Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Excellence
Indigenous Peoples’ Heritage Month, also known as Native American Heritage Month, celebrates the diverse cultures and contributions of American Indians, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians. The cultural holiday originated from American Indian Day, which was championed by Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, who was the director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, New York. The president of the Congress of the American Indian Association, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe, issued a proclamation on Sept. 28, 1915, to declare the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day.
President Gerald Ford then designated Native American Awareness Week in October 1976. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 8.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States today.
This year, we’re celebrating the contributions of Indigenous Peoples, past and present.
- Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail is a Crow Indian nurse who fought healthcare inequities and abuses, including the forced sterilization of Crow women.
- Dr. Logan Wright, of the Osage Nation, served as president of the American Psychological Association and was known as the father of pediatric psychology.
- Annie Dodge Wauneka, a Navajo of the Cliff Dwelling People Clan, was honored in 1963 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for public health work on tuberculosis and sanitation, as well as for writing an English-Navajo medical dictionary to improve healthcare.
- The “Father of Native American Social Work,” Dr. Ronald Lewis, is a Cherokee citizen who was one of many Indigenous people who contributed to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
- Electa Quinney, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohicans, opened the first public school in Wisconsin in 1828.
- Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo Laguna and secretary of the Department of the Interior, is the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
- Morris Thompson, a Koyukon Athabascan, led one of the most successful Alaskan Native corporations and was the youngest Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner.
Here are some of the achievements of several American Indian members of the Walden community who contribute to our mission to effect positive social change.
Dr. Marie Natrall ’19
Dr. Marie Natrall is Canadian First Nations — Squamish and Northern Tutchone — from North Vancouver in British Columbia. She can trace her family tree back to 1790 when her ancestors first had contact with White people. But, there are generational gaps in her heritage because her grandparents and father were forced into boarding schools where their culture was forbidden. Their education only reached the elementary school level, but, even if they had attended university, by law it would have meant giving up their First Nations status.
“I pursued an education as far as I could because we didn’t always have the right,” says Dr. Natrall, a Walden University PhD in Public Policy and Administration graduate. “I don’t want to take it for granted. Completing my PhD wasn’t just for me. It was for my people and my ancestors. It was for my son, to set an example.”
Her son is reconnecting with their heritage by working as a cultural ambassador at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, British Columbia. The tour he leads includes a canoe that belonged to his great-great-grandfather.
“It makes me feel good in my heart that my son gets to learn about our culture and who we are as people because it wasn’t something my grandparents, my parents or I were able to do,” says Dr. Natrall.
She is using her doctorate to bring culturally competent care to Native Americans in Washington’s Behavioral Health Administration facilities. In her role as the first tribal affairs administrator for the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, she has written a policy and trained staff on everything from historical trauma to allowing medicinal teas provided by elders. She is also working to bring traditional activities such as beadwork and drum making into facilities.
“All of us have different areas of interest and ways we’d like to make a difference in the world,” she says. “Walden’s social change mission gives you the freedom to focus on things that are important to you.”
Dr. Rebecca Moore
Dr. Rebecca Moore, a contributing faculty member in Walden’s Master of Social Work program, is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe that was forced off its land twice and now lives on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. Growing up, she spent school years in Tucson with her parents and summers with her extended family on the reservation.
“I remember being 8 years old and my grandmother insisting we learn some of the traditional arts,” she says. “Throughout my life, I’ve been a beadwork artist. It’s a connection that has kept me grounded to who I am and to my people in Wyoming.”
That connection remained strong, even as she earned degrees in Utah and New York and taught at Cornell and Vanderbilt, among other universities. Today, she is also a professor at New Mexico Highlands University. There, she launched the Indigenous Knowledge Center and chaired the President’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
At the national level, she serves on the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Commission for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice, as well as their Anti-Racism Task Force. In those roles, she led the development of the CSWE’s land acknowledgment, a statement that recognizes the mistreatment of Indigenous people who were once caretakers of the land where the organization is headquartered. In her reflection on the importance of these statements, she adds that they “also provide non-Indigenous people opportunities for critical self-reflection and for learning about alternative perspectives on the history of this country.”
For the last year-and-a-half, she has worked with the National Latino Behavioral Health Association to develop the free Guide and eCompendium of Evidence-Based Programs.
