In celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day: A Therapist Journey Toward Decolonization

In celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day: A Therapist Journey Toward Decolonization

Jodene Cuero, M.A., Dinè (CSPP/AIU, CFT)
Amanda Young, M.A., MHA Nation (Oklahoma State University, Counseling Psychology)
Julii Green, PhD, African American & Eastern Band Cherokee (CSPP/AIU, PsyD Dept)

We represent Native American psychologists and psychologists-in-training from the following tribal communities Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (MHA Nation), Navajo Nation, and Eastern Band Cherokee. We acknowledge our relatives who have journeyed before us, those who are currently enduring, and those who have yet to come. In honoring Indigenous People’s Day, we plan to briefly discuss strategies for becoming a decolonized therapist as well as considerations for decolonizing therapy with Native American clients. We will reflect upon history, supportive literature, and lived experiences.

From the beginning of time, Native Americans exercised their own holistic systems of care which consisted of their spiritual practices, traditional medicine healers, and medicinal properties derived from the natural resources within their local areas (Lucero, 2011; Vogel, 1970). Sadly, these holistic systems of care were disbanded and altogether replaced with foreign and dysfunctional approaches at the start of Colonialism. As a result, there has been little progress in effectively dealing with the current social and psychological problems eroding away at the health and wellness of many Native American families (Duran, Duran, & Brave Heart, 1998). Today, as more studies focus on the resilience and strengths of Native Americans, including their worldview and traditional practices, Natives have received more favorable outcomes (Morse, McIntyre, & King, 2016). It is therefore essential to regard Native culture as an important element in the wellness, health, and healing process for Native Americans.

Beginning one’s own decolonization journey involves exploring one’s historical roots, knowing where one’s family came from, considering how trauma is manifested within one’s family, understanding family members strengths, and imaging how one’s family would be functioning if colonization had not occurred (Duran, 2006). It is important to understand that everyone is colonized and therefore can embrace the process of decolonization. This journey is part of a lifelong process that can lead to an appreciation of the importance of decolonizing colonial systems utilized to aid Indian Country. For example, Native American researchers have developed evidence-based approaches to reducing suicide and alcohol abuse among Alaska Native youth through a decolonizing framework (see Allen & Mohatt for extensive review). A colonial system we should consider adapting includes westernized approaches to mental health, specifically therapy. Decolonizing therapy involves integrating cultural and community strengths. Before we can incorporate these strengths, it’s critical to decolonize how therapists view their clients and communities they are working within.

Native American clients are likely experiencing trauma at higher rates as well as contending with distressing events (abovementioned) that rips away a piece of the soul, leading to a “Soul Wound” (Duran, 2006), and it is often replaced with pain and hurt. If this pain and/or hurt is not addressed, it will slowly overcome and color the soul. This might lead to internalized oppression, lateralized violence, and other maladaptive behaviors. Duran (2006) introduces the concept of Healing the Soul Wound and it focuses on restructuring how mental health professionals view therapy. Therapy should address healing the pain and hurt of the soul according to Duran. It is important to remember that this piece of the soul will never go away and we should work collaboratively with the individual and the community to decrease its impact.

The transmission of cultural knowledge occurs through many of the following traditional activities such as Sweat Lodge, Seasonal Spiritual dances, Spiritual Ceremonies, Drumming, Traditional Songs, Traditional Story Telling, and Art (weaving, pottery, painting, basket making, tools, making regalia, and making traditional clothing) (Denham, 2008; Morse et al., 2016). It is important to note that the forms of art, gifts, and activities extend far beyond the Native stereotyped beading and pottery. These traditional approaches provide a context that incorporates the values and belief systems of the Native Americans that holds to the interconnectedness of the mind, body, spirit, environment, universe, and community (all living beings). It is the balance and harmony of this connectedness that constructs the resilience and health for Native Americans (Cross, 1997; Garrett et al., 2005). It is a natural process of living well for the Native Americans. This way of being has always been the way of life prior to Colonialism.

Therapists can also utilize Felt Theory (Million, 2013) which focuses on increasing collectiveness, knowledge, and empathy. This theory emphasizes the development of empathy for the pain and strength of the individual and the community. In an effort to develop empathy for Native clients, it is recommended to read relevant literature, become a part of the community (e.g., participate in community events, pow wows, cultural events), be aware of issues plaguing Indian Country (e.g., increased suicide rates, impact of boarding school, historical trauma), and learning how to advocate for your client and their community. This theory is used as a strengths-based intervention and can facilitate the process of developing historical truth with the client and the community. The combination of healing the Soul Wound and Felt Theory can inform the therapist’s decolonization journey and contribute to decolonization of therapeutic interventions with Native American clients.


Allen, J, & Mohatt, G.V. (2014). Introduction to ecological description of a community intervention: Building prevention through collaborative field based research. American Journal of Community Psychology, 54, 1-2, 83-90.

Cross, T. (1997). Understanding the relational worldview in Indian families. Retrieved from

Denham, A.R. (2008). Rethinking Historical Trauma: Narratives of Resilience. Transcultural Psychiatry, 45(3): 391-414

Duran, E. (2006). Healing the soul wound: Counseling with American Indians and other native peoples. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Duran, E., Duran, B., & Brave Heart, M.Y.H. (1998). Native Americans and the trauma of history. In R. Thorton (Ed), Studying Native America: Problems and prospects (pp. 60-76). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Garrett, M.T., Garrett, J. T., Torres-Rivera, E., Wilbur, M., & Roberts-Wilbur, J. (2005). Laughing it up: Native American humor as spiritual tradition. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and development, 33, 1994-204.

Lucero, E. (2011). From Traditional to Evidence: Decolonization of the Evidence-based Practice System. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43(4): 319-324.

Million, D. (2013). Therapeutic nations: Healing in an age of indigenous human rights. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.

Morse, G.S., McIntyre, J.G., & King, J. (2016). Positive Psychology in American Indians. In E. C. Chang, C. A. Downey, J.K. Hirsch, and N.J. Lin (Eds), Positive Psychology in Racial and Ethnic Groups: Theory, Research, and Practice. American Psychological Association.

Vogel, V. (1970). American Indian Medicine. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.