Integrating Indigenous Healing Practices into Clinical Mental Health Settings for American Indians

Engaging with community partners to develop more relevant and effective programs and services

Today, many American Indians experience overwhelming social problems stemming from legacies of conquest and dispossession that have led to unremitting poverty. These problems include mental health inequities such as community epidemics of trauma, addiction, and suicide. And yet, conventional clinical approaches to helping individuals with psychological distress and disability are not well-tailored for American Indian communities. Dr. Joseph Gone, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, collaborates with American Indian community partners to develop groundbreaking healthcare interventions that promote psychological wellness and prevent dysfunction for these vulnerable populations in culturally consonant ways. Drawing on indigenous traditional knowledge—especially knowledge stemming from spiritual, ceremonial, and healing practices—Dr. Gone and his research team tackle a host of challenges associated with advancing American Indian well-being in the context of mental health programs and services. By engaging in participatory fashion with knowledgeable and resilient American Indian community partners, he harnesses a versatile interdisciplinary expertise toward the development of innovative, culturally alternative helping approaches that promise to serve these communities with greater relevance and effectiveness.

For example, mainstream mental health services frequently rely on “talk therapy,” in which an educated and credentialed professional orchestrates a sequence of one-on-one interpersonal interactions with a vulnerable individual client. Typically the professional is a stranger to the client; the encounter is removed from the routines of everyday life; family and community members are absent from these confidential spaces; and the premise of therapeutic benefit is human ingenuity and professional expertise. In contrast, traditional American Indian therapeutic practices are more likely to depend on healers who are well-known within the community; rituals that are more publicly embedded within everyday life; participants that include family members and other well-wishers; and, above all, the actions of non-human powers and spirits who extend or enhance vitality on behalf of the suffering individual. Indeed, perhaps the single most important distinction between professional mental health services and indigenous traditional healing pertains to spirituality: mental health services are almost invariably secular in origin, while indigenous healing practices are sacred by design.

As an American Indian psychologist, Dr. Gone has a research team of clinical psychology Ph.D. students and university undergraduates. Together, they collaborate extensively with indigenous community partners in the U.S. and Canada to develop approaches and interventions that reconcile or transcend these differences. The results include innovative programs and services that are better tailored for addressing the wellness needs of American Indian communities.

Exemplary research projects at various stages of activity include:

