Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Voice of Experience: Invisible people, Part 1: Native Americans

By Gregory K. Moffatt March 18, 2019

The little girl sitting next to me was no more than 5. Her bony little body was draped in clothes that appeared to have been worn for several days. Unmistakably Apache, she looked up at me and smiled from her seat on the school bus in which we were riding. As is sadly common among children on the sprawling Apache reservation in Arizona, her teeth were rotted off at the gum line.

“Does your daddy hurt you?” she asked me matter-of-factly. After four years of working with these children, I was still shocked at how rampant the ills of society were among these populations. Child abuse, suicide, domestic violence, addiction, unemployment, substandard education, truancy/dropout and, yes, poor dental hygiene are just a few of the problems that are so disproportionately part of the experience of Native Americans who live on reservations.

In traveling the world, I have encountered cultures so vastly different from my own that it is hard to describe them to my friends and family members. You don’t have to leave the United States to have that experience, however. My heart breaks for the lovely people I have met — Apache, Hopi, Navajo — on reservations located within our borders.

Native Americans on reservations are among three groups that I will be addressing in a series of monthly columns on “invisible people.” One or more of these groups may be within walking distance of our counseling offices without our even knowing it.

I live in Georgia, the home of the Cherokee Nation, but many in our state have no idea that the Cherokee people are here. They know the Cherokee only from movies or perhaps because they have seen someone on the roadside in the north Georgia mountains dressed in traditional clothing and offering to pose for a photograph with tourists who are willing to pay a few dollars.

Sadly, the mention of “Cherokee Nation” likely causes many people to think of a sports mascot and not the literal nation of the Cherokee. I sometimes wonder if the average person realizes how many of our states, roads, rivers, cities and towns are named after one tribe or another or are otherwise derived from Native American words. Yet the heritage of these people gets lost in the blur of movie stereotypes, school mascots and advertising caricatures. It’s heartbreaking.

Because Native Americans are often “invisible,” so are their struggles. I suspect the typical American knows more about Middle Eastern culture than about the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of their Native American neighbors who may live only doors away. Native Americans who live on reservations are often inaccessible to those who might try to understand them, and those who live off the reservations possess a heritage that is largely misunderstood by nearly everyone.

Do you know the difference between a Seminole and a Blackfoot, an Apache and a Hopi, or a Cheyenne and a Tonkawa? Did you even know that the Karuk, Wichita, Koi and Kaw are tribes? Seeing all Native Americans as the same is as insulting as assuming that all Spanish speakers are from Mexico.

Misunderstandings abound. For example, for some tribes, feathers are indeed a part of the honor of a headdress. What you probably don’t know is that many tribes would never use a feather as decoration because it is part of what is dead, and that is sacred — not to be worn as jewelry or adornment.

It is next to impossible for tribes to perpetuate their traditions, religions, languages and cultural values as a subset of mainstream American culture. So, they are relegated either to abandoning these things or to moving onto a reservation, where life options for themselves and their children are significantly limited. What a bitter choice to make.

But even in 2019, in a culture in which we have removed cartoons such as the “Frito Bandito” from advertising, some Native Americans are still forced to look at caricatures of themselves in sports team mascots and advertising. If you think that I’m being overly dramatic, watch the documentary In Whose Honor. Only a cold-hearted viewer would not be moved.

I worked for years with Apache and Navajo parents, teens and children on a reservation, but in general, most of them never grew to trust me. I was a white man, so there was no reasonable cause for them to trust me. As we have all been taught in other arenas, distrust is to be expected when you represent the population in power. I have found that it is sometimes easier these days to practice with other minority groups, but not so much with Native Americans.

Unless you have gone out of your way to learn about Native Americans, my guess is that this article has opened some eyes. We pride ourselves on cultural diversity as counselors, but I’m not confident that the blinders we wear allow us to really see how much we don’t see — at least when it comes to the three groups of “invisible people” I am addressing in this series. I hope this first column on invisible people will open counselors’ eyes to what we might be missing.

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

2 Comments

  1. AA

    I appreciate the effort to focus on the Native American population. I feel hurt that the most detailed interaction highlighted here focused on a narrative of marginalization/poverty, and the population is described as “invisible.” To be transparent, I identify as multiethnic/multicultural and white, my Native ancestry is distant and I did not grow up integrated in that part of my cultural lineage. I am involved with an urban Native group though still identify as white. I experience resilience, resourcefulness, creativity, presence, and the courage to speak out and fight for justice on important issues all coming from Native communities. The use of “invisible” seems to me to center a lens of mainstream, dominant whiteness and not to center a Native perspective. I would love to read more from Counseling Today that encourages me to learn and grow in how to serve more diverse populations, though I would appreciate learning from a more complex lens that integrates knowledge of marginalization as well as resiliency and centers Native peoples’ voices.

