Darryl Tonemah: Health, Hope, and Inspiration For His People

"I was picked on because I wasn't Lakota. I wasn't Sioux. I was different tribes. So, it wasn't that I was non-native, it was that I was native, but I was of a different tribe." 

Darryl Tonemah joined us for our latest episode here at What's Your Why, and we couldnt be more excited! Tonemah, a full-blooded Native American (Kiowa/Comanche/Tuscarora), who grew up on and off reservations throughout the country, is an author, singer, songwriter, and actor, on top of his "day job" as Dr. Tonemah, PhD. "I have had the blessing of seeing and experiencing a lot of things during my travels – some great, some heartbreaking, some funny. They all inspire song ideas, lines, chord progressions, and drum patterns scribbled on pieces of paper that I had in my pocket. They usually all manage to end up in the back seat of my car. When I can't fit anything else back there, I figure it's time to record another album." A singer/songwriter in the purest sense, Tonemah's performances combine the energy of rock, the intelligence of folk and the heart of country, to create a musical niche he calls, "Native Americana." As an author, Tonemah has written a book on Health and Wellness, and a screenplay that has garnered the interest of a nationally-renowned studio. As if musician, actor, and author are not enough, Dr. Darryl Tonemah also has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and Cultural Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a masters degree in Community Counseling, and three bachelor degrees in Psychology, Sociology and Gerontology. He currently travels to indigenous communities around the world teaching behavioral methods of change, and health and wellness. Dr. Tonemah also sits on numerous state and national boards addressing disparities in education, and health care among the Native Community; as well as the Board of Directors of the American Diabetes Association. Whether reaching out to Native communities through his many workshops & speaking engagements, or pouring it all out on stage, in front of the camera, in the recording studio, or putting pen to paper, Tonemah's personality always shines through as a man with a creative spirit, a compassionate heart, and a passion for life and his many pursuits. Despite all of these successes, Tonemah retains a deep connection with his roots and a gift for intimate storytelling that has become his trademark. At times the trickster, at times the son, at times the father, at times the seeker, Tonemah is always the consummate storyteller, a storyteller who offers meaning where the listener needs to find it. Thank you for your precious time, Darryl!

Darryl Tonemah (00:00):

Then we moved off the res. From 48, we moved to Aberdeen, which was another cultural identity shift, because honestly, what I've learned about non-natives, particularly the white people, was what I saw on TV, was the Brady bunch method. I thought there was never a lull in conversations with white people. I thought they were all funny, because that's similar to them knowing only the tragic native that they got on TV, or the stoic native. So, we were both being fed from different wells that maybe weren't the most accurate of wells. Moving off, I remember being in the lunchroom and not really sitting with anybody, but sitting close to people, and they had lulls in their conversation and they weren't funny.

Emy DiGrappa (00:51):

Hello. My name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why? Today, we are talking to Daryl Tonemah. He is an American Indian counseling psychologist of Kiowa, Comanche, and Tuscarora heritage. He was born on a Tuska Rossa reservation in New York. I want to just say welcome, Darryl.

Darryl Tonemah (01:43):

Thank you for having me. It's an honor to be here.

Emy DiGrappa (01:46):

Well, I want you to go back through for me and just tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up on a reservation, first of all. Your Indian heritage is quite extensive, being from three different tribes, which is interesting. What was your journey into discovering, why psychology? Why sociology? What was your passion there?

Darryl Tonemah (02:09):

Oh, man. You just teed that up. I'm going to talk for like an hour now. Born here in Western New York, Tuscarora is here. Lived here til I was about, I don't know, seven or eight. At that age, at any community, that's just your world and you don't know really anything about it, that you wake up and you go to school and these are your friends and this is the house you pass on the way through your school, and that's just life. Then we moved to Oklahoma for a couple of years. My father was, the back in the late sixties, they were training native folks how to run Indian clinics and Indian hospitals, and he was selected to be part of the first cohort of that. So, went to Oklahoma for his training, and then he wanted to go, he and my mother, who was a nurse, wanted to go where they could be of most use for Indian people.

