David Edward Walker is the author of Coyote’s Swing: A Memoir and Critique of Mental Hygiene in Native America, which was published in February by Washington State University Press.
A psychologist, novelist, public speaker, poet, and singer-songwriter, Walker is a Missouri Cherokee descendent. For more than three decades he’s worked as a professor, psychotherapist, and consultant based in Washington State — including four years as a psychologist for the U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS) and, afterward, more than 20 consulting for the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
In much of his writing, including Coyote’s Swing, he addresses the devastating impact of the Western, biomedical mental health system on Indigenous peoples — and their experiences, across the centuries, of intergenerational oppression and trauma both personal and systemic. Five years ago, Walker wrote a series of articles for Indian Country Today that zeroed in on such oppressive practices, including the harms of psychiatric treatment on Native individuals and the history of labeling Native children with “feeblemindedness” and, later, ADHD.
He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Detroit.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
David Walker, it is a pleasure to have you with us today.
David Edward Walker: Amy, I’m very glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Biancolli: Coyote’s Swing — there is so much packed into that book. There’s a ton of history: Colonialism, imperialism, oppression, genocide. There’s your personal story in there, too. Stories of youth you’ve worked with, stories of your time with IHS and the reliance on the disease model, stories of your time working with the Yakama people. And this all comes together as this really absorbing read. But before we get into everything, I want to start with the title, Coyote’s Swing. People are going to be curious why you chose that. So if you don’t mind, if you could tell that story — and why and how it relates to the topic of your book.
Walker: So let me set a little context for this story too. The story of “Coyote’s Swing“ was told by an important person in the history of Yakama Nation — the recent history of William Charlie, who was Klickitat, one of the bands of Yakama Nation. William Charlie was telling this story to his friend, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, a real personality and an early activist at Yakama Nation — a white ally who came from Ohio and wanted to basically be a cowboy. And at the turn of the last century and early 20th century, he had a ranch adjacent to Yakama Nation and befriended quite a lot of Native people, learned to speak the language, and became very close friends with William Charlie, who told him this story. So I’ll read the story and then I can explain why it informs the title of the book. Here it is:
“The Cat belongs to the white man and goes ahead of his travels everywhere. The white man followed Cat to America which until that time belonged to the Red man. Coyote [Spilyáy] was preparing to bring the Indians to a higher stand in life, bring them to education and a written language. Cat did not want this, so he fixed to get rid of Coyote. So he fastened a great swing to the sky. It was a big swing, and the people could swing far out over the world and be brought back by the swing again to their own country.
Coyote came along and wanted to swing. Cat let him get in the swing and began swinging him. He shoved the swing farther and still farther out, until finally Coyote saw the ocean. He liked this. He asked to be swung over the water, which was done. Then he asked to be sent still farther. That he might see what was on the other side of the ocean.Then Cat shoved him harder, and Coyote saw the land on the other side. He wanted to see still more, and Cat swung him far out over the land beyond the ocean. The swing came back empty, and Coyote was never again heard from. He is supposed to have grown dizzy and fallen from the swing. It is believed that he landed in Germany, for those people are the wisest of all nations, more inventive, more learned than any other country. Coyote is supposed to have continued his work over there, for he had no way of returning to the land of the Indians.”
Biancolli: Thank you for reading that.
Walker: Sure. So I came across that story in a collection of stories pulled together by a folklorist named Donald Heinz. It was coming from the Lucullus Virgil McWhorter archives, which I think are at University of Washington. I came across this story and I thought it so captured my sentiments about forced assimilation.
This is basically what I feel: William Charlie is speaking to his white friend as he tells this story, letting him know that this is kind of a warning feature: That voluntary assimilation of new ways, and new cultural ideas, can quickly lead to being trapped. And for the Yakama person, loss of connection to the sacred land of the Yakama would be just a horrible thing. So that’s kind of the message there — that you lose your ways. And Coyote, of course, is the hero trickster of the Yakama people. So we see Coyote kind of get himself ensnared in this, and then he can’t come back.
