Class Act

Some of Sidney Brown's earliest memories were of her great aunt Ellen Wren Lone Chief and uncle Dan Lone Chief singing the oral histories of their people, the Blackfoot Tribe, to the pounding of tribal drums. Sitting in her great-grandmother's log cabin on a reservation on the low plains of Browning, Mont., Brown learned about her tribe's language, customs, foods and way of life.

"We had no running water or indoor toilet," Brown says. "The house was heated with oil and lighted by kerosene lanterns." But Brown was happy in her family's house. Here, she knew who she was: a Blackfeet American Indian.

However, in 1955, when Brown was 8 years old, federal officials threatened to close the reservation and compel her tribe to join mainstream society. So Brown and her family moved to California, then back to Montana and finally to Coos Bay, Ore.

For the first time, Brown went to schools where most of her teachers and classmates were not members of her family. The experience left scars, both emotional and physical.

"My teacher...would sleep during school and yell at us for not doing our work," Brown says. "One day I did something that upset her, and she grabbed me and shook me. I was holding a pencil in my right hand and the lead end went through my eyelid and my eye socket. To this day I still read only with my left eye."

Throughout these trials, she remained close to her family and its traditions, but she lost touch with her tribe. She could no longer learn of her people's history from her elders or speak her language with others in her tribe. But distance didn't break the bond between Brown and her people. In fact, that bond-paired with her desire to heal historical wounds-ultimately spurred Brown to become a clinical psychologist.



As a college student, Brown reawakened her connection with her people by attending tribal meetings in Seattle with her father. At one of these meetings later in her life, her cousin gave a talk about intergenerational trauma, or how the ill effects of a stolen cultural identity get passed down through the generations. Hearing him speak lit a fire in Brown: She knew that she could help heal those wounds.

Today, Brown is poised to earn her PsyD in clinical psychology from George Fox University (GFU) in Newberg, Ore. She developed a diagnostic system to help psychologists relate to the unique problems and dilemmas faced by Native Americans. By understanding how intergenerational trauma affects their clients, Brown hopes that psychologists will be able to help them cope with that trauma and ultimately live the lives they want, not the one forced on them by colonization.

Being buffeted by fate and misguided federal policy is, unfortunately, a common experience for many Native Americans. During the American westward expansion of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. government pushed many Native American tribes off their land. Some relocated to reservations, while others were forced to eat Western foods, dress in Western clothes, learn Western dances and practice Western religions. "The message to native people was, 'There's nothing right about you,'" Brown says.

The government took many Native American children away from their parents and put them into boarding schools. Young and confused, many were deprived of their traditional culture and abused by their caretakers.

"I learned that many people never told their children or grandchildren about their experiences of abuse at the boarding schools because they didn't want to traumatize their children," Brown says.

Brown found out that her father fell into this category. He told her how he was taken from his family at the age of 12 and put into a boarding school. One day when he was hungry, he stole a can of peanut butter. When school officials caught him, they made him march for 12 hours in the campus square holding a wooden gun. Then came the physical abuse.

"A boy being punished was made to take off his jeans and crawl through a line of his peers as each was forced to strike him with their belts," Brown says. "If they didn't hit him, they were forced to go through the line themselves."

After a year at the school, Brown's father ran away. When the government found him, they sent him to another boarding school in Phoenix. He stayed there two days before running away for good. That was the last time he set foot in a classroom as a student.

Upon hearing of how closely intergenerational trauma had hit in her own family, Brown knew she had to do something to help. So she worked her way through college at Portland State University and went on to enroll in a guidance and counseling master's program at Oregon State University. After earning her degree in 1974, she began working with Native Americans in Montana, Minnesota, South Dakota and Utah. Throughout this time, she stayed in contact with her Blackfeet elders and teachers, discussing the tribal tribulations. Combining the elders' guidance with her own psychological education, she began to develop theories about Native Americans and their relationship to their own cultures, with the goal of helping psychologists address the needs of indigenous people.


Brown's model of the Native American worldview takes into account eight cultural factors. The first four gauge how the person relates to the traditional culture or to the contemporary culture. A person deeply invested in the traditional culture is described as a "generation one" individual. A person totally assimilated into contemporary culture is "generation four."