                 So, we ended up going to Standing Rock, the Standard Rock res in North Dakota. I lived in 48s. I think maybe that's part where I had a cultural identity development in an interesting way. I was picked on because I wasn't Lakota. I wasn't Sioux. I was different tribes. So, it wasn't that I was non-native, it was that I was native, but I was of a different tribe. I was picked on a lot then, but slowly integrated into the school and the group of friends and things, wherever you are, how that process goes. But just that I learned the worldview, I learned more Lakota language than other languages, my mother tribal language, because I was just there more, and I learned more about that culture because that's where I was being raised, and sleighing and kind of thought, "Well, this is fitting within that group," and having that skin on me, I thought, "Well, this makes sense to me. This cultural identity makes sense to me." I'm didn't think about that at the time. I kind of processed that as an adult.

                 Then we moved off the res from 48 to we moved to Aberdeen, which was another cultural identity shift, because I had learned... honestly, what I've learned about non-natives, particularly the white people, was what I saw on TV, was the Brady Bunch. I thought there was never a lull in conversations with white people. I thought they were all funny, because that's similar to them knowing only the tragic native that they got on TV, or the stoic native. So, we were both being fed from different wells that maybe weren't the most accurate of wells. Moving off, I remember being in the lunchroom and not really sitting with anybody, but sitting close to people, and they had lulls in their conversation and they weren't funny. I thought, "This kind of changes everything for me. Was the Brady Bunch wrong?"

                 Then part of your identity development is where's the sweet spot between these things, and what I came to understand over time was it wasn't or, it wasn't this or this, it was this and this. I learned, I think it's Darryl [Wing Sioux's 00:05:45] work, the code shifting that I could... when I go back to the res, here's how we talk like this, and when I go to [inaudible 00:00:05:51], when I go to school, here's how they talk. There could be struggle there, or there could be, "Well, this is a superpower I have. This is a skill that I can develop," and that's where my work, looking back on it, that's kind of where that bloomed, was I wasn't afraid to continue going to school and learn that language and then see how I can take this information and put it through the filters of my own understanding of my own history, and then make this information accessible to our community, to my community. That's where somehow that became my life's work. I've been doing it for 20, 30 years now of really being a translator.

Emy DiGrappa (06:33):

So, do you think that you fell into a place where you went through an identity crisis? Because on one hand, you're living at home as an American Indian, and on the other hand, you go out into the world and live in another culture, which is not on the reservation, where you can call it white, you can call it whatever you want, but you're trying to find your place in there.

Darryl Tonemah (07:02):

It wasn't as if I had to, and I don't have a choice. I look darn native. You can look at me and say, "That's a native dude," and it's not like I could slip in between the cracks. So, it's not like I could leave that home. It was so ingrained in me that this is a good thing. I never thought it was a negative thing. I never thought it was something that I should have any kind of shame connected to it. It was just this thing. It was me. So, we take the best things of that and take that out into the community and just see where the sweet spots are and see where the collaboration when the bridges can be built. I never felt like I had to be less than or think of myself as less than. I had to be aware.

                 Often I had to be aware of being in stores, being followed. That happened quite a bit and still happens occasionally. But that awareness of that doesn't have me look at that community and say, "That's how that community is." I'll say, "Well, some people within that community struggle with my identity, with me as a native person, just like some people in the native community struggle with some non-natives with their identity." It goes both ways. So, what I want to do is, again, I keep referencing that, where's the bridges and where's the commonalities and where's the sweet spots? I know that my buddies who are non-native, they love their kids just as much as I do, and they want to help their communities like I do. There's a lot of commonalities, and I want to focus on those things more. It feels better.

Emy DiGrappa (08:43):

I like that you're a bridge builder.

Darryl Tonemah (08:46):


Emy DiGrappa (08:46):

You want to realize that we're all in this world together. We're all human beings. We all, like you said, love our children. We all want to understand each other. One of the things I've noticed that you really focus on is trauma. Did you experience trauma in your upbringing, or was that something you saw what was going on inside your own culture?

