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Religion vs Spirituality: Where does the Native American way of life fit in?

Religion vs Spirituality: Where does the Native American way of life fit in?

Hello everyone!prayer

Oh wow what a weekend! For those who follow my Facebook page, you probably have read that I officially graduated from my program in Aboriginal focusing oriented psychotherapy and complex trauma  (AFOT) certificate today!  Read more about this unique and amazing program here.  I have never experienced such a program. It has been a year of wonders, of learning, of healing. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude to my teachers, Elders and classmates. Who all became my second family. I have so much love and respect for all of them. It was a crazy busy and at times painful year. And they helped carry me forward and heal.

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Native American spirituality: Different perspective on suicide

Native American Spirituality: Different perspective on suicide

Hello all!

If you follow my site’s Facebook page, you know that I am currently doing course 4 in my certificate on Aboriginal psychotherapy and complex trauma. I absolutely love this program and recommend it to anyone who will listen! It is a very nontraditional program in which traditional ways of healing such as using the land and Mother Earth to heal, using our connection to nature, using the ancestors to guide and help us. It is very much an experiential program in which we do try on ourselves what we would do with clients. As much as I love it, I am typically exhausted by the time a course is over. But it is a wonderful experience! So I thought I would share and write about a topic we discussed today: suicide. Yes not the most uplifting topic, I agree. I did not mean to be a bummer. BUT, actually the perspective I want to share is a different one in which suicide is seen, in a way, as having had an adaptive function over time. Stay with me and you will find out what I mean. Let’s look at Native American spirituality and suicide.


A Native American perspective on suicide

In today’s day and age, suicide has a negative connotation. We tend to skirt the topic and pretend suicide does not exist. Or we tend to reassure loved ones of those who have committed suicide by saying things such as “she does not feel pain anymore” or “she is in heaven now”. Well, let’s think about this for a sec. So the one who committed suicide does not feel pain anymore? Well I want that too then. I mean, although it is meant to be reassuring, it almost makes suicide attractive here. “Who wants to stay alive and feel pain?” “Who wants to die and not feel pain anymore?” That is quite a restrictive view of suicide. I get that those words are meant to reassure those left behind but they portray suicide in a light that might not be accurate. This is not a tampon commercial, we are not all running in a field to go to a better place.

What else are we supposed to say you ask? Well, let’s think about it for a second. Within the Native cultures (yes there is more than one), the connection to Mother Earth, to the land is strong. We connect with the ground beneath our feet, with the wind in the Father Sky, with the warmth of Grand-father Sun, with the water of Grand-mother Ocean. We feel all of this on our earthly body. Because our life as we know it is our “earth time” in which we are in our physical form. We return to our spiritual form in the spirit world at death. So how about saying “she will never feel the wind on her face again” or “she won’t be able to feel the sun on her skin” instead? To remind us that we also need to be thankful for our bodies, for our physical side. We need to embrace our life on Earth before we go to the Spirit world. Because once we have crossed, our earth time is over and that comes with aftereffects that are rarely mentioned.


But wait suicide has always been present

Yes it has. It was present before the colonization of Turtle Island. Our ancestors committed suicide. They died for their land or their community. For example, older people would go off to die rather than slow down a nomadic tribe. Not as a sacrifice but rather as a way to serve the land or their community. If their earthly body was failing them, if they were in pain, if they believed that their family or community would do better that way. In a sense, it had an adaptive function. Kids would kill themselves if they saw their family struggling to eat so that the family could survive. This is still seen at times today, except that it is called an accident. I know some of you might be scratching their head, but suicide has always been and remains an option. It has always been there in the life of Indigenous people and will remain there. Suicide then has to be perceived as being normal. We all have our own different relationship with suicide. We sit beside it, we look at it, we explore it.

For some I can understand that what I just said might be scary. Because suicide is often considered to be a taboo. But suicide is present so we might as well talk about it. In numerous nations, on numerous reserves, suicide rates are high, higher than in the general population. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are indeed the leading cause of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. It does not mean that every community has a high suicide rate. It means, however, that on average, the suicide rate is higher in Aboriginal youth than non-Aboriginal youth in Canada (5 to 1, up to 11 to 1 for Inuit youth). You will also see cluster suicides, of teens at times, where a teenager commits suicide and then a few follow suit. Or an echo suicide, i.e. suicides that take place after an extended period of time after the first one (e.g. on the anniversary of the death).

Hopi prayer

Hopi prayer for those who have lost a loved one

So yes we need to talk about it

Talking openly about suicide is what is done in Aboriginal focusing oriented therapy (AFOT, the program I am taking). We go toward suicide, we do not run away from it. We have an open discussion about it, we do not shame those who are thinking about dying or have tried to kill themselves. We respect and recognize that part of them might feel like dying. And then we can explore which part that is. And very importantly, if there is a vicarious or intergenerational component to that feeling. What do I mean by that? Well we explore whether that feeling is theirs alone or if part of it might belong to past generations. Was it the client’s mom feeling the same or the grand-mother maybe? Are clients carrying their ancestors’ experiences within themselves? Yes they are. Their body carries it. Their body carries the memory of what happened to their ancestors. And we need to be mindful of that reality.

smudging fan

So yes talking about suicide might be scary. When I first heard that suicide was and always is an option, my stomach churned. I was not comfortable with that. But then you have to look at it this way: suicide might be an option but it might not be the one I am taking right now. I am comfortable talking about suicide. I have done it many time in my work in jails. Detailed and intimate discussions about the client’s thoughts, feelings, actions. And what I found is that most individuals will find it reassuring to have those conversations. That someone can hold all of that. Because as therapists that is what we do, we hold. We serve as the container for the client to safely empty what makes them feel uncomfortable. We sit with it.