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  2. ALISON BOWLES

    I understand the intent of this article, and yet, a member of the very group that the author attempted to write about was hurt by his description. Perhaps this has something to do with a wider problem that I believe counselors are encountering when intending to raise awareness.

    I returned to university at the age of 53 to pursue further education, and over the last couple of years, have come across many notions that assume counselors have a particular obligation to be concerned with and/or interested in “social justice,” and, as mentioned in this article — that counselors, as a group, take pride in their dedication to “cultural diversity.”

    To that I say “speak for yourself” (because that’s the only counselor you can speak for).

    And I say this not because embracing diversity is a bad thing, but because I’d rather not hold myself out as particularly dedicated to cultural diversity or social justice any more or less than my neighbor is. I might be more aware about certain issues due to my work, but I have trouble with the notion that certain obligations are thrust upon all counselors as if we’re all supposed to be interested in saving the world or evening out differences or societal inequalities. Does no one realize that this comes across as rather grandiose and perhaps even a little presumptuous? Are we somehow inherently “better” than the rest of the population? Do we hold ourselves out to be more altruistic or more well intentioned than everybody else? And if we do, how are we coming across to our clients (who are “everybody else”?). These are questions no one asks in the context of these types of conversations.

    I’m not a social justice warrior. I do believe in justice, and when I can influence a situation I find unjust, I do and have. But I don’t think I’m any better — or worse for that matter — than my neighbor in that regard. Some counselors might be more dedicated to social justice causes than others, or, some might just pay more lip service to it. Those of us who work part-time and have families to support or have chronic illness (as I do) are not in a position to take up causes, nor should that obligation be imposed on us by our colleagues. I think we’re also bound to get things wrong if we hold ourselves up as being more knowledgeable than is possible (as evidenced by the response to this clearly well-intentioned post).

    “Do you know the difference between a Seminole and a Blackfoot, an Apache and a Hopi, or a Cheyenne and a Tonkawa? Did you even know that the Karuk, Wichita, Koi and Kaw are tribes? Seeing all Native Americans as the same is as insulting as assuming that all Spanish speakers are from Mexico.”

    I would ask why I am supposed to know the difference between a Seminole and a Blackfoot? To have knowledge of the Karuk tribe? How would I come across such knowledge, and why would I try unless I were going to work with this population? If a counselor has no direct exposure to a population or experience with its peoples, the counselor has to rely on textbooks or novels or other forms of media/literature/etc. I think most of us know what textbook knowledge tends to look like when presented as “knowledge” in a therapy session (um, misinformed might be the nicest way to label it). The assumption that the reader sees all Native Americans as the same is in itself insulting to the reader. And I say this knowing that the author meant well here. I think that, as counselors, we are missing the context in our overeager attempts to display ourselves as what kids in the playground used to refer to as “goodie two-shoes.”

    It’s not clear to me if this author expects that inner city counselors should know much about the culture of Native Americans. Are we to be omniscient therapists? Aren’t we human beings with limited knowledge? This author has worked with this population, and as such has more knowledge than those who haven’t. I remember a counselor telling me that it wasn’t the client’s job to educate her about the client’s culture, but that somehow, the counselor should KNOW about the client’s culture already (i.e., by doing research, taking continuing education courses, etc.). My response was to wonder who better to educate a counselor than the client particularly since all clients are different? And we can’t assume very much about any one individual (which is what the author above is telling us — don’t assume all Native Americans are the same). This is true of all people who walk into our offices. We have to treat each person as an individual, and show curiosity about their experience.

    We can’t possibly know enough about every culture in our extremely diverse country. What we can do is stay open to learning, and not make assumptions. Our clients will teach us. In my opinion, my best teachers have been my clients. It was only after working directly with many Orthodox Jewish women in New York City that I came to have a much better understanding of the difficulties of this particular group. I don’t think my clients would have wanted me to gain knowledge of them through articles such as this, or through textbooks. I assume I stayed open enough that many came to refer me to others, and many worked with me for years. And I learned more about Hispanic populations — and their differences — from being married to one, and working with others. Direct experience has been my best teacher.

    Our clients are fountains of knowledge. And the great news is that those fountains of knowledge are often sitting right in front of us. All we have to do is look, to listen, be open, and “be” with them. The rest will follow.

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