Darryl Tonemah (09:13):

Well, blessedly, I came from a solid home. There was seven of us kids, and my parents took being our parents pretty seriously. Sometimes, I mean, it was embarrassing to come home being screamed at on the res to come home and take a bath in front of the whole neighborhood and all my buddies. But they took their parenting very seriously, but dad, he was the director of the clinic there, and he'd come home and we'd talk about some of the tough things that happened there today. He and I started to have conversation, I was pretty young, about what we now call trauma, the tough stuff that happened to some of the folks. Not all the folks. It was just like any community. Not all folks, but some of the folks.

                 Then some of my friends would come to school, and I was probably like fifth, sixth grade when my friends would start to come to school, and they had been drinking in fifth or sixth grade, or maybe they had bruises and things like that. I didn't know what any of that was. That was a different time, so school systems were just different back then. I talked with my dad about it and we talked about, I said, "I want it to be helpful." Just reflecting on my parents, really reflecting my parents, because dad ran the clinic and mom was a nurse, so they both wanted to actively run toward, not run away from it. At an early age, it was still probably about sixth, seventh grade, I said, "Well, what are the things I can do to be helpful?"

                 We talked about medicine, and then I had heard social work, and dad said, "You're never very good at paperwork," so you probably shouldn't be a social worker, which he was right. Bless him for saying that, because that was wisdom. Then I took my first psychology class in high school and I thought, "This might be where I could stand in the gap or be of some use." So, since I was about 15 is when I started pursuing, knowing that was going to be it. Along the way, tried to do things that I enjoyed as well as far as playing music and a little bit of acting and writing and things like that. I wanted to make the journey fun as well.

Emy DiGrappa (11:17):

Well, and what sets you apart in your work as a community counselor and a psychologist, and go through your degrees again, because I think that's very interesting that you have three degrees, a masters and a doctorate, correct?

Darryl Tonemah (11:33):

Yes. Psychology, sociology and gerontology. Then my master's is in community counseling and my PhD is in counseling psychology and cultural studies.

Emy DiGrappa (11:46):

But then even more so, you've kind of dialed in to working with people trauma. Describe that work.

Darryl Tonemah (11:57):

About 20 years ago, I was the psychologist for the Southwest sites, the behavioral person for the Southwest sites of a study, an MH study called The Diabetes Prevention Program. National study was hugely successful study and did a lot of move the needle as far as how we understand prediabetes and treatment of pre-diabetes. It was a great study, and I was still honored to have my name even remotely part of that work. But that work kind of opened my eyes more. I met more folks in different fields, and really pointed, shed light on all the significant disparities that we in our communities have, and not just the social ills of the drinking and the using and the things like that, suicide, things like that, but the physiological problems of the cancers and diabetes and auto immune problems. I got really fascinated with that, and thought, "What the heck? Is it just the water? Is it something in that air?"

                 The more I learned about it, the more roads kind of lead towards that word trauma, which I didn't want it to be that, because at that point, I don't know if I had the tools necessary. It's a hard thing, and found out that trauma, a traumatic event, a traumatic lifestyle, a traumatic season like COVID, changes us physiologically and gets us kind of on survival mode, and the body isn't built to be perpetually on survival mode. So, being jacked up like that all the time can lead to a lot of physical and social problems, social ills. I wanted to find the work that affects that where it's occurring, find the tools that meet the event. I learned, not better, just I learned otherwise.

                 My PhD is lots of cognitive behaviorism, and that's really the standard of care, and it's awesome and it's wonderful. But to work with a lot of patients who have been through a lot of traumas, I learned that trauma isn't stored necessarily in the logic center or the language centers, or the empathy centers of the brain, which is where a lot of my cognitive behavioral tools would have aimed for. I wanted to just kind of see what else was out there, and that pointed me toward Dr. Levine's work and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk's work, Robert Scaer. A lot of it was in neurology and physiology, psychology. So, it was a broad base of what they were looking at, but it pretty much all said that, "Let's heal the body first. Let's work from the bottom up instead of the top down."

