Yes, EMDR therapy works for indigenous people. If you heard that myth, this episode will bust it and others. Can EMDR therapy make a difference so that you can process your past trauma and racism? Many Native American/FNMI people experience ongoing complex, complicated traumatic experiences similar to PTSD due to the Residential School/Boarding School era, intergenerational trauma, racial inequality, and ongoing oppressive systems within Turtle Island, known as North America. Listen to EMDR Therapist Shelley Spear Chief, LCSW, MSWC discuss her EMDR therapy experience and approach to helping people heal.
- The “Loving Eyes” procedure can be found in the book published by Springer Publishing Company: “EMDR Toolbook, 2nd Edition, Theory and Treatment of Complex PTSD and Dissociation,” by Jim Knipe, Ph.D. EMDRIA members receive a 25% discount on Springer Publishing Company books.
- Her new book, “Eagle Wings Flapping: Beaver Learns to Manage Big Emotions,” by Shelly and Moses Spear Chief, will be available through Amazon in late August.
- July is also BIPOC Mental Health Month. We celebrate our EMDRIA member BIPOC therapists who serve all populations but provide expertise for minorities.
- EMDRIA’s Find an EMDR Therapist Directory provides listings for more than 12,000 EMDR therapists.
- Read or subscribe to our award-winning blog, Focal Point, an open resource on EMDR therapy.
- Follow @EMDRIA on Twitter. Connect with EMDRIA on Facebook or subscribe to our YouTube Channel.
Musical soundtrack, Acoustic Motivation 11290, supplied royalty-free by Pixabay.
Produced by Kim Howard, CAE.
Kim Howard 00:11
Welcome to the Let’s Talk EMDR podcast brought to you by the EMDR International Association or EMDRIA. I am your host, Kim Howard. July is BIPOC Mental Health Month. BIPOC stands for the Black, Indigenous, People of Color. In this episode, we are discussing how EMDR therapy can help indigenous people. Today’s guest is EMDR therapist, Shelley Spear Chief from Alberta, Canada. Shelley is a First Nations Dakota woman with extensive experience working with indigenous populations. Let’s get started. July is bipoc Mental Health Month Today we are speaking with an EMDR therapist who specializes in treating indigenous population. Thank you, Shelly spear chi for being here today. We are so happy that you said yes. Thank you. So I’m gonna start by asking if you could tell us about your journey to becoming an EMDR therapist and your experiences in EMDR therapy with indigenous population.
Shelley Spear Chief 01:08
My journey about being an EMDR therapist, I was thinking back on that in the late 80s, I would say mid 80s to early 90s, I was introduced to EMDR. And it was kind of considered like a hocus-pocus type treatment. And I was surprised by that. Because the first time I had seen somebody doing it, it looked very close to the way we do doctoring amongst our people with the bilateral stem. So I was curious. And at that time, you could actually take a workshop on it without all the EMDRIA requirements. And so I went and sat in on a workshop and I seen so many familiarities and then went over to Browning, the late Buster Yellow Kidney’s camp, and he had gone to university in the states and become a lawyer and then had returned and I recalled meeting Francine at that time and met her at his camp. So whether they were colleagues, I will never know. But that was my journey. But I did not know who she was or that she was the EMDR lady or none of that stuff. Nor did she know who we were. We were there for ceremony and doctoring. So from there, I kind of forgot about EMDR for a while, because I did it my way. We did the doctoring and I just forgot about it. And in later years, it was a friend who told me that she had experienced a very traumatic event, a rate that had triggered earlier memories for her. And she went to a good friend who has passed away since and I had EMDR with her and I said EMDR. And I said that sounds familiar. And then she told me Eye Movement Desensitization reprocessing, and I said, Oh, wow, I remember that. I said, I, I took a workshop on that many, many moons ago. So I was curious. So I knew this lady, and I thought, gee, she never told me that you did EMDR. So we got talking. And at that time, I had an individual struggling with residential school trauma, and was relapsing. So I asked her if I brought this individual could I sit in with you and observe what you’re going to do to help this individual. And there was some challenges, there was some big challenges because of the cultural differences and the language barriers. So I was able to help her as she was doing the therapy, I could adapt as I was sitting there with her. And we went on a journey of helping this individual and we did about 20 sessions together. And it was life changing for this individual. They described it for the first time as having some peace and feeling like the event was 75 feet away instead of always right up in front of them. So that was extremely important. And then I knew then that I’m going to continue this journey with EMDR.
