The Wisdom of Our Elders: Grace Powless Sage, PhD
The symposium "Personal Reflections of My Student and Early Professional Careers: Tribulations and Triumphs," was a highlight of the APA/NIGMS Project Orientation Conference held February 28-March 2, 1997. During the symposium, eminent psychological scientists and scholars representing each major ethnic minority group shared critical incidents of their student and early professional careers. These remarkable presentations are presented in this column. This issue features remarks made by Grace Powless Sage, PhD, a Native American psychologist.
Grace Powless Sage is an enrolled member of the Sovereign Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin. Having received her PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Montana, Missoula, Montana, she was recruited to the University of Colorado at Boulder, then to Cornell University, and then to a position at the Indian Health Services at Browning, Montana. At the time of presentation, Dr. Sage was on the faculty at Dull Knife Memorial College and served as director of both Psychological Services Clinic and its Clinical Training for Indians Into Psychology program. She believes it is important for psychology to build programs of training that showcase the diversity of our country and our world.
As I reflect on what the two previous speakers have said and my own experience in psychology, there seem to be some differences. My first reflection is about the length of time in the field of psychology, and, frankly, I've only had my degree for 9 years. I came to this profession later in life and did not know that I was a potential candidate for college or could do anything particularly useful for myself or for the group of people to whom I belong. The other reflection is about Martha's [Martha Bernal, PhD] desire or hope that things have changed, and I think in some ways they have, and in some ways they have not.
When I started college in 1980, I was doing so at the behest of a doctor that I was working for in the mental health center in Ronan, Montana, on the Salish Kootenai Reservation. He said to me simply "Gee, you ought to go to school and get a bachelor's degree, because now that you're in the office as a secretary, we're getting a lot of Indians in the office. We know that they're coming here because you're here, and they feel comfortable being here, so that might be really good for you to do." Being a good secretary, and I was a very good secretary, by the way, if anybody ever needs a really good secretary…I went ahead and said "oh, OK," not really knowing what all of that meant.
I had taken some courses on the reservation at the Salish Kootenai Community College, but I couldn't get a bachelor's degree there, so I decided to go to the University of Montana. I was enrolled and took 22 credits my first quarter at the university because the person who was my advisor looked at me, signed off on my little group of classes that I was determined to take, and sent me on my way. I had no way of knowing at all what that meant. By 4 or 5 weeks into that quarter, I was failing all of my classes. These were 5-credit courses-which I also didn't understand the fact that they multiplied the credits by an A or B or C or worse-so if you got an A, then you got a really good GPA (which I also didn't understand was important too).
There was so much ignorance. I had no one to help me in those first few days, and I was wandering around campus very, very upset when I received this failing grade in computer science, of all things-computer science. Here's this Indian straight off the reservation. Yep, boy I'm a technical person! Anyway I ended up going to Native American Studies at the university, and, there, a woman, Bonnie Craig, a Blackfeet Indian woman, met me at the door. I also met Ken Pepion, a Blackfeet Indian man who was the student services counselor at that point, and Elaine Claibourne, who was director of Native American studies at the university. I have a lot to be thankful for. Those three people sat me down and said: "This is what you need to do. You need to learn how to study. You're really good at being a mom, you're really good at being a secretary, you're really good at being a wife; you're really good at all the things that you do. But now you want to go to college, so this is what you've got to do." So I took study skills, I took math skills, I took reading skills, and, by the way, that quarter I ended up with three As and two Bs, which I felt was OK.
I'd never really realized my potential, though, even at that point. I had no comprehension, until my last year, that I could go further than the bachelor's degree. I finished my undergraduate work in 3 years because our family was poor, and I needed to work. I needed to get money. I had three sons, three growing sons. I don't know about any of you, but there is a difference between what they eat and what I eat. And there's never enough. So I had three sons, we were poor, I had to get to work, and all of a sudden this professor walks up to me one day in my last year of undergraduate work, and says "You ought to apply to graduate school."
Again, being the good Indian person, I applied to graduate school-never knowing what all that meant, never knowing that there was a difference between a PhD program and clinical psychology or experimental psychology and a PsyD program, which was different from an EdD. I didn't know any of those things or the differences between them. So, I just applied to graduate programs because I was instructed to do so, and there's one thing I am: I'm really good at following instructions. Not so much anymore! But I was then.
At any rate, I got into the graduate program at the University of Montana, very fortunately. I didn't actually think I'd get into any program, but I ended up getting into a few more than the University of Montana …but my kids wanted to stay in Montana. They wanted to stay on the reservation, and wanted to be close to home. So, I started the graduate school process. You talk about a foreign environment, that's the only way I can really ever think about that experience-it was extremely foreign. I didn't know that you had to have professors who you could actually get along with because they were going to be the ones that were going to work with you in terms of your dissertation and thesis research, which was important. I didn't know that you needed to have them understand about you. Why? Because every year they were to evaluate you. I didn't know that, except at the end of the year when you got your evaluation. It was important to be friends with these people, and I thought it was important to take the evaluations seriously. I thought these psychologists were ethical and wanted me to become a good psychologist-that their only desire was for me to grow and develop as a psychologist. I didn't know at the time how political psychology and higher education really were.
It was really funny. At the end of my first year, I got my first-year evaluation, and it said, "Grace is very quiet. We don't know what she's thinking; she seems to be getting along very well academically"-and that was about the end of it. So I decided next year, "Boy, that means that they must want to hear what I want to say! (That's a knee-slapper.) As it turned out, the second year they said, "You know, Grace is very aggressive, and we really don't need to have that many opinions in class; and we certainly don't want to know any more about American Indians and these questions that she's asking about American Indians, and what their role is in psychology, and what about spirituality in psychology, and what about the healing process in terms of other world views." None of that was important to those professors.
