Melissa Tehee, PhD, JD, is a proud citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her cultural heritage as an American Indian is at the center of her life and career. Tehee is one of fewer than 300 American Indian psychologists in the United States, a lawyer, the director of the American Indian Support Project (AISP), and an assistant professor of psychology at Utah State University (USU) in Logan.
This is a fairly new position for her, one she came to precipitously in 2015, but she's pleased to support Indian students who are defying the odds to become psychologists. She knows the distances they've traveled, psychically and often physically as well, to come to school.
There is some financial support through AISP, but Tehee says, "One of the biggest things we do is provide community," making sure someone is available who understands Indian students' viewpoint and is willing to advocate for them. "That's something I struggle with myself in academia, the individualistic approach to things. My life way is more communal," she says.
Of the more than five million U.S residents who claim American Indian heritage, fewer than 25 percent now live on tribal lands. The majority live mostly in cities. In either setting, though, a large minority of Indians are poor, and they are more likely than the general population to suffer from distress and substance abuse. Only about two thirds of American Indian students graduate from high school, and they are more likely to be expelled, suspended or classified as having "special needs" than are other children. According to the latest available data, Indians graduate from college and obtain professional degrees at about half the rate of other Americans, while those aged 25 to 34 are victims of violent crimes at a rate more than 2½ times greater than that of the population as a whole.
The AISP, which seeks to increase the number of American Indian psychologists, was founded at USU in 1986 in response to the dearth of school psychologists and other mental health professionals on tribal lands. It's the rare psychologist who understands the differences between Indian culture and the mainstream American one, Tehee says. In her job with the AISP, Tehee, by training a clinical psychologist, is on a mission to bring more Indians into psychology.
She has her work cut out for her. USU's latest doctoral cohort in psychology is 11 students, a "huge" class, but even with the AISP on-site, focusing its efforts on recruiting Indians for the field, only two of this group are American Indians. "There's not a lot of awareness" in the community about what working as a psychologist would mean, "but the problem begins long before that," with a student population that has a troubled relationship with school, Tehee says.
AISP is trying to smooth the road for those students who have made it to USU. Doctoral candidates now can get clinical hours by traveling the 80 miles to the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake City, Utah, to do therapy intake, with Tehee supervising. "This is a big step for the AISP program," she says.
Tehee grew up in Nebraska, where her paternal grandfather had settled after serving in the Air Force. He was originally from Tahlequah, Okla., where his Cherokee ancestors were relocated after the infamous 1838 forced evacuation from the Southeast known as the Trail of Tears. Though he was her only Indian grandparent, Tehee's family identified strongly with his background. "It was who we were, what I heard about," she says. "I always had a different worldview, a slightly different take on things. That difference was pretty obvious for me."
Her parents divorced, and after that, life was often chaotic. The family moved frequently and was even homeless at times. Once, they landed in a domestic violence shelter. School was a refuge, Tehee says, and she excelled there. The first person in her family to go to college, Tehee eavesdropped in high school on other students talking about applying for college, and found out how to apply as well.
As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she sought out Cynthia Willis Esqueda, PhD, also a Cherokee, and was "incredibly fortunate" to work with her on research on domestic violence "and the cultural differences in the way people perceive" those relationships. For a master's degree in psychology from Western Washington University in Bellingham, she investigated mainstream biases toward American Indians with Joseph Trimble PhD. Throughout, she volunteered with domestic abuse hotlines and shelters. The study of traumatic experiences — the coping styles people have or develop, the social support they find, their own resilience and what types of interventions have been shown to help — endures in her present work.
Tehee says she always knew she would be a psychologist, and she was attracted to research from the beginning, but she didn't expect to wind up in academia. "I planned to contract out research projects with tribes," she says. After becoming involved with the Society of Indian Psychologists immediately after completing her undergraduate work in 2005, and attending several of the society's annual meetings at USU, she found herself drawn to the school and the rugged area around Logan, which she came to love.
In 2015, Tehee completed a dual JD/PhD program, with a certificate in Indigenous People’s Law and Policy, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She did her clinical internship in San Diego, where she worked with couples dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on their relationships. Then Carolyn Barcus, EdD, the longtime director of the AISP, decided to retire, and Tehee says, "I got a phone call," one that changed her life. Barcus and USU asked her to take over her job at the AISP, and "that's how it all came about."
She had to scramble then to come up with a career plan. Tehee had worked as a graduate teaching assistant, so she was prepared to teach. However, the Logan area was not home to any Indian tribes. At that point, she says, "I knew my research would have to be on a national scale."
The road to success so far in that regard, Tehee says, has risen out of a network she has found of researchers, not all psychologists, who are working with American Indians.
There's a lot of work to be done, Tehee says. Some tribes have "zero data," but others have been collecting information about their members, and need help putting it to use in a meaningful way — perhaps to get funding for things they're already doing that are working.
Tehee loves the idea that her research projects can give something back to the tribes. "That value, of giving back, is immersed in our culture," she says. "The goal is for all my research to be tribal participatory."