Biancolli: So that entrapment in many ways, that’s what you’re talking about in the book, kind of the loss of agency, the redefinition by colonists of what it means to be Native people. Is that it — and also the entrapment in the mental health system, entrapment in so many different contexts? Is that what you’re talking about?
Walker: Yes, I’m talking about that, and I’m also trying to use this history — trying to figure out what was the history of the the Euro mental health movement in Indian Country. What’s the history of that? Where did that come from? I really wanted to understand that as a person who was working with Native people, and in doing that, in pursuing that, I discovered that it was very relevant to contemporary times. To now, to right this moment. I wanted to understand.
I coined the term — and it’s all through the book in various places, because psychologists are fond of creating terms — “generational carry.” I wanted to come up with some way of encapsulating how these kinds of sentiments and beliefs and ideologies come down through generations and become almost so routinized that they’re practically unconscious — particularly in the minds of mental health providers, so called.
Biancolli: I was struck by that term, “generational carry,” and this idea that history — and its literal and figurative assaults on native culture and traditions, and people both broadly and individually, with genocide and everything — is still present in the lives of Native people. A lot of people hear about the data and they don’t connect the dots — like the alarming suicide rates, especially among young Native people. And tribally enrolled Native people, as you point out, have the shortest life expectancy and the highest mortality rate. And they’re facing poverty and powerlessness. “Generational carry” — it’s not that the past is past. The past is present in so many ways.
Walker: Right, and this is one of the things that I had to kind of do for myself — rethinking, what do we mean by history? If we break it down to his story or her story or their story, okay. The Native people in general that I’ve known frequently are very exceptional historians, and often know many stories passed down to them through their elders about what has happened to them, and what continues to happen, and what is happening. So I needed to be educated. I needed to be taught in my own experience — as I say, in the book, kind of what an academic might call sort of a re-socialization experience.
I really felt, for example, from the very start that the psychology of Yakama people is located in their spiritual traditions. There is no post-enlightenment split between the mind and the spirit. So I had a duty as a person coming from outside trying to serve that, to try to understand — what does that mean? Let alone the idea that I’m coming as an English speaker, and encountering people who have been literally robbed of their language in many respects. So their language still continues, and they’re still fluent speakers on the reservation, but that language actually contains different ideas and different concepts and different ways than I was raised to think or feel.
Biancolli: That interests me too, the language element — which you address various points in the books — and the idea of having the Federal Government define who is technically Native and/or in a Federally recognized tribe. Whereas, from the Native standpoint, they have different modes and approaches to defining that. And I thought that was a really interesting piece of it: the power of language. Anybody who reads Mad In America or listens to this podcast knows the power of language and the empowering force of using your own language and saying who you are — and defining yourself. That’s a huge piece of the move toward empowerment.
Walker: Right. I was charged with a kind of responsibility by my kála, Levina Wilkins, who was manager for a long, long time — she’s now sort of semi-retired — of the Yakama Nation language program [for teaching] Ischishkiin. She would often say to me, “It’s very difficult for me to express what I’m trying to tell you in English,” as she had been raised in Ischishkiin.
Biancolli: Well, that’s really interesting. Could you back up a little bit and explain her role a little bit? If you could just speak to the significance of her role in your life and what that term means?
Walker: “Kála” is a term of endearment that means “grandma,” and she’s basically my adopted grandma. She’s not quite old enough to be entirely my grandma, but I see her that way — and she’s a font of wisdom for me. I met my kála first when we were talking as a result of “Pathways to Hope and Healing” conferences that we did on the reservation in the early 2000s.
She was teaching in the schools in the language, in Ischishkiin, and she wanted to talk about that in relation to what we might do together in the school. We were working in Yakama Nation Tribal School, and also out in White Swan [WA], one of the reservation towns in Mount Adams School District. So we kind of combined forces.
So she became really important to me, just from the standpoint of trying to be a good helper. And I basically asked her at one point, “Can I call you my kála?” — and she said of course. And I’ve spent so much time with her over the years. We’ve gone through a lot of thick and thin, with different personal and professional issues and trouble. So she’s still with us, and she’s quite elderly at this point. But I talked to her very recently. She’s a really special person.
