Navajo Social Work Student to Integrate Native Ideology and Western Therapy  

November 20, 2019

Photo of Danielle Benally.

Danielle Benally

Las Vegas, N.M. – Danielle Benally, a Navajo woman and Master of Social Work student at New Mexico Highlands, is determined to become a therapist who integrates Native American ideology with Western therapy methods.

Benally drives one and a half hours each way in the evenings from her home in Aneth, Utah to night classes at the Highlands Farmington Center while her husband, Larrin, cares for their children, Tysin, 6, and Sariah, 4.

“As I’ve progressed through school, my Navajo heritage has definitely been a motivator,” Benally said. “I have learned and understand how deeply rooted generational trauma has affected the Diné people of the Navajo Nation. With my education, I want to help my people in any feasible way as a clinical social worker.

“The generational trauma relates to so many of our elders being forced into boarding schools and other placement programs that diluted their Navajo culture,” Benally said.

Benally said her Navajo heritage is instilled in her identity.

“I try to make Navajo traditions part of my daily life,” said Benally, who grew up on the Navajo Nation in both New Mexico and Utah. Her Navajo clans include Naakai Diné’e (mother), Bilagaana (father), Bitahnii (maternal grandfather), and Bilagaana (paternal grandfather).

“I definitely want to be multicultural in representing different Navajo tribal beliefs in my social work practice. In therapy, I will use the holistic approach of looking at each person within their immediate family, their school or work environment, and their place within society,” Benally said.

For her practicum this semester, Benally is working with a clinic for the Utah Navajo Health Systems, Inc.

“I work under Deirdre Pitrowski, a licensed clinical social worker, in three schools on the Navajo Nation including one high school and two elementary schools. We use a method called trauma informed therapy. Trauma can get stuck in the body, tying into the fight, flight or freeze responses. Our therapy with students focuses on processing trauma and having more control over their responses,” Benally said.

Petrowski said, “What makes Danielle unique is that she’s a very innovative therapist who finds creative ways to connect with clients. Another strength of Danielle’s is her ability to be introspective, which is a critical piece of being a good therapist. She’s very good at applying what she’s learned in the classroom. Overall, she’s exceptional.”

Benally said Rey Martínez, a social work professor at the Highlands Farmington Center, has supported her throughout her MSW studies.

“Dr. Martínez understood my unique situation and has helped me stay on track for graduation in May 2020,” Benally said. “He is full of encouragement and support, trying to push me past my insecurities. Dr. Rey inspires me with his strong work ethic and passion for learning,”

Martínez said Benally is highly intelligent and compassionate.

“Danielle is already well sought after for her clinical skills,” Martínez said. “Her potential as a licensed clinical social worker is truly amazing. Danielle is gifted as a future mental health professional.”