Elders-in-Residence program brings indigenous knowledge to UW classrooms

Phil Dan lectures on his experience in the U.S. armed forces as a Native American as part of the UW's Elders-in-Residence pilot program. (Photo by Megan Herndon)
Phil Dan lectures on his experience in the U.S. armed forces as a Native American as part of the UW’s Elders-in-Residence pilot program. (Photo by Megan Herndon)

Warren Gohl, of the Seneca Nation, stands up and the bustling lecture hall full of graduate students goes silent. Gohl bows his head in prayer asks the creator to bless the space.

Then, he and Phil Dan, of the Swinomish tribe, share their stories of serving in the armed forces as Native Americans.

“In Vietnam, I heard the cries of my own people,” Gohl said. “But I was the one doing the destroying.”

According to Dan and Gohl, serving in the armed forces has had a serious impact on the mental health of Native American people — who enlist in the military at higher rates than any other group.

They discussed the implications of these mental health problems during a guest lecture in “Issues in Indian Health,” a UW graduate course taken by students in medicine and social work.

The Indigenous Wellness Research Institute (IWRI) a UW program that advocates for health and rights of indigenous people, partnered with the UW School of Social Work to pilot an Elders-in-Residence program this winter. Elders from the Pacific Northwest shared their stories and experiences with undergrads and graduate students across the UW campus. They spoke in a number of departments including social work, medicine and American Indian studies.

After the lecture by Gohl and Dan, the thirty students put off studying for their genetics and biochemistry exams a little longer. They stood in a circle at the front of the lecture hall along side the elders and their professors. The group held a thread connecting them within the circle. One by one, students shared what they learned from having the elders speak in their class.

“I learned that indigenous thought, and indigenous people have a tremendous power to heal,” one student said.

“All of the classes in the medical school are important, but this class was so important, in a very different way,” said another.

The professor’s voice shook with emotion as she thanked her students for their efforts and passion in her class. At the end of the circle, the students cut the thread connecting them, and each of them tied it around their wrist. The thread was to be a symbol of what they had learned during their quarter.

Students make gifts for UW's new Intellectual house during the lecture. (Photo by Megan Herndon)
Students make gifts for UW’s new Intellectual house during the lecture. (Photo by Megan Herndon)

Jordan Lewis, an Aleut who is Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and one of the founders of the project, says they wanted to start this program to bring different methods of learning into their curriculum.

“We wanted to bring elders into the classroom to provide a different perspective, and also just to acknowledge that there are different ways of thinking about the world,” he said.

Similar elders-in-residence programs already exist at many universities around Canada, and are beginning to appear elsewhere in the U.S.

Polly Olsen of the Yakima Nation is director of the IWRI and co-founder of the program. She says that the elders also gave students personal insights in terms of their own families and communities.

“The program is giving students creative space to ask different questions and to explore a little bit deeper into themselves,” Olsen said. That’s especially true for students with a Native American background themselves. UW’s population is about 1.34 percent Native American. A handful of students in the class identified as having tribal affiliations while others expressed a strong appreciation for the culture.

“I hear them say ‘I’ve been so focused on my education that I haven’t taken the time to talk to my grandparents. I’m going go home and reconnect with them,’” Olsen said.

Olsen also believes students are trying to incorporate these lessons into their future careers.

Warren Gohl speaks on mental health consequence for Native American soldiers, as part of the UW's new Elders-in-Residence program. (Photo by Megan Herndon)
Warren Gohl speaks on mental health consequence for Native American soldiers, as part of the UW’s new Elders-in-Residence program. (Photo by Megan Herndon)

Timothy Kruse, a first year medical student says he enjoyed the class with elders because it offered practical knowledge about how to address problems in the health care system he saw growing up in Alaska.

“I’m Alaska native myself. My future goal is to treat the people in my community,” Kruse said. “My dad worked for [Indian Health Services] his entire life, and I’d seen a lot of these problems first hand, but it was great to see it through the lens of a person who is trying to help and fix some of the problems.”

According Lewis, IWRI would like to continue this program next winter quarter and hopes eventually make this a permanent, year-round program. They would also like to incorporate elders into their research programs, and potentially have an elders-in-residence exchange between Seattle, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Canada.

Gohl says he appreciated being invited into the classroom to help the next generation.

“I appreciate any opportunity that we have, as older guys, to say openly and honestly ‘don’t give up,’” Gohl said. “This world is a mess but it’s always been a mess, if you work hard, pray, and take care of one another its going to workout.”

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