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Focus on Rural Health

A Turtle Islander Meets the Maori

Jacque Gray shares her work on suicide prevention at international symposium.

By Nikki Massmann on

Keri Lawson-TeAho and Jacque Gray
Keri Lawson-TeAho and Jacque Gray

Amid a flurry of activity in her office, Jacque Gray, PhD, is calm. Phones are ringing, staff are knocking on the door, and her computer is giving off the telltale chime that she has received yet another email message. But none of this was able to shake her relaxed demeanor.

Gray had just returned from a monthlong trip to New Zealand. Decidedly, she was suffering jet lag, but she was eager to share the experiences from her trip and get started on her projects. When asked about the weather in New Zealand, Gray glanced out her window at the March snowstorm and smiled. "It's summer there," she said.

Through her work with the Seven Generations Center of Excellence (SGCoE) at the Center for Rural Health, Gray was invited to speak on Indigenous suicide prevention at a symposium for the public health program at the University of Otago in Wellington. The SGCoE supports Native Americans working toward becoming mental health professionals in Indigenous populations. A colleague at the Society of Indian Psychologists, Keri Lawson-TeAho, is an instructor at the University of Otago and knew Gray's passion for addressing mental health issues in Indigenous people would be a great fit for the symposium.

"Keri and I met several years ago at Utah State University," Gray said. "The Society of Indian Psychologists was having a conference there, and Keri had attended to honor a Maori student who was completing his PhD. We have discussed working together in the years since, and it finally came to fruition at this symposium in New Zealand."

New Zealand has an Indigenous population known as Maori. The Maori people make up approximately 14 percent of New Zealand's total population, and their culture is an obvious part of life on the island. Their history, language, and traditions are central to New Zealand's identity, a fact that Gray reiterates.

"Everything about the Maori culture is incorporated into everyday life in New Zealand," Gray said.

Travel websites for New Zealand recommend visiting tribal meeting grounds called a marae. During her trip, Gray was lucky enough to experience a meeting at a marae. While at the marae, Gray was able to speak with medical students about working with patients of an Indigenous background.

"The Maori chant a song to officially invite you into their marae," Gray said. "The guests respond in the same manner and are welcomed into the marae for a celebration of friendship and trust. It's very moving."

The symposium was attended by many of the leading Maori behavioral health leaders and experts throughout New Zealand. The governor general, who is Queen Elizabeth II's representative to New Zealand, attended one of the mornings and met with suicide survivors during a break following a session. The governor general has security officers similar to the Secret Service in the United States, and one of the officers sat next to Gray for a time.

"That made me a little nervous," she says. "The security officer's presence had me on edge—I didn't want to make any wrong moves!"

Eduardo Duran, PhD, a well-known clinical psychologist practicing in Montana, was also a speaker at the symposium. Duran has written several books, including Native American Postcolonial Psychology. Much of his work focuses on dealing with historical trauma. This is when a trauma occurs in families or cultures and is then passed on to the following generation—unless the trauma or "soul wound" is dealt with. He presented on the concept that everything done by the seven generations before you affects who you are, and everything you do affects the seven generations in front of you. Because the Seven Generations Center of Excellence derives its name from this concept, Gray and Duran were able to share perspectives on the concept of intergenerational experience and how this understanding shapes and impacts our society today.

"We're both from North America, or Turtle Island as it is referred to in native cultures," Gray said. "We discussed our work in behavioral health and ways to work together in the future through collaborative research."

Gray also met with administrators at the University of Otago to talk about how the Seven Generations Center of Excellence has built a multifaceted approach to addressing workforce issues and mental health needs in Indigenous populations. They discussed potential student and faculty exchanges and other ways that the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences can interact with the University of Otago School of Medicine in the future.

Gray said, "While we have specialized programs to address American Indian health workforce needs, they incorporate culturally appropriate care concepts into their standard curriculum. There is a lot of potential for us to learn from each other."

The trip to New Zealand wasn't all work and no play. Her stay in the country happened to be over a national holiday called Waitangi Day. It is similar to an Independence Day celebration in the United States. Her host couple, Gay Keating and Ian Harcourt, accompanied her to the festival. Ian makes his living as an actor, and his explanations of New Zealand culture were entertaining.

Everything about the Maori culture is incorporated into everyday life in New Zealand.

"Ian told me that in all his years of acting, he has been in every movie filmed in New Zealand, with the exception of The Lord of the Rings," Gray said. "He said he was too tall to be cast as a dwarf and not pretty enough to be cast as an elf."

Gray's trip was educational and relaxing, and she has brought back a renewed sense of purpose for her work. In the coming months and years, she will be busy with plans for collaboration to strengthen programs both on Turtle Island and in New Zealand that promise to contribute to positive outcomes in both countries. Connections made during the trip have given her a sense of family that will last a lifetime.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of North Dakota Medicine.

Nikki Krueger Nikki Krueger is the Director of Communications at the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC). Prior to her position at the EERC, she served as Communication Coordinator at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota's School of Medicine & Health Sciences.