Sunday, October 23, 2011

Minding the Indigenous Mind

The Buddha once said, “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother.” Although I dearly love my mother and father, what Buddha said more than 2,500 years ago is correct. In fact, the role that our minds have in our well being has become common knowledge in some branches of present day neuroscience. In my work to improve the health of Indigenous Peoples, I understand the importance of a healthy, well balanced mind and brain, and the activities that are necessary to achieve such a state. I refer to this as minding the Indigenous mind.

Mindful greetings, my relatives, my name is Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Sr. I am an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations and a professor in the department of social work at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. I am also the director of graduate studies in our department. On my academic side I have a Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of North Dakota; a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and a Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was trained in quantitative research methods and have focused on the health of Native peoples for my entire academic career. I am presently living on the territory of the Wiyot peoples in northern California, so I want to respectfully acknowledge them and the fact that I am visitor on their homelands.

I have been invited by the MHA Times to contribute a column that spotlights my academic interests, teaching, writing, experiences, and research. I will be submitting this column every two weeks and I will occasionally have guest columnists. Since this is my introductory column it is longer than the ones I will write in the future. The topics I plan to focus on include health, Mind Body Medicine (MBM), mindfulness, neuroscience, social work, and nutrition. Occasionally, using the lens of neuroscience, I will discuss my views on subjects such as religion, war, politics, oppression, trauma, God, education, music, and contact sports (like boxing, mixed martial arts, and football). I am especially excited to share the research that describes what happens to our brains during and following different experiences (some of it good and some of it not so good). I will also share what I know is being done to help improve the function of the brain. I am hoping the information that I share in my column will be helpful on a practical level. Moreover, I hope it will inspire two things: (1) the implementation of a Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara mind/brain policy to protect and enhance the minds and brains of our people for the purposes of greater well being, creativity and intelligence; and (2) the formal implementation of mindfulness practices in our education, health, and social service systems.

In this piece I want to introduce myself and talk a bit about my interest in Mind Body Medicine, especially how “mindfulness” fits into what is known as “Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). I define these two topics later in this column. I would love to hear from readers about what you are getting out of my column and other topics that you want me cover. You can either contact me through letters to the MHA Times, friend me on Facebook, or email me at

To begin with, I was raised in White Shield and lived there for most of my early to middle teen years, although I have always made time to come home for regular visits with family and friends. I return once or twice a year, generally during the summer months, although I do come home in January for my mother’s birthday. Like many others who no longer reside at home, I keep up with what is going on through Facebook, online newspapers, various tribal webpages, email, and telephone calls with family and friends.

My parents are Magdalene (Young Bird) Yellow Bird and Willard Yellow Bird, Sr., (deceased). My grandparents on my mother’s side are Benjamin Young Bird and Jessie (Everett) Young Bird (both deceased); on my father’s side are Charles Yellow Bird and Nellie (Red Fox) Yellow Bird (both deceased). I have 15 siblings (four sisters and ten brothers) and I am right smack in the middle of the birth order. I have loads of nephews and nieces and a growing number of grandkids, and many, many Arikara and Hidatsa relatives. I have four grown sons from my first marriage: Jason, Michael Jr., Peter, and Matthew; and two daughters from my second: Arundhati (4 ½ years) and Solana (2 ½ years). My partner is Erin C. Stanley. She is a member of the Quinault nation in Washington State and has a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Washington, but is mostly, by choice, a stay-at-home mom.

My scholarly and community work centers on helping folks understand the connections between the mind and brain and mindfulness (meditation) practices, and how mindfulness can be used to heal mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual traumas, addictions, and disease. I write on this topic, do presentations, and have an active research agenda. I have taught undergraduate and graduate social work and mindfulness classes at my present university. As far my personal health life is concerned, I am a born-again Indigenous person, which means I eat healthy meals, with mostly whole, organic foods, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole raw nuts, and I take probiotics and other key supplements. I refrain from sugar, as well as gluten and dairy, and have a low or no intake of meat; for weeks (sometimes months) at a time I practice a vegan lifestyle. My family also eats this way and we maintain an active lifestyle, swimming, hiking, walking, and playing outside.

Like our ancestors, I strongly endorse the detoxification of the mind, body, and spirit by doing ten day or two week water-only fasts at least twice a year. I practice yoga, tai chi, and walk and run and do weight-bearing exercises every day. I don’t smoke or abuse alcohol. I am certified as an advanced level practitioner of meridian tapping (or what is called emotional freedom technique) and have been practicing mindfulness meditation since the mid 1970s when I was in college. Although our family uses mainstream medicine, we use it sparely and wisely, and it often takes a backseat to our use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I have many stories about how some main- stream doctors have mindlessly prescribed drugs to my family members when not needed, and how we successfully addressed the condition using complementary medicines and therapies.

At home we engage in formal daily family mindfulness sitting meditation practice. Erin and I sit nearly every morning with our daughters. Our oldest girl, Arundhati (4 ½ years), is becoming very accomplished at meditation and can sit, quietly with her eyes closed, in a semi-lotus position, on her cushion, without distraction, for up to 30 minutes at a time. She has been practicing since she was about a year and a half old. Her little sister Solana, on the other hand, tries but at 2 ½ years she is still a work in progress. We embrace mindfulness meditation for our children and have normalized it as something we regularly do in our home since the research shows it will help them build important neural connections and functions in their developing brains. There is an excellent neuroscience literature that discusses how (helpful) brain circuits are engaged and (unhelpful) ones are quieted down when one practices mindfulness. This literature is referred to as the neurobiology of mindfulness, which roughly means, “This is your brain on mindfulness.” I’ve posted pictures of my daughters meditating on my Facebook and use their experience to discuss why mindfulness practices are important for children.

