Decolonizing Wilderness Therapy

I am a bi-cultural Nature Based Therapist, from a Brazilian family, first generation American born. Since becoming a therapist I have learned to honor my cultural background as it informs the therapeutic relationships and the professional framework I aim to create.

Who we are raised by, what foods we eat, what soil we play on, what languages we speak and how we learn to move (or not move) our bodies inform who we become, how we develop and what we allow ourselves to feel. It is often important for clients to have their culture or race represented by their therapist. There is deep, body-based nourishment that comes from not explaining your identity to someone. There is a non-verbal or pre-verbal understanding that can occur, which allows the parasympathetic nervous system to engage. This slows our heart rate and allows rest to occur in the body. This relational truth is at the root of the work that I offer to my clients. Regardless of a client’s background or social location, conversations about identity and dynamics of privilege, power and oppression are always welcome in our therapy sessions. Because the United States has a tragic colonial history imbedded into the soil and fabric of the nation, our proximity to a colonizer’s identity (white, heterosexual, cisgender, male) impacts our mental health whether we realize it or not.

The field of Nature Based Therapy, also known as “Ecotherapy” or “Ecopsychology” further recognizes this impact. There is a general understanding in this field that our internal human environment is connected to our external natural environment. Due to implications of colonial occupation, Indigenous genocide and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, these two systems have become disconnected over centuries. Throughout the field of Ecopsychology this disconnection is referred to as the “original trauma.” There are two major consequences of this trauma. One is the collective emotional, spiritual, mental and physical suffering of our own species. The other, the demise of our sacred bonds to the natural world and non-human beings, which only creates further isolation and deterioration between everything that is alive.

My background as a Nature Based Therapist started in one of the two wilderness therapy training programs in this country. I attended one of them in Ute, Arapahoe and Cheyenne Territories, also known as Boulder, Colorado. In that program, along with two dear friends, the framework of Decolonizing Wilderness Therapy was born. Since graduating and working as a full-time therapist, I have become driven to further develop this model of land-based, trauma-informed healing. I seek to do this by creating community partnership, training, education and clinical programming where we acknowledge the intersection between decolonizing clinical mental health and decolonizing land-based healing. No such intersection currently exists and development of this is needed.

Traditional wilderness therapy programs are overwhelmingly homogenous, remote, insular, expensive, and exclusive. They are often very healing for people who represent the dominant culture (white, heterosexual and cisgender). Throughout my experience working within the outdoor industry and academic institutions I have witnessed this first hand. I have heard the threads of our colonial past be glorified and insidiously weaved into the curriculum of these programs. And I have been there when non-dominant participants were harmed by it. I have been harmed by it. The reality is that there is a large disparity regarding who gets access to quality mental health treatment in this country. The more non-traditional the therapy becomes; the less accessible quality care becomes. That is where I see the need to offer this framework, and why an intersection of these fields must be developed and made accessible to the public.

So, what does it mean to decolonize the field of wilderness therapy? It means recognizing the ways that white program leaders perpetuate cultural appropriation by using Indigenous logos, artwork, symbols or traditions without Indigenous representation or relationship established. It means diversifying the field from who is hired to who is helped. It means making programming accessible and affordable to everyone, not just those clients with means or good insurance. It means becoming more intentional with our language and understanding what it means to be truly trauma informed. It also means recognizing how the theory of white-body supremacy impacts a client during a session in the natural world. We cannot assume that Nature is healing for everyone. The original trauma occurred because of pervasive and systemic racism and settler genocide against non-white bodies, cultures and their territories. When we look at the earth to help us heal, we have to acknowledge the ancestral trauma that is present still today. We must always acknowledge First Nation territories.

In many First Nations there is no language for “wilderness” because as described by the advocacy organization Terra Incognita, “The American idea of wilderness did not exist, it had to be created.” Created by Congress in 1964, “Wilderness” was described as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is absent.” Why would Indigenous people use a word that is directly connected to their removal and erasure from history? More importantly, why do we?

As a therapist I have power and in turn a responsibility to be thoughtful with my language. My framework of Decolonizing Wilderness Therapy pushes back on traditional wilderness programs, their harmful colonial agendas, and their often unintentional and underdeveloped use of language. I do not use the word wilderness to describe the natural world or the work I do, only to describe the field and agendas I wish to abolish and rebuild. I believe that in order to be trauma informed when engaging with the natural world we have to be willing to build relationships with local tribe leaders even if that desire is not reciprocated. When we use our positions of power and privilege to acknowledge land-based trauma, we engage in powerful and needed reparations for humans and Nature.

In Nature, a thriving ecosystem is one that is biodiverse. In one forest you may find several species of trees. In one meadow live a hundred different flowers and plants. Thousands of species of birds share the same sky. And everything in Nature that is alive relies on another element within that ecosystem to stay alive and to thrive.

Maybe now more than ever, Nature has something to teach us about the beauty of being connected, vulnerable, diverse, abundant, and inclusive.

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