Sunkawakan ta Wounspe: Teachings from the Horse

(Posting a series of unfunded research grants, unpublished manuscripts, grant proposals, summaries from projects, and misc. resources)

I discovered this proposal for equine therapy archived in my email; full-circle experience as I am focusing my practice on equine-assisted expressive arts therapy.

Our proposal is an extension of a summer arts-informed equine therapy program held during the summer of 2011 with children, adults, and elders from the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Partnering with Lakota equine therapist and ranch owner Morris Brewer, 27 members from the community participated in 10 arts-informed equine therapy workshops held over a two-week period. A team of equine therapists and a licensed professional counselor co-lead the groups with assistance from 9 students from The Graduate Art Therapy Program at The George Washington University. The outcome of this program resulted in the development of a culturally-relevant workshop format, which we are proposing to implement in this follow-up program. This format is centered in Lakota spirituality through opening and closing prayer ceremonies involving horse and human participants. Through nonverbal means, participants engage in their own healing process through “calling” their horse (lesson of connection), grooming their horse (lesson of nurturance), painting personal and cultural symbols on their horse (lesson of communication), and creating a sacred practice to give thanks to horse for his/her healing (lesson of making sacred). The “witnesses” to this healing process offer their story of the participant interactions observed in follow-up story-sharing circles. In response to these shared stories, participants create a sculpture out of clay and natural materials, giving visual and verbal expression to their experience that day. The focus on story sharing often elicits a Lakota horse story from one of the elders to convey a parting message to the participants. Through the repetition of this workshop format, we have discovered a deepening of the healing process, moving past initial fears to processing grief responses. We are proposing a 10-day immersion experience in arts-informed equine therapy with a support team of certified equine therapists, Lakota Spiritual Leaders, licensed professional counselors, and graduate counseling students. This inter-disciplinary team approach is needed to provide a safe healing environment during this immersion process. The outcome of the program will be further evaluated using Appreciative Inquiry, an assets-based approach to interviewing. Appreciative Inquiry attempts to use ways of asking questions to foster positive relationships instead of focusing on problem-solving around “deficits,” and thereby build on the present potential. Appreciative Inquiry utilizes a cycle of 4 processes:
DISCOVER: The identification of processes that are effective and in this instance, culturally relevant.
DREAM: The envisioning of processes that would work well in the future for example, replicating an effective workshop format.
DESIGN: Planning and prioritizing processes that would work well through collaboration and community involvement.
DESTINY: Implementing what has been envisioned.
This method of strengths-based evaluation reinforces the Lakota values of generosity, courage, respect, and wisdom, which is at the core of all relationships. The results of the Appreciative Inquiry will be integral in the development of a Lakota-focused curriculum for equine therapy, incorporating expressive modalities, such as art therapy and storytelling. The curriculum will be an outcome supporting the efficacy of the program, providing a means to sustain the program.

Unpublished Service Learning Submission

(Posting a series of unpublished manuscripts, grants submissions, and resources.)

I discovered this submission in my mother’s email (she was a gifted writer/editor) asking her to help me revise a summary from a GWU Summer Institute Program.

The American Indian Art Therapy program is an extension of the work faculty director Elizabeth Warson has been conducting in tribal communities beginning in the early 90s.  Since 2004, Dr. Warson has collaborated with her graduate art therapy students on research focusing on art-based stress reduction workshops for tribal communities throughout North Carolina.  Her research inspired her to co-collaborate on developing culturally-relevant programs for the Oglala tribe of Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota and the Fond du Lac tribe of northern, Minnesota.  Because of these collaborative relationships, a summer institute program was proposed to the Oglala tribe, primarily because this is an underserved reservation with 85% unemployment, high suicide rate, and chronic health issues.  The aim of this program is to provide culturally-relevant art therapy services geared toward fostering self-esteem, providing an outlet for expression of feeling, and promote the benefits of artmaking as coping strategy.  Our collaborative approach spanned the reservation from settings as varied as a horse ranch, where we conducted equine and art therapy sessions; the Sun Dance grounds, where the Sun Dancers requested that we provide art therapy services for their children; Wounded Knee School, where we conducted individual and group art therapy sessions for underserved children; the Pine Ridge playground, where we collaborated with a Kid’s Club in a mural project.  Our graduate art therapy/counseling students volunteered their time in the field for up to 10 hours per day providing services that extended beyond the healing arts, addressing needs such as computer instruction, serving food at community events, and participating in Lakota spiritual practices. 



During our last evening together, our guest speaker Virgil Bush asked my students “Why my reservation?  What made you all come out to our reservation? We are the poorest Indian reservation.”  This was the sentiment expressed throughout the reservation.  Why should we care so much about this community?  Programs come and go throughout the summer months on Pine Ridge.  Most are geared toward repairing homes and providing community meals.  Our American Indian Art Therapy program was unique:  We brought our art supplies, enthusiasm for the healing arts, and an awareness of the culture.  Eleven graduate art therapy/counseling students teamed up for this 18-day immersion program each bringing a “gift” to share with the community.  Becca, a certified equine therapist, took the lead role in our equine/art therapy program;  Ricardo brought his knowledge of indigenous flutes and integrated this practice in all our programs (the horses were even soothed).  Anna and Colette became our resident experts on Lakota culture.  Sara, Cassie, Kristen, and Patti took the lead on developing culturally-relevant art projects; Diana shared her knowledge of computers with the Red Cloud family who produce quill work full-time.  Sue Anne drew upon her knowledge and experience with the healing arts at the Sun Dance; and Song shared her South Korean culture with many attentive children. 