Kim Howard 04:00
What a victory that was for a patient and a client and for therapists to have that happen. I am in charge of our social media accounts and I get feedback from people who regularly tell me that EMDR saved their life or made a huge difference in their life to help them deal with their trauma and so it’s really rewarding to work for an organization comprised of caregivers and people who help other people you know what a what a beautiful calling that is, you know what a beautiful career path that can be for someone like you and I I’m so glad that there are people like you out there who do this work every day. So thank you.
Shelley Spear Chief 04:35
Thank you. We don’t get much acknowledgement. So it’s nice to hear.
Kim Howard 04:38
Well, I think, I think it’s amazing and so a society standpoint still kind of taboo to talk about right but more and more people are coming out and saying hey I’m struggling you know, I have these issues and if this helps somebody else recognize that they might have an issue and help them seek help to live the life they want to live and hey, my testimony help so be it’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to talk about.
Shelley Spear Chief 04:59
One of the biggest challenges actually, for our people is that taboo mental health taboo. And there’s a group of people that a younger group that would say, Okay, I’ll go to a counselor, and I’ll talk to a counselor, but they don’t feel validated often, because of the barriers and cultural understanding, then there’s an older group of people who suffer in silence due to residential school history, some have been harmed, that they don’t want to go the traditional way, and sit with elders and get doctored. Because when those elders were younger, they might have done some crazy things. So they hold on to those memories, not realizing that they might have healed and moved on. So then they don’t get help and, and that group often gets lost. And they’re really suffering in silence because of what happened to them. And when they can come in and do this type of treatment, it’s just life changing for them, the stressors that come off their body, and even changes illness, because all the somatic illnesses that comes along with complex, complicated trauma.
Kim Howard 06:02
Yeah, that’s, I feel like you hit the nail on the head in terms of generations, I think that people in my life, like my parents, my both of my parents are deceased, but my father was in the U. S. Army, and he was in Vietnam for two tours. And that’s just not what you did. Like you didn’t come back from the war and go talk to a counselor, and you just came back from the war, and you just went back to your job and did what you were so do and he would never have thought about talking to somebody about feelings or something traumatic that he’d seen during his two tours. And and that has changed for the better. Because, you know, there’s that saying that war is hell. And so when you see atrocities happen, even if they don’t happen to you, you still carry that around in your memory. And so if you’re not seeking help, that help filter that and process it, and they’re just caring about all that horrific trauma that happened to you that you saw, and it just makes you so unhealthy and unhappy. And you know, and it’s good that the younger generation is more open to that. So I certainly do understand the mistrust of anybody in the medical community that has happened in a lot of minority cultures, you know, where people were experimented on and they weren’t told about it, or they they are treated less than your pain tolerance is higher because of who you are. So we’re not going to give you the drugs that you might need to help dial your pain. And so I certainly do understand that our lack of trust and faith in the medical community. So in the toxic shame, often native people are shamed for what happened to them. So if you were sexually assaulted, or parents that are really struggling with addictions, abject poverty, all the challenges that we face, and First Nation, matey, Inuit communities, and that shame is what drives you into numbing yourself escaping suicide, all those different challenges, even you know, the way they today, one of the biggest shames is what young parents are doing to their children, but shame them into not having relationships with grandparents, because grandparents may be not giving them their own way, the stuff that HANS system where, you know, give me the money, and then you have a relationship, not having purpose. So shame is one of the biggest challenges in working with people from the residential air to the boarding school air to the air of children’s services to parents who lost cultural identity to parents who are trying to find themselves and to hurt people, like very hurt people and hurt people hurt others. And what’s nice with EMDR is that when somebody is sitting in front of you, and they have experienced that shame, they actually don’t have to tell you have a story. It’s in their eyes, it’s in their knowingness. So they just have to think about and the emotions show up. And you can process that with a memory. It’s life changing for them. You know, it really is. And then eventually, I think most of my clients get so comfortable once they realize there is nothing to be ashamed about. They do start cheering
Shelley Spear Chief 09:02
on Let’s work on this first, and we’ll get to the other flight. There’s a lot of that are like racehorses after that they just want to go.
Kim Howard 09:14
That means they’re comfortable. What is your favorite part of working with this group?
