Skip to main content

Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Indigenous traditional healing methods rely on spirituality and ceremony as a means to recover from maladies such as addiction, trauma and suicide. These methods have generally not been recognized by mainstream mental health professionals as legitimate evidence-based practices.

This mindset, however, is beginning to change, thanks to the work of researchers like Joseph Gone, a citizen of the Aaniih-Gros Ventre Nation and an anthropology professor at Harvard University who also teaches at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Medicine.

American Psychologist, the journal for the American Psychological Association, announced March 11 that Gone had won the award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Applied Research for his “extraordinary contributions to the application of psychological knowledge for American Indian peoples.”

The association, with more than 133,000 members, including scientists, educators, clinicians and consultants, is the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the U.S.

“The American Psychological Association has given me a platform to share what I’ve learned about Indigenous health and wellbeing,” Gone told Indian Country Today.

‘Living proof’

Gone, who has a doctoral degree in clinical and community psychology, is faculty director of Harvard’s Native American Program and has published more than 90 articles exploring the cultural psychology of Indigenous peoples. He says few have interest in how the scientific world assesses traditional healing.

Instead, they embrace firsthand experiences of those who have benefitted from traditional ways as proof that they work.

SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.

Gone shared an anecdote from his consultation work with the Blackfeet Nation’s addiction program. In 2009, he approached leadership of the traditional Crazy Dog Society for help in designing addiction treatment centering Blackfeet therapeutic traditions.

Gone shared the importance of formal evaluation with society members because mental health researchers didn’t yet know if participation in ceremonial practices could effectively treat addiction.

At that point, Gone said, the gathering erupted into raucous laughter.

“The leader explained that every participant in the ceremony was living proof that cultural traditions can remedy substance abuse problems,” he said.

The concepts of wellness and mental health can be different for Indigenous peoples than typical middle America.

“The middle American ideal of a whole healthy person might be one of someone who is running the rat race, pursuing happiness and wealth disconnected from other people,” Gone said. “Whereas in our communities, we have a more socio-centric sense of self. Mental health and well-being are based on our connection to others and our kinship and family relationships as well as tribal history.”

Gone also notes that focusing on mental health issues alone in Indigenous communities without looking at issues such as the chronic lack of housing, reliable access to food and job opportunities is negligent.

There is evidence, Gone said, that providing stable housing for those recovering from opioid addiction makes a big difference in successful healing.

“Many of our communities lack the resources such as job opportunities and housing that create a basic platform on which to raise a healthy family,” he said. “Many federal reform efforts have been ill-conceived, creating environments in which people can never count on anything.”

“Unfortunately,” Gone added, “in the end, Native people are blamed for their problems.”

Making assumptions

Gone prefers to use what he calls an “alter-Native” view to reframe such problems as addiction, trauma and suicide that afflict Indigenous communities. He views them as rooted in historical trauma arising from the pathologies of colonial subjugation and dispossession.

Longstanding mental health disparities reflect the need for more and better services in Indian Country, but conventional psychosocial approaches with an emphasis on principles and practices that local communities see as foreign are not effective, according to Gone.

Since mainstream psychology is centered in middle American norms, its measures typically reflect those standards.

It’s a perspective that is garnering increasing attention. In addition to the recent award, Gone was awarded the Association’s Presidential Citation in 2021 in “recognition of his commitment, dedication and leadership in advancing strategies to disarm and dismantle racism in psychology,” according to an announcement.

Gone hopes his work can help further the dialogue about differences in professional assumptions.

“Highlighting distinctions and contrasts in worldview can help illuminate these assumptions that are often taken for granted,” he said, “assumptions that sometimes are not really based on any more science or data than others.”

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.