Humanities Institute

The Native American Post-Colonization Health Crisis: Indigenous Healing and the Research of Joseph Gone

Mon, March 13, 2017
The Native American Post-Colonization Health Crisis: Indigenous Healing and the Research of Joseph Gone
Dr. Joseph Gone, Professor of Psychology and American Culture, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

European colonization in the Americas and colonization’s contemporary manifestation has imperiled, and continues to imperil, Native American cultural practices. Not only have Native Americans suffered large numbers of casualties in past wars, but government treaties have also created today’s poverty-stricken reservations. Poverty in Native American communities has fostered an epidemic of mental illness, including suicide and addiction.

Conventional methods of assistance for individuals with psychological discomfort and impairment do not adequately serve the Native American community, argues Dr. Joseph Gone, psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. A citizen of the Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana, Dr. Gone examines the cultural influences that affect mental health, and the convergence in mental health services of of cultural competency and evidence-based practices. His research explores the cultural psychology of identity and social relationships, especially therapeutic interventions like psychotherapy and traditional healing, within indigenous communities.

Gone and his research team advocate for the advancement of Native American prosperity through mental health services and programs designed to have greater spiritual compatibility and cultural significance for this population. He collaborates with partners from Native American communities, including the Urban Indian Health Institute in Detroit, Michigan, to develop innovative health care that encourages psychological well-being and counters dysfunction through a culturally harmonious approach. In response to a 2008 evaluation of community needs, Gone and his team began working on anUrban American Indian Traditional Spirituality Program formed in partnership with the Institute.  

The community needs evaluation showed that over 90 percent of Detroit-located Native Americans were interested in receiving traditional healing through the Institute. The first phase of the project involved conducting focus groups and interviews with service recipients, providers, administrators, and traditional healers to evaluate the possibility of integrating indigenous therapy practices into medical care. The evaluation exposed the community’s need for easier access to information and knowledge concerning how community members can participate in traditional indigenous health practices.

The next step of the project will focus on the creation of a program that introduces “regional forms of traditional spirituality” to Native American community members. Gone’s team will create a twelve-week program for “community member socialization” centering on the sweat lodge ceremony. This ceremony is a longstanding spiritual practice for Native Americans in which they are purified in order to enter (or resume) a traditional way of life. The program will be evaluated and may be used by other urban Native American medical clinics. Another of Gone’s projects of involves employing Blackfeet culture for substance abuse treatment.  For this project, Gone is partnering with the Blackfeet Nation to create a “tribally-controlled” treatment center for substance abuse which will lead to a “cultural immersion experience” that could give clients the ability to “approximate the day-to-day experiences of their pre-reservation ancestors.”

Gone addresses the medical necessity of indigenous therapeutic intervention in his lecture, “Therapy culture, historical trauma, and the legacy of the indigenous boarding schools,” delivered at McGill University on June 13, 2014. In this lecture, Gone discusses the forced assimilation of Native Americans into White culture through boarding school education and the various abuses that occurred within the system. These abuses offer a primary example of indigenous “historical trauma” and convey a legacy of “ongoing psychological risk” and “disability to their descendants.” Unless interrupted by therapeutic intervention, this trauma will carry forward.

Gone asks if therapy culture is suitable for healing the psychological wounds of indigenous communities. Frank Furedi’s book, Therapy Culture, argues that therapy culture can encourage self-fulfillment but also cause fragmentation. Therapy culture promises self-fulfillment and self-actualization, but promotes further individuation and isolation to achieve these goals. In therapy culture, reliance on other individuals is stigmatized in favor of reliance on professionals. Like the colonization of Native Americans in boarding schools, Gone says therapy culture involves a “professional colonization for everyday life.”

Gone’s article, “The Red Road to Wellness: Cultural Reclamation in a Native First Nations Community Treatment Center,” explores how both Aboriginal and western approaches to dealing with substance abuse have been used in a community-controlled center for substance abuse. Overall, Gone’s approach to indigenous mental health care illuminates the complexity of well-being for a heavily oppressed people and offers new approaches to culturally appropriate healing.

Joseph Gone is Professor of Psychology (Clinical Area) and American Culture (Native American Studies) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He will be delivering his lecture, "Rethinking Mental Health Services for American Indian Communities: Postcolonial Perspectives and Possibilities" on March 22, 2017 at 7PM in the Avaya Auditorium. This lecture is the second in our Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series this spring as part of our 2016-2018 theme of "Health, Well-Being, Healing."

The above article was contributed by Jennifer Murphy, a Senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in English and Journalism.

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