Shelley Spear Chief 09:19
That was a tricky question. Because I thought about it well on First Nations, right? And, and I’m comfortable working within my own population. I’m part of that history. I’m a survivor. And I’ve overcame so that they know when they come to me, they know I already have that awareness and a huge part of the understanding. And I’ve also had to overcome the challenges so they don’t feel like they have to come in and educate me. And I think that’s one of the nicest parts or the client, but also for myself, I’ve been in that position, even with good friends where they’re not part of the culture, and I have to educate all the time, and that can be exhausting. And then the fragility that shows up, you know, the white fragility that can show up. And then sometimes it almost becomes like it’s your burden basket when they feel that way and shouldn’t be that way. That’s what clients don’t have to do when they come to me is feel like it’s their burden basket anymore, they can actually share and know that I understand. And it doesn’t matter what they say. And I think the humor we can have we it’s not all tears and pain, you know, there’s laughter There’s a celebration, there’s healing, and I can adapt it to like adapting bereaved people. That makes a big difference.
Kim Howard 10:35
That’s a great segue to my next question, which is, what successes have you seen regarding EMDR therapy?
Shelley Spear Chief 10:41
Oh, like the one I originally had shared, but I wasn’t administering the EMDR was my friend. And also the individual that was a residential school survivor, huge successes, watching how that changed their life. And I’ve seen it with elders I’ve worked with a lot of elders have been carrying that pain well into their late 60s and 70s. And allowing them to finally have some peace, there’s nothing greater than finally feeling peace, and it might be hard for people to understand. But if you’re always on alarm, and you feel like always got to defend yourself, peace is really important. And you can see it in their face, suddenly, the lines soften, the eyes are dancing. And it’s a wonderful feeling to see that happen for them by young young people who have experienced lots of racism, when they can finally process that and realize it’s not about them. That’s extremely important, because then why should they give up on life because it’s not their problem. It’s that person’s problems in so many different successes. Right? Some people, I deal with a very complex caseload very complicated. A lot of my clients are with me longer term, lots of stabilization, auberon, lots of you know, practicing a little bit of stepping into that activation and stepping out and really making sure we have containment, and then we start processing. But a lot of times, sometimes we just move into EMD versus going full throttle. And other times we can, it’s hard to measure success, because it really doesn’t exist in our culture. So we say is it good? Yes. So copy is very good.
Kim Howard 12:21
Are there any myths you would like to bust about EMDR therapy with generational trauma?
Shelley Spear Chief 12:27
Actually found that’s a good one I had that asked, I was helping to coach at a training just last week, and there was somebody who asked a question and said that they were told that EMDR indigenous people aren’t suitable for EMDR. And I thought that was interesting. So that’s a huge myth. Because as I had started out, everything we do, as indigenous people has a bilateral stem in ceremony. So whether it’s drumming, whether it’s your heartbeat, whether it’s walking, whether it’s dancing, whether you know we’re doctoring, with our eagle wings, everything we’ve always done from the beginning of time has been about being in the present, letting it go and walking on not holding on to past and letting it out of our system. So that’s one big major myth that I’d like to busted because no EMDR is extremely supportive to our people. But it is also important to have clinicians that have taken the training and the understanding of how to adapt EMDR for Native Americans, Indigenous First Nation, Inuit people knowing their cultural frame of reference and how they do things and not painting everyone with the same paintbrush because everybody is unique in our cultures straight across Turtle Island, which is North America. So that’s really important. Another one is dissociation. They say that were to dissociative to work with we’ve harnessed dissociation from the war camp days, that was a very challenging time prior to colonization and when exposure you know, to the Europeans coming in to Turtle Island, that was a very difficult, challenging time, but we always had ceremony, a bilateral stem again, we always dance we always prepared we always had ceremony doctoring that helped us transform into another part of ourselves so we could do what we needed to do to survive. Then when we were done, we came back into that ceremony and again bilateral stem taking place transformation back into our authentic selves. So we could be present and supportive within our camps. So dissociation, we probably harnessed that one so are we structurally dissociated? Yes, in a very good way. So we’re not hard to work with it’s actually read up our ways of knowing if the clinician can understand and he can see I’m bringing some skills worked with analogy or some knowledge keepers do some consultations, they’re going to be fine. They’re going to be able to support the people in a really good way.
Kim Howard 15:11
That’s good. That’s an interesting comment or question that that person had in that training. I’m always surprised when I hear things like that, whether it’s related to EMDR therapy or not, you know, and I hear people say things like that. I’m like, what, why? Why would anyone say that? Or why would anyone think that? Or why would anyone spread that information? That disinformation? You know, it doesn’t make any any sense to me, but I’m not in charge of the world. So you know, I can’t fix everybody.
