Ever since I was little, my Grand Uncle, an honorary member of the Tonkawa Tribe, would visit my family from Oklahoma, and tell us stories of tradition and healing. My passion in the field of mental health grew from being highly interested in the homeopathic and spiritual forms of wellness, and advocating for the original ancestors of this land. I remember my Grand Uncle telling my family stories of the Shamans in his community, who healed people of both physical and mental ailments, and how the spirit of traditional song and dance reigned true in promoting that recovery. As I grew older, I came to realize that although I genetically did not align with the culture, I felt immense understanding and purpose there. Your family does not have to be the ones who are biologically related to you. Family can be manifested from a variety of different sources. Family is where you find safety and peace and can be unapologetically yourself. I found my journey toward studying the human condition and how to incorporate holistic ways of healing based upon Indigenous perspectives through the words of my Grand Uncle.
As I reflect upon my life experiences at 27 years of age, I can without a doubt say that along with this notion of family being an important factor in one’s life, the strength within one’s community also evokes a certain type of vital need—the need for one to thrive and grow within the world. One cannot go through life without exposure to trauma and the daily stress of living. However, if we can work toward validating experiences, and recognizing differences and how our differences can make us more liberated, then we can move toward healing. Healing not only the human condition but the Earth, which has granted us the food we consume, the air we breathe, the water that refreshes our mind, and the fire that heats our soul.
The human level of psychology intrigued me from the start, and I pursued my endeavor of providing others with a safe space and a place where their story could be heard and validated. Psychology, in essence, is the culmination of the stories we tell about ourselves, and how another can hold space for that story and interpret it in a variety of different contexts. As I am almost halfway to graduating and receiving my Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology, I ponder this idea of storytelling and how it can be cultivated in addressing cultural humility. I come from privilege. It is written in my skin. I acknowledge that I am of Caucasian roots, that I am cisgendered, that I am female, and that I was raised as an only child in a rural neighborhood with both of my parents still married, with resources and access to education. I acknowledge that I am ignorant of cultures apart from my own. I strive to take an active role in sessions with patients not of my background to learn their culture, respect their customs, and create a welcoming space for exploration of difference. Ultimately, through storytelling, we can create a conversation about the differences that make us unique but also make us imperfectly human, flawed, and untamed.
Indigenous practices teach us how to honor the human parts of our connection to one another and our connection to the land we inhabit and the cosmos. The Universe is vast in meaning, and although we may not understand every part, it does not mean we take the parts we cannot see for granted. I experienced this first-hand with my patients. There is some unexplainable connection that happens when two humans sit with one another and codes of energy are transmitted. This can be seen in the psychological realm as understanding a variety of perspectives toward maintaining a healthy balance of mental health within a system. It is not just one’s fault or the need to improve but the entire collective consciousness. Indigenous culture teaches us that the true nature of wellness is multi-sensory. There is the element of using the Earth—such as Sage to smoke cleanse the body and spirit—to see nature, to feel it healing you. Ecopsychology and even adventure therapy can relate to this perspective of connecting all three elements: the mind, the body, and the spirit. Of course, none of these practices can withstand the test of time without genuine effort and empathy, which is a requirement for human connection, rapport, trust, growth, and development. If we can learn to adopt the ways of the ancestors that founded this land long before we arrived here, then perhaps, I believe, we can work towards healing both ancestral wounds and cultural diversity.
Today, and all the days to come, let us take a moment to remember how our connection to the land and to the people that first inhabited it remains vibrant and true.
Thank you for taking the time today to read my story and joining in embracing my reflection upon the importance of Indigenous teaching, practices, and perspectives of mental health and living within one’s wellness.
Marilyn Musterait is a third-year student in the PsyD in Clinical Psychology program at Antioch’s New England campus.