Providing Culturally Sensitive Narrative Therapy and EMDR to Original Peoples

Providing Culturally Sensitive Narrative Therapy and EMDR to Original Peoples

by Juliette Jacobs & Linda Moxley-Haegert
A culturally sensitive therapist connects deeply with an indigenous client, using Narrative Therapy techniques and EMDR to support her in healing herself and her community. 


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We hope to help the reader understand one attempt of working in the most non-colonial way possible with the Onkwehonwe. In this story, playing a minor role, is how a settler of Irish heritage, Linda, committed to honouring the Onkwehonwe. Linda was assisted in her understanding of the Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk People), and in how to be helpful, by Juliette, playing the major role. Linda was Juliette’s helper/psychologist and Juliette was consulting with her.

Juliette: When I reflect on the beginning of our sessions doing NT/EMDR, I remember feeling that I would always suffer. I was unclear as to what might come of this type of therapy.

Linda: I was trying to integrate EMDR (1) into Narrative Therapy (NT) to work in a non-colonial way. EMDR uses bilateral movements to change the way memories are stored in the brain, allowing one to restructure trauma memories.

(In the work with Juliette, I asked her to reprocess negative memories and how they made her feel while trying to help her realize differences — for example, if she felt unsafe, she could try remembering experiences of feeling safe).

I tried to let you lead the way with EMDR and then answer NT questions to highlight non-problem stories. With NT (2, 3) the ethics provide a non-colonial way of working by flattening the hierarchy and being non-judgemental.

(NT works with the way people make sense of their lives with stories. Narrative therapists help people be other than what the problem stories would describe. These stories determine how we see ourselves. Narrative therapists believe that stories aren’t fixed. Problem stories pretend to be the truth, but they are not, as Maggie Carey, shared with me in a personal communication in 2018).

people consulting can thus realize that they are not only their negative stories
I am expected to write an evaluation for Kahnawà:ke Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services-KSCS) when they refer someone to me. I use special knowledges discovered from the Tree of Life or Journey metaphor (4) as my report. People consulting can thus realize that they are not only their negative stories, but that their life stories can be retold in ways to transform their experience of life, understanding there ARE also non-problem stories.

Juliette: This experience with you would be the very foundation to what gave me the strength and encouragement to push through whatever came my way. Your compassion and technique allowed me to open to you. I could feel the beauty of your spirit.

Linda: I appreciate your comment about spirit.

Juliette: Everything happens for reason I believe. I know in my heart that the Great Spirit sent such a loving and gentle person as yourself to me. I honestly think he hand-picked you for me, since I had so much hurt and pain. I needed a sensitive, well experienced human-being.

Linda: I am drawn to NT because it suits MY spirit. It helps me be a sensitive human being for you.

we may be from diverse cultures and generations, but in some sense, we are the same
Juliette: I felt very connected to you, considering your background of living off the land. We may be from diverse cultures and generations, but in some sense, we are the same.

Linda: I feel humbled that someone with your capacity to relate to nature, animals, and spirit could feel such a connection with me.

Juliette: I am the product of multi-generational trauma. With that comes many co-existing disorders. I felt no judgments with you. I could speak about my visions, dreams, and animal experiences. You were interested to hear about it. In the past we were not allowed to speak of such things for fear of being arrested or terminated. Blood memory is important in my People. Even though some of us have not directly experienced certain traumas, it is in our DNA.

Linda: I wonder if the words torture or violence might be more fitting than trauma, (inspired by Cathy Richardson’s work, [4]). If torture is in our DNA, are non-torture stories too?

Juliette: I found NT/EMDR to be immensely helpful in lifting the dark cloud that was hanging over me. It helped to open me up to even further healings. Most of all I think the way you did it and gave feedback, writing what came out of the sessions, was helpful. Three years later, I still have these notes to help me look back on how far I came.

Linda: I write notes for you to have nothing hidden. I give everyone my notes.

I cherish the letter you gave me when we finished our sessions
Juliette: I cherish the letter you gave me when we finished our sessions.

Linda: Therapeutic letters are a huge part of my work. They help consultees notice their revelations (5). I summarize changes noted in therapy. Now I often co-write letters with the person consulting, to co-construct counter-stories (6).

I love that you wrote back. I appreciate you describing me as medicine woman, mentor, and healer.

Juliette: I think what you are trying to do for Indigenous people is honourable. It is not an easy task to take on collaborating with people who have been so greatly affected by colonialism. I wonder if your background of living a simple life had anything to do with the paths you chose to take on helping people like me. I found you educated and knowledgeable in your field. You are hardworking and always striving to help others. That is a commendable characteristic to have. These qualities remind me of the seven grandfather teachings to live by: to have love, respect, truth, wisdom, honesty, bravery, and humility. You have all those qualities in your healing practices.

Linda: Wow! Thank you.

medicine people come in all forms with each bringing something that the client might need at that time
Juliette: Medicine people come in all forms with each bringing something that the client might need at that time. You were the first I had seen.

In June of 2019, three months after our sessions ended, my grandmother passed. I lost my Stepmother in a tragic accident. We lost our family pets. On July 4th, I had a hard delivery with an emergency C-section. I know that without our work, those hardships might have broken me for good.

I continued to see healers and came to terms with the fact that this will be a lifelong endeavour, considering what I have gone through.

Linda: If I could be considered to have contributed to the beginning of such a lifelong healing journey, I would feel fulfilled.

Juliette: I appreciated and found helpful that you shared some of your life story with me. That made me feel a connection. I felt I was not so alone in some life experiences. From the eating disorder I had, one thing stood out in my mind. You said, “bulimia seems a form of self-punishment.” That one sentence made me think twice about ever doing that again. Why punish myself for what others had done to me? Why give them that power? So, I never did it again.

