Wuyámush (be happy, be well – Pequot): Adapting a mental health and healing experience to a southeast New England Native American community

Provides an overview of cultural adaptation of a children's mental health awareness event in a southeastern New England Native American community. The event simultaneously exposed the Native American community to mental health/healing practices while introducing providers to indigenous culture.

By Gretchen Chase Vaughn, PhD, and Michele Scott, BA
Tribal community members who h ave taken part in the MPTN Circles of Care Project

Overview

Native American children in southeastern New England have to confront many stereotypes, myths and barriers that have been perpetuated over four hundred years: first, being part of the "invisible minority" and confronting the mythology that there are no Indians east of the Mississippi. Since colonial times the systematic process of dispossessing Native Americans from their land and relabeling them racially — coined "pencil genocide" (Richmond, 2010) — so as not to acknowledge Native American racial/ethnic identity (Mancini, 2008), has lingered in this community as an invisible pain. Our community is now confronting how this historical, intergenerational trauma impacts on the health and well being of our youth. However, the counter narrative to this part of history is the ability of the southeast New England Native American (SNENA) community to transcend colonial boundaries and make strategic decisions to maintain ethnic identity culture, and physical, mental, spiritual and environmental well-being.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation's Circle of Care (MPTN COC) is a three year planning project funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration( SAMHSA). The project is led by a Native American Advisory Board to help southeastern Connecticut Tribal communities collaborate with providers in order to design a culturally appropriate mental health service model for youth and families. We listened to the voices of our community. Our elders advised us that the historical and cultural adaptive practices should be used to help the youth and families today. Our youth recommended that we link popular contemporary art forms with mental health awareness through poster and logo contests, poetry, video, music, photography. Providers suggested the need for ongoing dialogue where mental health providers learn about the community needs and culture, and community members learn about services. In response to these strategic goals the MPTN COC has sponsored a Mental Health Awareness Fair for the past two years in conjunction with National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day (NCMHAD) sponsored by SAMHSA.

Mental Health Awareness Day

This event was designed to engage the community in the vision of the MPTN COC - that southeast New England Native American youth and families will have complete access to comprehensive, culturally appropriate mental health services with linkages to agencies collaborating in a system of care. A planning committee was formed which included Tribal community members, providers, parents, youth and elders. During bi-monthly meetings held before the event, community members and providers were able to interact as equals and worked to develop interactive booths which would be informative about both mental health and cultural healing practices. There were informational tables and interactive booths addressing various mental health issues (including a booth representing the National Indian Child Welfare Association, NICWA). Booths included disabled bowling, yoga, meditation, communication exercises, team building, good touch/bad touch, listening to popular songs to identify the mental health themes, drawing and journaling about feelings, etc. Mental health providers were able to meet and describe their services to Native American youth and families in a non-threatening environment. Raffle prizes were awarded to youth who visited each booth.

Cultural Adaptation

SNENA traditions of adaptation, passing knowledge through oral history, and maintaining inter- and intra- Tribal community connections were used to adapt the Children's Mental Health Awareness Day activities. The planning committee decided that the event should always include cultural stations/activities. The cultural interactive booths allowed youth to not only acknowledge problems in our community , but to also recognize the traditions and cultural practices that can be used to heal those problems. Our follow-up feedback indicated that the youth seemed the most engaged with the cultural stations, such as the following.

  • Youth holding picturesPequot Language & Art Project – youth drew a picture of something that made them feel happy. They also learned the imperative "Be Happy/Be Well" in Pequot (Wuyámush) [adapted from the "My Feelings are a Work of Art" component of NCMHAD].

  • Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center (MPMRC) provided displays and treats from the exhibit that dealt with "tricky treats" that included diabetes prevention stories for Native American children [Eagle books diabetes prevention stories were developed by the Center for Disease Control].

  • Foods of Our Culture – youth learned about the foods that sustained the community hundreds of years ago and how to incorporate them into everyday living now so that the youth can remain healthy. The Mashantucket Pequot Cultural Department Coordinator explained to the youth that certain foods improve a person's brain function and mental health and that these foods were essential to our tribal history and traditional ceremonies and events.

  • Family Tree Exercises – Eastern Pequot and Mashantucket Pequot Elders were present to teach our youth how closely the two Tribal families are connected.

  • Storytelling – a Native American elder was able to tell stories to youth and parents and explain the healing power of storytelling.

Conclusion

This activity has been a highly successful method to bring attention to both mental health and traditional cultural practices as resources for healing in our community. Over the past two years with support from the Native American Advisory Board, Tribal Councils, Tribal government departments, and local providers, approximately 400 community members have participated. Local providers also had the opportunity to meet with and learn from members of the southeastern New England Native American community.

References

Brave Heart, M. Y. H. (2005). Substance abuse, co-occurring mental health disorders, and the historical trauma response among American Indians/Alaska Natives. Research Monograph, Bureau of Indian Affairs, DASAP, Washington, DC.

Cross, T.L. (2003). Culture as a Resource for Mental Health. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, V. 9(4), 354-359

Mancini, J.R. (2008). "In contempt and oblivion": The Transformation of Connecticut's Indian Population in the Era of the American Revolution. In D. Naumec (Ed.), Proceedings of the Northeastern Native Peoples & the American Revolutionary Era: 1760-1810. Mashantucket: Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.

Lamb-Richmond, T. (2010). Teaching about American Indians of the Northeast: Who is telling the story? Workshop Presentation, Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, Mashantucket, CT. April 24, 2010.

Gretchen Chase Vaughn, PhDGretchen Chase Vaughn, PhD is a clinical psychologist and principal of Vaughn Associates, a consulting firm which focuses on behavioral health, evaluation and culturally competent practice to improve the lives of underserved communities of color. She received her doctorate from The George Washington University and currently serves as the Evaluator for the MPTN Circles of Care Project.

 

Michele Scott, BAMichele Scott, BA, is an enrolled member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and American Studies from Columbia University. She is currently the Executive Project Director of the MPTN Circles of Care Project and is dedicated to program development focusing on mental health, cultural competency and social justice.