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Psychology Today Publishes Professor’s Account of Lessons Learned on
Pima Indian Reservation

By: Joslyn Hatfield

Phoenix College psychology instructor, Dr. David Ratner, has gained a new audience thanks to his recent published article, The River People.

Psychology Today recently included Ratner’s moving account of his experience working on the Pima Indian Reservation in its August edition.

Ratner takes readers on a journey through his compelling story while on the reservation serving as the community counselor, which he began in the summer of 1998.

Quickly Ratner began to realize that his task would be much more challenging then he had expected, with many of his patients under his care by an order from the court.

"Although no visible chains bound the many patients I saw, poverty, disease and alcoholism had locked them all into a life of despair unmatched anywhere in the United States," he said. "Daily I met people with problems that dwarfed any I had encountered off the reservation: severely depressed jobless men and women, many of whom had lost limbs, vision or both to diabetes; teenagers with no hope for the future; and far too many young people who attempted suicide."

Although Ratner witnessed a great deal of tragic situations while working on the reservation, life has not always been full of hardship for the Pima community. As sophisticated hunters and farmers, the Pima (who call themselves A’atam a’kimult or River People) were severely hindered in 1928, when the state diverted the Gila River waters with the creation of the Coolidge Dam. Unfortunately, the Pima were unable to rely on farming and hunting for survival. This in return led to their days of dependency and disease.

More surprisingly, researchers at the National Institute of Health continue to conduct an ongoing study of the Pima. They theorize that the Pima possess a "thrifty" gene, a remnant of their hunter-gatherer past that is proving fatal today. Researchers believe it is this gene that allows the Pima to easily store fat, which puts them at higher risk for disease.

Although Ratner saw first hand great tragedy and despair while on the reservation, he strongly believes that because of their differing cultural and religious beliefs, this community is often greatly misunderstood. He offers ways in which the community can better support itself through education and use of its money.

"The tribe offers full four-year scholarships to all high school graduates, but this program receives little publicity and I know of only one student who has ever take advantage of it," he added. "The Pima could use the income from its two casinos to pay not just for college, but also for four years of graduate training—on the condition that the graduates work on the reservation for a few years. The reservation needs Pima professionals—physicians and psychologists—not only as role models, but also as individuals the community knows, trusts and respects."

Ratner’s piece allows readers to truly grasp the way of life on the Pima reservation. This published piece of work and his offerings for educational support will hopefully open doors for a better future.