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Native intelligence

Recent graduate Dr. Joyce Frey’s International Psychology dissertation research took her into First Nations territory in Saskatchewan, Canada, where she discovered a more spiritual, metaphysical meaning of intelligence.

Most academic quests are driven, almost subconsciously, by something from the scholar’s past.

In the case of Dr. Joyce Frey, who received a Ph.D. from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in May 2016, that one small thing driving her International Psychology research went back to another decade and another chapter of her life.

“I used to breed and show Appaloosa horses, and I became very interested in the history of the Nez Perce tribe who developed this special breed of horses in Oregon,” says Dr. Frey, explaining how the U.S. Cavalry violently drove the indigenous Nez Perce to a reservation in 1877, later slaughtering their horses. “It was so devastating to discover that our nation could do such horrendous things. I had that bouncing around in my brain for years.”

And then, in the late 1980s, Dr. Frey had the honor of meeting Russell Means, a leader in the American Indian Movement (AIM). The now-deceased Means, author of Where White Men Fear to Tread, enlightened Dr. Frey about the true history of Native Americans and inspired her to become an advocate for bringing that truth to light.

“What I found is that First Nations people have a wonderful metaphysical understanding of intelligence. The mind, body, and soul are all connected.”

These influences drove Dr. Frey, already a full-time psychology teacher at a local community college, to combine her interest in human intelligence with a study of indigenous culture in her International Psychology dissertation at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

The result—a research paper titled “Exploring Intelligence from the Plains Cree Perspective: A Qualitative Study”—took Dr. Frey into the Saskatchewan region of Canada.

Up close and personal

Full cultural immersion was critical for her research. She spent extended periods of time with a shaman and other select members of the Cree First Nations bands, listened to their knowledge, and participated in ancient rituals.

On one visit, she was assigned a “spirit name”—granted after an arduous climb to a sacred site on the top of Sliding Hill, where she was seated at the center of a medicine wheel and made traditional offerings to the ancestors. Her name, “Tcha Tchak Astim Iskewew,” or “spotted horse woman,” paid homage to the Appaloosa breed she fell in love with decades ago.

Dr. Frey’s final visit for her dissertation research took her to the North Battleford region, where she spent months gathering data with a husband and wife team who were members of the Red Pheasant band. The couple assisted as both translators and protocol managers, helping Dr. Frey identify 13 Cree First Nations elders to interview from the Moosomin, the Red Pheasant, the Blackfoot, the Ahtatahkoop, the Sweetgrass, the Little Pine, the Thunderchild, the Beardy’s, and the Mosquito bands.

“What I found is that First Nations people have a wonderful metaphysical understanding of intelligence. The mind, body, and soul are all connected,” Dr. Frey says. “Whereas intelligence in Euro-Western cultures is based on the idea of literacy and academics, the Plains Cree elders I spoke to view intelligence based on an understanding of nature, oral traditions, storytelling, art, and community rituals. Euro-Western civilizations have often attempted to force indigenous groups to fit Western theories and models of intelligence, never allowing them to articulate their own cultural notion of intelligence.”

Using an integrative method

To conduct her research in such an unconventional setting, Dr. Frey was grateful that her dissertation chair, Dr. Viviane Pecanha, allowed her to employ indigenous research methodology not traditionally accepted in academic settings. “The International Psychology program is really one of a kind,” she says. “Being able to use a more integrative method was very cutting edge.”

Dr. Frey, who has presented her findings to several groups in the Midwest, hopes her research may offer opportunities for the expansion of indigenous perspectives on the topic of human intelligence, specifically pertaining to the psychometrics of standardized tests created to measure intelligence, as well as influence the attitudes of policy makers to recognize indigenous peoples’ self-determination as a basic right, so they mustn’t continue to be wards of the state.

One thing is certain, Dr. Frey will never forget the dignity and resiliency the Cree People exhibited—it will serve as a guiding force for her further work to illuminate the wisdom of Native peoples’ way of life.

“At the end of my naming ceremony, I asked for the ancestors to allow me to be of service to the Cree people and to guide me on my path,” Dr. Frey says. “They forever changed me, and throughout this process, I became committed to them. I will never forget that commitment.”


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