Learning Behavioral Health and Wellness the Native Way

Volume 25, No. 2 - Winter 2013
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The Master of Arts degree program in human services at Sinte Gleska University (SGU) on South Dakota’s Rosebud Sicangu Lakota reservation has enjoyed success delivering an exciting and relevant graduate program in tribal and behavioral health. Students who enroll in the program can focus on one of two tracks, school counseling or clinical mental health, while blending online classes with monthly onsite attendance.

Chartered by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 1971, SGU has always made it a practice to gauge the needs of its tribal communities. Many are viewed as traditional tiospayes, extended family structures where tribal values are strong. For the betterment of all, the university’s graduate program in human services positively addresses the emotional and behavioral issues that Lakota people experience in their schools, families, and communities.



END OF THE RAINBOW. Marla Bull Bear, a graduate of SGU’s master’s program in human services, went on to found the Wicoti Tiwahe Camp, a cultural youth program that promotes Lakota values and healthy lifestyle choices. Photo by Marla Bull Bear.

The master’s degree program in human services was developed through the collective effort of community members, professionals, university faculty and administrators, and SGU’s Lakota Studies Department, along with the vision of SGU president Lionel Bordeaux. By the late 1990s, the faculty of the human services undergraduate program, including Sheryl Klein, Roger Hornby, and Dr. Marion Pusateri, put the finishing touches on the graduate program. Finally, in 2002, the degree was accredited under the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and, in 2005, the first graduates earned their degrees.

In 2009, students and staff from South Dakota reservation schools and the Oceti Sakowin Consortium—a conglomerate of over 20 elementary and secondary schools with Native American populations in South Dakota—requested that SGU develop a school counseling program. Counselors at reservation schools face many intense problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorders, suicides, alcohol and drug abuse, and conduct disorders. The scope of such counseling often went beyond mere guidance and required advanced clinical skills training that would meet tribal, state, and national standards.

The petitioners also saw the need for courses that focused on the specific concerns of reservation youth, including knowledge and awareness of both traditional and contemporary Lakota ways. As Charlene Phelps, a student in the program and a teacher, observes, “Other universities know nothing about our culture. I tried it. The professors couldn’t guide me or understand me. How does a white man help an older traditional Lakota woman? By being educated in this field, I can work with my people and understand. Western [society] focuses on the individual. In our culture, you have to look at all the branches and roots.”


WITNESSES. Warren “Bim” Pourier (left) and Edwina Brown Bull both testify that SGU’s human services graduate program has improved behavioral health services in Lakota Country. Photo by David Noles

Dr. Mary Ann Coupland of the Human Services Department and Dr. Richard Bordeaux and Cheryl Medearis of the Education Department worked to develop a school counseling program to meet the needs of the Lakota people. In addition to core classes and school counseling credits, students would be required to take a practicum and complete an internship. In the program’s capstone class, students would invite relatives for a wopila (thanks and honoring) event. The curriculum they devised was met with approval and on January 5, 2010, the South Dakota State Board of Education certified it.

At the same time, the Human Services Department devised an alternate track in clinical mental health. The program would meet all the requirements needed to apply for certification as a Licensed Professional Counselor in South Dakota. This track would also culminate in practicum, internship, and capstone courses. Several students would go on to pursue both the school counseling and the clinical mental health tracks.


President Bordeaux helped reclaim and incorporate the traditional concept of wolakota at SGU, which means people are expected to conduct themselves with respect, harmony, peace, and friendship. Victor Douville, a faculty member in the Lakota Studies Department, has described wolakota as a way of life that tribal elders promoted following a succession of intertribal wars on the Northern Plains. Wolakota was essential to create harmony and common purpose.

SGU’s master’s program in human services embraces wolakota as a cornerstone principle; it expects not only academic excellence, but also stresses the importance of incorporating Lakota values into its curriculum. In contrast to most Western-oriented universities, Native American culture, spirituality, and traditions are not presented as stand-alone subjects, but are interwoven into every class.

Some students are more grounded in Lakota language, philosophy, and culture than others and therefore are better able to integrate that content into their class presentations. Such information sharing, whether from faculty or students, is a valuable component of the program. Marla Bull Bear, 2005 graduate and executive director of the Native American Advocacy Program in Winner, South Dakota, explained how SGU graduate faculty members blend Lakota thought and philosophy, noting, “They took textbook positions, looked at cultural perspectives, and presented both. Sometimes they fit and sometimes they clashed, but you are presented with both. They taught me techniques to utilize, when, and how to do them.” The connection to culture seems to be working: 95% of the students are either currently employed on a reservation or plan to be employed there after they graduate.


