Resilience is one of the characteristics hallmarking the experience of North America’s indigenous tribes. These tribes predate the European exploration and colonization that led to the renaming of these inhabited lands to the United States of America. These acts of occupying launched the dominant discourse and fallacious narrative that Original People no longer exist and began long before the Occupy movement. This ability not just to endure but to remain resilient, despite more than a quincentenary of atrocious acts, government policies, and intentional genocide, speaks to the strengths that exist within Native communities.
With modern technologies expanding platforms for Native people to share history and current events, professional counselors have the opportunity to further their understanding, increase competencies, and expand efficacy. Perhaps the perceived silence of Native voices is not because they are not speaking, but because few are listening.
Too often, professionals who interact with or provide services to a Native tribe record a narrow view. This limited representation misinforms others about the realities that exist and undermines the plurality that is alive. As counselors committed to improving social justice, promoting growth, supporting healing, and championing thriving, we offer a pathway to consider a more informed perspective and tools for advocacy.
When truth is hidden or unheard, it leads to false teachings and misinformation. Historical accounts are complex, and tribal nations carry their own histories. Explorers, traders and colonizers disrupted the way of life for millions of human beings across North America from the 15th through the 20th centuries. By some accounts, as many as 112 million people — a number that can never be resolved or agreed upon — lived in North America in tribal nations prior to the arrival of European explorers and colonies. The people, constituting self-sufficient nations deeply connected to the lands of North America, have endured immense psychological pain, physical abuse, genocide, and torture at the minds and hands of European colonizers and their descendants.
Despite the intentional disregard and destruction of human life and communities, Native nations continued to promulgate their existence through advocacy and engaging with the U.S. government. In 1824, the U.S. government established the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In 1830, then-President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, forcing a massive and involuntary migration that resulted in immeasurable fatalities, internment, and the disruption and loss of customs and culture. Persistent broken treaties, ill treatment and racism did not deter Native nations from standing up to the U.S. government or against injustice, discriminatory laws, and other methods to prevent prosperity, equity and health.
From a space of incredible resistance and intelligence, Native nations have effectively changed U.S. laws and practices and transformed the BIA over the years, including the governance and collaboration of sovereign nations. The BIA led the implementation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, which changed how the federal government and sovereign tribal nations interact and conduct business with one another.
Impact of trauma
The great Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud understood change and the implication of actions. Red Cloud shared that one’s actions impact seven generations. Change is slow, and the impact of change continues over numerous decades. When we look at the undesirable conditions and circumstances various tribes have faced, it is imperative to comprehend the ways in which the ripple effects of history and laws can impose complex trauma on these individuals and communities.
Science reiterates Red Cloud’s sentiments by demonstrating how prolonged stress, inequality and trauma change neurobiological responses. These changes, also known as epigenetics and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), support understanding of the increased levels of stress hormones found in Holocaust survivors and their children, resulting in high levels of anxiety and depression, ineffective coping abilities, and decreased social functioning. People from Native nations live under perpetual inequality and discrimination and endure many social injustices. It is reasonable to apply scientific understanding to appreciate the epigenetic and PNI changes experienced within Native nations.
Honoring the privilege to serve Native populations includes incorporating a neuroscience-informed traumatology framework. Having this competency promotes a multifaceted lens to conceptualize the presenting problem and address the underlying root causes that might be outside of the client’s awareness. Neuroscience-informed traumatology provides a pathway of healing, growth, advocacy and improved agency.
The U.S. government consistently uses “less than 1%” to describe the population of Native people, but that number represents millions of human beings. Today, there are 573 federally recognized tribes and an unknown number of unrecognized tribes, which at some counts may be around 196. The number of unrecognized tribes fluctuates due to determination of petition to the U.S. government.
