Professor Spotlight: Dr. Annie Belcourt (Otter Woman)

Portrait of Dr. Annie Belcourt (Otter Woman)

In this episode, we’re in the flow with Dr. Annie Belcourt (Otter Woman) who is a Professor in the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences. Annie reads an excerpt from Terese Marie Mailhot's memoir Heart Berries which sparks our conversation about her educational journey, the importance of building resilience in Native communities, and the unique research ethics that ground Indigenous research communities. 

Episode Extras

To learn more about Annie's research, check out this collection of articles:

Research Ethics and Indigenous Communities

Building Capacity for Productive Indigenous Community-University Partnerships

Trauma and Conditional Risk of PTSD in Two American Indian Reservation Communities

For more on Terese Marie Mailhot's Heart Berries:

And finally, here's the artwork that Annie shared near the end of the interview. The image was created by Annie's daughter to honor Annie's sister.

Katie Belcourt MMIW Artwork

Interview Transcript

CINNAMON CRAWFORD: She’s a very positive person and she always sees the light at the end of the tunnel and she makes you want to see that. And if you don’t, she’ll light it for you. 

D’SHANE BARNETT: She is fiercely protective of the students that she works with. I feel like I have a mama bear who’s always there to protect me as I’m trying to make it through this experience. 

ROGER LAPLANT: She helps you innately believe that there’s something beyond if you just keep going forward. And so, I definitely give her a lot of credit as a mentor in helping me achieve and see the vision for that. 

D’SHANE BARNETT: When I graduate, a member of my tribe is going to be putting, you know, the Ph.D. hood on me. And, a woman – native woman – you know, that’s just such a powerful message to send. 

ASHBY KINCH: This is Confluence where great ideas flow together, a podcast of the Graduate School of the University of Montana. On Confluence, we travel down the tributaries of wisdom and beauty that enrich the soil of knowledge on our beautiful mountain campus. 

You just heard the voices of Cinnamon Crawford, D’Shane Barnett, and Roger Laplant, graduate students in UM’s program in Public and Community Health, talking about our guest on this week’s episode, Dr. Annie Belcourt (Otter Woman). 

I'm your host, Ashby Kinch, Associate Dean of the Graduate School. Every episode, we ask our guests to read a poem or a short passage from literature about rivers. Annie has chosen a powerful piece of writing from an emerging Salish writer from British Columbia, Terese Marie Mailhot, excerpted from her memoir Heart Berries. It’s a difficult and heartrending and beautiful piece of writing – all at the same time. And, for this episode, the passage she has selected launches our conversation with Dr. Belcourt, who was raised on the Blackfeet Reservation as an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa, Blackfeet, and Chippewa descent. Dr. Belcourt’s research and clinical priorities include mental health disparities, posttraumatic stress reactions, risk, resiliency, and psychiatric disorder. Her research in environmental public health focuses on the context of American Indian communities with an emphasis on cultural trauma. We’ll hear Annie’s voice as she reads from the Mailhot passage, which will lead straight into our conversation about her educational journey, the importance of building resilience in Native communities, and the unique research ethics that ground indigenous research communities. Welcome to Confluence, where the river is always with us and the currents of conversation are endless. 

ANNIE BELCOURT: In my first writing classes, my professor told me that the human condition was misery. I'm a river widened by misery, and the potency of my language is more than human. It's an Indian condition to be proud of survival, but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people. The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless. We sometimes outrun ourselves. 

KINCH: Thank you for joining us, Annie. 

BELCOURT: Thank you. 

KINCH: So good to have you. And thank you for sharing this passage with me. This was a new book to me. I had never read Heart Berries and it's a really powerful work and, and, and hard to read and, and the kind of hard that's a good hard, you know, exposes you to the struggles of this Native woman who's got a very complex, layered set of issues that she's trying to grapple with. Her identity, her sexual identity, her relationship to men. And kind of all in the context of this abusive father. And, and so it's this complex story, and it's a story we hear out of Indigenous writing a lot. Sort of struggles conflicts between, you know, the push to assimilate in some cases and the push to find a route again and reground one, one’s self and identity. So, tell us a little bit about why you chose the passage and, and what her writing does for you. 