With only two sites confirmed upon our arrival, we announced our program location and dates on the American Indian-owned KILI radio station.  This started the chain reaction of requests for art therapy services throughout the reservation (this approach is also the norm for this community).  Students provided three groups a day at different locations throughout this expansive reservation.  It was not uncommon for us to end the day with an invitation to attend a ceremony, cultural event, or even dinner.  Time became a secondary focus as we adopted a Native way of being in the moment.  Many of us learned to drop our agendas and go with the flow.  This was critical when working with many of the underserved youth in the community.  Creativity was also key in terms of how we approached each site:

Pine Ridge Kid’s Club: Upon our arrival we soon learned that this program lost part of its funding and were struggling to locate supplies and food for the kids.  Our focus for this program was to provide a sense of community through the visual arts.  This was achieved through murals created on portable canvas banners.  Our approach empowered the older youth to become leaders for each team and help organize a theme for each mural.  Once completed, the murals were attached to the fencing around the playground to provide an aesthetically pleasing environment reflecting the creativity of the youth.  Five murals in total were produced and will be displayed in the tribal office.

Wounded Knee School: This school is open during the summer months for community members to have a safe environment to go to.  The area where this school is located is referred to as “murder town” by locals.  During the daylight hours, the school is a friendly environment for the children, and many Christian groups provide supportive services there as well.  The resource room provided with ample space, tables, and chairs, and we were able to conduct individual and dyad sessions.  Many of the children in this environment are at-risk for suicide and our goal was to focus on art therapy projects to boost self-esteem and personal strengths.  We achieved this through spirit dolls and maskmaking. We also introduced novel art processes such as feltmaking and handmade books. Our culminating project entailed the creation of individual quilt squares, in keeping with their quilting tradition, which is now proudly on display in the school’s front office.

Brewer Ranch: Equine and art therapy sessions were held during the evening hours.  Our co-facilitator was Morris Brewer, counselor and equine therapist, who acclimated us Lakota customs and practices such as smudging the group participants and horses with smoke emanating from dried sage.  Art therapy became an integral component to equine therapy from a Lakota perspective, encompassing painted images on the horse (tempera paints) reflecting Lakota symbols such as hailstones, lightning bolts, and hand prints.  Sculptural pieces from natural materials were created in response to the trust exercises, nonverbal communication, and Lakota stories and prayers.  Our participants ranged from adults from a recovery program to adolescents in residential treatment.  Community members, therapists, and parole officers also joined us to participate in this unique collaboration of art and equine therapy. 

Sun Dance: We were invited to take part in six days of Sun Dance ceremony.  This was one of the unexpected events that we did not account for.  Between art therapy sessions and late into the evening hours, as well as during weekends, our students not only participated in these ancient traditions, they provided community service by assisting with the preparation of meals.  Invitations were extended to sleep in a tipi on the Sun Dance grounds to hear stories of stars constellations.  Art therapy became part of the Sun Dance experience for the dancers’ children and relations.  Images of the Sun Dance were spontaneously created on handmade pieces of paper reminiscent of buckskin.  The Holy man Rickie Grey Grass commented that the drawings were a good learning tool and was encouraged by the children’s desire to depict ceremonial imagery. 

Computers: Since 2010, GW has been donating computers for distribution on Indian reservations.  We brought out several computers for the students to assist community members with creating websites, uploading digital photographs, and navigating social networking websites. 


Collaboration with Lakota spiritual leaders, counselors, elders, ranchers, equine therapists, was key to the success of our program.  Through funding from the Service Learning program at GW, we were able to acquire art supplies to conduct sessions and to gift at the end of the program.  This practice of gifting supplies is not only culturally respectful but encourages sustained artmaking.  The equine therapy program was funded by donations from the equine community, spearheaded by Thinline, Inc. who disseminated requests through their blog and listservs.  Two outside physicians joined us during the program to learn more about equine therapy.  Their individual donations assisted with the success of the equine therapy program.  An equine therapist from Tasmania learned about our program and was able to arrange her travel plans in the US to assist with co-facilitating sessions.  Lastly, the computers from GW were provided through the IT department in the Graduate Art Therapy Program.  Thus far, this department has gathered approximately 60 computers for this ongoing initiative.

The community support was essential to the success of the program.  This relationship has been fostered over time through the efforts of the faculty director, who is American Indian and actively involved in research and program development with the Oglala (Lakota), Fond du Lac, and North Carolina tribes.  This community-based participatory approach involved the guidance of traditional Lakota spiritual leaders, Lakota mental health professionals, Lakota horse people, the Native American Church (Sun Dancers), extended Lakota families (Red Cloud, Loud Hawk, Yellow Boy, Grey Grass, Brewer, Black Elk, Standing Elk, White Plume).