And that is not always easy. Cue Mother Earth. Yes we need to use the land to hold the client’s feelings. The land can do that. Imagine you are standing up and the space in front of you can hold what makes you uncomfortable, what hurts you, what scares you. Well in AFOT, that is what is done. The space, the land serves as a space to put the client’s feelings so they can be observed and discussed from a safer distance. The land will hold them so that it can feel safer to discuss them. The land is strong, solid (rocks do not move, we can count on them) while also offering fluidity (the fluidity of water, water washes the rocks).


So here we have it: suicide. A topic that is uncomfortable for many. But it is a reality and not talking about it won’t make it less a reality. So we might as well talk about it. Sit with it, have a conversation with it, a relationship to it. Normalize the whole thing so that people can speak more openly without feeling shame. While remembering that we are not alone as Mother Earth is there to help. What are your thoughts about suicide? Anyone offended by what I said? Anyone agrees? Comment below and I will answer 🙂

All my Relations


Native American therapy

Native American therapy: how can Westerners adjust?

Hello all!

As you might know, I am a mental health professional trained in psychology who has worked in various settings with various populations. I have conducted therapy sessions, assessment and just helped or listened to individuals ranging from children to incarcerated adults. I currently work with individuals who have reached their last resort, oftentimes homeless, mentally ill or presenting with brain injuries or substance abuse issues. My work in jails has taught me to practice my profession in a more culturally sensitive manner. It is also something I have researched in graduate school as well. So this article will focus on some points to consider when offering counseling or therapy to Native American people. Here we go!

The importance of spirituality and the belief system

The importance of spirituality in the life of most Aboriginal people and how the practice of dreamcatchersspirituality is embedded in the Aboriginal lifestyle is something to remember. The Native American belief system is not always linear or rational and thus it requires the therapist to rethink psychotherapy, how help is provided and how one’s worldview is defined. Traditional ceremonies (including peyote ceremonies, fasts and vision quests) can also play a big part in American Indians’ lives.  However, as the world is not a linear world within the Native culture, there is not really a standardized way of rendering therapy (due to variations in experience, skills and abilities). However, there are several principles that one can consider.

Some guiding principles

So if one thinks of the Western world, we live in a very structured world, in which everything has a time limit (especially in therapy sessions). We are supposed to be done when we are supposed to be done, to stick to the schedule at hand and do the same thing all over again the next day. If one thinks of the Native world, especially before the arrival of Europeans, well it was quite different. There was no watch to tell you when to go, no GPS to tell you where to go, no phones so someone could tell you where to go. They had the sun, Father Sky, Mother Earth, nature and the animals to guide them. They relied on their relations. And they got there when they got there. “Indian time” we call it. Well maybe there is something in there that we can learn from.

Meeting the patient where he or she is

This is a principle I would apply to any clients I have to say. Imposing an agenda never works in canyonmy experience. It just leads to frustration on both sides. When working with Native clients, it might mean to be open to looking at the client’s dreams, visions or signs received. Dream interpretation, also used in psychodynamic and analytic therapy, can be so useful. As all our defenses are down when sleeping and things that would normally be blocked from our consciousness come to the surface. It does not mean that things will come to the surface in a very clear way. Some interpretation will certainly be required. The same could be said of visions.

Trance states in non-Western reality

Trance states are present in many traditional ceremonies. They can be induced by repetitive chanting, drumming or rituals for example. I have gone in a trance-like state in a few ceremonies due to the repetitive drumming and chanting. Some might say “a trance like state, are you crazy?”. But when I say, “go in a trance”, I mean a very deeply calm state. Somewhat similar to a meditative state. Images can emerge from those states and the therapist has to have the willingness and ability to interpret them. It also means that the therapist might need to enter in a trance state him or herself to understand the reality of the client in the moment (concept of immediacy: what is going on in the moment). It can actually deepen the therapeutic alliance because it helps the client feel understood and validated.

Inupiat drummers

Time limitations

Western standard 50 minutes sessions might be difficult to follow with Aboriginal clients, especially if ceremonies are involved. Or if states such as trances are entered. Therapist needs time to safely bring the client back to the reality. If you have ever been to a Native ceremony, you know that knowing the exact time it starts at and ends is basically impossible 😉 There will be a start time but you would be very lucky if it actually began at that time….However, within the therapeutic context, you might be in control of when the ceremony begins (unless it is attended somewhere else in the community). But a ceremony is a process. Placing a time limit on it would defeat its purpose.

