Native Mindfulness: Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center

Dominique Godrèche

Donna LaChapelle, elder in residence for the Nokomis Endaad program at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, (MIWRC), found the answers to her prayers during a casual event. A Native healer, LaChapelle investigated multiple therapeutic paths for years, but something was missing, “in our Native ways, we use smudging, ceremonies, sweat lodges. … But we needed something to understand the psychology of trauma, and get in the mind of the patients: why drug, alcohol…? Watching the women in recovery with no success, I prayed for help.”

That night, her question, “What does it take to get well,” was answered when she met a mind-body practitioner sitting next to her. “Listening to Kathy, It made sense right away that we needed this type of work: in trauma, the mind and the body dissociate. And when the mind is exiled from the body, depression begins,” LaChapelle said.

So LaChapelle and Linda EagleSpeaker, a seventh generation Blackfoot herbalist, elder in residence in charge of the Sacred Journey program, followed the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s (CMBM) training, with the support of their executive director, Suzanne Koepplinger, a strong believer in self care. “Those skills allow the person to use the mind in the body; and address the trauma. So it really helps,” LaChapelle said.

Founded by James S. Gordon, a Harvard educated psychiatrist, the Center for Mind-Body Medicine addresses depression, anxiety, and psychological trauma. “When women have been sexually or physically abused, their bodies are alien to them; so it is important to relieve the tension with technics creating inner calm,” explained Gordon. “And also to share, by talking, as the worst thing is shame and isolation. Mind body medicine is about creating an atmosphere of love, having faith in other people’s capacity to help, using specific tools.”

Located in Phillips, Minnesota, the MIWRC has been offering a variety of therapeutic and support programs for mental illness, sexual abuse and drug addiction for 30 years. But EagleSpeaker and LaChapelle have noticed a real progress since they started practicing their innovative mix of Native American healing and mind body techniques. “We have a growing number of women who maintain their sobriety, so we are building a community of sober women with children,” emphasized LaChapelle.

One of the tools, mindfulness meditation, teaches the individual to focus, relieving the stress of psycho-physical dissociation: for those living the daily challenge of a split reality, to survive difficult situations, abuses, the method provides a state of relaxation, accelerating the healing process. “I saw the changes in myself, as I was integrating my body,” EagleSpeaker said. “I was present, more confident. And I noticed the same effects in the women: when they arrive, they carry their anxiety. Then they practice the breathing exercise, to calm down the nervous system, and become more present. This active role in managing one’s stress is essential: meditation, by allowing a deep relaxation, facilitates the body‘s intelligence to start the healing. And stress reduction is an important part of the process, when you went through a rape; your mind leaves your body, and relieving the stress enables to get in a safe place of the mind. In Native ways, we do not have this type of meditation: we learn to breath inside the sweat lodge – so that we do not burn our lungs, as the rocks are so hot – or lower our heart rate. But we would not call that ‘meditation.’ That is why the mix of traditional Native healing with mind body techniques is a perfect blend.”

An opinion shared by LaChapelle, in charge of the program for addicted women; “the Mind Body complements the Native healing, and enriches the experience. I was surprised: I am 65, have been interested in healing most of my life, studying various techniques. … But when I started meditating, I felt my spirit integrate my body, and that new experience was like a new birth. It awakened me: I entered a new life!”

“The training is about self awareness and self care,” explained Gordon, “with an integrative approach. They are learning from us, and now, we are learning from them: we grow with the people we work with.”

For Patina Park, the director of MIWRC, LaChapelle and EagleSpeaker’s innovative work is coherent with the center’s cultural identity. “There is no contradiction. The trauma is in our DNA, and the cultural component connects to our community at a cellular level – even when you are not raised as a traditional person – blood memory predates our existence. And the mind body approach recognizes it. The agency is a center for healing: I cannot end poverty, but I can help each person to see herself with the help of certain skills. Clients may not know where they will sleep when they come out of our program, but the technique helps them to control their response to stress. And instead of putting themselves in danger, or acting out with violent responses, they learn to bring themselves down to make the right decision.“

The local population of the center faces the abuses of street life, poverty. … Victims of hardship, with no survival tools except the use of drug and alcohol, to reach altered states of consciousness, and forget conflicting realities, they end up in a self-destructive cycle. “Our practice is an incredible tool for trauma,” explained EagleSpeaker, who has worked at MIWRC for the last 14 years. “Learning about their value, and the respect for themselves, stops the people from using drugs, and destroying themselves on the streets: I cannot take them OUT of that world, but I can help them IN that world.“

EagleSpeaker and LaChapelle are now branching out, starting a new program for young people in Pine Ridge, hoping to proceed on a larger scale. “This is a new project, we began our first year of training in Pine Ridge, and we noticed an improvement immediately,“ LaChapelle said; “so we will continue to bring our healing to Indian country.”

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