Tag Archives: Native Americans

A collective voice: Indigenous resilience and a call for advocacy

By Roni K. White, Alaina Hanks, Susan Branco, Nicola Meade and Isaac Burt February 11, 2020

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.

Historical relevance

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. 

Present snapshot

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.

SEATTLE: Indigenous activists march in solidarity with the people of the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, September 2016. John Duffy image/Wikimedia Commons https://bit.ly/31NrgqQ

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. 

Promoting wellness

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 rkwcounseling@gmail.com.

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 alaina.hanks@gmail.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 nicolaameade@gmail.com.

Isaac Burt is an associate professor at Florida International University. His research interests entail working with historically disenfranchised and marginalized populations. Contact him at iburt@fiu.edu.




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.

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.


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.


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.

Trauma and the soul wound: A multicultural-social justice perspective

Judy Daniels and Michael D’Andrea June 18, 2007

Compared to traditional Western views about counseling, the multicultural-social justice movement promotes very different ways of thinking about mental health, psychological development and the important roles counselors can play in fostering these concepts. The issue of trauma is an excellent example. Significant differences exist in the way many traditionally trained counselors think about trauma and the manner in which culturally competent counselors conceptualize the meaning of this term and the roles they can play in addressing the needs of traumatized clients.

One of the most respected multicultural experts in the mental health professions today is Eduardo Duran, and he presents a very different view of trauma. He describes trauma from an American Indian viewpoint in his book Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling With American Indians and Other Native Peoples (Teachers College Press, 2006).

Some counselors are likely to dismiss the manner in which Duran describes trauma and the approaches that can be used to effectively deal with this experience. Nevertheless, we have written this month’s column to help expand the thinking of counselors who remain open to new ways of thinking about trauma and different approaches to addressing this experience from a multicultural-social justice perspective.

Culturally different approaches

In discussing issues related to mental health in general and trauma in particular, Duran emphasizes the American Indian belief in holism. This perspective includes directing particular attention to the important interconnections that are thought to exist between a person’s mind, body and spirit, as well as one’s connections with the larger cultural community and environment to which she/he is a part. Although space restrictions limit our ability to address these issues in much detail, we want to illuminate several central points about the American Indian perspective of holistic interconnectedness and harmony as they relate to the problem of trauma.

As Duran points out, healthy human development is intimately linked to the holistic and harmonious mind-body-spirit connections that individuals can realize in their lives. Thus, unlike traditional Western counseling theories that focus on the manner in which traumatic events adversely impact a client’s mental and physical state of being, this American Indian perspective emphasizes the need to attend to the ways that traumatic events disrupt a person’s mental, physical and spiritual life forces. This perspective further suggests that traumatized clients commonly exhibit problems in their lives because some recent or historic event has fractured the harmonious interconnections believed to naturally exist between their mind, body and spirit.

The emphasis placed on ensuring that individuals’ spiritual energy is in harmony with their mental and physical life forces is an important consideration that distinguishes American Indian psychology from most traditional Western counseling theories. Duran’s writing directs particular attention to the ways in which traumatic events inflict “a wounding on the soul.” This phenomenon is referred to as the “soul wound.”

A second important concept asserted in the theory of the soul wound relates to what Duran calls “historical and intergenerational trauma.” This trauma involves the recognition that horrifically violent experiences inflicted on individuals in the past result in unhealthy outcomes that are passed on to one’s offspring and manifested in future generations.

Duran notes that the past genocide of American Indians represents the sort of historical violence that results in intergenerational trauma. Briefly stated, this means that the horrific physical suffering, death, psychological harm and soul wounding that occurred during the genocide continues to be experienced today by many persons of American Indian descent. Multicultural-social justice counseling theorists and researchers suggest that the disproportionately high levels of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide among American Indians today is partially due to a failure to heal the soul wound that was transmitted intergenerationally as a result of the historic trauma that their ancestors experienced.

Duran encourages mental health practitioners to address three levels of interventions when working with people who are suffering from trauma:

  • Working with individual clients who are experiencing problems due to trauma
  • Providing outreach, advocacy and healing services to the larger community of which the client is a part
  • Engaging in efforts that are aimed at what he calls “healing the land”

New professional roles and services

Unlike traditionally trained counselors, who are encouraged primarily to address the psychological and physical manifestations of trauma, culturally competent counselors are sensitive to the importance of addressing traumatized clients’ spiritual needs as well. The concept of the soul wound and the helping strategies that Duran outlines provide counselors with a broad range of practical interventions that can be used to promote more harmonious mind-body-spirit connections with traumatized clients in individual counseling settings.

Duran also describes working with the broader cultural community as a vital component of trauma counseling. This requires counselors to be willing to implement advocacy, consultation and social change services aimed at fostering a greater level of justice among those individuals who continue to be subjected to the sort of historic trauma that American Indians have experienced in this country.

Finally, Duran discusses the importance of counselors working to “heal the land.” He emphasizes the American Indian belief in the vital interconnections that exist among all animate beings and inanimate entities, as well as the spiritual energetic connections that exist between all people and Mother Earth. He further notes that the current trauma being inflicted on the Earth by our collective polluting and poisoning of the global environment has a significantly negative and traumatizing impact on our own mental health and sense of psychological well-being. From this perspective, counselors are encouraged to consider how the role of environmental activist is linked to the work that counselors can do to address the various forms of trauma experienced by millions of people in contemporary society.

Clearly, the ideas presented in this cultural perspective of trauma counseling are very different from those used in many counselor education training programs and professional development workshops. Space limitations restrict the presentation of these concepts to a very rudimentary discussion. For this reason, we encourage readers interested in obtaining more detailed information about an American Indian view of trauma and the types of culturally sensitive counseling strategies being used to address this problem to check out Duran’s book, Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling With American Indians and Other Native Peoples.