Gyda Swaney
Educating Bicultural Psychologists

swaney Gyda Swaney, Flathead, PhD, is an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Montana. As director of the INPSYCH Program, she is fostering the development of bicultural American Indian psychologists. Swaney recruits and supports American Indian students and runs a two-week long summer program for undergraduate students. When government funding was available she also had a six-week summer program for high school students.

Swaney thinks that Indian Country needs psychologists who are both scientists and practitioners. “At our school we educate students both to be scientists and practitioners,” she says. “Oklahoma State and the University of North Dakota also use this model.”

Bicultural American Indian Psychologists

Swaney is aware that western approaches don’t work with all Indian people, particularly traditional people. Consequently, she feels that psychologists need to be scientists who are able to evaluate the effectiveness of what they're doing and also develop approaches that combine what is most helpful from both western and traditional knowledge.

Swaney feels that “bicultural” American Indian psychologists, who are grounded in their culture, are in the best position to develop new models. “Native students who are coming into graduate school in psychology now have a much better understanding of who they are culturally and traditionally than many students 10 or 15 years ago. I believe this is true in part because the Indian Religious Freedom Act enabled us to come out from underground and practice our ceremonies openly. Today’s students are bicultural. They can see both worlds. They know who they are as Indian people. They are able to take the western approach home and modify and adapt it to their particular culture. Most of the faculty lack these bicultural abilities so in respectful ways, they sometimes teach the faculty.

“Today’s Native students need to take the very old traditional model and meld it with the western model," Swaney continues. "Often students rely on their Elders as they try to grow a new model. Often tribal services, foster care, the legal department and other agencies turn to the mental health program on reservations for help. The new Native professionals need to figure out how to get all these agencies to work together in an effective, culturally competent way.”

Practitioner and Scientist

Swaney herself is both a practitioner and a scientist. “These two areas inform each other,” she says. Swaney has a small private practice in which she works with people struggling with such issues as trauma, sexual abuse, substance abuse and addiction, and depression. “I’ve also done a lot of grief work,” she adds. “I don’t want to pathologize grief. I think there’s a lot of help within our culture for grief. But sometimes people have so much grief that therapy can also be helpful.” Swaney, who has become bicultural, works closely with traditional healers in the care of some of her clients.

As a scientist Swaney does research but definitely not in the old western model that exploited Indian people. “We practice community participatory research. We work with communities in identifying their needs. We’re very careful to protect the indigenous knowledge so that intellectual property rights are protected."

One of Swaney’s areas of research is resilience. “Much of our strength lies with the Elders,” she says. “They are remarkable people who have survived enormous challenges. They have much to teach us."

Acculturation stress is another area in which Swaney has been doing research. “I’m looking particularly at students making the transition from the reservation to an urban community and how the stress affects their ability to succeed. I’m also interested in the behavioral health aspect of acculturation stress. I think that the ongoing racism, prejudice, and oppression have profound impacts on the health of our people. Poverty also has an impact. These things wear us down physically. I get impatient when people tell me that Native people just need to exercise and eat better. I think that health issues need to be seen in the context of all the stresses that Native people deal with on a daily basis. This includes reflecting on how our historical grief affects us today."

Stumbled into Psychology

Swaney herself faced acculturation stress when she left her home on the Flathead Nation to attend the University of Montana. She was the first person in her family to seek a college degree. “I stumbled into psychology,” admits Swaney. “I loved the courses.” Swaney did her bachelor’s degree, her master’s degree, and then her doctoral degree (1997) at the University of Montana. She spent her internship at Boston City Hospital where she focused on multi-cultural training.

After completing her degree, Swaney returned to the Flathead Reservation where she was a clinical supervisor for both the mental health program and the addiction and counseling program. “I learned so much. I had the honor of working with Agnes Venderberg, who was an Elder. We took our clients with us when we picked huckleberries, made a teepee, and dug medicine. It’s good medicine to be out doing those things. We worked with people who had experienced extraordinary trauma – multiple deaths, lots of grief, trauma, sexual and physical abuse, suicidal ideation. All the time I was working I was humbled to see how resilient these people were.

Growing More Native Psychologists

During the 13 years that I worked on the Flathead Reservation, Swaney kept waiting for Native psychologists to join her. “None came,” she says. That’s when I realized that we need to grow more Native psychologists. I was honored to be able to join the faculty at Montana in the effort to educate more Native psychologists.

“When I came to the University of Montana as a faculty member I started to think about the areas in which I wanted to do research. I decided I wanted to look at our resilience, our strengths. I had seen that even in the darkest times, my clients were still growing toward the light and didn’t give up. Carl Rogers used to say that even the potatoes under the sink send out shoots towards the light. They’re growing all the time.

"When we begin to look at the trauma, which is our history, we have to protect ourselves in some way so that we don’t get lost in it. Some of the Elders have found their way and continue to give us extraordinary gifts that are coming from our ancestors" says Swaney.

Swaney is a teacher who feels that she has learned a great deal from her students. She says that the Native students with their rich backgrounds and understanding have also taught other faculty members in a respectful way. “It’s been an honor to watch that happen,” she says.