This study sought to examine the extent to which the life-course experience theory would be useful in understanding the sexual behavior patterns of American Indian female adolescents. Although adolescence is a period of marked physical and psychological development when sexual maturation occurs, the field of research on sexual development is void on information about American Indians. The lack of empirical attention given to sexual behavior of American Indians during finds period is particularly troublesome (Ponzetti & Abrahamson, 1990). Moreover, this must not be misinterpreted to suggest that sexuality is not a concern of American Indian adolescents. According to Price (1981), female American Indians are especially concerned. In fact, during the past decade, they were three times as likely as male adolescents to refer to sexual issues. The unique circumstances and concomitant problems experienced by American Indian youths have resulted in increased attention from both researchers (Berlin, 1987; Dinges, Trimble, & Hollenbeck, 1979; John, 1988; Price, 1981) and governmental agencies (U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, 1990; U.S. Congress, Select Committee, 1986).
Tribal efforts have been devoted toward understanding the changing patterns in their youths' sexual activity patterns (U.S. Congress, Select Committee, 1986). A substantial proportion of births in many Indian villages is attributed to adolescent childbearing. About one fifth of the births to American Indians (1980-1984) were to female mothers less than 20 years of age. This rate was twice as high as the rate for European Americans but was comparable with the rate for African Americans. In many cases, these births were to unwed mothers. In 1984, the overall ratio of births to unwed American Indian mothers (398 per 1,000 total births) was almost triple that of Whites (134 per 1,000) (Taffel, 1987; U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1986). Unfortunately, very little information is available to direct tribal efforts at planning and implementing educational or preventive programs because data about American Indian adolescent sexual behavior are very scarce. In fact, most investigations of adolescent sexual behavior that consider race usually compare only Whites and African Americans.
Adolescents are among the most vulnerable of American Indians. Incidences of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, school failure, and depression are quite prevalent among those youths. Many of the problems experienced by American Indian youths, however, seem to result from difficulties associated with adaptation to non-Indian culture (Berlin, 1987; Manson, 1982). Rather than undertaking steps to develop a general understanding of this period of American Indian life, most research has focused primarily on social problems and behavioral difficulties. In fact, factors that constitute a successful adjustment pattern from childhood to adolescence to adulthood among American Indians remain a mystery (Dinges et al., 1979).
Interestingly, although much concern has been expressed about the sexual activity pattern of America's youths, limited attention has been devoted to examining the sexual activity pattern of American Indian adolescents. This study attempts to address this Imitation by identifying factors that may explain variation in the sexual activity and pregnancy rates of American Indian adolescents.
The selection of likely predictors of adolescent sexual behavior patterns was based on previous studies that suggest that individual- and family level variables are strong predictors of the sexual behavior pattern of African American, Hispanic, and White adolescents' sexual behavior (Duncan, 1995; Ku, Sonenstein, & Pleck, 1993). Thus, the life-course experience model served as the theoretical framework for this study This model has been used by other researchers to provide an understanding of premarital sexual activity among non-European American female adolescents (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Murry, 1992a, 1992b). It links personal experiences, family histories, and family structure, as well as socioeconomic status and neighborhood characteristics to adolescent sexual behavior. More specifically, the following personal experiences have been identified as significant predictors of early coitus and unwed pregnancy: early onset of menarche (Devaney & Hubley, 1981; Murry, 1992a, 1992b), transition to dating at an early age (DeLamater & MacCorquodale, 1979; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Leigh, Weddle, & Loewen, 1988), infrequent church attendance (DeLamater, 1981; Murry, 1994; Zelnik, Kantner, & Ford, 1981), and inadequate knowledge about reproduction and contraception (Murry, 1994; Scott-Jones & Turner, 1988). In terms of family variables, several researchers report increased sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy among those from low-income and single-parent households (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Leigh et al., 1988; Robbins, Kaplan, & Martin, 1985) and among those whose mothers had low educational attainment (Leigh et al., 1988; Murry, 1992b). Studies examining the impact of community on adolescent sexual behavior have noted that adolescents residing in urban areas are more vulnerable to early sexual onset and conception than their counterparts living in suburban or rural areas. Further, national data show higher birthrates among adolescents living in the South than among those living in other regions of the United States (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Murry, 1992b; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1987; Zelnik et al., 1981). Reasons for high birthrates in the South have not been substantiated. At the same time, researchers contend that living in metropolitan areas simply may represent greater access to potential sexual partners (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985). It also may reflect a context of norms that differs from those in nonmetropolitan areas. The extent to which these patterns occur among American Indian adolescents warrants investigation.
The life-course experience model has been valuable in explaining and predicting the sexual behavior patterns among African Americans and White Americans. It is important for a theory to be tested across all populations to determine its usefulness and robustness. What follows is a brief discussion of the research studies on American Indian adolescents and issues of sexuality in light of the life-course experience model.
Personal factors. In terms of personal experiences associated with adolescent sexual behavior patterns, Davis and Harris (1982) noted that American Indian adolescents reported less sexual knowledge and information than their White and Hispanic peers. Haynes' (1977) comparison of contraceptive behavior of Shoshone and Arapaho tribes revealed that most of the female Indians who had never used contraceptives were adolescents, were ones who had never been pregnant, or were married. Further, 41% of those who had never used contraception indicated that their religious beliefs influenced their attitudes toward nonuse.
Family factors. One research study linking family experiences to American Indian female sexuality was conducted by Kunitz and Tsianco (1981). These researchers found that Navajo women who were more independent and less involved with kin networks had the highest prevalence of contraceptive usage. These findings, however, were applicable only with older, less well-educated, high-parity women. What is more, Kunitz and Tsianco noted that lack of contraceptive usage was associated with the value of children to traditional Navajos and the discouragement of women on the part of partners or other family members to limit fertility by using contraceptives.
Community factors. Studies linking community experiences to American Indian sexuality have focused on adaptational and conflictual issues regarding contemporary and traditional cultures. To that end, Slemenda (1978) noted that Navajo women who were most closely connected to …