BELCOURT: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for, for having the show and, and a discussion around indigeneity in many ways. I think what is important to me about, about her writings and about the passage is a lot of our sort of Native pathways and stories have, have gone, overlooked over time. And I think we're in a space and a time where we're, we're quiet. And we’re quiet because of the pandemic in part, but we're also listening to each other in different ways. And I think it's really important that Native women start to reclaim their voices and, and that's a complex journey for everybody, but I think it's an important way that we find meaning within our experiences. And when we find that meaning within our experiences, you know, there's a number of things that open up as possibilities. And so, part of that could be healing for some people. Part of that could be, you know, helping others, part of that could be teaching and sharing. But the important thing is that people are, are claiming that sort of bravery and ability to be courageous about their story and telling their, their truths in important ways. 

KINCH: That's, that's wonderful. And that's a great way to, I think, account for one of the things literature might accomplish, right? For, for a community and for a group of people including, of course, White communities that can – through the literature listen a little better and more closely. So, you know, I think that's another gift, in a, in a, again, a hard story, like Heart Berries. And I know that just it's part of your interest in general. You know, you've mentioned being influenced by Native writing, including N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. And, and you mentioned Tommy Orange’s There There. Can you talk a little bit about that kind of role that literary texts play in galvanizing and I guess galvanizing may be not the right word, but, but hearing voices from the Native community? 

BELCOURT: Yeah. And definitely. So, I grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, which, you know, was, you know, a powerful of course, experience formatively. And I had a very strong family that shared a lot of stories. And we were, you know, sat around literally, you know, like campfire and sang songs and told stories. And that was really how we learned. And we learned our culture and we learned parts of our language through that process. When I came to the University of Montana, you know, it was one of the first times I'd been taught that formally through literature and through, you know, the Native American history that, ironically, I didn't actually hear much about in high school, growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation. And so, you know, coming here, it really was helpful in thinking about, you know, how my story, my experiences tied with literature in ways that would help me make sense of not only my own history and experiences throughout my educational journey, but you know, also about how that journey could be shared with others in ways that could be meaningful. And, and that tied into my eventual research and scholarship work. And, and, you know, in very clear ways in terms of my interest in narrative, my work as a psychotherapist in the past, and how, you know, really we're taught, you know, to work with people, to meet them where they're at and to tell their stories and to find ways to retell their stories in some cases in ways where, you know, they're the hero or heroine of their own story. And, and that, that to me is an important thing.  

KINCH: That's great. And yeah, as a literary scholar, I kind of think about that. How important a literature classroom can be for, you know, any student taking and reading a literary text to kind of hear a different version of a story where they can, they can project themselves into it and take something back out that like you'd put it, they can retell a different version of what is going on, you know, in their own life and connect to a larger narrative. That's, that's kind of part of your story as well, isn't it? Is – it's sort of connecting to this from this powerful route and the Blackfeet community, but connecting to a bigger narrative of indigeneity and, and Native community, but also a community here at Montana, which has been a really important part of your story. So, tell us a little bit about your University of Montana story. How'd you, how'd you get here and, and what's that journey been like? 

BELCOURT: Definitely. So, I in some ways, I came here by accident to a degree. I, so I graduated from high school at Blackfeet and Browning High School in 1992. And when I graduated, I was actually selected to be a Horatio Alger Scholar for the state of Montana. And I didn't really know what that meant, but I knew that I had some resources. I could kind of choose where I wanted to go to school. What I didn't know is that you have to apply for housing and, you know, financial aid and these different things that are required. So, it ended up being that my mom decided to go back to school. And so, she literally, you know, packed up our entire household and I have seven siblings and all came and moved to Missoula and it was such a, it was kind of crazy in hindsight, but, but it was wonderful because I had that support network and, you know, life was completely different here in Missoula. I mean, this was literally the city and where I grew up, our closest neighbor was a mile away. We grew up, you know, six miles outside of Glacier National Park. There were bears and everything walking around and that was normal for me. And coming here learning how to drive in a roundabout still is kind of a challenge to me. 

KINCH: You’re not alone on that one. 

BELCOURT: Yeah, totally. But I, you know, I took some classes and I took Native American studies classes. I took literature classes and I took psychology courses and that's ultimately where I discovered that I really had a curiosity about the human condition and the human mind and how we shape our behaviors and our thoughts and our feelings, you know, through our everyday actions. And, and that, that was fascinating to me and, and to learn more about that and, and all of those areas kind of intertwined within, you know, my scholarship. And that's sort of where, you know, I came to from that. But I finished my undergraduate degree in 1996. And then took a couple of years off to have my daughter, my oldest daughter, and then came back to graduate school in 1999 when my second daughter was five months old. 

KINCH: Wow.  

BELCOURT: And then I finished my doctorate in clinical psychology in 2006 I believe it was after I did, you have to do a year of pre-doctoral internship and I did that at the Denver VA Hospital working with combat veterans at the time.  

