The Man Who Helps Native American Fathers Find Their Way

Albert Pooley, a Native American father and grandfather, has helped thousands of at-risk Native parents get control of their surroundings. Here's how.

Albert Pooley is on a mission to help Native American fathers. When working as a career counsellor, he soon noticed that many of his male clients were struggling — not just in their lives but by what he identified as inadequate social services provided by the government. To help, Pooley who is half-Hopi, half-Navajo and father of six (as well as a grandfather to sixteen) founded the Native American Fathers and Families Association, which works to train and empower Native American men. To date, he’s helped thousands of fathers.

Pooley’s work is essential. Native Americans are incarcerated at rates roughly 40 percent higher than the national average; they are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial group; and their youth are 30 percent more likely to be taken to juvenile court if in trouble with the law. As of 2013, the unemployment rate of Native Americans was greater than 10 percent and had been that way for five years. As Pooley notes, governmental and social services have offered social services and resources to Native Americans, but they programs often fall short. That’s where is programs come in.

Here, Pooley talks about his work and how he helps Native American men find themselves.

I’ve worked with over 400 Native American tribes throughout my professional career. I’ve met people all the way from Prince Edward Island in Canada to Alaska and through the United States. A while back, I got out of the counseling business for a few years, and got into the textiles business. I was making a line of what they call Native American blankets. Long story short, I went broke. I didn’t know the business as well as I should have. My house went into foreclosure. I told my wife. She was of course very upset with me. She told me to go back to work.

I went to a friend of mine, who is a director of social services for one of the local Native-American tribes. I asked if he had any work for me to do as a consultant. He knew who I was. He said, “Who would you like me to see?” I said, “Give me your worst clients.” So he gave me a bunch of Native men and I started working with them.

I soon realized that most of the social services that are out there focus more on serving women and children, and left the men out of the whole equation of family in many instances. I started to develop a program. There was a lot of literature that was already available on fatherhood. We were having classes and groups and counseling. One day, I asked one of the fathers how the class was going. He said, “It’s going okay,” and I said, “Tell me the truth. How is it really going?” And then he started to laugh and said, “Well, Al, we’ve heard this before. What you’re teaching us is like any other social service program.” So I started to write my own program based upon my experience, what I knew. I developed a program called “Fatherhood is Sacred.”

A lot of my colleagues think knowledge is what is important working with people. Knowledge is important. But when you work with people, you have to have more than that. You have to make people feel. I talk to a lot of people about cultural competency. Working with men, they are more cautious. They have a history where they have been neglected not only by the system, but by other methods. Most programs view Native men as the cause of many of the problems that face the families. Native men are not really the cause. In all reality, they’re the solutions to the problems. If you look at them as a problem, you’re not going to get very far. If you look at them as the solutions to the problems, that’s different.

Fathers are the greatest untapped resources available in our communities today. It is not the government. Some people think that agencies and governments can do this. I say no. You look at the government’s history with Native people. They haven’t done a lot. If you really want to empower your families, you have to empower dads to empower their own children. There’s no way for the government to do that.

Some agencies want you to start where the agency wants you to start. Or where the therapist wants you to start. That’s wrong. You start with where the person is at. If the person I’m working with says, “I drank a beer last night,” and alcohol has been one of his problems, I say, “Let’s work on not drinking for four days.” In other words, you start where they are at. Not where you’re at, or not where the agency is at. You start where the patients are at. Where your clients are at.

I go to a lot of prisons and jails. I tell the people I see: “I’m going to tell you a truth that you probably won’t believe. You are worth more than the worst mistake you’ve ever made in your life.” A lot of people won’t believe it. Some of our fathers and mothers have had a bad history. They’ve been in detention, or prison. They’ve been alcoholics on the street. They’ve lost their kids to child protective services. They’ve quit or dropped out of school. One of the best ways you learn is from experience. Let’s make your experience work for you. It can’t hold you back.

Natives say, “You can eat a whole buffalo if you take small enough bites.” We work on simple things for them to improve their lives. Even as it comes to employment. Some men can’t find employment and they feel really bad about that.

I change the word employment to ‘productivity.’ Are you producing to the welfare of your family? Maybe you don’t have a job right now. But there are a lot of things you can do. There’s always something to repair, to clean, to make. It’s not always based upon employment. Employment is necessary, I understand. But sometimes people get their identity based strictly on their employment and their ability to produce financially.

When we work with our fathers, we work on four areas with them. First, we help them become good, decent people. We tell them they can become good people. I say, “You come from greatness. You come from a great heritage. You come from a great people. You come from a great history. If you come from greatness, it is your job to return back to where you came from, to lead your family back to becoming a great people again. There are some things that proceed greatness. One of them is goodness. I want you to become a good man. Once you become a good man, you become honorable. You’re fair, you’re honest, you’re dependable and reliable. And finally, you become courageous.

— As Told To Lizzy Francis