C4 Innovations

Intentional Resilience for Native Children and Families

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Terry Cross shares the relational worldview and discusses mental health and resilience for Native children and families with host Katie Volk. This episode is sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC).

January 11, 2021


Katie Volk, Host: [00:05] Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Katie Volk. Today’s podcast is sponsored by the New England MHTTC. Today, we’re talking with Terry Cross about intentional resilience. Terry is a citizen of the Seneca Nation of Indians and founder and senior advisor to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. He’s joining us today from the Oregon Coast. Terry, welcome. It’s good to have you here.

Terry Cross, Guest: [00:30] Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Katie: [00:31] Tell us a little bit about your work. Let’s start there.

Terry: [00:35] Well, this is my 47th year in child welfare and children’s mental health. I’m a licensed clinical social worker, and my whole career has been devoted to working with American Indian and Alaska Native children and families and really having to translate from a predominant worldview to a Native Indigenous worldview and have child welfare and social work and mental health services actually makes sense in our culture.

Katie: [01:10] Yeah, certainly. What do you find are the biggest translations that you’re doing between that predominant worldview and Native culture?

Terry: [01:18] Well, worldview is one of the biggest ones, and worldview is a collective thought process of a group of people. I sometimes quip with people that our thoughts are organized into ideas, our ideas are organized into concepts, and our concepts are organized into constructs, and our constructs are organized into paradigms, and our paradigms are organized into worldview. When people say, “What’s the big idea?” I say, “Worldview.”

Katie: [01:53] That makes sense. That makes sense. And could you say a little bit about the Native worldview when it comes to things like mental health?

Terry: [02:02] Yeah. In the United States and other countries that have been colonized by the Europeans, there are two predominant worldviews. One we refer to as the linear worldview, the other as the relational worldview. And linear worldview can be understood as things happening on a temporal line, across series of cause and effect relationships. That’s where we get the ideas of evidence based practice. We understand problems and their solutions, where the notion of theories of change come from. The simplest theory of change is given this, if we do this, then this will happen. Very much aligned process. The relational model really understands the world holistically as a balance between four quadrants of mind, body, spirit, and context. And when I say context, I mean the world us and the idea of mental wellbeing is related to the balance amongst those four quadrants rather than understanding problems and their solutions on a line.

Katie: [03:14] Yeah, certainly we’re holistic creatures for sure and meant to be in relationship with one another, which I would guess plays a piece of this as well.

Terry: [03:24] Well, a major piece and part of the tribal teaching in this relational model is that everything is fluid and cyclical. Each quadrant, each thing relates to every other thing, nothing can change in the circle without everything else being impacted. But what it means is a different approach in helping where a linear model is really aimed at doing something specific to address a symptom or a problem. In the relational model the question is not what’s wrong with you, but how do you bring about balance?

Katie: [04:04] That makes so much sense. I’m wondering here about what that looks like in a child welfare system.

Terry: [04:12] Yeah. Good question. Because one of the things that we know in our Native communities is that historical trauma is such a big part of the context of our families and historical trauma becomes intergenerational trauma handed down generation to generation. And so where the mainstream way of looking at something might ask for a social history, we have to go beyond that individual social history to a collective history and the understanding of how the political environment, the economic environment, the community, the culture, and the collective nature of our culture influences behaviors and the problems. And you see then that that’s manifested in the way we process emotions or how you see manifestations of that historical trauma in disparities in the health.

Terry: [05:18] We’re all familiar with the social determinants of health, and they extend to the emotional wellbeing. And I think one of the things that sets aside our tribal thought is we also relate that there’s the belief system is that what’s going on around that circle is equally influenced by the spiritual nature of the human experience. And that that has both positive and negative influences on everything else in that balance.

Katie: [05:51] Balancing those four quadrants that you talked about must have a relationship to wellbeing and I know that’s something you talk quite a bit about.

