Three Native women: Sidney Stone Brown, Vivian Delgado and Dianna Ducote-Sabey are starting the nonprofit Our Native Healing Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Carol Berry)

Denver-based Our Native Healing Center to Focus on Respect

Carol Berry
4/26/11

DENVER—Mental health treatment may become more fashionable—certainly more indigenous—if three Native women with a vision have their way.

“We thought big and we’re starting little,” laughed Sidney Stone Brown, of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, one of the trio of doctoral-level professionals starting the nonprofit Our Native Healing Center, open in Denver, Colorado on May 1.

It’s not as though the stigma of treatment will go away instantly—after all, a federal survey of Denver’s American Indian community needs in 2007 placed the number one barrier to accessing treatment as: “Fear of being stigmatized, distrust of confidentiality."

Not surprising, in a relatively small community where most people know most other people, sometimes including the counselors themselves and their families.

Acknowledging that interconnection, the fundraiser held just before center’s opening was an oldies dance, with the likelihood that some of the attendees would also be clients at some point as an outgrowth of the close-knit community.

But there is another side to the new center, whose Lakota affirmation is “hecel lena oyate nipi kte”—“so that the People may live,” the legacy of the late Susan Faye Yellow Horse-Davis, Oglala Lakota, in whose honor the event was held. She died May 6, 2010, as planning was under way for the healing center she envisioned, and her family participated in fund-raising to continue her dream.

Yellow Horse-Davis, too, received the doctorate, a Ph.D. in social work awarded posthumously by the University of Denver where she had been pursuing graduate studies.

The new Healing Center will offer alternatives to some of the shortcomings of linear, Western approaches, the planners said, and it will also avoid common organizational pitfalls by being decidedly non-hierarchical. It will stress wellness and client-centered planning.

“We’re being terminated as tribes one family at a time,” Brown said, underscoring the unmet need for the Healing Center. “We need to stop chasing the problem and start moving toward wellness as the focal point—we need to say, ‘You aren’t the problem, the problem is a system of historical trauma.’”

It’s a point of view shared by Vivian Delgado, Yaqui Pueblo, currently the Center’s rotating point-person and grant writer, who teaches diversity and psychology part-year at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, and by Dianna Ducote-Sabey, Chickasaw Nation, a counseling psychologist, who funded the Center’s offices in the Highlands neighborhood of north Denver.

In one area, “Child welfare statistics suggest there’s a continued belief that American Indians can’t successfully parent their children, but people change when they are treated in a different way—with respect” and non-Natives also respond to a service delivery system that respects them, Brown said.

The four-part core of the Healing Center includes a nonprofit component offering direct mental health/substance abuse and intervention/prevention services; a for-profit component that includes group therapy and such specialized services as dream groups; a research and publication entity offering evidence-based practice, traditional healing, and identity trauma exploration, and a historical trauma center that provides seminars/workshops and curriculum development.

Certainly there are grief issues, the planners point out, and intergenerational trauma is part of the basic philosophy, “but we want to be forward-thinking—to take the best of both and create something even better. Transformation is at the heart of the Healing Center, and outcomes will tell the tale,” Delgado said.

A Turtle Island intervention, to use the Healing Center term, will usually indicate that participants are interested in strengthening cultural attachment, whether through ceremonies, elder teachings, or in other ways, but the program lets them have a choice: “They were used to plans or interventions designed from the provider’s point of view, rather than theirs or their family’s; we make decisions and goals based on their needs and strengthening their affirmations of ‘Yes, we can,’” Brown said.

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