Linda: I felt the unfairness of this.

NT/EMDR is powerful. That helped me relook at my traumas in a different light, helping heal the little girl in me
Juliette: NT/EMDR is powerful. That helped me relook at my traumas in a different light, helping heal the little girl in me. Since then, I’ve been raising my three children. My son is now three. His name is Keenai (meaning black bear) and his Kanien’keha name is Takarihóntie (news travels fast). I was cleansed by a healer as I was under spiritual attack, which helped. I enrolled to become a traditional healer in mental health and Indigenous addictions counseling. We learn different resources and ways to help my people. We do land-based teaching where we take part in sweat ceremonies, singing our songs, making drums, etc. I kept a consistent A+ average. I am learning what was taken from my people.

knowing who you are and where you belong is medicine
Knowing who you are and where you belong is medicine. The more I learn and heal the better my confidence gets and the less the anxiety comes. I am no longer on medications.

Occasionally I need to take an anti-anxiety medication as the course can be heavy, speaking about residential schools and the many injustices that led to the situation we are in today. I have come a long way from where I was. I AM immensely proud of myself. I was told I am the medicine for my family and people.

So many people I met through this journey are medicine for the people. I consider you to be one of them. You gave me that encouragement to keep healing and advocating for my people. For that I will be forever grateful.

if we could invite your welcoming ancestors and your Creator here to be with us and we could have a conversation, how do you think they might express their pride in you?
Linda: What you just said made me remember questions in the letter I sent you. “if we could invite your welcoming ancestors and your Creator here to be with us and we could have a conversation, how do you think they might express their pride in you?"

Juliette: They would give me a great big smile.

Linda: How would they want you to feel about the way that you were an advocate with me and about the way you have turned your life around?

Juliette: I think they would be so proud and hopeful that things are changing.

Linda: Do you think that they would be honoured?

Juliette: I know I am honouring them by healing and acknowledging their hardships, changing whatever I can to bring back what was taken from them/us.

Linda: I wonder if they might have advice about how to be even more of an advocate for your people and the land.

Juliette: I think they would tell me to be a warrior and to keep fighting for the ones who cannot.

Linda: Do you think that if you continue to speak out and be an advocate to those of your people in need, regarding how to transform a life from one of drugs and alcohol and violent partners like you have done, they would be happy to stand by your side?

Juliette: They are always by my side. I know they are happy with what I try to do.

Linda: Do you think they were at your side every day when you kept yourself safe?

Juliette: They guide me always.

Linda: Now, do you think they would be even prouder by your decision to become an Indigenous healer to those having challenges with mental health and addictions?

Juliette: They ARE proud. They guided me. They want me to help others. It is a part of our ways that if we are well, then we help those who are not so well. If I have a full plate of food and see someone with nothing, then I give them half of mine. That is the concept. Don’t let others suffer if you have the means to help; take my struggles and heal so I have that empathy to help others.

Linda: Interesting. My mother taught me with privilege comes responsibility to help those with less privilege.

Juliette: I have questions to ask. What drew your attention to helping my people and other people who have endured a terrible history?

Linda: Perhaps my mother’s teaching. Also, the stories my grandfather told of how the Irish were mistreated as they were colonized. It might be my wonderful experiences as a child and adult living on a farm and receiving community healing. Maybe, the appreciation I have of your culture bringing back community with the passion to get back to your cultural roots.

Juliette: Was there any moment in your work where you just knew you were doing what you needed to do and were in the right place?

Linda: Every day. Especially after this conversation with you. If any of the work we did together played even the smallest part in where you stand today, can you guess how proud I might feel of the work I do? I believe that you will help your people remember their roots, their strong culture, and what they can teach us non-indigenous people. If I played even the smallest part in this journey you have taken, I would know I am in the right place, doing what I need to do.


(1) Shapiro, F., Kaslow, F. W., & Maxfield, L. (2007). Handbook of EMDR and family therapy processes. John Wiley & Sons.

(2) White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Externalizing the Problem In (Eds.). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. W.W. Norton & Company.

(3) Freedman, J., & Combs, G. (1996). Narrative therapy. The social construction of preferred realities. Norton.

(4) Richardson, C. (2021). Facing the Mountain: Indigenous healing in the shadow of colonialism. Charlton Publishing,

(5) Denborough, D. (2014). Retelling the stories of our lives: Everyday narrative therapy to draw inspiration and transform experience. W.W. Norton & Company.

(6) Ingamells, K. (2016). Learning how to counter-story in narrative therapy (with David Epston and Wilbur the warrior. Journal of Systemic Therapies, Vol. 35, No. 4, 58–71.

(7) McAllum Pickington, S., (2018) Writing narrative therapeutic letters: Gathering, recording and performing lost stories. Journal of Narrative Family Therapy: Special Release 20-48.  

© 2023, LLC.
Juliette Jacobs  & Linda Moxley-Haegert Juliette Jacobs I chose the wolf as a representation of myself because wolves are leaders, they travel in packs but are well organized in the way they group together. They look out for each other, especially the young, the weak, and the elderly. I feel that the wolf’s actions and values are similar to my actions and values. As well, I feel that no matter what cards life has dealt to me, it is my mission and responsibility to change the cycle of abuse. 

Linda Moxley-Haegert was introduced to the narrative practice ideas used in this paper in 1991 while living and working in Newfoundland, Canada. She has spent much of her career working as a clinical psychologist and narrative practitioner with children and their families in hospital settings and with palliative care in those environments. She is now working at the Shriners Hospitals for Children, Canada and with the Indigenous Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) people in Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada. She is committed to honouring the people who consult her.