Ritual and prayer in the therapeutic encounter

Symbolic rituals such as prayer constitute a part of many Native Americans’ life. Therapists must understand and validate those rituals. However, certain rituals, depending on the setting might feel offensive to others in the setting. Like smoking of tobacco or smudging. Nonetheless, therapists must still include those rituals if appropriate, as they can ensure that therapy is effective. It does not mean that the therapist is a medicine person though and should not act in that role. I personally smudge my office every day. The smell of sage is not a smell that everyone likes but we talk about it. I know that clients appreciate it and with the amount of trauma and negativity that is brought in that office, it needs to be cleansed! I also have my own ritual of smudging myself while praying in the morning. I think it is important as a therapist to cleanse yourself, to find ways to do so, as our work can weigh heavy on our shoulders at times.


The therapeutic use of synchronous events

In the Western culture, synchronous events are often thought of as “chance events” (e.g. coyote crossing in front of one’s car). The therapist must be willing to entertain the idea that the event might not be a coincidence. I personally do not believe in coincidences. And if we think of all our relations, we know that they talk to us, might they be animals, birds or trees. They guide us, like our ancestors. If an eagle is flying above your head, that is no coincidence. To learn more about the symbolism of animals and birds, see my pages here and here.


So what are your thoughts? Anything you would add or take out? Do you agree with those points?

All my Relations


Native American spirituality vs religion

Native American spirituality vs religion

Hi all!smudging

I am continuing on with the writing of the Red Man, the Cree man who helped me write my last post. I have written a few posts about the history of the Native people (see my history and trauma category on the right) and about the philosophy and spirituality (see category on the right too). I have discussed the influence of the White man and religion on the trauma that was inflicted on the Native people. Because although not always intentionally, trauma was inflicted in the name of religion. Not an easy topic to discuss or read about but it happened. Assimilation was the goal, to take the Indian out of the man. In the name of Christianity, traditions were forbidden, beliefs were ridiculed, and cultures were erased. Or at least, they tried to. So today, let’s look at the concepts of religion and Native American spirituality.

What is the Native fight?

Some would say we are on the war path, fighting a fight we might lose if we do not know who we are fighting against. If we do not know, we will fight ourselves and everyone close to us. Who

Chief Dan George

Chief Dan George

is the enemy then or what is the enemy? Chief Dan George once said: “When you came to this land, we had the land and you had the bible. Now you have the land and we have the bible”. Maybe it is time to wake up and smell the aroma of fear. To remember who we are and in a sense, we were not religious. Native people became “religious” as a military ploy, pretending to believe in a religion so the religious ones would stop killing them. Guess what? Even though we pretended, they still killed us.

Native spirituality vs religion

Religion and the Red Road are diametrically opposed to each other in a few different ways. First of all, let’s clarify something. The Red Road or Native Spirituality is not considered a religion. It is considered a philosophy. The word philosophy is Greek for “a love of wisdom”. We love wisdom wherever it comes from. From the White, Red, Black and Yellow man. Indeed, the concept of the Medicine Wheel dictates that once the attributes of the Red, White, Black and Yellow men are acknowledged, that’s when the medicine wheel is complete and whole. All knowledge is important, from all men.

Religion is a doctrine, a system of thoughts where all thoughts and truth come from a book, the bible let’s say. Religion tends to instill fear in people, the fear of hell, of doing bad, or burning in hell. However, one cannot get to the happy hunting grounds through fear. The Bible tells you to fear, to fear the God who has the power to kill you. Rebelling against God is bringing judgment upon oneself, inviting wrath into one’s life (Romans 13). I don’t know about you but living in that kind of fear does not seem like a very serene way of living.


The Priest and the Elder

The difference that I will describe here is bone chilling and beautiful at the same time. The Beothuk Indians, Indians from the tip of the Canadian East coast, are now extinct. But they gave us this pearl of wisdom to think about.

A priest is sitting with an Elder of the tribe. The priest says: “look at your children, running around, screaming and laughing. You had better take the rod to them or they will one day embarrass you in public. If you spare the child the rod, you do not love them. And secondly you had better give yourself to the land or you will burn in hell”.

Beothuk woman and child

Beothuk woman and child

The Elder’s response, is worth a moment of reflection. I will repeat what he said verbatim, word for word. “First of all, we do not hit our children! We have respect for their dignity. Second of all, we do not believe in this primitive fear that you call hell. You brought that here with you and you can take it back when you leave”.

Sense or nonsense, that is the question. In the name of religion, natural Natives were killed throughout the world. The Crusades, the Inquisition. For some, this might be an occasion to ask themselves, why do I know little about my people but a lot about the Bible? You might know the saying “What belongs to Ceasar, let Ceasar have”. Well, maybe what belongs to Jesus and his people, let Jesus and his people have. The people of the Bible only have respect for their ideas and show a hatred for the truth of anyone else. But the land speaks to you and their land speaks harshly to them. We live in the promised land and maybe we should live like we have heaven here on earth. We have our ancestors around us, we walk on their land, the land of our children. Let us live in peace, joy and love. Let us be who we were meant to be, not who we were made to be.

elder quote


All my Relations