KINCH: Yeah. And I think that's such an interesting part of your story. Because now you're a public and community health professor, but you did this training in clinical work. And so, you worked with this sort of broad collection of populations in your clinical work. What, what was that like? How did that inform your work and then, and then what led to the decision to pivot and focus on public and community health and take your skills kind of in this other direction? 

BELCOURT: You know, it's, it, I mean, like everybody, it's a journey you don't predict, right? I mean, I, growing up had never met a psychologist, so I really didn't know what that meant or anything like that. But I did know that I was curious, and I like to learn. I like to read, I like to like, you know, try to solve puzzles and figure things out. When I became a therapist after, you know, many years of training and things. But I worked in a number of different capacities actually through grad school too. I worked at the Curry Health Center at their counseling center, at Partnership Health Center, at the VA in Denver. I, you know, I've worked, you know, a lot clinically with a lot of different folks. And one of the things that struck me was that, you know, no matter how different people seem to be from the outside, you know, on the inside we're all human beings with very similar struggles. People make choices and decisions differently, and sometimes it's very shaped by our environment. And you know, the, a lot of what I teach is about social determinants of health and how that shapes in profound ways, you know, our health outcomes and things that we're seeing now. But really a lot of it was about narrative and, and the stories that we understand for ourselves and how powerfully that influences our lives in different ways. And so, you know, the more I learned about that, the more I became curious about that and I did – my master's thesis looked at learned hopelessness within American Indian communities and thinking about depression and, and, and, you know, you know, I talk about this and, you know, fairly openly, but my first year of graduate school, right after that, my sister was murdered. And she was murdered in gun violence in Billings and by another Native person. When that happened, of course, you know, everything in our lives was turned, you know, completely upside down completely. And we were very devastated, and it really caused me to reassess, you know, not only my experience as a human being and, you know, had a lot of different struggles in that way in terms of making meaning and making sense of it. And that, that there is, you know, essentially, I was brought up thinking there was a lot of optimism and hope and at the end of the day, we're all good people and we're just kind of lost at times. And I still largely believe that, but I also believe that there are times and places that people choose to become their worst sort of nightmares. And that's what we encountered really because my sister was killed for no reason. And... 

KINCH: So, whole kind of whole default switch takes place where now all of a sudden the world looks dark and bleak and you see the worst motivations in humans rather than their best. 

BELCOURT: Yeah, and, and it happened, it just so happened to correspond with 9/11. So, this had happened in January – my sister was killed. And in September we had the experience of 9/11 and, and so, you know, grappling with that level of loss, you know, was very strange because in some ways it was sort of amplified at a national level too because everybody was grappling with the existence of evil. And how do we make sense of that within our lives? And how do we sort of function in the face of that in a way that we can raise our children and have hope, you know, for them to have hopeful lives and happiness.  

KINCH: You and I have talked about this before, but I actually haven't heard that wrinkle. That's an interesting problem where the collective part of it let you see that you can kind of share some of that experience with people, but the flip side is you might lose sight of the personal grief, right? The part of it that's unique and, you know, part of, you know, marks your experience in this specific way. 

BELCOURT: And, you know, but, but, but the thing, a quote from John Green, you know, he does young adult literature is the thing about pain is that it demands to be felt. And, and that was something I lived with every day, you know, every day. I mean, people talk about it with grief and like, you know, really sudden grief, like it was a physically experienced. So, you would wake up and it would just be a crushing reality every day. And so, you know, coping with that and that, that sort of magnitude, cause we had to go to trials, we had to, you know, do you know, we had to really face some very, very dark things as a family. And my father was in the military and he in and of himself was a force of nature, I think. So, he and I were kind of I don't want to overuse this term because I think it's, I have a lot of respect for veterans, of course, but we were kind of war buddies in that way because we would go to these trials and we would face the people who killed my sister. And that experience changes you. And, and it changed my work within, my psychotherapy work. I had to work really hard to just, to just kind of put my things aside and be a hundred percent present with the people that I worked with. And that was totally something I could do. And it was, I felt like I could offer a lot to people who are healing from really significant and sometimes just regular worries. But I had a lot of compassion and empathy for people. And I also knew that I had to share that with myself at some level because of how painful the whole thing was. And I will say it changed profoundly my research and, and the strategies I took to helping people in communities. And so… 

KINCH: Yeah, say more about that because I think that's a really rich aspect of this, this, and I think, you know, this, this podcast, we really like to tell these journeys because I think students at the front end of their journey think everything's linear and, of course, it's not. I mean, most research professors have taken turns and courses that were not predictable from the outset. So, I want to hear you kind of take that next step and talk about that. How that informed, but also, I think, you know, talk more about how your family is continuing to tell that story and work through that story. 