Terry: [06:00] It is very much related to wellbeing. And one of the things about tribal cultures and the belief system about mental wellbeing is that our cultures have teachings about how to stay well. And in other words, we’re taught if we maintain proper relationships with the world around us, with our relatives, with our family, those relationships help keep us healthy. We’re taught also, particularly in my tribe, that we’re part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the teachings of the good mind are central to our belief system. Holding your mind in a certain way is important to health and wellbeing. Treating your body in a certain way, making sure that you’re keeping your body healthy is a prescription for wellbeing and maintaining a proper relationship with your creator and with the earth and with the foods are all important teachings that we have.

Terry: [07:03] It’s really embedded in the cultural framework is this understanding that there’s a certain way to be and certain way to be human that is a good way and a way that keeps us healthy. And so this balance is a process that can either happen to you or you can act on it. And what our cultures teach is that we have some responsibility to act on it, not just for ourselves, but for those around us.

Katie: [07:37] That makes a lot of sense. In a lot of times on this podcast, in these conversations, we talk a lot about the role of shame and stigma and then recovery and resilience on the other hand, and I wonder how that plays in as well.

Terry: [07:51] Yeah, well, that’s a really good question because in this relational model, the problem doesn’t belong to the person. The problem belongs in the imbalance. And once you’ve righted the balance, there’s no stigma attached to having been out of balance. And while we struggle to realize that because of the nature of living in two worldviews, and we live in an environment where it’s strongly influenced by both ways of thinking, we also, we see that as Native people, we’re able to overcome many issues and sometimes relatively quickly, when the focus is on restoring the balance.

Terry: [08:33] In the area of working with substance abusing families, one of the main focuses for us to in child welfare is to really help families understand how these four quadrants interact with each other. Particularly about the brain chemistry of substance use disorders and how that interacts with behavior and thought. And we have a teaching in our Haudenosaunee culture that when you take alcohol into your body, that alcohol has a spirit of its own. And the more you take that into your body, the spirit of the alcohol begins to replace your own spirit and eventually will control your thinking, control your relationships, control your spirit, and it’s what was described to me by one of my elders who helped me on my path to recovery, really was a description of brain chemistry that was decades before reading anything in a journal.

Katie: [09:45] The concept of there being no shame and being out of balance is such a beautiful one. It’s so powerful to think about and leaves me wondering about how we can be really intentional and making sure we are in balance.

Terry: [10:00] Yeah, our title today about intentional resilience is really about using these four quadrants in a very intentional kind of way. As I said, a few minutes ago, the relationship between these four quadrants can happen to you in a passive way or we can make intentional choices to change the balance. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be directed at the thing that is troubling us. If we can strengthen something in one of the quadrants, it can balance out a problem we have in another quadrant.

Terry: [10:37] I mentioned the good mind. Part of intentional resilience is to hold positive thoughts. And so approaches like mindfulness can be very influential in changing the way that we think. And if we change the way that we think, our stomach feels better, our body feels less pain. By the same token, we can change the way that we think by engaging in regular physical activity. If we’re finding that we’re stressed or that we’re feeling down, physical exercise is going to help that.

Terry: [11:17] In the spirit quadrant we know that a ritualized processes and practices for Native people, things like smudging or other forms of ceremonies will bring about positive spiritual outcomes or a sense of wellbeing within. When you feel that sense of wellbeing spiritually, it’s much easier to engage your relative or your loved ones with kindness. And we have customs in our culture about gift giving, about being grateful and giving thanks and making sure we honor people. If we’re working every one of those quadrants to do something positive each day and sometimes in each hour of each day, we can create a balance that sustains us through some of the most difficult times.

Terry: [12:16] One of our cultural teachings Haudenosaunee culture is that life is a constant balance between the good things that happen to us and the negative things that happen to us. And sometimes we won’t even recognize that something is good, has the bad outcome we think is good, or something we think is bad is going to have a good outcome. And we have to use our discernment. We have to use our power of holding that good mind to be patient for understanding the outcome. And so turning adversity into strength is one of the hallmarks of intentional resilience.

