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NewsMay 20, 2021

Holistic psychology graduate explores Native American trauma, healing

A.J. White-feather ‘21 combines spirituality with meditation

Photo of AJ White-feather

By Georgia Sparling

A.J. White-feather ’21, who earns her bachelor’s degree in holistic psychology this month, first began to explore her spirituality after a professor at her community college mentioned Buddhist meditation.

As she studied the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, she began to question her own behaviors and that of her family: “Why was I surrounded by violence? Why was I suffering with my mental and emotional health? Why was I unable to make healthy connections with others? Why was my family struggling with substance abuse? Through my education, I was able to gain the bigger picture,” she says.

White-feather attributes Buddhist psychology and concepts such as the Four Noble Truths in helping her understand the nature of suffering and discovering a path toward inner peace.

Acknowledging a legacy of trauma

Generations of alcoholism, substance abuse and violence in her mother’s family — descendants of the Mi’kmaqs, a First Nations tribe native to Canada — began with the arrival of French colonists to Canada, she says.

“That’s when families got torn apart and horrible brutality happened to people who were just living in harmony with the earth,” says White-feather. “The trauma they inflicted on my ancestors got passed down generation after generation.”

Meditation helped her address the anxiety, stress and collective trauma she experienced.

“The more I meditated, the better I felt. It became a tool for me during a time of crisis,” she says.

At the time, White-feather was 25 years old and had just taken on the role of sole guardian for her 11-year-old nephew while going to school and working full time.

“He needed a lot of support. It was a lot for me to handle at 25 by myself with no support of my own,” she says. Since then, White-feather says, “I always go back to meditation. I always go back to yoga, I always go back to creative expression.”

A holistic approach

With her burgeoning understanding of meditation and expressive therapies’ ability to heal, White-feather found herself drawn to Lesley’s Holistic Psychology program and its integration of spirituality. She transferred to the university in 2018 through our Center for the Adult Learner, and, in one of her first classes, Cross Cultural Psychology, she began to delve deeper into the long-term impact of trauma. 

“It gave us an opportunity to reflect on our own culture and our own heritage and the ways that our families have been oppressed,” says White-feather. “It completely opened my mind to see things a different way.

“What I’ve been learning is that trauma gets encoded in the DNA. I’ve been learning that through mindfulness, you can not only reprogram your brain and the connections it makes, but also change the structure of your DNA.”

During her two years at Lesley, White-feather’s studies and research have explored ancient mindfulness practices across Asian, African and Native American cultures as well as how they’re being used and misused today. She is working on a textbook with Associate Professor Uma Chandrika Millner that explores these topics, including the “commodification of these spiritual practices and how it relates to injustice.”

I think she’s an incredibly courageous person. She has a lot of grit.
Uma Chandrika Millner, Associate Professor

“Uma has become a mentor. She’s been guiding me and directing me and advising me,” she says.

Millner felt an immediate connection with her new student. After teaching White-feather in several classes, she invited her to work on the textbook, along with a colleague from Salve Regina University.

“With one notable exception, mindfulness textbooks are all written by white men,” said Millner. “We make a triad of Asian, Black and Native American authors.

“She struck me as somebody who is incredibly generous of spirit, somebody who is very grounded in who she is,” she continued. “I think she’s an incredibly courageous person. She has a lot of grit. She is somebody who is not afraid of being vulnerable in settings, but at the same time, she’s just a very grounded, thoughtful, kind person.”

White-feather has found comfort and community in the Holistic Psychology program, noting our Costa Rica study abroad program, led by Associate Professors Jan Wall and Neal Klein, as a transformative time in her studies.

“The sense of community that they created with everyone was really special as someone who doesn’t have a solid support system. It was really nice to feel like you belonged somewhere.”

As the school year ends, White-feather is looking ahead to her next semester with Lesley as she begins a master’s program in Expressive Arts Therapy with an interest in eventually working with children and trauma in the future.

“I have always felt drawn to work with children, and because of my history, I want to help people heal from traumatic experiences,” she says.