Brown then added four additional factors to consider: Time, language, attachment and food. For example, members of "generation one" see time as circular, with no sharp distinction between past and present. They actively speak traditional languages, feel deeply connected to their tribe and view food as a spiritually revered source of healing and nurturing. Members of "generation four" adhere more closely to Western norms-they believe time has a beginning and an end; they no longer speak the tribal language; they value modern ways more than tribal ones; food is just food.

Brown stresses that these categories are value-neutral; people who live traditional lifestyles shouldn't feel pressured to embrace modern norms, and people who have successfully adapted to the modern culture shouldn't feel ashamed that they no longer feel much connection to their tribes. Those in the middle can even live healthily with one foot in each culture.

"This tool allows people to say, 'I am living this way, and this is how I want to be,'" Brown says.

To refine and standardize her model, Brown enrolled in a PsyD program at GFU in 2001 and began adapting her work into a dissertation.

Brown is not the typical graduate student. She's lived four decades longer than many of her classmates, so she brings a tremendous wealth of experience to her program, says Wayne Adams, PhD, a psychologist at GFU and part of Brown's dissertation committee. Adams taught one of Brown's courses on psychometrics and watched Brown quickly gain the respect of her younger peers.

"I think Sidney has been looked at as someone who is fairly revered for her dedication to her culture," he says. "[Her classmates] bring youthful excitement, and in return she can give them life experience."

For her dissertation, Brown developed a series of 128 statements intended to sort different Native Americans belief systems into one of the four generations. For example, a person identifying with the statements "I am recognized by my tribe as a spiritual healer/teacher" and "I teach our ways of singing and drumming" would be likely to fall in the "first generation" category. By contrast, identifying with the statements "I don't accept what Natives teach as relevant to living in the world as we know it today" and "The universe can best be explained through scientific investigation" would categorize one as "fourth generation." Then 10 Native American psychologists evaluated the system.

Most agreed that it fit their experiences with Native American clients, Brown says. They suggested that as long differences between generations aren't interpreted too rigidly, her model will be useful to clinicians. Brown says this strategy will allow psychologists to personalize their treatments and help their clients make decisions informed by their particular worldviews.

Brown's model may help clinicians working with people from a variety of cultures. In fact, GFU psychologist Patrick Stone, PhD, recently applied Brown's approach to indigenous people in Africa. A few years ago, Stone taught at Daystar University in Kenya and helped start a community counseling center. Working with native Kenyans, he saw firsthand the misunderstandings and frustrations of indigenous people merging with modern society. For example, in many Kenyan cultures, being assertive is heavily frowned upon. But, as Kenyan's negotiate with Western businesspeople and even talk with Western psychologists, they are often expected to speak their minds.

"We Westerners can't even begin to see how much we impose our values on other cultures," Stone says. "I was seen as the emotional bull in the china shop."

Using the tenets of Brown's theory, Stone was better able to see his own prejudices so as not to implicitly stamp the ideals of Western psychology onto Kenyan society.

Stone says Brown's tools level the cultural playing field for psychologists, allowing them to understand the culturally specific needs of people beyond what Western standards would say is good for them. What's more, Brown's notion that people can successfully be a part of two different societies is indicative of a philosophical shift in psychology, according to Kathleen Gathercoal, PhD, research director of the psychology department at GFU.

"The idea that people can be members of multiple communities simultaneously is really exciting, and I think that is the way that our culture is going," she says. "[Brown] sees that someone can be comfortable and competent within the indigenous community as well as in the majority community-you don't have to choose."

Once her dissertation is approved, Brown hopes to get feedback from more working psychologists on its accuracy and effectiveness. Eventually she wants to make it widely available to psychologists working with indigenous groups. It might make a big difference to people like her father, Brown says, who was only finally able to return to valuing his language and the teachings of elders very late in his life.

"At the end of his life, he spoke to me in our language and said he wished we could have lived in a traditional way...and learn to live in this modern world. He wanted me to have both."

“I think Sidney has been looked at as someone who is fairly revered for her dedication to her culture. [Her classmates] bring youthful excitement, and in return she can give them life experience.”

Wayne Adams
George Fox University