Katie: [12:57] A lot of our listeners are mainstream practitioners, and I wonder what advice you would have to them in deepening their understanding of Native practices or understanding some of this better.

Terry: [13:11] Yeah, probably the mainstream practitioner is not going to use this type of thinking. I talk more about it for their appreciation to get help from Native practitioners and to be aware that the clients that they have may not relate to their methodology at all, or to relate only in as I said every linear line emanates from the circle. There was an interesting study, maybe clear back in the eighties, of all of the women receiving mental health services from the state agencies was a certain diagnostic category. I think it was depression or something. That 75% of them were also receiving doctoring from their traditional practitioner, and their mainstream provider didn’t know that. And in part, it’s just not acceptable to talk about those things, because it was pathologized that if you believed that relational stuff, that that was part of your illness, not a solution. In addition, there are resources on the NICWA website and that’s real easy. It’s nicwa.org. N-I-C-W-A.org and if you just search for relational worldview, you find some resources there.

Katie: [14:48] Wonderful. And listeners, we will have that website listed in the show notes for this episode. As we’re winding down our conversation, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about how you’re seeing some of these practices that you’re talking about and some of the balance and intentionality that you’re talking about play out during COVID. I know the tribal communities have been so hard hit by the pandemic.

Terry: [15:14] Well, unfortunately that’s true. And I’ve been called on frequently in the last several months to provide training on intentional resilience because it is so important to help communities come through this. Let me just walk around the circle a little bit to kind of illustrate kind of the broader ramifications here. In that context quadrant some of that context, and I mentioned historical trauma, the introduction of diseases from Europe devastated our communities starting back in the 1600s in your territory. And with the 1918 flu pandemic in Alaska in some villages, 80% of the population was wiped out. In Western New York, where I’m from, in the late 1700s, early 1800s, 85% of our population perished as the settlers came in. So, this pandemic is not just a threat to our wellbeing in the sense of the current devastation of the disease, but it also surfaces all of that historical trauma and the isolation that we’re experiencing and the inability to come together for our ceremonial practices.

Terry: [16:40] These all add dramatically to the vulnerability for people to self-medicate or to lose their sobriety. Those are just one aspect that may be different. And then in addition to what the rest of the world is facing. We also sometimes in this relational model, people think of it as anti-science. Well, it is absolutely not because every linear line emanates from the center of that circle so every bit of scientific understanding that we have has its basis in a circle. And so we have to understand that relationship of the mask, for example, with the relationships we have with our family.

Terry: [17:26] And here’s an interesting tidbit in my tribe. We’ve known that masks heal people since time immemorial. And so today we have to have a new kind of mask that protects our families from the assault of this outside force that is impacting us so deeply. But we will need to very intentional and very planful about helping families through the grief and loss that this pandemic is contributing to not only in response to the historical trauma, but a new wave that because one of the aspects of this relational model is that the experiences of communities are collective. It’s not just an individual loss, it’s a collective loss.

Terry: [18:16] The flip side of that is that healing is collective, and we can help each other heal. We can help each other deal with the trauma of the loss and work together diligently, applying the things that we know from our belief and our spiritual practices to do those things that will protect us both spiritually and physically, with wearing masks and keeping distance and all of the things that we know keep families safe.

Katie: [18:48] Terry, I so appreciate you joining our conversation today and describing all of this in so much detail. I think it’s tremendously interesting and gives us a lot to think about, and it’s just been an honor to speak with you today.

Terry: [19:02] Thank you for asking me. It’s so important that I think that people understand or gain some appreciation for a different way of knowing. That for too long, we’ve been told our ways are bad or less than and that’s part of the legacy of colonialism. You mentioned the shame and guilt. It’s time to throw off the shame and guilt that was perpetrated in the colonial process and realize that big colonial lie is not true. Our ways are good. Our thinking is valuable, and it helps keep us healthy and whole.

Katie: [19:44] I couldn’t agree more. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to share some of that with us today.

Terry: [19:51] Right. Thank you.

Katie: [19:52] And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer: [19:57] Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Our host for this series is Katie Volk. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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