Photo courtesy Tommy Orange
Psychology doctoral student Virgil Moorehead makes an Icarus sign (“Fly high or die trying,” he explains) while talking to youth, during a cultural exchange between urban and reservation Native students in the traditional Yurok village in Patrick’s Point, California. The exchange was part of the Youth Wellness Initiative of the Native American Health Center of Oakland, where Moorehead is a psychology intern.

Psychology Student Explores the Healing Power of Digital Storytelling

Marc Dadigan

In the video entitled “Red Moon,” a Cheyenne man speaks of a self-hatred that permeated his soul even as a child. It went so deep, he wondered if his mother was paying his playmates to be his friends.

His voice sounds serene and calm, yet there is a faint tremble to it, belying the emotion beneath the surface. His words are accompanied by a mosaic of family photos and abstract stock footage: a bodiless beating heart and matadors dodging an angry bull among the images.

After a dark winter as a young man, after some family tragedies, he found himself confronted by a penetrating question: “Do you really want to live?” he says in the video. “I came back from that dark night with a yes, a resounding yes, I do.”

“Red Moon” is one of nearly 70 digital shorts through which clients and staff of the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California have told their stories, and psychology intern Virgil Moorehead, 31, believes they are not only a way for Native people to control the narratives about their people but can serve to heal the scars of intergenerational trauma.

“Helping Natives tell these stories can help break the conspiracy of silence, the way we’re not talking about these issues,” said Moorehead, who is Yurok, Tolowa and an enrolled member of the Big Lagoon Rancheria. “It can help with the shame, guilt and depression that is so prevalent in Indian country.”

While working at the health center, Moorehead is also in the final year of his doctorate program in psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, for which he is studying the digital shorts in an effort to identify common themes across subjects and ways to improve the production process.

He hopes his research will help psychologists understand specifically what is helpful about these workshops, and provide some scientific basis that they should be considered an evidence-based therapy, possibly for identity issues, trauma and addiction.

For his research, he’ll be conducting 10 interviews of open-ended questions with people who have gone through the three-day workshop, which the health center holds in partnership with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley.

During the workshop, the participants work on telling their stories, writing them into a concise script, around 300 to 400 words, and then work with facilitators in putting the visual and audio elements together with video editing software.

Once the video is complete, the creator of the video has control over its distribution. They may keep it private if they choose, but many decide to post the videos on the health center’s YouTube channel, so others can benefit from watching their stories.

“These are stories of resilience,” Moorehead said. “It helps raise awareness not only of the Native American community, but it also shows the general public what’s right with Native people—how we’re strong and have beautiful cultures.”

In order to take a participatory approach, Moorehead said he produced his own video, which delved into his family’s history of alcoholism, and he theorizes that his study might show it’ll benefit future workshops to have clinicians there to support people making painful disclosures.

“It really helped me to examine the struggles I’ve gone through in my life,” he said. “People get really, really deep [making these videos], talking about wounds of their childhood.”

After Moorehead transcribes his interviews, he and three other evaluators will code the information to figure out which themes in the videos are the most common and then an outside auditor will examine the results. He hopes to finish the project by the spring of 2013.

“I wanted to do it this way, so it’s not just me deciding what it means,” he said. “It’s very collaborative and communal in keeping with Native culture.”

Moorehead sees the digital storytelling projects as having therapeutic value, but he also helps facilitate a suicide prevention program that fosters face-to-face interactions.

The health center’s Youth Wellness Initiative attempts to bridge the gap between urban and rural Native communities by holding cultural exchanges between teenagers from the Yurok and Hoopa reservations and Native teenagers in the Bay Area.

“It helps to show them the differences and similarities of their lives, and builds connections and friendships across tribes and communities,” he said.

The exchanges focus on promoting culture and are based on a suicide prevention curriculum, he said. When the urban students traveled to the reservation, the Yuroks did brush dance demonstrations, talked about Yurok culture and displayed traditional regalia.

At the end of January the rural students came to the Bay Area where they visited Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley with their urban peers. Native college students gave the group a tour of the Stanford campus and at Berkeley they were treated to poetry and spoken word readings. They also visited Alcatraz, where three elders who participated in the occupation of the island spoke to them about the significance of their activism. About 90 students participated, and Moorehead said they’re planning to go back to Humboldt County with the same group and camp on the Klamath River, doing all kinds of cultural activities again.

“Culture is prevention,” he said. “The more our Native youth are in touch with their own culture, the more they feel that social connectiveness, and the less likely they’re going to feel isolated and lonely.”

Watch Virgil Moorehead's video here:

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