Shelley Spear Chief 15:39
So, you’d like to? I know, I know write any strange comments I’ve had over the years.
Kim Howard 15:49
I bet you could write a book about that. Yeah.
Shelley Spear Chief 15:52
I actually am.
Kim Howard 15:55
Great. Love it. Oh, are there any specific complexities or difficulties using EMDR therapy with indigenous people? I think you’ve alluded to the fact that there’s not that, you know, but there might be situations where like, oh, yeah, here’s, there’s something that you need to know.
Shelley Spear Chief 16:12
If you approach the therapy, the therapeutic treatment, and it really does depend on the client sitting in front of you. So if you have somebody that’s deeply involved in their traditional ways, in their practices, of their clan, group, their tribe, their community, then it’s really important to offer those types of resources where if they want an elder with, if you want to meet with an elder first and how the elder can be supportive in the work that you’re doing, understand the language barriers, understand the ways of knowing, because if you’re using a very standard Western eyes, you know, English, it may not work, because even know most of our people speak English, they might not be thinking English first. So it’s really important. So sometimes, then you get somebody that has to kind of process. What are you saying, and what does that mean? So sometimes, if you’re using using a higher educational language, they’re not going to understand what you’re saying, you have to be grassroots. And it’s really important and that’s hard for a lot of therapists especially when they’re educated with doctors or it’s interview, they seem to forget the grass root language you have to come down to the roots and even if you say somatic you know they’re gonna look at you and go somatic. You know, that’s where you want to explain what I felt sense in the body. What are you noticing and educate on that a little bit? Are they noticing in their body extremely important, really understanding that there are so many native tribes across Turtle Island, and we’re not all the same, we have a lot of similarities are not the same. And it’s important to honor that, then you get the acculturated ones that have lived more in dominant culture and have been educated in dominant culture and know their roots. So they might be able to do the eighth standard protocol and go with that right and not have a problem. But then all of a sudden, you get to the historical generational trauma, those ancestral knowledge that DNA that you know, beats within the heartbeat within you does not know dominant culture. So it’s really important that you’re also recognizing those old ways of knowing when you’re accessing those parts of cells, they’re going to be in the old ways of knowing. And that’s really important. So people get slipped by that when that happens. And they don’t understand what’s going on. And that goes back to the prior question that we’ve harnessed dissociation in many ways. So there’s parts of self that are still warriors, there’s parts of self that might be the old doctors, you know, the healers, the educators, so it’s really important to know, when you’re working with the people, and abrasion and advice and things to keep in mind.
Kim Howard 19:08
Do you have a favorite free EMDR related resource that you would suggest either for the public and or for EMDR therapist free resource?
Shelley Spear Chief 19:15
Not yet myself, I am publishing a book called eagle wings lapping and it’s coming out August, September, but it won’t be a free resource. It will be out there but I’m respectful of all the trainers and their material and the one I really like using I adapt everything I really do because of our population but is the “Loving Eyes” by Jim Knipe I really liked that because with our people and the generational trauma and the hurts and the historical issues, sometimes being able to go within and go back there and see that child part itself and send that child through your eyes, the wisdom, the knowledge that you had today, those loving eyes that they needed. neighbor little is powerful. And I’ve just seen so much healing and doing that, I probably do that with all my clients at one point or another, that we go back there. And even when we’re dealing with grief, we have to go back there and look into your child’s eyes, you know, see those child’s eyes and send them those loving eyes was suicide with opioids, everything, I still have that unconditional love for them, and they will always be a part of you is extremely healing. And that’s one I really like. And then I also like, you know, Laura Parnell’s work where she’s within generational trauma and the tapping in and that’s how powerful when she does it in group work. And then Sandra Paulson does the pre verbal trauma, when there are no words, I just have so much respect for all of them.
Kim Howard 20:48
Those are great suggestions and resources. And I like hearing how EMDR therapists, whether it’s written to the magazine, or they’re on the podcast, or they’ve written to the blog, I’d love to hear how they run their practice in a way that gives you a sense of how they approach things, whether it’s through music, or dance, or expressive arts, or you know, other resources and other ways to approach merging, you know, trauma sensitive yoga, those kinds of things where you integrate other approaches to therapy and integrated with EMDR. And you you make it happen for a patient population that you’re working with, right? It’s really like that old phrase where you go to Burger King, and you have your burger your way, right, so you go to therapy, and the therapist really has to look at each client and say, Okay, I have to customize my approach with this client based on who this person is not who my last client was, or who the next client is. And so I appreciate all of that effort. And that work in that study that goes into managing that experience for that individual, because not all women come to therapy with the same issue. So each woman has to be individualized. And so it’s good that that you guys have the resources available to do that. And that you’re willing to share the information amongst yourselves so that people are educated so they can make their practices better for their clients, which is ultimately the outcome, right is to make people who come to see you live a healthier life, live a more hopeful life live the way that they want to live, so that they can deal with all their issues. And just you know, so that’s very true.