HEALER AND THERAPIST. Richard Moves Camp, a traditional healer who will be graduating next year, says you can’t become a healer overnight. It took Moves Camp years of training from elders and the knowledge he gained from SGU’s human services master’s degree program to help him bridge the gap between Western and traditional Lakota behavioral health methods. Photo by Amanda Takes War Bonnett.

Richard Moves Camp, a spiritual leader on the Pine Ridge reservation who has been helping heal people since 1965 using traditional Lakota methods, is scheduled to graduate in August 2014 with the school counseling track. He emphasizes that the Native American view on behavioral health differs from its Western counterpart. He says the SGU program helps students understand the Western world so they can bridge the cultural gap. The master’s program incorporates traditional practices and that makes it unique, he maintains. Students are asked to integrate healing ceremonies, inipis, and other cultural activities into their practicum and internship experiences.

SGU’s human services program recognizes that including traditional cultural practices can be more effective than employing exclusively Western techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. As Warren “Bim” Pourier, who graduated from the program in August 2012, explains, “The program supported our belief that the ceremonies [play] a very important role as therapeutic interventions. Our ancestors had the ceremonies to help them heal. My experience was I learned to return to my center…to look within myself for the answers. Once you connect with your inner spirit, life falls into place. SGU’s program helped me return to my center and taught me the value of helping others return to their centers to find the answers.” As Pourier makes clear, ceremonies, in place of medications, can help reduce anxiety. Similarly, working with drum groups and engaging in traditional dancing help children who have attention and hyperactivity difficulties focus and develop an inner sense of wellness. And listening to Native flute music can help students relax and focus on their studies. The individualism that characterizes Western techniques is expanded to include the extended family, the tiospaye, and other tribal relations who intervene to help with an individual’s health and wellness.


When completing an application to the program, students are reminded that they must be morally, ethically, physically, spiritually, and intellectually fit. They are informed that wherever they may work, they will have to pass a background check. The students are also asked to sign a “personal commitment declaration,” which pledges them to professional, academic, and personal excellence while in the program. They are required to complete a self-disclosure statement about their personal histories and any legal concerns that they may have. Such protocols help the admissions faculty determine the chance of obtaining liability insurance required for advanced courses. As Dr. Mary Ann Coupland continually emphasizes to the students, “You can only take a person as far as you have gone. You need to be willing to look at yourself, both dark and light side, to be a healthy healer.”

A sequential chart of recommended coursework accompanies registration materials. Students are asked to work closely with an advisor to complete the degree program in a timely manner. The chart sets students on a course to graduate in five to six semesters, with the possibility of adding one or several summer sessions. The online-onsite hybrid instruction format allows students to maintain ties to their home reservations, families, and employment. Students travel to the SGU campus from all around the Northern Plains for one to several weekend classes per month, with remaining coursework taken online. Dana Haukaas, who graduated in August 2013 in both school counseling and clinical mental health and who recently found employment at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge reservation as a school counselor, observes, “The graduate program staff work very close with the students…Classes are scheduled so students can attend the in-class sessions conveniently and [are] supplemented with online class work and discussions. This allows students to work, attend school, and take care of their families. Personally, I would never have been able to attend graduate school if Sinte Gleska did not have this program structured this way.”


The Master of Arts degree in human services at SGU stands as a model of tribal college responsiveness to the tribal community, while enhancing the Lakota people’s sovereignty and self-determination. Graduates are working in clinical community mental health facilities throughout the Lakota Nation, including sites at Fort Thompson on the Lower Brulé reservation, Mission on the Rosebud reservation, and Kyle on the Pine Ridge reservation. They have also found employment in schools on the Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Sisseton, and Lower Brulé reservations. Currently, there are over 20 active graduate students in the program from five reservations in South Dakota and one student from the Navajo Nation.

Edwina Brown Bull, a recent human services graduate and a counselor at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge reservation, sums up the importance of SGU’s program: “When educated Native people service Native people with mental health needs, we are acknowledging and supporting tribal sovereignty and allowing for self-determination. Grassroots people are knowledgeable about the situations and environments our people live in and understand the magnitude of the traumas upon traumas. We develop rapport based on the fact we are not outsiders. The program at SGU trained us to know how to assist our people with processing their issues.”

Amanda Takes War Bonnet (Oglala Lakota) served as the editor for Indian Country Today and Lakota Times. She is now the public education specialist for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, a coalition with a membership from 23 tribes that works to end domestic and sexual violence in their communities. Takes War Bonnett would like to thank Mary Ann Coupland for her help and assistance in preparing this article.

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