  • The Urban American Indian Traditional Spirituality Program - In concert with community research partners at American Indian Health and Family Services in Detroit (“Indian Health”), Dr. Gone and his team have developed a structured, twelve-week traditional spirituality program for urban American Indians who wish to learn more about Indigenous ceremonial practices. Built around the sweat lodge ceremony, participants attend once-weekly sessions (usually lasting 3 hours in duration) in which they learn from Native traditionalists the “basics” of Indigenous ceremony, including knowledge and practices association with prayer, smudging (i.e.,burning sacred incense), singing, dancing, sacred fires, the sacred pipe, the water ceremony, the sweat lodge ceremony, creation stories, consulting with elders, and so on. Never before have these practices been integrated into a comprehensive and coherent program curriculum that are structured in overtly didactic fashion. Created “by Indians, for Indians,” the program was developed in response to the expressed desire of many urban American Indians in Detroit for greater access to traditional cultural practices through Indian Health. Next phases of this project involve expanding the program to other American Indian agencies in other cities, and evaluating the impacts of this program on a variety of participant wellness indicators (such as cultural identity, cultural involvement, Native spirituality, social support, sense of community, quality of life, global distress, health status, etc.).
  • Blackfeet Culture as Substance Abuse Treatment – A second project has investigated the claim in Native community settings that mainstream clinical interventions are irrelevant and ineffective on cultural grounds. Instead, many American Indians today assert that “our culture is our treatment.” And yet, empirical investigations of this Culture-as-Treatment hypothesis—namely, that a modern-day return to indigenous cultural orientations and practices is sufficient for effecting recovery from mental health problems for many American Indians—have yet to appear in the literature. In partnership with staff at the Blackfeet Nation’s substance abuse treatment program, Dr. Gone undertook a collaborative formulation of a culturally-grounded alternative to substance abuse treatment-as-usual on their Montana reservation. The resultant intervention—a seasonal cultural immersion camp designed to approximate the day-to-day experiences of pre-reservation ancestors (e.g., living in tepees, harvesting local resources, visiting sacred sites, practicing traditional spirituality)—was implemented in the summer of 2012 with a small number of clients from the community. The intervention activities resembled nothing like mainstream psychosocial mental health treatments, reflecting instead less psychologically-salient cultural orientations. The immersion camp has continued to be refined and offered by community partners each summer on the reservation, but a complete evaluation of the potential beneficial impacts of the Blackfeet culture camp depends upon additional funding.
  • Enhancing Pathways for Transition-Aged American Indian Youth – American Indian youth today contend with multigenerational legacies of adversity and disadvantage as they prepare for adult responsibilities. For young American Indians who are transitioning from high school into early adulthood, many lack a clear pathway to maturity and success. This is particularly true for Native populations in areas such as Detroit, Michigan, where many youths are low-income and poorly-educated. With some of the highest rates of suicide, substance abuse problems, teen pregnancy, violence, trauma, and school dropout in the nation, young American Indians are at great risk for poor adult outcomes, primarily because current systems, institutions, and settings have failed them. Dr. Gone and his team are inaugurating a project to locate, engage, and partner with these urban American Indian young people to facilitate their transition to adulthood and their charting their own futures. Currently in its earliest phases, Dr. Gone and his team will listen carefully to these youth, and in collaboration with them develop novel opportunities for coming together, exchanging aspirations, offering support, investing in preparations for the future, and cultivating intergenerational ties, all in service to a robust and resilient transition to adulthood.
  • Preserving and Publicizing American Indian Cultural Knowledge and Traditions - Dr. Gone’s great grandfather, Frederick P. Gone worked for the Montana Writers Project (MWP), a state-sponsored venture funded by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1941-42. As the Gros Ventre tribe’s “fieldworker” on the Fort Belknap Indian reservation, Fred Gone was employed to interview community members and document the pre-reservation traditions of his people for a projected publication about the traditional lifeways of Montana’s Indian communities. Gone wrote 400 pages of longhand script addressed to Gros Ventre History, 300 pages addressed to Gros Ventre Legends, and six sketches associated with this work, These writings engage many topics, from biographies of elders to tribal myths, with the crowning achievement being a life narrative of the famed Gros Ventre medicine man, Bull Lodge (ca. 1802-1886). Due to the onset of World War II, the projected MWP “Indian series” was never published; the current collection of Gone’s writing was reportedly rescued from the city dump in Butte, MT, and subsequently deposited in the Montana State University archives. Thus, most of this work has not been accessible to scholars or the public, despite the profound historical, cultural, and literary significance of this collection for exploring consequential questions in the study of Native North America. Thus, in response to a request by Fred Gone’s only surviving son (and his own great uncle), Dr. Gone is laboring to publish these materials as “Bull Lodge’s Life” and the Gros Ventre Narrative Tradition: The Collected Writings of Fred P. Gone (“Many Plumes”). Besides drawing on this work in his own scholarship, Dr. Gone expects that publication of this book should catalyze innovative scholarship in Native American Studies (and related fields), while simultaneously providing students, tribal members, and the public an exciting opportunity to delve more deeply into a remarkable treasury of Gros Ventre knowledge and tradition.


