Circle of Courage


COCgraphicThe Circle of Courage is a model of positive youth development which integrates Native American philosophies of child-rearing, the heritage of early pioneers in education and youth work, and contemporary resilience research. The Circle of Courage is based in four universal growth needs of all children: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.
Anthropologists, social scientists, cultural historians and others have long known that Native Americans raise courageous, respectful, and competent children without using harsh, coercive controls. Nevertheless, Europeans colonizing North America tried to “civilize” indigenous children in punitive boarding schools, unaware that Natives possess a sophisticated philosophy that treats children with deep respect and teaches by modeling desired behaviors. Traditional values acquired through these positive methods are validated by contemporary research and are consistent with the findings of Stanley Coopersmith, whose landmark study titled The Antecedents of Self-Esteem, identified four foundations for self-worth: significance, competence, power, and virtue.

These values are represented by the medicine wheel, an ancient symbol used by almost all the Native people of North and South America, which reminds us of our interconnectedness with all of creation. They are summarized below.


In the Native Americas, significance is nurtured in communities of belonging. The Lakota expression, mitakuye oyasin, is familiar to almost all Native communities, translated generally as “we are all related.” Treating others as kin forges powerful social bonds that bring all together in relationships of respect and caring. Throughout human history the tribe, and not the nuclear family, ensures the survival of the culture.

Even if parents die or are not responsible, the tribe is there to nourish and protect the next seven generations. In Iroquois culture, the clan even crosses tribal boundaries, providing another connection of belonging when an individual leaves his own tribal territory and finds a person of the same clan upon whom he knows he can rely.


Competence in traditional cultures is ensured by guaranteed opportunities for mastery. Children are taught to observe carefully and listen to those with more experience. A person with greater ability in a given dimension is seen as a model for learning, not as a rival. Each person strives for mastery for personal growth reasons and not to be superior to someone else. As increasingly demonstrated by brain science, humans have an innate drive to become competent and solve problems. Success in surmounting challenges strengthens the desire to achieve.


Power in Western culture is based on dominance, but in tribal traditions, it means respecting the right for independence. In contrast to obedience models of discipline, Native teaching is designed to build respect and develop inner discipline. From earliest childhood, children are encouraged to make decisions, solve problems, and demonstrate personal responsibility. Adults model, nurture, demonstrate values, and give feedback, and children are provided with abundant opportunities to make choices without coercion.


Finally, virtue is reflected in the pre-eminent value of generosity. The central goal in Native American child-raising is to learn the importance of being generous. This value is reflected most dramatically and clearly in the willingness of Native people to share knowledge with colonizers as to how to survive in the Americas and within their own communities by the well-known giveaway and potlatch ceremonies. Tribal leaders and elders are expected to give of their time, wisdom, and material matters whenever needed, thus demonstrating the supremely respected value of generosity. In following such examples, youth prove their own worthiness by making a positive contribution to another.

Implemented in 1997-98 for TILC charter school handbook and adapted from Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Bockern (1992 ed.), Reclaiming Youth at Risk.