                 Once I started being trained and practicing in that work, that really transformed the folks that I get to work with. I wanted them to have more sovereign moments where they don't have to have this consistent, ongoing sense of overwhelm. Really, I wanted them to know that they have tools that they can address overwhelm and not be a victim to it anymore. As I started doing more of that, more people wanted to talk and meet and things, and pretty soon, it was important to create economies of scale. I wanted more folks to know these things. Now I'm getting to work in training community counselors and providers in communities to kind of helping us move the bar as a whole, create more sovereignty in our communities. It's an honor to do the work, and I take it really seriously. You wouldn't think that by the way I present, because I try to be more casual in the presentation, but I know the bottom line is, man, if we can start moving that needle for folks, we can transform our communities. I'm getting all excited about it.

Emy DiGrappa (15:45):

Cal down again. Do you deal with a lot of historical trauma within the Native American communities, and how they're, not just dealing with it themselves, but how they're working with their kids, especially when they're dealing with crisis and alcohol and all these different abuses that you've talked about?

Darryl Tonemah (16:07):

The historical trauma, it's complicated and fascinating how trauma is transmitted, handed down generational thing, both by parenting styles. I mean, if I was part of the boarding school generations, a lot of children didn't get a lot of required needs met by being in residential schools. There was no social reference, and looking at the adult and saying, "How do I learn how to be caring and present in this moment?" Because adults just weren't there for rooms and rooms and rooms full of kids. There was a lot of abuses and things like that, so it changes people, not just psychologically where it affects how I know how to be present and how to raise my own kids and grandkids, et cetera, et cetera, but it also, if you look at the work in epigenetics, it can change how that's passed down.

                 But what I want the folks to understand is that not just the hurt is passed down. There is all sorts of strength that is passed down as well. We survived genocide for generations, and we're still here. You and I are having this conversation on this podcast today out of some miracle that we're still here, and that strength is in you and it's in me. It's in my three little chocolate kids sitting at a home right now. My role in their life is to give them a safe haven for that to bloom and raise them safe and with nurturing, but also challenging them in the ways that they need to be challenged so that can beam in them.

                 We can transform our communities like that, but it's not going to happen by accident. It's got to happen across generations, and it can't be an event. It can't be, "Let's try this for this month." It's got to become a way of being in the community. It doesn't take everybody. It takes a critical mass of people. Was it Rensselaer University, was it nine percent of a population can help turn the tide like that? So, it doesn't take everyone, because I think that's where people start saying, "There's just too much." No, just start in your own home and have your friends start in their own home, creating safe, nurturing opportunities for themselves and their children to thrive.

Emy DiGrappa (18:25):

It's very fascinating. How do you deal with the victim mentality that happens when people feel so pushed down that they don't know how to rise back up?

Darryl Tonemah (18:37):

Yeah. That's not uncommon, but I think once people have a sovereign moment, with people, my tele-psych work is called First Nations Tele-health Solutions, and I also get to see people in my office, even during COVID I've seen a few people in my office, and once they realize that they can have just a sovereign moment, I had people have said to me, "I have never felt this before," because if you were raised in chaos and then grew up in chaos and then create your own chaos and it's been perpetual, the only thing they've known is chaos, and their body adjusts to survive within that chaos. But if they have this moment where, "This is how the world can be," and they've said that, "I've never had this before," and I said, "Well, let's just call that peace or sovereignty or strength, or whatever word you want to give it."

                 Once they realize that they have access to that, the light switches on, then that victim mentality, and before they leave, I say, "You are not defenseless against this sense of overwhelm anymore. You have tools now. You don't have to be a victim." So, once they realize that, that reverberates generationally, so they believe different about themselves, they talk their kids differently, they teach their kids differently, they raise people differently. That reverberates.

Emy DiGrappa (19:55):

It absolutely does. It sounds like just in your story, your mom and dad really inspired you. They obviously admired you. They gave you a lot of strength, and that gave you this inspiration to help others. I really think that that was passed down in your family, and not everybody has that. How do you create a sovereign moment for somebody when they just a light goes on and they say, "I get it"?