BELCOURT: Definitely. So, there's a couple of things for that. I mean, you know, with the work that I did, I started to focus more on post-traumatic stress and how we recover following trauma exposure. So, sort of from an intellectual capacity, that felt easier than thinking about the emotional pieces sometimes. So it was, you know, I of course knew all the symptoms and I knew what happened when people experienced these things and, and that, that sort of insight went into the work that I did. And, and the work that I did with clients as well, you know, working with veterans, you know, how similar stories are. I was in a group one time with military veterans. And this was a PTSD inpatient treatment program. And they were telling some story in this group was happening and they were talking about different realities. There's like a pre-trauma and a post-trauma. And the goal for combat veterans is to find that kind of like, you know, a third story within that, you know, something that combines those two. And the person who was leading the group, didn't realize my background and had been working with a lot of graduate students who maybe, you know, hadn't experienced something like I had. And he kind of referred to me in a way as well, you know, this person never experienced any kind of trauma, you know, and this is the person that we have to kind of interact with in the world as veterans. And I interrupted him and said there are more than one way to, you know, struggle with post-traumatic reactions and, and, and, and essentially to get PTSD. And he stopped talking and the room stopped talking because you know, veterans also are very compassionate as a group, you know, and have a lot of empathy. And, and in that moment, I think they realized, you know, you know, there are a lot of women out there who have untold stories – and men – about the assaults that they've experienced or sexual assault being one many, many different ways that we struggle as people. So, so my work has really sought to have that compassion lead my work. And, and have an understanding of how this is a human reaction to extraordinary events, and also to provide people with the hope that we know from science how to help people heal from that and that can be healed.  

KINCH: You have this great sentence: resilience requires both active compassion and science. That really jumped out at me because that's, those are two things that we sort of think of as being, you know, not opposed necessarily, but kind of different skillsets. But your work is trying to say, we got, we've got to bring them together. In other words, we have to have the scientific grounding, but we have to have active compassion, rightThat we have to go out of our way to exercise it as a skill. I think that's such a powerful message in your work.  

BELCOURT: And I think that that's, a lot of what the therapy and all of our empirical evidence kind of points to as well. I have a colleague who does cognitive processing therapy sounds really dry, right? But the heart of it is, her name is Debra Caisson, and the heart of it is, is helping people tell their stories. And, and helping them to have compassion for themselves. And to think about, again, kind of finding that third explanation for things. So rather than internalizing every event as to being my fault. And you know, this is a, this is a sign that I'm cursed or that I'm a bad person. This happened to me because, you know, challenging some of those automatic thoughts and getting people to a place where they're feeling true compassion for themselves and being able to see themselves as survivors truly as opposed to victims or like objects, which is, you know, what a lot of these different dynamics sort of are built around is, is, you know, hurt people hurting other people and keeping people in a place of control as a result. And so, my work is trying to illuminate some of those things have native people be at the forefront of that storytelling, have the ability through action to be able to change their story and their lives. And, you know, it's followed through these many years. I mean, so my, I mentioned what had happened with my sister and the thing I think that kept me, you know, truly alive is the fact that I did have children, I think. I think that if I had not had my children, I would have gone a different pathway. But my children kept me grounded and they helped me demand that I continue to work and to hope and to build something for them. Now I didn't do that perfectly all the time by any means, but I think I did really try to show them that anything was possible, you know, and you know, I'm really proud of the work that we've been doing. We're actually working on a documentary film. My daughter is a filmmaker, Maya. And, she has done a lot of writing as well. And, and she is confronting some of this story and trying to discover why, why are there are things that, you know, our family has struggled with over time. And some of that is, you know, one of the kind of categories of symptoms is avoidance for, you know, post-trauma people work really hard to avoid emotional reminders of, of events and, and you know, her story that she's working on within, we're working on a manuscript for a book, as well as this documentary is, is we're trying to tell each other that story in a way that we're able to also take care of each other. And so, it requires a lot of bravery and a lot of, you know, intentional action in that way. 