Dr. Joseph P. Gone is a research psychologist and enrolled member of the Gros Ventre tribal nation of the Fort Belknap Indian reservation in north-central Montana. In 1891, at the age of 5, his great-grandfather was sent to a government-administered boarding school on the reservation to learn the English language and become educated in the ways of the white man. When he arrived, he was given his stepfather’s Indian name (“Gone To War”) as the family surname and the Christian name of Frederick. During that period, American Indians were often considered backward savages who needed to be civilized in order to enter mainstream American society. Government boarding schools were organized as the means for “Killing the Indian, while saving the man,” and represented arduous ordeals for many Native children. Despite such assimilative efforts, Fred Gone went on to preserve the ways of the Gros Ventre people by interviewing tribal elders and writing down tribal history and legends during the 1940s. Drawing on this family tradition for personal inspiration, Dr. Gone harnesses the history and culture of his own and other American Indian peoples to advance psychological well-being for indigenous populations.

Early in his life, Dr. Gone enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served as a tank crewman patrolling the Iron Curtain in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Amberg, West Germany. During his enlistment, he applied and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point as a cadet, which he pursued for just over two years. During this time, Dr. Gone happened to read a novel by the Jewish author Chaim Potok entitled The Chosen, which features an adolescent character who longs to become a psychologist against his Rabbi father’s wishes. In a moment of epiphany, Dr. Gone realized that his true calling was also as a psychologist, so he transferred to Harvard College and completed his remaining undergraduate education in psychology in 1992.

He then worked for his tribal government for a year while applying to Ph.D. programs in psychology, matriculating for doctoral study at the University of Illinois in 1993. In pursuing his graduate studies in a manner that would enable him to address the grievous social problems afflicting American Indian communities, Dr. Gone turned to cultural psychology—a branch of the discipline that recognizes the profound diversity in psychological experience and expression throughout the world—in order to establish programs and services that might make a difference in the lives of American Indians. During his time in Urbana-Champaign, he enjoyed his graduate studies tremendously; however, the school’s sports team mascot at the time was Chief Illiniwek, which reinforced stereotypes about Native people in the campus community. He and other fellow students encouraged the university to retire the mascot, which eventually happened a decade later. This pivotal moment taught Dr. Gone that he could in fact promote change in society.

After earning his Ph.D. in psychology, Dr. Gone assumed a brief faculty position at the University of Chicago in the Committee on Human Development, an interdisciplinary unit comprised of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and biologists. He soon transferred to the University of Michigan, where he and his spouse—also a professor—have worked for the past 14 years. During his career, Dr. Gone, with his students and colleagues, has published 60 articles and chapters exploring the cultural psychology of self, identity, personhood, and social relations in American Indian community settings vis-à-vis the mental health professions, with particular attention to therapeutic interventions such as psychotherapy and traditional healing.


American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health: Diverse Perspectives on Enduring Disparities


Psychotherapy and Traditional Healing for American Indians: Exploring the Prospects for Therapeutic Integration


The Blackfeet Indian Culture Camp: Auditioning an Alternative Indigenous Treatment for Substance Use Disorders


The Red Road to Wellness: Cultural Reclamation in a Native First Nations Community Treatment Center


A Community-Based Treatment for Native American Historical Trauma: Prospects for Evidence-Based Practice


‘‘We Never was Happy Living Like a Whiteman’’ : Mental Health Disparities and the Postcolonial Predicament in American Indian...


‘So I Can Be Like a Whiteman’: The Cultural Psychology of Space and Place in American Indian Mental Health


Redressing First Nations historical trauma: Theorizing mechanisms for indigenous culture as mental health treatment.


“As if Reviewing His Life”: Bull Lodge’s Narrative and the Mediation of Self-Representation



Fellow of John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York, NY, 2014

“Guggenheim Fellows are appointed on the basis of impressive achievement in the past and exceptional promise for future accomplishment"

Fellow of Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, 2010

Faculty Visitor as the Katz Family Endowed Chair in Native American Studies, Montana State University, 2014

Fellow of Association for Psychological Science, 2015

Fellow of American Psychological Association (Divs. 5, 9, 12, 24, 27, 32, 45), 2013

Stanley Sue Award for Distinguished Contributions to Diversity in Clinical Psychology, 2013

Katrin H. Lamon Residential Fellow of School for Advanced Research, 2007