Since 1997, the University of Montana’s Department of Psychology has worked to push American Indian students through a rigorous federally funded grant program aimed at bolstering the number of clinical psychologists active in reservation communities. One of the key components of that program—Indians Into Psychology, or InPsych—is a congressionally mandated advisory board comprised of tribal representatives and active Native psychologists from the very communities InPsych students will eventually work in themselves.
The problem is that for years, UM’s InPsych board hasn’t existed.
Annual program progress reports submitted to the U.S. Indian Health Service list psychologist Rebecca Foster as the advisory board chair as recently as 2010. However, Foster’s husband, Dan, who is also listed as one of four board members on InPysch’s website, says the couple has had no involvement with the board since relocating to South Dakota in 2005. Another board member listed on the program’s website, Blackfeet member Gordon Belcourt, died last July. Belcourt, who was executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council at the time of his death, had been a longtime advocate of improving health in Indian Country.
The problems with InPsych’s advisory board come as a surprise to David Strobel, the now-retired former chair of the psychology department and former dean of UM’s Graduate School. Strobel has a long history of dealing with grant and scholarship programs at UM. He even met directly with InPsych’s advisory board during the program’s early years to help mediate internal friction between the department chair and the InPsych director at the time. He feels the board was designed to serve as “a nice bridge” between UM and American Indian communities, and says historically the board served a “very important function, which was oversight of the program, to make sure it was running well and that students weren’t abused in any way.”
It was actually through the InPsych advisory board that Billie Jo Kipp, who completed her PhD in psychology at UM in 2005, forged one of the most important professional relationships she’s had—with current InPsych program director Gyda Swaney. Kipp says the board is invaluable for student networking, for “meeting those outside connections to the communities that the psychologists often will have to serve.”
“I think you’ve got to have an advisory board to really make sure you’re staying focused and the grant needs are being met,” says, Kipp, who is now president of Blackfeet Community College. “That’s what the advisory board does, and it really helps to integrate the clinician back into tribal communities.”
Director Swaney admits the advisory board has been “a problem in this state,” largely due to physical distance and the limited number of professional psychologists working on Montana reservations. Although an application for InPsych grant continuation from 2010 included a request for up to $3,500 annually for advisory board travel and per diem through 2014, Swaney couldn’t recall the last time the board actually met. She says her attempts to gather potential board members for a meeting last year failed due to travel and scheduling complications, and adds that hiring even a part-time aid to help her organize such meetings would, in her view, cut into the InPsych money available for student scholarships and stipends.
UM is currently one of three universities nationwide that each receive between $200,000 and $250,000 in annual funds through the American Indians Into Psychology Program—a grant established by Congress in 1992 under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. According to the American Psychological Association, there were fewer than 200 doctoral-level American Indian psychologists nationwide a decade ago. Swaney estimates that UM’s InPsych program, combined with similar programs at the University of North Dakota and Oklahoma State University, have added 27 graduates to that total.
“The goal is to provide greater exposure to the field of psychology, provide stipends to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing careers in psychology, and establish training opportunities for psychology graduate students within tribal communities,” says Michael Berryhill, American Indians Into Psychology liaison at IHS.
That list of goals effectively sums up much of the criteria InPsych-funded programs are required to comply with under the IHCIA. However, those conditions also include a stipulation that each InPsych program “incorporates a program advisory board comprised of representatives from the tribes and communities that will be served by the program.” The goal of such a board is partly to provide access to professional clinicians working in the very communities that students may end up serving as a condition of their InPsych funding.
“If you don’t have tribal clinicians as a part of your advisory board,” Kipp says, “all you have is the University of Montana, and the only one that I know that’s ever worked in tribal communities is Dr. Swaney.”
Since the Indy’s initial inquiries regarding the advisory board’s status, Swaney has “redoubled my efforts” to arrange a board meeting this summer. She recognizes the need for such an entity, particularly when it comes to connecting students with professional psychologists already working in Indian Country. Some InPsych students do get that exposure by traveling to Society of Indian Psychologists conferences or conducting externships on nearby reservations like Flathead, Swaney says. But she adds she would be “well advised to have an advisory board help me with that.”
“Where are these Native students going to meet Native psychologists?” she says. “They’re peerless … And when they leave [UM], they’re on their own.”