Despite the federal government having recognized tribes, a person may be of Native ancestry and not have tribal membership. Not every person with an identity that acknowledges Native ancestry or who has tribal membership lives on land known as an Indian reservation. Tribal governments have the sovereignty to govern tribal land, and these structures vary from tribe to tribe. When working with these clients, understanding their individual experience and relationship to ancestry and identity is essential in establishing and maintaining a healthy therapeutic alliance. One size does not fit all; history teaches us a fraction of one’s experience.
Cultural revitalization efforts
Even with a long history of oppression, violence and genocide, many tribal communities today are reclaiming their histories through cultural revitalization efforts. In areas with high Native populations, you will often see efforts to bring back cultural knowledge in many ways. These efforts expand beyond the occasional localized community event; instead, they intertwine in the very fabric of daily living in these communities.
Although most cultural programs and initiatives are located within tribal territories, you can often find similar efforts in cities with larger Native populations. Look to the American Indian corridor on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis as an example of the efforts of urban Indians to stay connected through culture. This neighborhood houses an American Indian Center, urban tribal offices, culturally centered schools, Native housing projects, art galleries and more.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is another example of restoring connection. The Pueblos constructed this center on reclaimed land in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It supports cultural, social, educational and economic needs for the 19 Pueblo communities and other Nations of the Southwest. In many major cities, you can often find at least one entity that supports Native people with culturally specific services and programs.
Reclaiming cultural connections is also a global focus. The United Nations declared 2019 as the year of Indigenous languages, and you can see language revitalization efforts everywhere within heavily populated Native communities. These efforts include immersion programs in day care facilities and schools, language camps, community classes, language bowls and the reproduction of media with Indigenous languages. The fact that children are now able to watch the Berenstain Bears in Lakota is evidence of language immersion and acknowledgement. For many tribes, various cultural values are embedded within their respective language. Thus, language efforts closely interconnect to ways of being.
In addition to the multitude of cultural initiatives and programs that exist, Native people are becoming more actively involved in mental health. In October 2010, Dirk Lammers wrote about the outstanding work conducted by the Urban Indian Health Center throughout the cities of South Dakota to improve both the physical and mental health of Native people living off reservations (see https://sduih.org to learn more).
In June 2011, White Swan reported on a program called Dream Makers in Washington state that youth started to assist other students who were struggling with suicide. The youth made small cards with supportive contact information that the students received. This effort, along with training from a specialist from Indian Health Services, led to zero loss of life due to suicide and an unprecedented referral to the school counselor for mental health needs.
In April 2017, Dan Beaton, from the Iroquois Nation, wrote about his work to assist in culture and ceremonies in Canada, and particularly his encounter with the Attawapiskat Nation. He described the beauty of sharing stories and prayers between different tribes and the healing that such events bring through a common reconnecting to a tribal heritage. Mental health continues to be a priority among Native nations.
A plethora of organizations and professional communities are dedicated to promoting wellness among Native nations. The American Indian Health Service (AIHS) serves the urban Native American community in Chicago. It works to address health holistically and has developed innovative medical and behavioral health programs to address the unique needs of indigenous communities. Among these include a Youth Development Program that aims to address emotional health and cultural resiliencies and offers Youth Mental Health First Aid training (visit http://aihschgo.org to learn more about AIHS).
The National Indian Health Board strives to promote successful strategies, identity challenges, support prevention and increase awareness for the behavioral health needs of all American Indian and Alaskan Native people. To acquire valuable resources, visit https://www.nihb.org/behavioral_health/resources.php. Intentional efforts to address prevention and evidence-based treatment for Native people are ongoing. For example, One Sky Center upholds and advocates for culturally appropriate treatment and training to provide mental health and substance abuse services for Native people.
The resilience of Native people encompasses surviving, advocating, healing and thriving. Native Nations and American Indians continue efforts to this day, working on policy issues and engaging in policymaking. The National Congress of American Indians organizes efforts into five policy areas:
- Community and culture
- Economic development and commerce
- Education, health and human Services
- Land and natural resources
- Tribal governance
Each year, multiple bills are introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives, and multiple cases are heard in the Supreme Court concerning policies in the aforementioned areas. Today, Vice President of Special Projects for the Cherokee Nation Kimberly Teehee is advocating along with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoski Jr. to enact the 1835 Treaty of Echota, which would seat a delegate in the House of Representatives.