At the end of the second year, it was really hard, because I've always thought that becoming a psychologist is a process. I don't think I'm ever going to be done with that process. I'm still developing, and I don't know what that end will be. I'm learning all the time, and I'm hoping always to impart some learning to others too. Because of that process, I was trying to achieve the balance from the feedback in the evaluations-a balance between this woman who was totally silent, didn't say anything, they don't know what she's thinking and the person over here that they were saying is too opinionated, and we don't want to hear any more about certain things. So my third year, I really thought I got it, I really did. I had achieved a balance.
We had a visiting professor come that year, Dr. Len Burns, a great man. I will forever be indebted to him. He came to our program, and I started working with him. I had a couple of practica with him and took courses from him. He was from the East/West Center in Hawaii and was the first person who really started talking about cross-cultural psychology. I thought, "Wow! This guy is talking to me-I know he's talking to me. I know I'm in this program because he's here now."
Well, at the end of my third year, I got a scathing evaluation. It was an attack from the clinical faculty, and the department head supported it. Academically, they said, I was doing very well; they couldn't find anything wrong with how I was doing, but, they didn't see that I had really achieved a balance. Rather, they saw that I was more emotionally unstable and that I continued to be really in conflict about my identity. They thought it might help me to "see someone"; that I could work it out "any way" I wanted, but they were unclear if I was going to be able to finish the program unless I got help. My thesis adviser, who got upset with me when I started crying about the evaluation, gave the feedback to me. He got so upset that he walked out of my evaluation feedback session and slammed the door behind him. That resulted in my leaving campus at the end of my third year and going home to my family saying, "I don't think I can continue. I think I'm just going to take my master's degree and run."
Three wonderful things happened to me at that point-Dr. Len Burns, my dear friend Liz Kohlstaedt, and my dear family's unequivocal support. One more thing happened that was extremely important-I went home.
So, I went home to the reservation-got out of town-and decided I would go see a person on the "rez" who was in the process of becoming a medicine healer. We went off and talked for a long time. I did some of the healing ceremonies with him and really began to get some healing done. At one point he said he had to tell me a story because I kept on saying to him "I don't think I can be a psychologist because in order to be that, they want me to be something I can't be. They want me to be White and I can never be White. They want me to be like them, and I will never be like them."
He said, "You have a lot to offer. A long time ago, elders knew when to pick people out of a group. The elders knew that those chosen people had a lot to offer. Now, here's what you've got to offer. I'm going to tell you a story that was told to me and you must always remember this, always remember this." He told me about an Indian man who said "Look at this, here's my braid. And the man took his braid in his hand and held it out. And, the man, beginning to unbraid his hair, said "when you get physically sick in that other world, in that White world," and he took a strand of his braid out and he said "you take that to a doctor, a physician." He then took out the second strand of hair in his braid, saying, "this strand is for when you need to pray or you go to church on Sunday-this is for the spiritual part of you that needs to get healed." And then the man said, "And, here, this last strand is for when you need mental and emotional healing. That's for people like you-like a psychologist-that's what you're going to become." I remember I really chuckled, but then my friend said that the Indian man said, "Look what happens to our braid when we unbraid our hair. Our hair is undone, it falls out, and it's blowing in the wind." Well, my friend said, "This is your job. You're going to teach them that each one of those strands of hair has to be braided together. They all fit together. You can't heal one part without the other or the other." Thank you Joe.
I went back to the program to finish. I only had 4 years of funding for my PhD from the Department of Education Indian Fellowship program, so I completed my degree in 4 years. I would never recommend that to a student-never. And I wish someone had said to me, "You don't want to do this." But I did it. I defended, and thank God for Len Burns. He was there, and he said, "You bet I'll chair your committee, and you bet we're going to do cross-cultural research." So I was one of the first persons in my department to do cross-cultural research with Indian populations and Euro-American populations on alcohol and drugs.
I managed to get out of that program, and I went on to internship. By that time, I was still pretty wounded, not mortally though. I don't think anybody knew that. I don't think I knew that at the time. I was on internship when I got a call from the University of Colorado at Bolder from a woman named Karen Raforth, who said to me, "We have a job up here, and we've heard you. We'd like you to come apply for the position. We think we really need your kind of diversity. We think we need your voice." I got the job, and they saved it for me until I completed the internship. I was very shocked, very amazed, and very pleased because my first position was a very affirming position. It was working with the multicultural center for cross-cultural consultation and diversity. It was working on a university campus. Even then I didn't know that I had an opportunity to go to college campuses or to do other things and find other ways to use the degree that I had. I finally got to do the cross-cultural work with a whole group of people who were very committed to that effort in psychology.
So my triumph? My triumph was to overcome the colonization of psychology, and it's a real battle to move beyond colonization. What that means to me is that it's really important that we accept all kinds of differences; differing cosmologies, differing understandings, and all kinds of ways of healing in their own right. Triumph, for me, is in creating a postcolonial and inclusionary psychological/educational environment. I hope I will never have a student come face to face with me and, while I stand by, they go through the experience that I had. I hope these kinds of conferences can help create psychological and educational environments that are ecologically safe and free-a psychological/edu- cational environment that is free from any kind of experiences except one that involves the affirmation of the human being, the human spirit, and the healing process. My triumph is in my survival, and it is in the strength of all the people who went before me, and all the people who are yet to come. Thank you.