Darryl Tonemah (20:23):

Well, let me back up a step. There is so much research and so many good things about if somebody is traditional, there's a lot of cultural things that even play in the sweet spot of the vagus nerve and the midbrain function and things we can do with dance and singing and motion and movement, all stuff that are traditional behaviors. That's great. That's awesome. I've been having talks with a friend who is a teacher, and learning language together creates synchrony with each other. Trauma is an asynchronous moment, it's an asynchronous event. The body and the mind get all squinky. It's an asynchronous event, but the things that create synchrony can actually, this part of culture can address trauma. For us, for the native community, I think that's the next horizon. We need to be looking into that. I want to really, really be curious about the functions of that.

                 So, for the people that I work with, even having them start to recognize what overwhelmed feels like, and then not being in overwhelm, what does that feel like? Knowing the difference, so starting to discern, because they probably have moments like this, but it's too busy feeling like this, too busy being connected to this sense of overwhelm. So, if they had the capacity to start discerning and knowing the difference, and then us getting a foothold in there and being able to expand on this through breathing techniques, through getting to know the body better, understanding the messages from the body, not labeling those messages right away as stress or anger, or anxiety, just saying, "That's just information, and I don't have to label it yet. Let me just see what my body's going to do with this," and then building on that. But it just takes a little foothold to start expanding that.

Emy DiGrappa (22:06):

Well, don't you think that every person who's alive and breathing experiences some kind of trauma in their life? I mean, no one has a perfect life. We all have to grow up knowing how to deal with stress and anxiety. What are your words of wisdom, especially for your children, and even during this time of pandemic and on how you face and how you deal with trauma in everyday life?

Darryl Tonemah (22:34):

You can have stress without having trauma. You can't necessarily have trauma without having stress. Trauma is really the overwhelm in that moment that we don't have the capacity to address it, or maybe there wasn't safety after the event. So, it expanded into something else. Maybe life before the event was chaotic, so maybe I was predisposed to having it present as trauma. But we can become stress hardy, creating safe environments, nurturing each other, and helping each other breathe in stressful moments. We can actually create a physiologically stress hardy body where it doesn't have to be overwhelmed, and different people have different levels of what is going to be overwhelming to them. There's a million things that go into that. So, the best we can do is create stress hardiness, having good nutrition, which actually plays into stress hardiness, physical activity, water safety, good environments, all this stuff creates stress hardiness. Something that comes along that maybe for others, this might've been traumatic, but for this person, maybe it was just stressful. So, it doesn't have to become overwhelming to them. So, creating ways to become stress hardy.

Emy DiGrappa (23:56):

Darryl, I think what's also interesting is that you're living on a reservation right now. Correct?

Darryl Tonemah (24:03):

Just off the res, yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (24:03):

So, your office and most of the people you work with are on the reservation?

Darryl Tonemah (24:09):

Yes. The tele-psych that we do is 100% reservation work, yeah.

Emy DiGrappa (24:14):

Have you seen over the years that you've been working and within your study, have you seen the Native Americans change and have you seen the reservation change?

Darryl Tonemah (24:25):

Yeah. This probably tracks larger society. If you look at the incidents of ADHD diagnosis, we reflect larger society because it's not like the res is... the world is virtual now, and every game that is in town is on the res, and everything that's accessible is accessible here. So, worldview has changed since technology. One of the big drawbacks of that is lack of attunement. Attunement, going back to what I said earlier, the child requires the adult to kind of figure out how the world rotates. If the adult is in the room, that's good, but being in a room doesn't necessarily mean you're attuned. That means you're present. So, if something drastic happens, good, you're sitting there, but you're on Facebook or you're on Instagram, and that's not attunement. That's not being connected to the child.

                 I saw a study where when the parent is present and connected with the child, the child's stress parts of the brain kind of deflect. But when the parent picks up the phone and takes away this attunement, the stress center of the brain lights up in the child. They desperately try to get the attention again. You probably see kids, "Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom," when they're on the phone, because they're trying to mediate something. That's when the behavior problems start, because they can't control the sense, and so they externalize that. This change that we've seen are universal, but it's not like the res has been...

