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Don’t Take It Personally – Really


By Iva Greywolf, PhD (Greywolf Consulting)

As a healer are you grounded to be present with pain? Can you be comfortable being on the outside of a group and still maintain your self-confidence? What is the preferred terminology when addressing the original people of this land?  Is it OK to say “Indian”? Do you know the history of the people you serve?

Throughout my lifetime I’ve seen U.S. history distorted. The truth about the treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land is often denied, and facts are ignored. Historically the public has been offered sanitized versions of conflicts. If the Indians won, it was a “massacre” and if the cavalry won it was a “battle.” Presently, we are experiencing more of the same divisiveness over politics, religion, the color of a person’s skin. Judgments on social media and the “news” are pronounced telling the public what is good or bad, what is right or wrong.

I’ve been asked why so many Indian people are off-putting, distant, rejecting and angry when the individual interacting with them hasn’t done anything disrespectful. A short review of history illustrates why it is no surprise that many indigenous people operate from a wounded position which may be interpreted as many “unfriendly” dispositions. This stems from a history of not being heard, recognized or valued.

Indian people in the United States have had so much taken from them, their land, their resources, their art, their jewelry, their clothing, their stories, their religious practices. I was quite surprised to find that even a well-informed ally had no idea Indians could not practice their religion openly in the United States until 1978, with the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. And where did the slang terminology “Indian giver” even come from? The original indigenous peoples of this land repeatedly gave newcomers resources such as food and land, were often promised something in return, then had what was promised and their land, resources, their children and their stories taken away.

Through all of the ordeals and devastating occurrences, Indian people have kept alive the spirit. When I was young one literally had to know the cow path to the isolated locations to participate in ceremony. There’s a fear of losing what little we have left. Cultural appropriation and our history have taught us to be protective and secretive about our beliefs and ceremonies.

We all have the opportunity to be healers in our daily interactions with others. As counseling professionals, we have a responsibility to be aware of historical traumas, social and political contexts or run the risk of being culturally biased and over-pathologizing the people we serve. Many traumatized populations do not know their own history and need help recognizing their triggers. General cultural literacy is not enough when serving persons from a collectivistic society that have a history of colonization. Knowledge of the community dynamics and their history is vital.

How does one obtain that knowledge? You seek credible sources, you join in as a helper, you LISTEN. Some communities are fortunate enough to have written histories or documentaries although most have oral histories held by elders. If one asks respectfully and humbly most elders will let you know what it is important for you to know. Psychologists can honor the Indigenous Peoples of the United States by learning from our neighbors to the north by taking to heart the recommendations in the Canadian Psychological Association’s Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In answer to the questions “What is the preferred terminology when addressing the original people of this land?  Is it OK to say Indian?” Ask the person their preference as preferences vary among members of the 567 federally recognized tribal entities in the United States in 2018.  Some prefer to be addressed as Indian. They articulate their ancestors sacrificed too much to let this term be used as a slur against them. Others prefer to be addressed as First Nations or Indigenous. Many prefer their traditional names versus their government-issued names, for example, Tohono O’odham vs Pima or Nakoda vs Assiniboine.  In this blog, I use the terms “Indian” and “Indigenous”


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Iva GreyWolf, PhD, has 40 years of experience delivering behavioral health services primarily to Native people in rural and remote areas. She is committed to serving the underserved. She is a trainer/consultant nationally and internationally on a variety of behavioral health issues such as complex trauma, co-occurring disorders, grief, clinical supervision and resilience. Dr. GreyWolf has served as a member and chair of the American Psychological Association Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs and as a member and chair of the APA Committee on Rural Health, as a commissioner on the Alaska Commission for Behavioral Health Certification and on the Alaska Board of Psychologists. GreyWolf is an APA fellow. She currently serves on CEMRRAT2, the APA Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment Retention and Training. Dr. GreyWolf is president–elect of the Society of Indian Psychologists.

Image credit: Dr. Greywolf’s granddaughter, JoMarie Garcia, is pictured. She is of Ihanktonwan (meaning Yankton Sioux) and Oglala Lakota heritage and holds a BA in Psychology from University of Minnesota, Morris (Class of 2018).

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