Biancolli: Thank you for telling that story and explaining her role. But you just made a reference to some of the professional struggles you’ve had. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to those four years that you worked in the IHS clinic, from 2000 to 2004. In the opening of your book, you write: “This book is like a song that arose out of grief. I remember saying, ‘I have to write something,’ as I walked out of a crisis residential center sometime in 2002 after trying to ‘evaluate’ a Native young man so sedated by psychiatric drugs, he couldn’t recall his own name.”
Wow. If you could just speak a little bit, to the impact of that on you: Was that an epiphany? Did that make you start thinking in different terms about this work you were doing?
Walker: I think I already came into Indian country with a somewhat unusual perspective on emotional difficulties that people have. I’ve never been a fan of the mental illness, medical model, psychiatric kinds of ways. I consider human beings expansionist beings, and so I was immediately shocked by some of the things I saw.
I should also mention the caveat that I had to be really careful in the people and the experiences that I had in depicting them in the book. There’s all sorts of little end notes that refer to these being composite individuals, and so I’m always careful to say that the stories don’t refer to any particular individual — although that particular story you’re mentioning, I can go ahead and say that was one person that that happened to. But everything that has to do with more extensive cases that I mentioned, of people going through different problems with the mental health system, I composited as many of those as I could, because I wanted specifically to avoid identifying people.
So, yeah, I was shocked, dismayed. And basically, I was pretty much alone in that perspective. This was business as usual. I really ran up against a lot of resistance to even commenting on such things, which was quite foreign to me from the perspective of collaborating and being a co-consultant with people — and just being a helper in general. I really ran into a lot of resistance.
And I’m talking about mental health providers themselves. It was very much a shock. It was a shock to me to see, for example, that IHS had a very mainstream — don’t mind me saying this, a white Euro — approach to mental health in Indian country. There was very little cultural adjustment or rethinking of it.
Biancolli: So one thing I’m particularly curious about is the impact of all of this on youth, especially youths in the foster system. Could you speak to that a little bit — how they endure their own harms and different forms of oppression, and wind up on cocktails of drugs? That’s, again, another huge topic.
Walker: It is indeed. And thanks for asking. I had a lot of contact with native foster youth while I worked at IHS. Afterwards, when I was working for Niix Ttáwaxt, which means “good growth to maturity”— and that is the culture-centered [behavioral health] program that Levina, my kála, and numerous other community members helped to support. The creation of which was very short lived, but it was a grand experiment, and so we got to know a lot of displaced youth.
And Native youth — nationally, in the United States — are a little bit more than twice as likely to end up in the foster care system. In Washington State, they’re somewhat over four times more likely to end up in the foster care system. And this does have to do with poverty, and has to do with family violence. I see family violence very generationally tied to circumstances having to do with institutionalization in American-Indian boarding schools, and the descendant upheaval in family relationships that emerged from that period. So you end up with a circumstance where you can see the cross-pollinization of these larger oppressive phenomena in creating the English-language category of the Native foster child — the Native foster youth.
I got to know these kids — and I would often see these kids in various difficult situations, crisis situations. I would see them in tribal jail, I would see them in juvenile detention, or they would be brought in by their foster parents, and I would meet with them. And their lives were filled with all sorts of complexities: traumatic violence in their past, physical sexual violence, many, many losses of important people in their lives, deaths by violence, deaths by car wrecks, from substance abuse issues, and these sorts of things.
And I, for some reason — having been a former dysfunctional youth — had a pretty decent time being able to connect with them. Mostly by using the word “shit.” If I used the word “shit” in a sentence, it was almost always a bridge builder — to “Wow, this white guy has a potty mouth, and you know, I can relate to him. Okay.” So this was one of my strategies in trying to make a relationship there.
Biancolli: Well, I’m laughing, but that makes total sense to me. Because you’re using a word that’s not a label. I mean, you’re using a word that’s a real word — that’s authentic. They know what it means. And it also acknowledges what they’re going through.
Walker: Instead of saying, “Let’s go do an intake assessment,” I’d say, “Tell me a little bit about the shit you’ve been through.”
Biancolli: And, see, any human being could answer that question and not feel like they’re being judged. So many of these conversations around the medical model versus other approaches boil down to “Oh, what’s wrong with you?” versus “What happened to you?” Or, as you say, “What shit have you been through?”