Emy DiGrappa (26:08):

No, I agree. I see what you're saying. It's just that I think that what we've been working on here in Wyoming with the Wind River Reservation is really getting to know our tribes and wanting to bridge and make the connections so that they can understand us, we can understand them, we can help each other, we can work together, rather than not just understanding that the reservation is a sovereign nation, but understanding how we are still a community, and making those bridges happen so that it's not an us versus them conversation.

Darryl Tonemah (26:49):

I think both sides, and I hate even thinking of it as both sides, but the reality is the champions of that are willing to be that bridge. I think technology can be part of that bridge in good ways. There's got to be people from the res who are willing to engage the community and have this exchange and in healthy ways and respectful ways, and respect that there are differences. No, differences are good. There's nothing wrong with having those differences. I'm native, and there's a lot of awesome things about being native, and I rock them. There's awesome things about being in town or being non-native. This black or white thinking has been very damaging, and part of identity development, whose work was that? Might've been one of the Sioux brothers, anyway, that identity development is when you get to the end point, is we get to the point where we see the value in my culture and I see the value in your culture, and we create something stronger together, strong together. So, if we can find champions in all communities to help build these bridges, I think that'd be a great place to be.

Emy DiGrappa (28:01):

I do too. I think that more and more people are trying to do that. People are trying to figure out how to build those bridges, because we have Wyoming, I think the Wind River Reservation is the third largest reservation in the United States, and the population in Wyoming is less than 600,000 people. So, even though we're a big state, we have a small population. In one hand, it's hard to believe that we are still not connected to our reservation the way we should be. I think it does go both ways. I know it's not just a one-way conversation, but just wanting to understand, is it okay to go on the reservation? Are we welcomed there? Is it-

Darryl Tonemah (28:48):

If you buy gas. No. Well, you know, we had that conversation here, and obviously the answer is going to be depends who you ask. There's not a rule that says you cannot come onto res, because we have industry on our res. We have gas and smoke shops. They want people to come onto the res for those purposes. But when you say come on to the res as an entity, that's different than coming onto the res as an individual. An entity has different resources and strengths and probably motivations than an individual might. That's where that leeriness comes in, because you say, "Are we going to sacrifice any of our sovereignty to this entity?"

                 That's when it feels like there's this tug or this push and pull back and forth, this maybe, "Do we really want you here? What is your motivation?" You can't blame us res folks because that's historical, rarely has ended in our favor. So, it makes sense, being transparent, upfront, honest, having the human connection I think is critical, and reassuring, reassuring, reassuring that this isn't about taking sovereignty. It's about collaboration. But within that, there's going to be hiccups as well. There's so many factors that go into it, as you can see.

Emy DiGrappa (30:14):

Right. It's not as simple answer. It's never been a simple answer.

Darryl Tonemah (30:19):


Emy DiGrappa (30:20):

You know? We're all part of the human condition, and it's just trying to find ways and work with people like yourself who are really open to that conversation and open to that collaboration, like you just said.

Darryl Tonemah (30:36):

Really, it's consistency and openness and honesty over time. If it's an event, then it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if it's a relationship over time, that's going to carry a different weight, because the entity will show who they are over time, rather than, "Let me put on my smiley face and see if I can get us in there." It is complicated, not undoable, but it's got to be done with good hearts and for good reasons.

Emy DiGrappa (31:08):

Before you leave us, I want you to tell the audience, how can they find your work, your music, and find out more about the work you do, really?

Darryl Tonemah (31:19):

The music and acting and book stuff is on a website, our website called tonemah.com, and the tele-psychology is on FN, first nation, fntelehealth.com. So, there's a couple different websites, or you can just find me on Facebook, Darryl Tonemah on Facebook and shoot me a message.

Emy DiGrappa (31:42):

Right. I think your background is so interesting, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.

Darryl Tonemah (31:48):

Thank you for having me. It's an honor to be here.

Emy DiGrappa (31:59):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.