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Men's wellness program model fosters healing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Clayton J. Small knew his Ph.D. dissertation would have to be something that inspired passion and commitment.

It didn't take him long to realize that his own personal journey as an American Indian man, healing unresolved issues, was the place to start. Indian men's wellness and recovery from a wide variety of problems including substance abuse, spouse abuse and other anti-social behaviors became his research topic.

As he studied the current literature, he realized there was nothing for Indian men. The mainstream men's wellness movement, headed up by people such as poet Robert Bly, was doing a booming business. Men's healing seminars and books on men's healing were cropping up all over America. But for American Indian men - nothing.

But the irony went deeper than an absence of material. Mainstream men's wellness therapies, which seemingly leave Indian country untouched, borrow heavily from American Indian traditions.

Ceremony, drumming, dancing, talking circles, all of the vehicles traditionally employed to evoke and release emotions, personal attitudes and suppressed traumas that inhibit personal healing were being used in the mainstream to wonderfully good effect.

"What they were searching for ... is what Native people have right in front of them all the time but, for whatever reason chose, for the most part, to turn away from," Small says.

Lack of social support for traditional ceremonies and healing methods plus guilt, spilling over from Christian dogmas condemning such practices, formed much of the rationale for the situation. Small realized there was more to it than that. As he dug into his own soul, he realized that shame, shame for being an Indian man, was the bedrock of many of his own personal problems and for most of his peers.

It was a Catch-22 situation. If Indian men were ashamed of being Indian, how could they possibly turn to their own potent traditions for healing? And there were other issues as well.

Historical trauma around boarding schools and government policies around termination and assimilation, the American Holocaust where it's estimated that 15 million to 20 million Indians in North America perished, all of those things remain unaddressed by mainstream society.

"I think that's part of the unresolved healing of Indian people here in America and Canada," Small says. "That truth has never been publicly acknowledged. So how do people work through that kind of wounding when the homelands they live in deny that happened?"

As he asked these questions, Small's dissertation expanded into a model for a gender specific treatment program that could be carried into Indian country. How is this wounding healed? One step at a time. And the decision to make the first step is one that some people take and others don't.

"How do we get more Indian men, in particular at a younger age, to find this door and to get on the wellness path?" asks Small. "I wish that it was an easy thing to do. I wish you could just wakeup one day and say 'I'm going to be a different person today. But it just doesn't happen that way.

"It comes from a lot of suffering and overcoming a lot of adversity and having a lot of losses in their lives, divorce, firing from jobs, hospitalization. And then, if they're lucky, the light comes on and they look in the mirror and say 'the enemy is me. I'm one who has to change.'

"And so that's how it begins. And then as Native men get on this wellness path, there are some real challenging, unresolved issues that need to be worked on." In Small's program, the first issue is often sobriety. He firmly points out that a person cannot do any kind of meaningful heart and soul work without a clear mind. Following that, addressing what he calls family origin issues are vital. These are problems that have been passed down through families for generations, secrets that spread the trauma further with each generation.

Poverty, violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, disease and racist issues around bloodlines are all family origin issues that, historically, few have been willing to talk about in families or communities. Breaking the silence, often through ceremony, is the way out and the path to healing.

"How many times have you heard someone say, 'I'll never be that kind of a parent or that kind of a husband or that kind of a wife?' They say that seriously, with good intentions, but unless we work real hard at breaking the cycles, they just continue to repeat," Small says.

The biggest challenge for individuals is getting ready to change, something Small had to wrestle with himself.

"We don't do it willingly," he says. "We put it on the back burner and say we have so much to do. 'I've got to finish this degree' or 'I've got to take care of my family, I'll do that later.' Usually it's a series of crises in our life that guides us to say 'I can't put it off anymore, I've got to do it now.'"

For Small it was tough to realize that, despite his inner soul work and a career based on helping others change, he still had issues to address concerning his father. Unbalanced core attitudes about what it took to be a "real man" led him to be powerful in his life, but at the cost of gentleness and kindness. These were the human qualities his father had that Small had never identified with "manly strength."

"In America we've been taught to fulfill the American dream and to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and to achieve. Well that's patriarchy," he says. "That's control and power. And usually we do that by stepping and walking on other people ... we oppress each other, we violate each other."

It was not until he had a long heart-to-heart talk with his father that a breakthrough happened. The result? A new level of personal wholeness and happiness and better relationships with the people in his life.

By the time he completed his dissertation in 1996, Small had come up with the basic model for an Indian men's wellness program. With spirituality at its core, it laid out the steps for getting on the path and making changes: first sobriety, then confronting issues of family origin, relationship with fathers and attitudes around cultural shame.

"Some men have said to me, 'How can I do that work when I've been raised in a foster home or an adopted home or was raised by women or my father's dead?' There are ways that you can make that peace - if you want healthy relationships with people ..."

Now that he has a model to bring to Indian communities throughout the United States and Canada, Small is looking forward to communities stepping forward and opening the door for the program ... and for the individuals that choose to come.