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Native American culture lends insights
to Catherine Reimer's spiritual, professional life

By Mary Stamp

Not white enough for the white culture and not Native American enough for that culture, psychologist and educator Catherine Swan Reimer straddled both worlds to help educators and psychologists understand how to communicate with Native Americans in schools and counseling.

Catherine Reimer
Catherine Swan Reimer

Now retired, she and her husband John live in Chewelah and continue to educate people.

Both were born in Alaska to Inupiat Eskimo mothers.  Her father was German, Lithuanian and Jewish.  His father was German.

Catherine shares professional insights and her personal story in two books—A Circle of Swans: A Native American Counseling Spiritual Journal, which will be published this year, and Native and White in One Breath, which will be published next year.

Circle of Swans captures her developmental process as she began coming back into Inupiat culture.

“The Native American culture is a way of thinking and being I left when I was a child,” she said.  “I was in the Anglo community until I met John.”

Because her father put down her mother for speaking the Inupiat language or cooking Inupiat food, her mother did not teach Catherine her culture or dances.  By working with Native Americans Catherine came to know Indian people, their culture and spirituality.

“I felt validated as I searched for the native part of me,” she said.

She and John will speak on “Wisdom in Native American Traditions” from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday, April 14, at the Ministry Institute, 405 E. Sinto.

 Their presentation is part of the institute’s second-Saturday series on “Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: Recognizing God in Wisdom, Mysticism and Daily Life.”

They will offer wisdom from Inupiat and Native American traditions, exploring how they intersect with their commitment to the teachings of Jesus.

At six, John moved from Nome to Anchorage.  At five, Catherine moved from her village to Nome and to Los Angeles, where she stayed in a Spanish Carmelite convent while recuperating from tuberculosis.  Her family eventually moved to Portland, Ore., where she completed high school before she went to Seattle University, graduating in 1969.

Knowing Father Armand Nigro, founder of the Ministry Institute, since she was at Seattle University, Catherine is spending time at the Ministry Institute with John, editing A Matter of Maturity, compiling Fr. Nigro’s works. 

“Fr. Nigro reinforced the integration of Christian and Native American spirituality,” she said. 

Catherine said John, who dropped out in 10th grade, earned a GED and graduated in 1968 in science and education from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., earned a master’s in educational administration at Pennsylvania State University.  Later, he finished a doctoral degree in education.

After graduating, she went to Phoenix, earning a master’s in counseling in 1980 at Arizona State University and then counseling with Navajo, Pima and other tribes.

The Reimers met in Norman Okla., at a training for research on Indian education.  John was deputy director of the research for the National Indian Education Association.  For two years, Catherine gathered information from parents, students and administrators to improve Indian education. 

John moved to Arizona and was principal at a Navajo school. She worked at Phoenix College until they went in the 1980s to Washington, D.C.  He was educational line officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for six years. 

Catherine earned a doctoral degree in psychology at George Washington University, earning straight A’s, even though a high school counselor had said she would never complete college. Then she worked with Macro International, designing trainings and helping gather Native American Nation Training.

Graduating at 55, she met age discrimination, so when they settled in Portland, John traveled to work with school superintendents through the BIA in five Northwestern states, and she developed her business, Swan Circle, Inc. Through it, she shared insights on counseling, education and spirituality with people who work with American Indians and Alaska Natives. 

Counselors helping Native Americans often are limited by European-American psychology that values individualism, she said. The training builds sensitivity to Native American communication styles.  She integrates individual tribes’ cultures and values into therapy and interventions.

In 1991, she wrote, How to Counsel the Inupiaq Eskimo, using it at universities and summers at the University of Alaska.

Her workshops evolved to integrate interventions using music, crafts, symbols, nature, rituals, sacred stories, dreams and myths with popular psychology.

“We did not use a tribe’s specific rituals, but created rituals—celebration activities—meaningful for adults and helping youth resist substance abuse and work for good grades,” Catherine said.

Once using the theme of stars, teachers gave students stars for good work, integrated stars into curricula and held a celebration with parents.  Sitting around a fire, elders shared star stories.  Youth made commitments to shoot for the stars—do their best, she said.

In counseling, she helped calm a woman who had been sexually abused as a child.  The woman kept rubbing her hands and saying she felt dirty. Catherine suggested doing a ritual.  She brought water, blessed it and blessed the woman as she washed her hands, saying, “You’re beautiful.  You are cleansed.”  It helped the woman release her negative feelings. 

Catherine also used the theme of washing with a group of Indian women—having them pair up and wash each other’s hands—and for a training of business executives and professionals, demonstrating how important rituals are. 

“One executive felt it was one of the most powerful experiences he ever had and encouraged me to continue this work,” she said.

She encourages trainees to use a tribe’s cultural elements, but not specific ceremonies.  They need to read so they know about a tribe’s culture and rituals if they are going to integrate the culture into a counseling or educational program.

Catherine, who serves on the board of the First Nations Behavioral Health Association, had a private practice and was a clinical supervisor at two treatment centers. In 2010, she led a workshop at Gonzaga on “Suicide Prevention:  The Spiritual Connection” in counseling for Native Americans.

In Chewelah, they are involved in Immaculate Conception parish. In addition to her participation in the Catholic Church, Catherine participated in Talking Circles, Native American therapy, sweats, a Vision Quest and other Native American spiritual and ritual ceremonies while she was in Arizona. 

“God helped me understand the depth of Native American spirituality,” said Catherine, who teaches meditation classes in parishes.

“I was not raised Native American, but I learned about our cultural ways, because my ancestors and God, who loves native people, teach us and help us meet the teachers we need,” she said.

Her mother, who died three years ago, had started to share Inupiat culture with Catherine, her four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.  After her mother left her father, she began sharing about her culture, began dancing again and helped further Catherine’s awareness of her heritage.  Catherine is grateful for the tribes who encouraged her to learn about her culture and shared their cultures with her.

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