Native daughter: Serving the Native American community
When Psy.D. candidate Damita SunWolf LaRue landed her dream internship serving Native American Veterans in Alaska, she took her responsibility one step further. Drawing on her childhood experiences as a tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation, LaRue is building bridges between Native healing and Western medicine in her work.
He was one of them, the people Psy.D. candidate and intern Damita SunWolf LaRue came to serve.
A Native Alaskan and a U.S. Veteran, the man entered LaRue’s life as a new patient at the Alaska Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Anchorage—another man suffering in a place where winter days are already wrapped in darkness.
“He was struggling with issues of loss and addiction, and felt very disconnected from his Native culture,” explains LaRue, who embraced her role as a liaison between Native healing and Western medicine in the VA system. “My clinical training allowed me to guide his therapy in a way that felt comfortable to him. We did traditional therapy but unique to the VA program in Alaska, I was also able to bring him to a Lakota Talking Circle and began bringing him along to experiential activities with elders in the Native community that reconnected him to his culture. The Talking Circle is beneficial because people share their feelings and learn from each other in a sacred, confidential space. It completely transformed him. He’s so full of light now, and his substance abuse history no longer defines him.”
When the man was subsequently diagnosed with cancer, LaRue, who earned an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School in 2013, says she witnessed the true potential of her chosen path.
“The diagnosis didn’t shake him,” she says. “He went to the Talking Circle that night and talked about the hope he had. The next day he drummed, and sang while watching the dancers, and shared his story with his new Native family. That is the power of Native healing.”
A tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., LaRue’s first teacher was her grandmother, a medicine woman named Hazel LaRue DeWing.
“She showed me that we can advocate for others, no matter what our position or place is in life. She showed me determination,” says LaRue, who in addition to being one of The Chicago School’s Edward A. Bouchet Honor Society Fellows, is also an Indian Health Service Scholar. “As a Cherokee woman who lived through discrimination in the early 1900s, my grandmother was my role model. She showed me how to be a strong woman, and taught me to never give up—regardless of the oppression or things that may have negatively impacted our people.”
LaRue knew from an early age that she wanted to find a way to blend traditional ceremony and healing practices with modern psychology. So after getting a B.A. in Buddhist Psychology at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., she went straight to The Chicago School’s Clinical Psy.D. program.
“I only applied at The Chicago School. I knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” says LaRue, explaining that she was immediately drawn to the university’s focus on cultural diversity, hands-on experiential learning, and training in multiple theoretic orientations.
Her instincts were right.
That choice, along with her scholarly success at the Chicago Campus, opened the door for her to create a practicum that allowed her to begin pursuing her dream of serving the Native American community.
In addition to externships at the John J. Madden Mental Health Center and Gateway Foundation, LaRue was also able to create and secure a position as a therapy practicum extern at the American Indian Health Service of Chicago—a nonprofit community health center that serves the Native American community and other underserved populations.
It was during that time that she became interested in the particular challenges facing Native American Veterans, further complicated by the issues of historical loss and trauma this population already deals with.
“For me, culture is an important key to finding out who a person is. My job as a therapist is to support the person exploring themselves and their culture, and to support reconnecting to practices and values of cultural relevance, if they believe it is important,” explains LaRue, who became a licensed professional counselor in 2014. “It can make such a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”
LaRue says much of what she is doing at the APA-accredited Alaska VA Healthcare System can be tied to the doctoral dissertation she defended last summer at The Chicago School—“Effects of History on Native American Indians: Providing Culturally-Sensitive Therapeutic Care.”
“I had the opportunity to assist a researcher from The Chicago School by transcribing an interview with a Native American woman who shared the extensive history of trauma in her family, which became the catalyst for my dissertation,” she explains. “Through this research, I came to recognize the urgent need for Native providers and to find ways to assist Native people on their road to healing.”
Soon after reporting for duty in Anchorage, LaRue immediately reached out to Native elders in Anchorage and the surrounding rural areas. She found the Talking Circle and the Sleeping Lady Singers and Dancers drum group, which has a foundation in sobriety for its members. She found the Alaska Native Heritage Center and she found the community.
“Not every intern would do this work on weekends and in the evenings in addition to their internship rotations, but my supervisor has a very strong connection to the Native community and she has facilitated the expansion of this program, and provided incredible direction and support,” says LaRue. “In addition to facilitating these Native healing experiences for our clients, I also provide individual, couples, and group therapy using evidence-based practices for Veterans who are struggling with symptoms of past traumas and grieving losses that have led to their substance dependence.”
LaRue, who is scheduled to complete a Psy.D. and graduate from The Chicago School this summer. Soon thereafter, she will begin a post-doctoral fellowship in Rural Health Psychology at the Norton Sound Health Corporation in Nome, Alaska, a small community that sits nearly 600 miles Northwest of Anchorage on the Bering Sea.
“It’s extremely remote, Google maps can’t give you driving directions to Nome from Anchorage. You must fly,” LaRue says. “But that is where the greatest need is. We must continue to lift up the Native culture in these communities, and provide the most holistic healing possible. I’ve seen what it can do—it’s truly transformative.”
Today, LaRue feels right at home in a part of the world where winter days are as short as the summers are long—where Native peoples are still trying to find their rightful place in a society that can feel foreign to them.
“I believe it is not enough to be compassionate, we must take action,” she says. “Supporting health, culture, life, and light in Alaska—this is my act.”