“Most prevention and intervention programs are built and tested on White populations, not minority communities,” she says. “The eCompendium delivers information about programs that have been screened for cultural sensitivity or an evidence base that demonstrates practical or experiential fit for a given community.”
It’s more experience that she brings to her students in the Barbara Solomon School of Social Work, connecting it to Walden’s mission.
“Walden is serious about social change,” she says. “It’s not just words on a piece of paper.”
Dr. Jo Anne House ’08 ’13
Dr. Jo Anne House, chief counsel of the Oneida Nation, hadn’t planned on being an attorney. After false starts at college, she completed a bachelor’s in legal studies. She was poised to be a paralegal until she noticed everyone else in her class was choosing law school. She pursued that same path, relocating from Texas to attend the University of Wisconsin – Madison, not far from her extended family on the Oneida reservation.
At Walden, she earned a Master of Public Administration in 2008 and a PhD in Public Policy and Administration in 2013. For her dissertation, she focused on “Exploring Deliberative Democracy: Tribal Membership Meetings Under Indian Reorganization Act Constitutions.” Her topic grew out of her role as tribal council parliamentarian, where she developed and defended policy decisions.
“I had to write in a way that 8,000 tribal members could understand, regardless of their level of education or technical expertise,” says Dr. House. “Because of my degrees from Walden, I understand a wider array of research, I’m more grounded when I write and speak, and I take more time to understand what I’m communicating.”
One of her responsibilities is to review dissertation proposals on behalf of the Oneida Nation.
“I act like an Institutional Review Board to ensure that our people are accurately portrayed,” she says.
“When conducting research or writing about Native Americans, your level of respect has to be tripled if you are not a member of that nation. If you are a member of the nation you want to study, your level of care has to be tripled because you are talking about your own family.”
Her Oneida family motivates her every day.
“Being on the reservation, everywhere you turn, there’s a tribal member,” she says. “We share the same foundational duty to more than ourselves and others, but to our entire environment. When you work for a tribal government, you get to work on a policy that will improve the life of a child playing in a park right outside your window. That’s how close you are to creating the world around you.”
Dr. Sally Willis
“I thought if I can get educated and bring that education back to teens, we could prevent things like teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” she says.
She majored in health education and pushed straight through to earning a Doctor of Health Administration. Dr. Willis completed a doctoral study on risky sexual behaviors and academic success in college students. While going to school, she worked as a public health educator, emergency management coordinator and social worker.
“I really love getting into the community and helping people by discussing things like influenza or emergency preparedness,” she says.
Dr. Willis has also been deeply involved with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which she is a member. On their health board, she helped the Sault Tribe Health Center make patient decisions and volunteered with a director to assist in writing white papers that were used with Congress to help fund health programs. The board also worked on issues of health costs for tribe members. On the education board, she reviewed as many as 800 scholarship essays a year from Native American college students, but the board only had funds to award around 100 each year.
“I really like working with and assisting students,” says Dr. Willis. “They have such great topics. I think I learn as much from them as they do from me.”
Dr. Jerry Gibson ’19
Dr. Jerry Gibson grew up in Appalachia, which he still calls home. He is mostly Blackfoot Indian, and he fondly recalls hearing about his heritage from relatives, including his great grandparents. A self-described “country boy,” he worked on farms to pay his way through college, earning degrees in animal science and adult education, as well as a Doctor of Education in vocational and technical education from Virginia Tech.
He taught agriculture, led 4-H, and became a leader in land grant university extension offices, writing grants and developing programs to help people improve their quality of life. Dr. Gibson even lived on a Cherokee reservation, utilizing grant funds and a video studio at a local college to provide distance learning programs. In the early 2000s, that experience led him back Virginia Tech. There, he developed online courses, was instrumental in creating the first Agricultural and Extension Education Department, and he earned tenure.
But, after the trauma of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, he left that life to go into counseling with his wife. It might seem like a big transition, but, to him, it was just another way to help people. Dr. Gibson earned two counseling master’s degrees at West Virginia University, and a colleague there recommended him to Walden, where he earned a PhD in Clinical Psychology.
He and his wife founded a counseling center in a small West Virginia town not far from Virginia Tech. They plan to open branches in nearby towns to provide more access to care, but there are challenges.
“The mental health need here is tremendous,” says Dr. Gibson. “We have a waiting list of over 100 people. We would love to hire three to five counselors, but it is hard to find qualified people who live or are willing to move here.”