Culture As Medicine

Jul 4, 2014

Dr. Dolores Bigfoot is one of the authors of the article Cultural Enhancement of Mental Health Services for American Indian Children found in the spring 2014 edition of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC). Bigfoot explains how age-old ceremonies and values from tribal life can help abused native children today.

Dolores Subia Bigfoot
Credit OU Health Sciences Center

Dolores Subia Bigfoot, Ph.D.,  is the director of Indian Country Child Trauma Center at the OU Health Sciences Center. Bigfoot said there are different evidence-based treatment approaches to treating abused children, depending on what type of abuse the child has experienced:

  • There is trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy. The trauma can be caused by abuse or being in a bad car accident or surviving the May tornado in Moore.
  • The second is parent/child interaction therapy which is a program to teach parents how to have positive interaction with their child in a very specific way.
  • Third is the treatment of children with inappropriate sexual behavior.

Bigfoot said there are other categories but these are the three that have been “culturally enhanced.”

“We look at what is helpful within our tribal communities with things that are more familiar to them, more reinforcing for their cultural teachings,” Bigfoot said. “We're looking at these core principles and look at what our tribal communities have teachings about that relate to that.”

“For example, I was up in Alaska and they were talking about their cultural teaching, I can't say the particular word they used, but the way they interpreted it is the mind is a powerful thing, meaning how you think is very important,” Bigfoot said. “So you imagine things first before you actually do it.”

In other tribal settings the emphasis may be put on feelings and emotions.

“One of the most common in the northern tribes is the wiping of the tears ceremony, a lot of emotions involved with that particular ceremony,” Bigfoot said.

“If you look at the totem poles, you see the different animals, they all have different kinds of expressions,” Bigfoot said. “Some of those are feelings and some of those are ways of being. But there's an association of those feelings, an understanding that within our cultural ways of thinking and feeling has always been there.”

Cultural ways for tribes can be in the form of prayer, offerings, gift giving to recognize a person’s good works, or dancing that helps a person to cope with a stressful situation.

“What I want to do with the cultural enhancements is to bring a broader understanding that we have had in our tribal communities about these cognitive behavioral concepts, bring them back into the basis for cultural teaching,” Bigfoot said.

Most indigenous cultures have long-held beliefs and practices addressing any number of life’s challenges and have been conveyed orally varying from tribe to tribe. These challenges, in addition to the more widely-held and well-documented European approaches to treatment, pose some significant hurdles.

“We associate certain researchers with certain kinds of theories and we think they evolved immediately from being written down,” Bigfoot said. “So when we look back at our cultural teachings that have been there for a long time, such as the Alaska village belief about the mind is a powerful thing, or the wiping of the tears ceremony in terms of emotions or the actions of generosity...those things have been in our cultural teachings for a long time.”

“But nobody has ever said we own those particular things because we don't believe that they belong to a particular person or a particular way of life,” Bigfoot said.

“So what I do with the cultural enhancements is to talk about what those core values or core components are of a particular evidence-based treatment and how that is much broader within our cultural teachings,” Bigfoot said.


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