Shelley Spear Chief 22:11
And one of the things like I’d really adapted is we’ve always call it eagle wings, because the Eagles are relative, and it’s the one that flies highest in the farseeing and the one that can fly closest to crater and take our smoke up to crater. So our ceremonies are pipe ceremonies, so one of the ones that I’ve always used, but even back in the late 80s, early 90s, when I first was exposed to EMDR is I seen it like an eagle because we use eagle wings like a wing. So one of the things I’ve done is I’ve done an adapted auto call using the eagle wings. And hopefully that that’s will be shared soon I think EMDRIA Canada, and EMDRIA have it on the website where where people can take that workshop if they chose to. Also, drumming is important. So just the other day, you know, I had somebody come in for an intense of a young girl with what happened to her. And we did drumming, drumming it through. And that speaks to the heart, right. So when you’re doing that bilateral stem with drumming, it’s even more powerful than you know, follow your fingers, which can be actually offensive, you gotta be very careful in the native community, as I like to close my hand my fingers to my thumb, and it almost looks like the eagle then because when you’re waving your hand in front of first responders, police officers, Native people, people of color, when they’ve had bad experiences with people in authority, and you’re waving your hand in front of them, you’re actually creating more of an alarm system because they think you’re on threat. So I’ve always been aware of that and changed it. I’ve always changed it. And that’s why drumming has been powerful doing the eagle wings has been powerful, you know, using a different object to you know, if you’re going to do a bilateral use a light bar, but don’t use red and blue. Because what does that look like? Yeah, the police go and I’ve seen I’ve seen that happen want to get in trouble, right? And I’m like, oh, no, let’s not use red and blue. I I like to use you know, green, you know, green means go go with that. Right? So you want it to be healing and greens, a very healing color.
Kim Howard 24:34
And it’s also greens also color of the earth and the trees, which is absolutely perfect. That’s a really good insight. So I don’t think people would think about that. Yeah, that’s really, really, really good information showing.
Shelley Spear Chief 24:49
And it’s a real good way to hide your client red and blue.
Kim Howard 24:53
Yeah. Good. I never would have thought about that until you mentioned that. Oh, yeah, you’re right. That’s right.
Shelley Spear Chief 25:00
Oh, they’ve generally never had any problems with police officers
Kim Howard 25:05
was, hey, that’s great for them. But you know, that doesn’t mean that your client has not experienced something. Yeah. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Shelley Spear Chief 25:13
I think for anybody who’s starting the EMDR journey and training, you can’t go wrong. It’s a really nice therapeutic approach to have in your toolbox. One of the things I’m always hearing when I’m doing coaching, I hope one day to be a trainer, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. But I hear all the time. New learners always saying things like they think they have to leave the tools they already have, somehow they think that they don’t use CBT anymore. They’re not using somatic experiencing. They’re not using talk therapy, know that you’re going to use everything you have loss EMDR it’s another really nice tool treatment tool to have in your toolbox. And don’t be afraid, but try it out. Use it. Consultation is important. You know, make sure you do consultation, talk to people join a consultation group. You can’t go wrong, you really can’t go wrong venue. It’s so adaptable. It can change it in so many ways, but still stick to that standard protocol. It just adapted to your client so your client feels comfortable.
Kim Howard 26:23
Right, that’s great. You nailed it on the head. This is when the let’s talk EMDR podcast with our guest Shelley Spear Chief. Visit www.emdria.org. For more information about EMDR therapy for to use our find an EMDR therapist directly with more than 12,000 therapists available. Our award-winning blog focal point offers information on EMDR is an open resource. Thank you for listening.
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Howard, K. (Host). (2022, July 15). EMDR Therapy with Native Americans/First Nations Peoples with Shelley Spear Chief (Season 1, No. 4) [Audio podcast episode]. In Let’s Talk EMDR podcast. EMDR International Association. https://www.emdria.org/letstalkemdrpodcast/
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