Albert Pooley, Hopi, wants to restore traditional, cultural American Indian family values. So he has established a successful non-profit organization that has become a driving force in reuniting and reengaging Native fathers with their children.
This month, Pooley’s group, the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association (NAFFA), held its Eighth Annual Native American “Fatherhood Is Leadership” Conference at the Phoenix Marriott Mesa Hotel in Arizona. Many groups, tribes and individuals endorsed and supported this special event. Among them were the actor and fatherhood activist Steven Seagal, who addressed the conference audience via video message, and award-winning documentary producer and journalist Justin Hunt, who gave a special screening of his new documentary, Absent, which explores the impact of disengaged fathers.
Fatherlessness has become a growing problem in America. According to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report, one in three children lives apart from his or her biological father. The social problems spawned by this separation are many—poverty, abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction among them. As individuals become separated from each other, families become split from their traditional values.
Pooley founded the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association in 2001 on the principle that fatherhood is sacred. “Native Americans consider many things to be sacred,” he says. “Places, animals and objects. But we forget about our role as parents!” For many tribes, he notes, “fatherhood is one of the greatest untapped resources.… We forget about what important roles fathers and mothers play.”
When Pooley began NAFFA, he worked with only one father on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa reservation. Today, the group has grown to include 74 tribes in the United States. It has initiated programs among Canadian tribes and nations as well. Pooley fully expects to engage 100 tribes in this upcoming year. So far, he has built the organization without the benefit of direct federal or state funding. All of NAFFA’s support comes from participating tribes and sponsoring organizations.
A former social worker, family counselor and college educator, Pooley has long been struck by how few programs specialize in offering family social services to men. It is a void that he laments.
“The family is the oldest and most important institution in society and is at the heart of the Native American cultures,” he says. “There is no other work more important than fatherhood.” Therefore the essential credo of NAFFA remains “To strengthen families by responsibly involving fathers in the lives of their children, families, communities, and partnering with mothers to provide happy and safe families.”
This last goal—of partnering with mothers—has been most recently expressed in NAFFA’s “Motherhood Is Sacred” program. With an emphasis on culturally relevant training and personal development, the program helps participants recognize the importance of their Native culture and strengthen their identity while enhancing their individual character.
In addition to the two foundation programs, Pooley says, NAFFA will launch its “Reentry Into Native America” initiative, in partnership with the Glendale, Arizona-based Fresh Start Community Services, which helps ex-offenders successfully re-enter communities upon prison release. The training program will focus on working with incarcerated Native fathers and mothers, helping to maintain and repair bonds with their children while incarcerated and after their release.
“Reentry Into Native America” will be launched in the upcoming year; it will emphasize the “3 R’s of restorative justice in Native American Communities.” Those 3 R’s stand for redirect (alternatives to incarceration), release (transitioning back into society after imprisonment), and reentry (connecting with resources and training to prevent recidivism).
For Pooley, a husband, father and grandfather, NAFFA is not just a job, or even a philosophy, but a life’s mission. That becomes clear as he addresses his audience of conference goers with passion: “Knowledge won’t change you! You know how to change! Change must come from within!”
Thus spoke a practitioner, a tribal member and a man of experience, whose influence on those who find their way into his program is profound, to say the least.
For more information on the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association, visit its website at AzNaffa.org.