Walker: Right, so this was a way of getting kids talking. And my kála and I, and also another good, wonderful person, a Blackfoot woman named Verna — Verna was a counselor in both the school systems I consulted in — we created the “Pathways” circles together, where we basically took a non-directive approach. There were some outside boundaries and parameters to structure it somewhat, but we let the kids kind of decide what to talk about. And, yes, they were quite tentative at first, and sometimes kids acted up and this sort of thing. We just worked with that. And because Verna and my kála both treated that as a sacred space, as a spiritual space, which often had a blessing at the beginning of each circle, it set the tone where kids would open up with one another. That helped quite a number of foster youth to make connections with their peers in ways that they did not really have, [such as] solid family connections, obviously, given what they’ve been through. So that was really, particularly helpful to foster kids.
Biancolli: I was going to ask you about the circles that you participated in with these youth. I’m really interested, just generally, in the power of community when it comes to healing, and it’s something that the western model too often overlooks or at least downplays. So in your book, you describe participating in those circles. What is that healing about this in a way that the medicalized approach isn’t? Is it the nature of community? Is it the nature of inclusiveness, and in allowing youth to tell their own story or to be more active in — well, in this case a circle? It’s not treatment, but it’s healing, right?
Walker: You know, I’m coming from a Euro-American culture. I have Native heritage in my family, and I’m proud of that heritage. I do declare it, because I don’t want to forget my grandmother like my past generations did.
But also, I’m a white guy coming into this community, okay? And so I am immediately in a cultural encounter that’s going to highlight my own culture — which, as a white person, is not immediately apparent to me. That’s the problem of ethnocentrism writ large. And what I discovered was a kind of sadness, really, at the intensity of individualism and its effects on human beings. We live in one of the most individualist societies in the world.
I don’t think it’s really as familiar to a Euro-American person to encounter the degree of community that I encountered in Indian country, and the strength of that. Of course, I have Native friends who would say, “Well, there’s a downside to that — everybody knows your business,” and all this stuff. But the truth is that’s a huge strength and a huge asset.
As I came to be included, and invited and brought into the circle, I realized, “Wow, this is really a life-changing experience.” Whether it was going to a sweat lodge or being involved in ceremonies of particular sorts, or simply gathering in a circle, I realized how fundamental a circle is to human experience. It’s the great equalizer. There is no person speaking to you, giving you a PowerPoint presentation up at the front of the room. There is no person who is elevated above others as being the knowledge bearer, whereas no one else knows anything. Okay? Instead, any knowledge you have to impart or give is seen on equal terms with everyone else.
I would say it fundamentally changed me as a human being. As one of my mentors, Long Standing Bear Chief — who was Blackfoot, who tragically passed away in 2010 — would tell me, “Be a real human being.” That’s what the circle provides for you.
Biancolli: That’s profound. I mean, your description of it in the book is really powerful, and your description of it right now. What strikes me, too, is you’re right, the Western model — not just of medicine, but of our whole mindset — is so linear and hierarchical. And what you’re describing is the inclusiveness of the circle. If we were in a circle, and we weren’t stepping away from each other, we would see one another as human beings. We wouldn’t demonize one another.
And that’s actually the gist of the book, that people should be seen as human beings. You’re being inclusive, which is the nature of the circle.
Walker: I love to talk about circles, and I could go on and on about it. But this whole other facet of it is we’re also captured by the culture that we come into. And it’s better to be in a circumstance where your culture is brought forward, or in front of you, and to be able to see it — and to see the culture of mental health itself. I wrote the book out of a felt sense of moral duty to try to expose that culture in bold relief in relation to Native culture. To kind of highlight how different it is, and where did it come from.
Biancolli: You talk about that in the book — saying that the psychiatric establishment, the system, is complicit. The western approach to psychology is complicit in all of that. At what point did that hit you? Did you get that sense in your work?