KINCH: Yeah, but it, and it, it, this is one of the things I've learned, you know, from my Native colleagues here on campus, through interactions with, with the Indigenous research methods, which I want to come back and talk a little bit about, and then Indigenous research mentoring projects, which are ongoing sort of shifting our models of how we mentor graduate students in particular attentive to distinct aspects of, of Native experience. And one of the things I've learned is about multi-generational trauma, how, you know, on the very large-scale Native communities very actively feel events that are, that go back four or five generations that, that feel present in a very immediate way for those communities and, and your family is kind of intervening in that multi-generational trauma in its own way, right? That it's saying, you know, that your daughter and you and your parents are collaborating to shift that story and to allow yourselves to heal through the process, which I think is it's a very profound and powerful model for some of the work that still needs to be done. You know, in other words, that's your family, but it still needs to be done at a collective level.  

BELCOURT: Oh yeah, entirely. I think, you know, for our family, we've, we've worked in different ways. I think one thing was that, you know, my kind of, I guess there's an academic legacy that we have within our family. Like, my father was, you know, his, his great grandmother and his mother were all, you know, very much subjected to the boarding school experience. And so, you know, they weren't allowed to teach us the language. Not, not, not from some external force at that point, but from the internalized historical racism and, and trauma that they had experienced, they felt very, truly that by teaching us a language and culture that it could harm us and they loved us a lot, so they didn't want us to be harmed in that way. And that's what they were taught, right? The whole kill the Indian save the child doctrine of the federal policy has had a profound effect on parenting within American Indian communities. My dad went to Berkeley after finishing high school. He went to Santa Clara, then Berkeley and finished his master’s in public health. And, and he, I think there were two people in his family of nine children who graduated from high school. And, and so, you know, me coming here, it was just an expectation that I would do something academically, I guess. And he just sort of indoctrinated, you know, hard work within me. You know, I, my sister and I both started working at like 14 or something, cleaning rooms in Glacier Park, and we've been working ever since then. But, you know, the, the point being is that, you know, it's, it's, it takes a lot of perseverance to get through this academic journey. And I think in, in graduate school, I think, you know, so many of our students, especially right now are struggling and, you know, the more that we can do to, to help, to be there, to support them and to acknowledge what they're experiencing as a real thing, and to find ways to help kind of strengthen the resiliency that they have and the strengths that they have within them. You know, same with our, you know, like clients may where we may work with in a therapy realm, same kind of aspects. Of course, it's not therapy, but it's, it's skill development. 

KINCH: Skill development and growth. 

BELCOURT: And growth, yeah.  

KINCH: The part of therapy that applies is the, is the cultivating of growth, right? That it's, and that's a great segue, kind of one of the things we really, you know, graduate school podcasts, we like to talk about is your theory of graduate mentoring. And, and I'm sure you're aware of, of this, you know, movement on campus and across the country about sort of new mentoring practices. What's your mentoring theory, especially, you know, what, what are you looking for in graduate students and what are you looking for them – what are you looking to see over the course of their development and pursuing their degrees? And, and also talk a little bit about your particular program, which has a kind of, you know, it has an applied practical professional side and then it has a kind of research component. 

BELCOURT: Yeah, definitely. So, what I'm looking for is for people who are curious and who like to learn and who like to, you know, sort of put themselves out in a brave way to talk about things that are sometimes difficult and that there aren't clear answers to. The field of public health is an emerging field. And I think we're all much more appreciative of how complex it is and how much it requires people to kind of roll their sleeves up and, and, you know, do what needs to be done. I was, you know, one of our students, who's, you know, our alumni, like I think I had just talked about, you know, she was trained in public health and she's like carrying vials of the vaccine.  

KINCH: Yeah, yeah. 

BELCOURT: And wasn't expecting that a year ago. You know, none of us were expecting this a year ago for sure.  

KINCH: But boy, I mean, has an event told us more importantly why this discipline needs to exist, right? That this is the bridge between science and human community that public health stakes its whole identity on.  

