Coopersmith’s work identified four key components essential for a positive self-esteem: significance, competence, power, and virtue.


In Indian culture, significance was nurtured in a community that celebrated the universal need for belonging. Native American anthropologist Deloria described the core value of belonging in Indian culture using these simple words: “Be related, somehow, to everyone you know.” Treating others as kin forged powerful social bonds of community that drew all into relationships of respect. Theologian Marty observed throughout history that the tribe, not the nuclear family, always ensured the survival of the culture. Though parents might fail, the tribe was always there to nourish and come to the aid of the next generation.


Competence, in Indian culture, was ensured by guaranteed opportunity for mastery. The first lesson in traditional Native American culture was that one should always observe those with more experience to learn from them. The child was taught to see someone with more skill as a model for learning, not as a rival. One must strive for mastery for personal reasons not to be superior to someone else. Humans have an innate drive to master their environments. When success is met, the desire to achieve is strengthened.


Power was fostered by deep respect for each person’s independence. In contrast to obedience models of discipline, Native teaching was designed to build respect and teach inner discipline. From earliest childhood, children were encouraged to make decisions, solve problems, and show personal responsibility. Adults modeled, nurtured, taught values, and gave feedback, but children were given abundant opportunities to make choices without coercion.


Finally, virtue was reflected in the preeminent value of generosity in Indian culture. The central goal in Native American child-rearing is to the teach the importance of being generous and unselfish. In The Education of Little Tree Carter recounted his grandmother’s overriding principle”” When you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out where no telling it will go.” In helping others, youth create their own proof of worthiness; they have the power to make a positive contribution to another human life.