All the evaluative tools in the world could not have captured the gratitude that was expressed throughout the reservation.  Four weeks later, I am still receiving letters, emails, and text messages of appreciation and multiple requests to return.  Our Lakota collaborators have literally planned out our next trip, urging us to camp in tipis and cook in outdoor kitchens on their lands.  This is the way of life on the reservation during high ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and powwow time.  This is also a gesture of acceptance. 

Pine Ridge Kid’s Club:  The tribe will be hanging the murals in their offices, reflecting their gratitude for our time with this group of underserved children.  Requests to continue art therapy projects to enhance the aesthetic environment of the playground have been discussed.  The children’s hugs spoke the loudest with respect to their appreciation.

Wounded Knee School:  The faculty director met regularly with the principal Marnie White Wolf and her teachers to discuss the art therapy projects, objectives, and results.  The staff was receptive to the therapeutic implications of creating spirit dolls, masks, creating handmade books, and creating group projects.  The culminating paper quilt was well received and its placement in the staff office spoke volumes about their appreciation and support.  A culturally relevant art therapy curriculum is being developed with oversight from the school and our graduate students to be implemented next summer.  Our anticipated goal is to pilot this curriculum next summer and eventually disseminate a guide to surrounding school systems on Pine Ridge Indian reservation. 

Equine Therapy: Becca and our collaborator from Tasmania will be co-writing a grant with the faculty director to develop a culturally-relevant art-based equine program for next summer.  We are presently reviewing the pilot data from last summer and focusing on interventions that incorporating Lakota spiritual practices. The grant will also follow a community-based participatory approach and include a traditional Lakota speaker, a spiritual leader to conduct ceremonial opening and closing prayers, and members from the Lakota mental health community.  Morris Brewer, who runs the equine therapy program is shifting into a full-time operation by April of 2012 and is eager to continue our collaborative efforts. 

Sun Dance:  Our participation in this sacred week-long ceremony was the most unexpected outcome.  In fact, it wasn’t even on our itinerary. We became part of this community providing support art therapy services for the children, assisting with the preparation of meals, and sleeping under the stars in tipis. Our presence was welcomed throughout all the ceremonies and invitations to return were extended.  Art therapy was a valued component to the Sun Dance ceremonies based on the recommendation that we set up our own studio in a tipi next year. 

Computer initiative: The majority of Lakota people on the reservation do not have access to computers outside of educational settings.  Since 2010, GW has been donating computers to send out to Indian reservations.  This has been a welcomed gift to the community and the students last summer took it to a new level by providing hands-on instruction.  Further community service along these lines will be pursued during follow-up trips.

Sweet Grass Project: Since our return, I have received emails from this organization stating they had met with some of our Lakota collaborators and heard about the impact of our program. The Sweet Grass Project is a suicide prevention program for Pine Ridge that started up two years ago in response to a wave of suicides in their community.  During our 18-day program, there were 9 suicide attempts reported in this small community.  Recognizing the need of suicide prevention in this community, we are teaming up with this organization to provide training sessions for counselors, volunteers, and professionals to discuss art-based interventions.  The faculty director, licensed professional counselor, will be developing the curriculum with input from our Lakota collaborators and GW graduate students. 

Wicosani Community Project: During our last few days in this community, we met Lakota activist Christinia Eala who directs a sustainable housing project to “re-cultivate traditional Native American values of environment stewardship and ecological balance.” Christinia works with volunteers on a national and international level to build eco-villages for members of her community.  We are discussing a possible collaboration for next summer with our students.

Our students were forever impacted by this experience and their sense of social advocacy grew as a result of each encounter.  Their initial responses to the devastating poverty changed over time from “why don’t they move off the reservation?” to an awareness of the important of sustainable practices as a means of preserving Lakota values, practices, and beliefs. In his presentation to the students, Alex White Plume aptly described what it’s like living between two worlds, comparing this experience to that of a “whirl wind of confusion.”  As part of their oral tradition, storysharing was a focal element of all our gatherings, typically occurring on the open prairie. This level of immersion promoted a sense of competency in working with indigenous communities, having implications for working with other diverse settings. 

Since our trip, Ricardo has initiated an internship in Pine Ridge for spring of 2012, Sue Anne and Anna are collaborating with Arlette Loud Hawk on a project involving the Lakota Creation Story, Colette plans to attend the next Sun Dance, and Becca is collaborating on a grant to continue equine/art therapy services in Pine Ridge.  These are just a few specific examples of the impact of the trip. 


Through the support of the Lakota people, this program has the potential to grow.  It is the aim of the faculty director to continue the program over successive summers through our collaborative relationships.  This program has the capacity to be adopted at other institutions through collaboration with the Lakota and preparatory coursework.  The success of this program was a result of the online Social and Cultural Diversity course, designed to immerse students daily over the duration of 6 weeks.