Jeffrey J. King

Jeff King WWU Picture Jeffrey King, Muscogee Creek, PhD, is a clinical psychologist. At the time of the following interview, King was dividing his time between an urban counseling center that he and his colleagues created called Native American Counseling and teaching both at the Professional School of Psychology at the University of Denver and at the University of Colorado Denver. Today Dr. King is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. He is also Director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Meeting People Where They Are

Please describe the Native American Counseling.

Several of us created our agency because there was no mental health provision that was specific to Native American people in the Denver Front Range area. In 1992-93, I conducted a Denver Indian mental health needs survey that showed that the Indian community wanted Native American health workers who understand our culture.

What kinds of services do you and your colleagues provide?

We see couples and families, as well as adults and children on an individual level. From time to time we have groups. We had a group for women who came out of violent relationships. Another very powerful group was designed to deal with the traumatic effects of boarding school.

What’s a little bit unique about our agency is that we’re willing to go to clients’ homes. Historically, in the dominant service model, in order to be helped you had to go to the white folks and meet them on their turf. We’re trying to reverse that process. We do have an office, and people come to our office, but in those cases where it’s difficult, we’re open to meeting people where they are.

We also provide full psychological testing, including cognitive testing and child custody evaluations. Time and time again culture shows up on these tests as pathology. We’re able to tease that out and explain that if you understand how Native Americans think, how family systems are constructed, and so on, then this can mean something very different. Because we’re the only agency in the region that offers this kind of service, we work not only with Native Americans in Denver, but also with tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

Does your agency have other unique characteristics and projects?

Yes. We are committed amongst ourselves to staying healthy. How can you provide mental health therapy to others if you’re not staying healthy amongst yourselves? When we first started the agency, those of us on staff who felt comfortable went to sweat lodge together to pray for the effectiveness of our agency in the community. Periodically at our staff meetings, we’ll have a talking circle and be open with one another.

We’ve tried to create an agency where we move as one rather then have a hierarchical structure. Even though the articles of incorporation for the State require that you have a director, a treasurer and that sort of thing, for us it’s very fluid, and it’s only on paper. So once a year or so, we’ll say, “Who wants to be director this year?”

Our staff ranges in degree of traditionality. Some staff members are very closely tied to their tribal traditions and ceremonies. Others of us are still tied to the community but have our varying beliefs. We support each other and enjoy being together, not only in the office, but also in the community.

We try to be sensitive to our clients’ needs and the role that traditional healers have, even in the urban setting. If clients have already worked with a healer in the past and are interested in that, we’ll talk with them about reconnecting with that person. If other clients are interested in working with a traditional healer, we have various people that we can refer them to.

Usually we’ll ask our clients (respectfully, and with their permission
) what they are doing at their sweat or what ceremony they’re doing. Or we’ll ask them what the medicine person said to them. In general, we try to adapt our therapy to what’s going on in their more traditional healing.

Culture serves as our foundation. Concepts of self, relationships and the historical piece form a deep connection between therapist and client. We see our psychological or social work training as tools, which sometimes have to be modified to deal with our particular culture.

We don’t see ourselves as traditional healers. We clearly see ourselves as therapists. We know that medicine men and women deal with stuff way beyond what we’re able to tap into. We respect that space. We don’t try to put ourselves in that place. But we will talk with clients about what’s going on for them spiritually.

How did you get into this work?

It wasn’t until my second time in college, when I went back to focus on psychology, that I decided to look at what’s going on in psychology in relation to Native Americans. When I realized the narrowness and the ethnocentric focus that has historically been the case toward Native people, it motivated me all the more to get in there and try to present information that was less biased.

I geared my training around cross-cultural psychology, with Native Americans as the target group. I also wanted to understand what was going on for other minority ethnic groups in the U.S. and how healing systems are around the world. That perspective gives you a context for understanding healing within your own culture as well as from tribe to tribe.

The first time I went to the University of Oklahoma, I was right out of high school. I was an art major. The counter culture was going on. The notion of dropping out of college was pretty strong. After two years I was one that did that. I worked a bunch of odd jobs, like landscaping, janitorial work, electrical work, and carpentry. Then I realized that I loved talking to people, and people seemed to enjoying sitting down and telling me what was going on in their lives. One day when I was working on a roof in the dead of winter, freezing, I was thinking of a change of career. I thought, Why not get paid for doing what you love? That’s when I went back to school.

So when you went back, you knew what you wanted to do.

Yes. I was out of school for 9 years.

Do you find that some of the things that you had been doing helped you with your understanding of clients and their situations?

Oh yes. What you do typically serves you well in other facets of your life.

I took about two years to get my undergraduate degree in psychology. Next I went to Penn State for 5 years. Then I came to Denver to the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center [UCHSC] for my internship where my major rotation was with Denver Indian Health and Family Services. I was the first person to do the internship. Then I did research at the National Center for American Indian and Alaskan Native Mental Health Research [at UCHSC]. One day a week I continued seeing clients at with Denver Indian Health and Family Services.

What was your research focus?g

We looked at substance abuse among American Indian adolescents and asked, “What are the risk factors that might contribute to higher levels of substance abuse? What are the protective factors that keep adolescents from getting involved?” We found that culture was strength. For example, on a reservation of one the Plains tribes, we found that the adolescents who were tied to the tribe and the traditions were less likely to use drugs or alcohol and had the greater sense of well-being.

In a more urban setting, we found that American Indian adolescents who were bicultural were less likely to substance abuse and had a greater sense of well being than those adolescents who didn’t feel that they really belonged to Indian culture or those adolescents who were trying to adapt to white culture.

The same issues bore out in some research that I did later here in Denver. American Indian adults who were assimilated and those that didn’t feel that they belonged had higher levels of psychological distress than the traditional or bicultural folks did.

Your research certainly points to the importance of being grounded in one’s culture. What do you teach?

For the past 5 years, I have been teaching multicultural counseling to graduate students in the Counseling Psychology Department at the University of Colorado at Denver. I became a half-time faculty member in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver in the fall of 1999. There, I teach courses in racial identity and cultural competence. These courses all deal with issues for Native Americans and other ethnic minorities, as well as other groups that are discriminated against.

You’re making a very important contribution. Keep up the good work.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2000 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Roy Henry Vickers, Tsimshian and English.)

Update 2010

Dr. King is
Director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Western Washington University.

Update 2007

In 2005, Dr. King and his wife and child moved to Taos, New Mexico where he worked for two years as a clinical psychologist at the Taos/Picuris Indian Health Service Clinic. King enjoyed caring for clients but he missed teaching, so in 2007 he accepted a position as associate professor in the department of psychology at Western Washington University where he is teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. King is also assistant director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research, which is located in the department.

King says that in the last 20 years mental health disparities for American Indian and Alaska Native people have gotten worse rather than better. Funding for mental health care is inadequate. King is working with several organizations that are trying to eliminate disparities and enable communities to develop their own unique strategies for enhancing the health of their people.

King is president of the board of directors of the
First Nations Behavioral Health Association. The association's mission is to provide national leadership to all groups, institutions, and individuals that plan, provide and access Native American behavioral health services.

King says that in 2003 the First Nations Behavioral Health Association joined together with three other ethnic associations to form the
National Alliance of Multi-Ethnic Behavioral Health Associations. The purpose of this association is to share expertise on behavioral health issues and to have a strong voice with which to advocate for people of color.