Ethics in advocacy
Distinguished endeavors and strides to achieve equity and fairness for Native people have support from collaborative and cooperative organizations, individuals and agencies. Codes of ethics call on professional counselors on multiple levels to advocate with and on behalf of the communities in which they serve. Specifically, the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics includes promoting social justice in its preamble. Furthermore, Standard A.7.a. charges counselors to engage in advocacy efforts to remove barriers to access and equity for their clients. Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler and McCullough provide professional counselors with guidelines to include advocacy efforts in their work with clients in the 2015 Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC). Counselors can use these tools in considering how to best collaborate with Native American clients.
Corresponding with the MSJCC, the idea of humility is of utmost importance when an outsider (non-Native) wishes to serve Native American clients. In certain tribes (such as the Navajo), the act of being humble is a primary concern. Although counselors receive education in empathy, techniques and self-awareness, the ability to be humble is not normally taught.
Non-Native counselors looking to work in Native American communities need to acknowledge that they are outsiders. Even though counselors may have good intentions, they will nevertheless need to prove themselves. Having to go through this vetting process is difficult and something that many counselors find arduous and time-consuming. The mindset of the non-Native counselor can mirror the following: I want to help and cannot quite understand the rationale for the resistance I am encountering. However, the belief of the Native American community can mirror the following: People have come and gone and did not have our best interests at heart. It is clear to see the disconnect between these two mindsets.
One way to resolve this issue is to utilize a combination of humility and the MSJCC. For example, consistent with the MSJCC, non-Native counselors need to have self-awareness and critically comprehend their clients’ worldview. This multicultural outlook includes understanding historical privileges and marginalization.
Counselors who operate within this culturally competent framework understand that it is not entirely about their self-identification but also about how one’s identity may be perceived by others. For non-Native counselors whose self-concept is one of overcoming poverty, stress and discrimination, they may see themselves as having a connection to the communities they wish to serve. Conversely, for those in the Native American community, instead of the personal image the counselor wishes to display, they could potentially see an individual who represents past brutalities and halfhearted efforts to help. It takes movement (e.g., courage, patience, openness) on both parties (primarily the counselor) to understand this mindset and have the humility to accept it and be able to move forward positively.
To gain more in-depth understanding of advocacy efforts, it is beneficial to begin learning about a particular Nation or topic area. Attend meetings or sessions on a Nation or topic, learn about the existing efforts and challenges, and use your skills and time with the permission of the appropriate Native leader. Given Native histories, it is important for non-Native counselors to be aware that there might be times when they need to wait for a leader to invite them into a group they are looking to serve. It will also take time for them to be valued as an ally; interest does not equal automatic acceptance.
Sometimes the best gift one can offer is to be the student. History is ever being amended and recorded; remaining open to learning, increasing awareness of one’s relational existence to others, and identifying noninjurious ways to contribute to the change you imagine will allow you to share in amplifying voices and dismantling inequalities.
Roni K. White is the founder of Apricity Wellness Counseling and designer of the “Women in the Workplace: Leadership, Barriers, & Struggles” series. She is a national certified counselor and licensed graduate professional counselor. She aspires for equity in a decolonized world. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alaina Hanks is Anishinaabeg and enrolled in the White Earth Nation in Minnesota. She is a licensed professional counselor-in-training and a community advocate with HIR Wellness Center in Milwaukee. Contact her at email@example.com.
Susan Branco is a clinical assistant professor with Counseling@Northwestern’s clinical mental health counseling program. Contact her at Susan.Branco@northwestern.edu.
Nicola Meade is an adjunct professor with Old Dominion University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isaac Burt is an associate professor at Florida International University. His research interests entail working with historically disenfranchised and marginalized populations. Contact him at email@example.com.
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.