Mason’s Counselors Without Borders Work with Native Americans in South Dakota

By Colleen Kearney Rich

From earthquake-wracked Haiti to post-cyclone Burma, George Mason University’s Counselors Without Borders (CWB) program has taken counselors and counseling students around the world to help people in post-disaster situations. This summer a CWB group stayed in country and traveled to South Dakota to be with the Native American people there, and it was an unforgettable experience—in a good way.

Mason counseling and development professor Rachael Goodman and a group of nine graduate students traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to spend more than two weeks with members of the Oglala Sioux tribe as they prepared for and performed their annual Sun Dance ceremony. While the name Pine Ridge might not sound familiar, the location was the setting for several tragic events for Native Americans of which the Wounded Knee Massacre is probably the most well known. It is also located in one of the poorest counties in the United States.

The Counselors Without Borders team visited a number of sites to learn more about the culture at Pine Ridge. Here they visit the Wounded Knee Memorial. Photo courtesy of CWS

The Counselors Without Borders team visited a number of sites to learn more about the culture at Pine Ridge. Here they visit the Wounded Knee Holocaust Memorial. Photo courtesy of CWB

The trip was a part of the Summer Term class EDCD 797 Cross-Cultural Counseling, and not just anyone could enroll. The trip participants were graduate students from the Counseling and Development Program within George Mason’s College of Education and Human Development and one student from Kean College in New Jersey. Interested students had to submit a letter of intent and interview for a spot on the team. The trip was conducted in partnership with Elizabeth Warson of American Indian Art Therapy (AIAT).

“Trips like this are wonderful growth opportunities but are inherently stressful and difficult to do,” says Goodman, who coordinated the trip and taught the course. “I wanted to have a sense of where students were [in terms of their skills] and if they were ready to do something like this.”

While the annual Sun Dance ceremony is the most sacred time of the year for the Lakota people, it is also a highly stressful one, requiring days of preparation, and CWB was invited to participate this year. Goodman says the group was on site to provide counseling and support to a community dealing with historical trauma and ongoing oppression. Before leaving for South Dakota, the students read articles about the Native American community and social justice issues and attended a one-day training session with Goodman.

The CWB team at Wounded Knee District Sschool with Marnee White Wolf, Roberta Spencer, and Saloni Mandaiker. Photo courtesy of CWS

The CWB team at Wounded Knee District School with Marnee White Wolf, Roberta Spencer, and Saloni Mandaiker. Photo courtesy of CWB

“Some of the things I wanted the students to think about were what does healing and wellness look like in this culture and how can we support and be a part of that instead of imposing our own models,” Goodman says.

Mason graduate student Ricardo Sanchez attended the ceremony in 2012 with Warson who has been bringing college students to Pine Ridge to conduct expressive therapies since 2002.

This summer Sanchez returned with his fellow students and was even invited by the Lakota elders to participate in the Sun Dance. The ceremony takes place nonstop over four days, and it takes four days to prepare for it. The Mason group was on hand to help with those preparations.

In addition to helping prepare the outdoor site for the ceremony, the Mason students were also able to take part in a coming-of-age ceremony and practice therapeutic art interventions with Warson and elementary-age children at the a Lakota immersion program.

The Counselors Without Borders group also stopped in the Beaver Creek area of Nebraska to visit the historical home of Crazy Horse. Photo courtesy of CWB

The Counselors Without Borders group also stopped in the Beaver Creek area of Nebraska to visit the historical home of Crazy Horse. Photo courtesy of CWB

“It was really important for us to get acclimated and figure out how best we could be supportive,” says Goodman of working with the Lakota. “The Western [counseling] model doesn’t make sense for this group. Instead of sitting down for a 50-minute, one-to-one session, which is how people traditionally think of counseling, we focused on using our counseling skills in informal interactions.”

Those informal interactions involved quilting (a first for many of the students), making clay pots with schoolchildren, painting and even doing some mowing and grocery shopping. The CWB team did anything they could to be supportive and build a bond with the Lakota people. In the evenings, the team ate meals together, and Goodman conducted a group supervision with the students to discuss what was and wasn’t working from a counselor’s point of view.

“I was surprised by the [Lakota people’s] extremely welcoming and inclusive nature. We were included in many ceremonies and activities that were sacred and special,” says Kean College student Siegna Willis. “The Lakota community did not have to do that, but they did and it was very touching.”

“The Sun Dance ceremony was unforgettable and hard to describe to those who have never attended,” says Mason graduate student Heather Streetman. Many of the CWB team members agreed that it was difficult to put the trip and experience into words, but all admitted they were changed by the experience.

“It broadened my views about what counseling is and how many forms counseling can come in,” says graduate student Eliina Belenkiy.

The outreach trip also helped further the professional goals for all members of the CWB team.

“I was eager to gain firsthand experience working in a culture-centered environment and learning more about the spiritual and healing practices of the Lakota,” says Streetman. “I knew that this outreach program was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Prior to arriving at Pine Ridge, I had prepped myself to be open to anything lest my body language unintentionally convey any disgust or judgment thereby damaging any hope for a relationship with members of the tribe,” says graduate student Richard Jun-Yuen Hang. Hang wants to develop a way to use Eastern Taoist philosophy and tai chi in his counseling work. “Seeing the Lakotas’ cultural practices used effectively in a healing manner validated my goals of exploring innovative counseling strategies through Taoism and tai chi.”

Goodman approached this first visit to Pine Ridge as a pilot program, and fortunately the trip was so successful that the group is welcome to return.

She hopes to take a group to Pine Ridge in partnership with AIAT each summer, and plans are already under way for a 2014 trip.

The Lakota elders also presented the CWB team with the quilt several members worked on as a part of the Isnati Awicadowanpi coming-of-age ceremony. The quilt will soon be on display in the college.

“I want to be a compassionate healer for others,” says Hang. “And this trip was a rare opportunity to truly develop that identity.

CWB is a nonprofit organization started in 2005 by Mason professors Fred Bemak and Rita Chi-Ying Chung to provide culturally responsive counseling in post-disaster emergency situations.

Meet Mason Students

samantha oester

Samantha Oester

Graduate student Samantha Oester says she took about 800 pictures on the first day of her study-abroad trip to Antarctica. The environmental science and policy major was part of a group of Mason students who traveled on and lived aboard the research vessel Ortelius, observing and sometimes aiding the research group Oceanities with their work […]

Meet more Mason Students!