BELCOURT: Right. Exactly. And, and the mentorship I think that can be done is to, you know, I think be generous with our own knowledge, our own experiences, and also, you know, find ways to just be active listeners where we're able to kind of draw out, you know, people's passion. And that could be, you know, similar to our areas of, you know, work or it could be very different. You know, I've worked with, you know, students from many different disciplines, both at the undergraduate and graduate level and, and, you know, and I think it's just, it's, it's so inspiring to see, you know, once you give people skill sets, what they can do with that, you know, and one of my classes, we, we do digital storytelling. And so, I've had students – Roger, who created a digital story about historical trauma and shared that pretty widely and, you know, talked about his experiences and, and he went on to complete a master's degree and is working in the field and he talks pretty openly about some of the struggles he had in terms of mental health. And I think that's part of it – and part of it is also, I think a more global kind of issue is normalizing mental health struggles and, you know, acknowledging that we all, at some point in time have some experience with struggling, you know, and in that department, and that could be, you know, feeling down one day or that could be, you know, something, you know, more significant and, and, you know, I'm fortunate in that a lot of my friends are therapist. So, if I have trouble, I can go to them and be like what do you think? And then, you know, we can kind of work through things in that way. And, and I think, you know, many of our students have the same skills. You know, a lot of people are natural helpers and I'm reminded, you know, of, you know Mr. Rogers and his quote about, you know, when things go wrong, look for the people who are helping. And, and I think that that's one of the things I look for in students as well is people who, you know, truly want to make a difference in some way. And I don't restrict that to like, you know, concrete things, you know, like, you know, you know, we have a lot of great students who are going to do great things and, you know, maybe it's a discreet kind of like they're an eye doctor or they're, you know, this kind of thing that's much more, you know. But there's, there's a lot of art within doing something well, and there's a lot of meaning that can be, you know, taken from that in terms of having a meaningful life. So... 

KINCH: Yeah, I think, I think one of the big takeaways, I mean, it's funny when you, when you say these things out loud, sometimes you catch yourself saying, Oh, well that's true for everyone. But there is a special resonance for family and Native American communities. I love my family, right? And we're very close to them, but it is true that there is a kind of unique importance and, and depth to that relationship. And you've just spoken to the question, right? Your mom relocated to Missoula and did a degree with you. I mean, that's a really powerful, you know, she, she made herself a powerful symbol to you and your family about how to keep the family together. And you've said, it's so sweet. You've said your heroes are your daughters, which I, it's just such a powerful thing. And, I want you to talk a little bit more about that, but I want to add one little detail about this as well. It's been interesting to me, you've, in your CV, you list your children. And I so much wish more academics did that. I think it's such an important thing to humanize who we are to not act like our CV is just, you know, that somehow tells the full story, right? So just that one thing tells people how much you value importance and family, right? So, shout out to my children, Griffin and Shelby, which I've never put them on my syllabus. I mean, on my CV and I, I should, right? So, I want you to talk a little bit more about why, you know, you've spoken to us a little bit already about how your daughters inspire you, but, but I sort of feel a, kind of a rich connection between that personal experience and this broader notion of how we need to nurture community among our graduate students. 

BELCOURT: So, for me, I didn't ever think I was going to be a parent. I grew up in definitely in the deep end of like, you know, a reservation community, you know, we, we lived a pretty risky lifestyle, made some decisions. I, you know, I don't regret, but I that were dangerous, you know? And so, I came from a place that, you know, I literally was one of a couple people in my graduating class that did not have children and I didn't ever think I wanted children because I just, you know, didn't have a lot of hope at the time that things could get better. And, and that sounds bleak, but I mean… 

KINCH: Real talk. 

BELCOURT: I just, it was, it was very real at the time. And, you know, so when I had my children, you know, my husband at the time was from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and God bless him and Green Bay. But he hadn't experienced a lot of the same things. His experiences were very different. And, and so when I had my daughter, my oldest daughter, I remember saying to him, you know, Oh my God, we're so lucky. Like, this is like amazing. And, he was sort of like, Oh no, we've done everything right. This is fine. This is what happens when you do everything right. And, and I knew that that's not the case, you know, that, that, that this was something that was sacred to me was my children. And, and, and that was reinforced by my father as well. And my mother that, you know, I took it very seriously and, and they brought a lot of joy into my life. And so, you know, to me, that was just such a, you know, a gift. And, and I mentioned the loss of my sister, you know, my eldest daughter and, you know, and, and so Maya, her name is Maya and Chloe. You know, Maya's first memory is standing by her grave while my aunt was being buried or my sister was being buried and that's her first memory. You know, she was like two or so. And, and so they've never been able to live a life that was free from the impact of trauma, because from that time on, you know, they had to deal with, you know, the impact of that. Not only upon themselves, but on their parents and on their extended family. So that, it, it really required a lot of bravery on their part to remain hopeful and optimistic and, you know, fast forward, you know, many years, and Chloe's a visual artist and she's a poet and Maya is, you know, a filmmaker. And when we, she went to college she had a lot of opportunities, because she really worked hard. You know, Katie is 11, so, but she's again, she's surviving a pandemic and you know, she's creating visual art. She – I'll, I'll ask if I can share with you an image of a Native woman for MMIW in honor of her aunt, you know? And so, you know, that, I mean, to me, the fact that I helped to contribute in any way to these three people and the fact that they have artistic vision that's informed by compassion, empathy, and love at the end of the day. I feel like I've succeeded in something, you know? And, and, and that, I think, you know, I, you know, I have, I've publications, I've brought money into the campus and other campuses have been funded from extramural sources for the past 20 some years. But, you know, they are in a singular way the thing I'm most proud of, and the fact that they are curious, engaged citizens who care about other people is pretty cool.  