Walker: Probably the most important single source that kind of nailed me and hit me over the head was Pemina Yellow Bird. She wrote a paper called Wild Indians about the blessing of the cemetery for the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, which is located in the middle of a golf course in Canton, South Dakota. So Pemina’s paper really alerted me. I was going through a lot, getting in trouble at the Indian Health Service for my views. At that particular moment, as I read that paper, it sort of blew things apart for me — because I had not heard of Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, and when I read about it, I was like, “Okay, now I see a professional ancestry here. Okay, and now I’m in it, and I’m a descendant of this practice, the socialization practice.” In my graduate education I never heard about this. No one ever alerted me to this [as I was] beginning to work with Indian people, and so it kind of blew my mind to see that paper.
Biancolli: Your description of the Hiawatha Asylum in the book is gut-wrenching — just the inhumanity. You also talk about the boarding schools, and the inherent bigotry and dehumanization and the labeling of kids, and the assumptions within the educational system that Native kids are “feeble-minded.” And today they’re being diagnosed with ADHD, and that’s all part of this huge, oppressive system full of assumptions about the Native peoples.
Walker: Yeah, that was another discovery — to see how long that “feebleminded” label was used. I was able to find this Israeli doctor…[Karl] Frankenstein. He had written about feeblemindedness. I believe he was in the late 1960s, early 1970s. And his descriptors for feeblemindedness were virtually the same as the descriptors for ADHD.
I’ve been around in this work for such a long time that I actually saw Attention Deficit Disorder come out, and then the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder come out. And it came out of, you know, minimal brain damage, MBD [Minimal Brain Dysfunction], and all these other abbreviations. So when I saw the connection to the word “feeblemindedness,” that really was a kind of a discovery — like, okay, now we see how the heritage of this idea directly plays into ADHD. Not to mention the fact that up until about 2010, Native American boys in the United States led the pack in being diagnosed with ADHD per capita.
That shifted markedly as the Center for Disease Control and numerous other parties put an emphasis on ADHD diagnosis among so-called marginalized communities and children of poverty — so then other ethnic groups began to catch up to those numbers among Native boys. So I really did begin to see ADHD as basically a school-based diagnosis that has to do with kids not fitting in and not really not being able to learn in schools that are tremendously underfunded.
Biancolli: Isn’t it also a part of this deeply entrenched bigotry that’s hard, frankly, for white people in the wider system to acknowledge? Not recognizing the bigotry that’s innate in the system, and in our attitudes toward Native peoples? I’m wondering: Why isn’t all of this part of a wider conversation? A wider conversation about oppression of Native peoples, a wider conversation about mental health services, a wider conversation about what it means to be human? Why aren’t we having that conversation more broadly?
Walker: I’m just forming my opinion here, but you know, my feeling about it is we live at a time where there is a kind of a tension between two forces — academically, but also, I would say, culturally. And it has to do with: What is American history? Is American history the unearthing of the real history, which contains, certainly, pluses, but also significant minuses of a country founded on slavery? Of a country founded through the oppression and forced removal of people from the land that was theirs? Is that the history of this country, or is it a revised, homogenized history that is familiar to white Euro-Americans? So when you begin to illustrate various darker sides of that history, you provoke that contingency of people — because that’s not what they’re used to. And they don’t really want to know that, because it seems to sully the reputation of this country and undermines it in some way, which I think is absolutely untrue.
I think that it is the pathway to helping this nation to talk about the real deal of what really has gone down in this country, and to integrate that with more positive views that one might have of what this country has to offer. But I think that those tension points between those two forces — they’re very evident. If you look at the Texas Board of Education, which has an enormous sway over textbooks that are chosen in high school for American history, they’ve been singled out in their choices for not placing an emphasis on — and even, really, — distorting Native history. Not to mention the history of slavery in the U.S.
Biancolli: And of course, within critical psychiatry circles, the dominant paradigm that’s being challenged is the psychiatric disease model. The narrative that gets told, and voices that speak out saying, “No, you should tell the whole story, or a different story” — they get suppressed.