So what is mindfulness? In short, mindfulness refers to being deeply aware of what is happening from moment to moment outside and inside us without judging or attaching to the content, feelings, and emotions that arise. It refers to living deeply and richly in the present moment and not responding to life in a distracted and mechanical manner. For instance, when we mindfully eat we slow down the pace of our eating and become deeply aware of the taste, texture, smell, and hot or cold sensation of the food, and when we are full. When we mindlessly eat we miss most of these rich experiences with our food; many times we do not taste it and often end up overeating or maybe eating something that is bad for us. After mindless eating we often end up not feeling well. Mindless eating is one of the major reasons why there has been such meteoric rise in food-related obesity, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Developing mindfulness involves systematic training and practice and is a process that takes place over time. However, it is a journey that is well worth it because when we enter into states of deep mindfulness and awareness our world, experiences, and lives become much richer, less fearful and angry, more vivid, creative, peaceful, and healed. As I’ve said, much of what I do involves teaching about the scientific evidence-base of how and why mindfulness works and its connection to the mind and brain. What is most exciting about this work is that research shows that particular mindfulness practices can significantly help improve a person’s health and well being by reshaping important neural circuits in the brain.

Mindfulness is incorporated under Mind Body Medicine which focuses on the connections between the mind, brain, and body, and behavior, and how this knowledge is used to engage the mind to improve physical functioning and well being. It is important to remember that Mind Body Medicine is a “complementary medicine" that is used together with conventional medicine. For instance, mindfulness meditation (a mind body medicine approach) is being successfully used to help individuals recover from (radiation and chemotherapy) cancer treatments. A number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can greatly reduce the side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue.

The rise in the use of complementary medicine is almost all patient-driven; and for good reason. Many people choose complementary medicine because it has fewer or no side effects, is safe, and it works. While conventional medicine can be very effective in some circumstances, in others it can be debilitating, dangerous, and even cause death. Conventional medicine is largely about treating symptoms and diseases with drugs, radiation, and surgery. It has little to do with preventing disease, addressing the emotional and spiritual needs of the person, or using mind body approaches for healing. Don’t expect your conventional physician to know much about complementary medicine or take it too seriously. Most, but not all, have been narrowly trained and have very cozy relationships with the pharmaceutical industry, which would prefer we buy and use their drugs instead of our own healing powers to attain better health.

The number of recalls, safety alerts, warnings, and side effects of many of today’s drugs is disturbing to say the least. In fact, in the book, Our Daily Meds, written by Melody Peterson, one study found that 100,000 people die each year from the side effects of the prescription drugs they take. Peterson says that this doesn’t take into account the number of folks who get deathly ill or suffer a disability, or die because the doctor made a mistake and prescribed the wrong drug, or the pharmacist made a mistake in filling the prescription, or the patient accidentally took too much.

Mind Body Medicine (MBM) is one of five systems in what is known as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM is recognized and supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. It is a rapidly expanding field that includes the use of “non-conventional” approaches to aid in the promotion of health and healing of individuals, families, groups, and communities. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine lists five major CAM systems: Whole Medical Systems (Indigenous/ Native American, naturopathic, homeopathic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine); Mind-Body Medicine (mindfulness, transcendental medita- tion, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, deep breathing, and the relaxation response); Biologically Based Practices (the use of herbs, foods, and supplements); Manipulative and Body-Based practices (osteopathic medicine, physical therapy, and yoga); and Energy Medicine (qi gong, emotional freedom technique, therapeutic touch, and the use of electromagnetic fields).

A national study from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults use some form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine; and that number continues to rise. Although, complementary medicine is marginalized by conventional medicine in the U.S., outside this nation as much as eighty-percent of the world’s population engages in the use of various alternative forms of medicine and healing. It is clearly up us consumers to continue to increase the role that complementary medicine plays in our health care system.

Over the past year I’ve been following the building and completion of the new Three Affiliated Tribes Elbowoods Memorial Health Center. It is impressive and I am grateful to all of those individuals and groups, past and present, who dedicated their energies to making this Center a reality. I believe it would be a wonderful tribute to our ancestors that resided in, and before the time of Elbowoods, to include a Complementary and Alternative Medicine department in the new health center. The Center could develop collaborations with the Fort Berthold Community College and create an academic curriculum for individuals that want to learn how to use or practice one of the many forms of complementary medicine.

When I reflect back on what our ancestors knew about health and healing, I am reminded that they knew much more about alternative therapies then we do today – because they lived them and they were not “alternative,” they were mainstream. Some of the strongest medicines they had included (natural) biologically, mind body, and energy-based approaches.

The Buddha, who was Indigenous, once said that, “What you think you become.” That said, when we deliberately train ourselves to mindfully engage our brains in positive words, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, incredible possibilities perennially bloom in our lives.

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