KINCH: Oh, that's beautiful. Yeah. That's beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. So, you've, you've mentioned repeatedly, you know, this legacy that you have with a, with a father who did a master's in public health and a mother who kind of attended college at the same time as you did. It's a really interesting wrinkle that you've shared a publication with them. And it's in an area that's of great interest to me in a lot of people on campus, which is this evolving question of Indigenous research practices and the ethics that go along with that. So, can you talk a little bit about why this new paradigm, which has emerged is very strong, new kind of way of thinking about doing research, what it means to you and how it's important to these broader communities? 

BELCOURT: So, I think, you know, my dad was one to talk very directly to people. And so, you know, a phrase, I think that's borrowed from actually the disability advocacy community I think is we want to be at the table and not on the menu. And it's sort of, and also he had other things too. One of them was, you know, don't fall for crocodile tears in terms of when, you know, people are feeding you a line where they're saying one thing and doing another. So, it feeds back to, you know, our experiences, you know, as Native people and, and, you know, I think we're all at a place where we want to see research and work be of more direct service to communities that are suffering. And here in Montana, there's no clearer example of that then the way that American Indian history has unfolded in terms of our health. And research unfortunately has sometimes been quite predatory upon that. We've had research that people have come in, collected data, you know, did unethical things, you know, very recently, and, and not only here in Montana, but throughout the country… 

KINCH: And throughout the world. 

BELCOURT: Throughout the world. 

KINCH: This is a problem, you know, that is an Indigenous problem, truly global. 

BELCOURT: Completely. And, and, you know, and, and that sort of, we call it helicopter research or predatory forms of research is something that requires people to really be informed about, but also to advocate to change. And so, my parents were very engaged in this area of, of sort of ethics and promotion of ethical practices and they helped to develop one of the first research review boards, tribal review boards here in Montana. And I used to be a reviewer for that. And I still am a reviewer for the Blackfeet Nation IRB. And one of the things that we think about is that we define research differently, in human subjects, research differently. And that is inclusive of things that include our cultural history, as well as our sort of biological samples and different things. So, so the publication that's in the American Journal of Public Health talks a little bit about the history of that development and about, you know, Native people demanding to be heard and respected as human beings and communities that have value and that have the ability to regulate research, but also other factors that have happened within our community boundaries. So, so that publication is one that we talked about a lot and, and, and that we worked on and, and trying to promote more ethical and more social justice with the research really. And I think that that's, that's the narrative that my father lived by. He passed away in 2013. And, you know, that kind of ended, you know, ultimately like my involvement with that tribal review board. But, you know, I still continue on this work and I still write about it and present about it. And, you know, I'm very engaged in thinking about ways that science can actually truly be accessible to American Indian communities. And I think that that's very truly a social justice issue. And we see that right now with the vaccine and, and having access, you know, you know, the last stat I saw was that we are, as Native people, 11 times more likely to die from, you know, COVID-19, and, and that's unacceptable to me. And it's because of the co-morbidity that we experience, not only from physical health conditions that are chronic and are chronically fed by poverty and inequality, but also, you know, the mental health aspects of, you know, depression and, and things like diabetes being so co-morbid. And we have to really advocate for that to change. 

KINCH: Yeah. Yeah, that's, that's beautiful and very well put. And I think the urgency of that in a crisis, which, which is obviously, we're in right now, right? That we need immediate action from our political and legal systems to, to get the vaccines in place and get them to Native communities is pressing. And then this broader, I, I've just this conversation across campus and I've, I've heard it from researchers in anthropology when we know that we've gotten somewhere, it's when White researchers are integrating that into their own work. And I think that's where we need to see the change. And I, and I think Kelly Dixon, we had a talk here on Confluence with her about the vital importance of having Native partners and reminding ourselves the research is better. In other words, not, not this isn't, this isn't. In other words, it needs to be practical applied and have benefit to the people who are the subjects of their research. But it also is better research if it asks a different set of questions, it – what emerges is a much broader, richer context of knowledge. And I think that's a message I think, you know, that especially on our platform the graduate school platform. We really want to stress that, that this isn't, you know, this is good across the board and it's better for communities. It's better for research. It's better for the advancement of knowledge. So, thank you for kind of bringing that to the table for us to discuss.  