Walker: I think that’s true. And I think if you link that history to just the basic ideologies that inform mental health provision, and you start to say, “Oh, the mental health movement is actually intrinsically tied and complicit to this history,” that really blows people’s minds. They push back on that, because it’s like you pulled the rug out from underneath them. So there’s a lot of resistance to that idea. It’s interesting, because when I wrote Coyote’s Swing I knew that Native people and Native friends and colleagues would definitely read the book. But I wasn’t really charged with that responsibility. I was specifically charged by my kála — and several other people, but my kála was central to this — to write a book for white people, Euro-Americans, so they could understand themselves better because they’ve lost their way. And I took up that mission — and boy, you know, it took me a while.
Biancolli: I got that from the book. What’s next for you with that sense of on that mission? And also, what responses have you gotten? Have you gotten blowback? Have you heard from people whose eyes were opened? Have you heard from people who fell into defensive mode? I mean, what’s been the response?
Walker: So I had this sense of mission — but it became, kind of, a way of protecting myself, of defending myself, because I couldn’t connect with the dominant view. And I wasn’t going to practice that way. So, what do I do? What do I believe, you know? As I encountered this history, I started to write about it. But I’m still aware that there’s a lot of connection — with what I’m saying — among Native people themselves and people who read Native media sources.
Yet there’s a big pushback that I’m feeling from certain professionals in Indian country — “What do you think you’re doing?” That kind of stuff. And that put me in a predicament: You better finish up this book, and you better really articulate why you feel this way, and come up with some ideas about alternative ways of approaching so-called mental health in Indian country, which I believe should be owned in the indigenous languages of whatever that means to Native people.
Biancolli: What is the prognosis moving forward? Can there be change? How would that change be embodied, instituted? What do you envision?
Walker: First things first. I mean, I’ve characterized myself as a bit of an earthworm. People like me who are troublemakers, we kind of churn up the soil of what’s out there and kind of loosen it up by critiquing a system. Then there is an opportunity for receding and growing new ideas and new ways and new thoughts.
I have some thoughts. I have some ideas. But getting back to the circle, I’m just part of this circle. How can I set up a way of encouraging people to look at new ideas and to rethink things?
You know, when I started [with the Indian Health Service], psychiatric labeling and psychiatric drugs were the dominant feature, and in many ways they still are. But there’s been a shift in the whys of that. Initially it was, “That’s the best way to go. This is the way we do mental health.” And now, I think, there’s a bit more of a critical nature. It was a tremendously underfunded agency, with its own internal dysfunction that has never been really helped — with good people working there who are supporting and bringing out new ideas. So there’s been more questioning. I’ve seen some evidence of that.
In the broader society, the so-called dominant society, I’ve seen the same thing. There has been an inner erosion of that particular biomedical view with people like you — Mad in America, Robert Whitaker, all the different people who are writing for that. Paula Joan Caplan, and all the different people that I’ve known over the years. So many people to list. But I think that it’s creating fractures in the system, and we do have many possibilities there. I’m very intrigued and really like the ideas coming out of the British Psychological Society, from Lucy Johnstone and crew. And all the people, John Reed and all those people in the U.K., with the Power Threat Meaning Framework. I like that. I like even Marie Garrau, who is coming from a sociological perspective and talking more about the indigenizing of these ideas that come into Indian country — and being evaluated and understood and either abandoned, discarded, or reframed through the sovereign control of Native people in their own ways of working with their own communities.
So right now, the entire mental health system that comes into Indian Country is controlled by the Federal Government, even though there are tribally granted programs through the Indian Health Service — programs that are tribally managed, but they receive grants from the Indian Health Service. Those grants stipulate that they must follow the central manual of the Indian Health Service for behavioral health, which is strongly biomedical, bio-psychiatric, in its perspective. So I want to see and hope for Native people controlling their own programming — and whatever they want to do with those dollars, and whatever they want to do with that kind of funding. And that’s not currently there. But I see a general erosion possible there with all that’s been going on around these controversies with the bio psychiatric model.
Biancolli: Thank you so much. This has been an extraordinary conversation. David, it was so great to have you. Thank you for joining us today. And thank you for all your work.
Walker: My great pleasure, Amy. Thanks for having me.
Biancolli: Our guest today was David Edward Walker, author of Coyote’s Swing. For more information about him, you can visit www.davidedwardwalker.com or check out his music on davidedwardwalker.bandcamp.com.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from The Thomas Jobe Fund.