Locus of Control: Two Central Alberta Cree Perspectives

Jayne Gackenbach, Sylvia Coutre, and Singing Woman

As part of a social psychology course I am currently (Feb. 1997) teaching for Athabasca University at Blue Quills Native College in St. Paul, Alberta, the students can opt to participate in a variety of activities which illustrate the concepts discussed in lecture and text. As part of the chapter on self students were given the opportunity to fill out Rotters (1971) Locus of Control Scale and to reflect on their experience of taking the scale. Respondents are asked to chose one of two alternatives each representing an internal versus an external sense of personal control. For instance, an internal locus of control would be exemplified by checking "I more strongly believe that promotions are earned through hard work and persistence." An external locus of control would be implied by checking "I more strongly believe that making a lot of money is largely a matter of getting the right breaks."

There is a large body of research on locus of control indicating that not only do internals believe they can control their own destinies, they are more effective in influencing their environments in a wide variety of situations. Research has also shown that family environment characterized by warmth, protection, and nurturance are more likely to lead to an internal locus of control while those with limited social power or material resources are more likely to develop external locus of control styles.

As an instructor of Native students for the last six years (Gackenbach, 1996) I have often wondered at the way in which they might view locus of control. From my cultural perspective the above explanations are certainly easy to make as certainly Natives constitute in Canada today a population which has limited social power or material resources. However, I have been fortunate enough, due to my associations with them, to wonder if there was not more to it than that, especially in the context of what I was coming to appreciate as their spirituality. Therefore, I was pleased when two of the papers I received back from the students addressed this very same concern. Both students, middle aged women who are treaty status Natives, have given me permission to post their papers on this Spiritwatch internet site. They are much better than I can ever be in explaining how they view locus of control within their cultural/spritual heritage .

Sylvia Coutre wrote, "This is the first time I’ve heard of Rotters’ Locus of Control scale. I think I understand the concepts of being a master of your own fate (internal), versus uncontrollable destiny (external). When I read bits of this in the social psychology book, I envisioned my own life experiences and how I rated on the scale. I tried to internalize and identify with this theory. But I must confess, this text wasn’t written from a First Nations perspective, and I usually can’t identify with the theories. I try to understand and even maybe to a certain extent, adopt them when and where needed."

"This critical view of the text is based on the traditional knowledge of my cultural beliefs and experiences, not on an either/or situation. Personally, there’s discrepancies . . . I rated 8 on the internal side but I strongly identified with the external side. An example of this conflict is knowing that forces beyond our control are at work in our communities. By this I mean, in our culture we have powerful spiritual medicine men/women. These forces can shape and destroy an individual. No matter how much internal locus of control a person has. An individual bounces between either extremes of being in control or submitting to forces beyond their control. Adapting to either fate or forces simultaneously in given situations I believe is just a coping mechanism."

Sylvia noted the conflict between these two types of control styles which we might all agree. Her drawing on the spiritual aspect of Cree life is further echoed in the essay by Singing Woman. She wrote, "According to the self evaluation exercise my locus of control is external. This was determined to the ethnic group that I was born into. I am a member of the Nehiyow (Cree) Nation and many of our beliefs are based on the idea of pre-destination. This means that upon conception my life was already predetermined, dependent on what purpose I would serve in this lifetime. It also meant how I treated the environment (Mother Earth) would largely determine the outcome of my purpose. Early in my life, the idea that the Higher Power (Kisemasitow) is in control was instilled in me. Respecting the Plant Nation, 4-Legged Nation, the Insect Nation, etc. was one of the natural laws that I was expected to adhere to. Violating this law would result in repercussions from the Spirit World."

"I don’t remember anyone telling me that they loved me, or getting hugs and kisses, but I remember a lot of ceremonies and celebrations. There was always a lot of people around and they would take turns providing positive strokes to the children around them. Nurturing was everyone’s responsibility. So I think I had a positive self esteem when I started school. School is where my self-schema became distorted and for the next ten years my self-esteem deteriorated. My self efficacy as a member of the Nehiyow Nation was always being scrutinized and I couldn’t measure up to the school’s expectations. The message that I got from this experience was; in order to survive I have to become an "apple" (red on the outside, white on the inside)."

"At this stage in my life, my self-awareness dictates that I have to be an apple to survive. The dominant society had already decided this before I was born. For example, this simple exercise of writing, the words, the paper - I have to know how to use these tools (education) to survive. In summary, it appears to me that the dominant society has gone too far in their belief that they are ‘Masters of their own destinies’. But, the Natives have also gone too far in their belief of predestination or we were just sitting ducks to be exploited because of our value system of respect and sharing."

"At any rate, in doing this essay, my self-awareness indicates that in my healing journey, I still have some residual anger towards the dominant society because of their view of the environment (Mother Earth). In conclusion, there is some validity to this theory of locus of control, but the political power determines the outcome of each and, the internal or external control."

Both women showed a sensitivity to the complexity of how we should appreciate both the internal and the external in our perceptions of self in the world and pointed especially to the role of spirituality in such understandings.


Gackenbach, J. (1996). Reflections on Dreamwork with Central Alberta Cree: An essay on an unlikely social action vehicle . In Bulkeley, K. (Ed.). Among all these dreamers: Essays on dreaming and modern society. NY: SUNY Press.

Rotter, J. (1971, June). Locus of control scale. Psychology Today, 42.

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