BELCOURT: Yeah, definitely. I think it's just a matter of, you know, even for our reviews, they're more rigorous. And, and, you know, you look at traditional ecological knowledge, that's informed pharmaceutical sciences and all these different ways, very applied ways, you know? 

KINCH: Right.  

BELCOURT: We know that these things are helping. You know, to cure disease states, you know? Yeah. And they come from Indigenous knowledge. So, yeah.  

KINCH: And so, we need, we need, you know, on the one hand we need more White researchers to bring this into their work. And then what we also need, of course, is more Native professors and we need, we need more Native researchers. And so, we need to promote that pathway, that avenue for Native students to not just get that undergraduate degree, but keep going to get that graduate degree and become a researcher like you. And, and, and have that platform from which to, to, you know, amplify this message.  

BELCOURT: Yeah. I completely agree. I mean that, if anything is my take home message for graduate education is we need more. And we need to support each other more. And we need to think about how we can build a home that's safe for people here on campus that helps them feel that they can, you know, dream big and reach those dreams. If I can do it, you know, a kid from Star School. I mean, anybody conceivably could do the same thing. And I think that that's a hopeful message. 

KINCH: So, we end every episode with quick hitters. These are either-or sometimes there's a, a three-choice number in there. Morning or night person? 

BELCOURT: Night, solidly. But I have come around to mornings through this pandemic experience. I enjoy coffee now, so… 

KINCH: What's your favorite Montana river? 

BELCOURT: So, it has to be Cut Bank Creek for me. Or Cut Bank Crick, depending on where you're from. And so, I grew up, you know, the river ran through our land where I grew up in where we are land holders outside of the park. And so, you know, that's where we spent our summers.  

KINCH: Yeah. And I know this one's a no brainer, but we ask everyone. Yellowstone or Glacier? 

BELCOURT: It has to be Glacier for me.  

KINCH: And not just Glacier, but a very specific part of Glacier, right? 

BELCOURT: Yeah, the Cut Bank entrance because that's, that's literally where I grew up in, you know, it's just, it's, it's home for me in a very, very deep, spiritual way. I mean, you know, and I mean, I hadn't been to Yellowstone until I was 21, which is kind of wild being from Montana, but I mean, it's beautiful and you see a lot of wildlife and things. 

KINCH: No shade on Yellowstone. 

BELCOURT: Yeah, no shade. No shade. Yeah. But, but the east side specifically of Glacier is where I am.  

KINCH: Yeah. It's your homeland.  


KINCH: Yeah. Do you have a favorite range around here? BitterrootsMissions?  

BELCOURT: Probably Missions, you know, because, I, it reminds me of going home for one thing, you know, kind of driving over that hill by, you know, the bison range. Every time I, you know, I'm just struck by how beautiful it is and how, you know, the courage within American Indian people, right? Like, you know, such a, you know, you watch Naked and Afraid or something and you’re like wow, that's really rough, you know. But that's, you know, like where we come from and, you know, and it's just a beautiful place.  

KINCH: And it's a backbone. It just has that strong visual image of strength.  

BELCOURT: It’s very visceral, yeah, in that way. 

KINCH: Winter or summer? 

BELCOURT: Summer, summer. So, we have like in our native – some of our native stories is, you know, winter's really a time to endure and, you know, we have something called winter count and, you know, it's where you count how many people or what have you of our relations have survived, not only human, but non-human. And, you know, summer's a time of celebration and, you know, hopefully it will be this summer again. 

KINCH: Yeah, no joke. Yeah. Sunrise or sunset? 

BELCOURT: I never get to see sunrise because I'm not a morning person, but I – so sunset for sure. But you know, it, if you're from Montana, either, either side of it, you're going to be in a good place.  

KINCH: Well, thank you so much for joining us on Confluence, Annie.  

BELCOURT: Oh, you're welcome. This has been a joy. I really appreciate it. 

KINCH: If you like what you’ve heard in this episode, you’ve got a great production team to thank: Jordan Unger, graduate student in UMs environmental journalism program, and Charles Bolte, a recent graduate of that same program. You can hear their audio profiles of graduate students on SoundCloud or the Confluence website at Click on the Telling Our Story tab for podcast episodes and videos that highlight the amazing work our graduate student do. Enjoy the float!