Buder Center Celebrates 30 Years of Training and Service for Native Americans

Community Engagement; Diversity; Policy; Public Health; Social Work

As the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies celebrates three decades at the Brown School, it has emerged as the preeminent center for the academic advancement and study of American Indian issues related to social work, public health and public policy.  

Offering a unique graduate degree focus for social work students, the center recruits American Indian scholars and provides student support in a rigorous course of study; develops curriculum; conducts research, and engages in policy development that has a positive influence on Native populations.

Kathryn M. Buder respected and admired American Indians since childhood and believed that education was a key factor in maintaining self-esteem and growth in tribal communities. In 1990, she established the G.A., Jr. and Kathryn M. Buder Charitable Foundation to provide scholarships for American Indian students through the center, as well as funding for staff and student development. The foundation funds two-year scholarships covering the tuition, living expenses, books and professional development of up to 10 first- and second-year MSW students on a continuing basis.

Center Director Kellie Thompson (Seneca) sees the center’s 30th anniversary as an opportunity to honor the founding vision of Kathryn Buder while also looking to a future that is evolving as the needs of students and communities change. The issues facing Native individuals and communities—continued vulnerability to mental health issues, suicide, generational trauma and substance abuse—require multi-faceted solutions rooted in the resiliency and strength of these communities. 

“We still have the same vision as when the center was founded in 1990: Preparing Native students to become leaders in Native communities,” Thompson said.  “But after 30 years, the Buder Center has more than 200 alumni representing 77 tribes in the U.S, and they are working in a variety of settings and fields. The reach and network we have is much greater, and deeper in its expertise.”

One of the members of that network is Joe Masters, MSW ’13 (Sault St. Marie Band of Chippewa), now a behavior health therapist at SSM Health in St. Louis. He said his experience at Brown after becoming a first-generation college graduate near his tribal home in northern Michigan gave him the confidence to undertake a life-changing challenge. 

“It’s not easy to come off the reservation and into a city like St. Louis,” said Masters. “The support of the Buder family of other Native students and the Buder Center was a key to my success.”

Masters wanted to pursue a career in mental health and management, but wanted training in a program that included a Native American perspective. “Being a Native, we always look at things through two different lenses,” he said.  “The Buder Center offers that second lens.”

That perspective will strengthen his work when he returns to his community, but it has also added a holistic approach to therapy that he believes has bolstered his current work in St. Louis. Telling stories, a key feature of Indian culture, is also an effective therapeutic element for his clients.  “They see themselves in the story,” he said.

Like many alumni, Masters stays in touch with the center and returns to visit for events such as the annual Washington University Pow Wow, where both Native and non-Native people come together for conversation, craft vendors and the centerpiece dance contests. Alumni also return to speak, mentor students and serve as practicum supervisors.

Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), MSW ’97, PhD ’08, who is the Executive Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and the recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Brown School, has welcomed the opportunity to partner in research activities and to host and supervise Buder scholars in their practica. She is pleased to give back to the center. 

“As a first-generation college student, the Buder scholarship made graduate education possible for me. The Native-specific content prepared me for a career in public policy and Native human services and changed the trajectory of my career.” 

Before joining NICWA, Kastelic led the National Congress of American Indians’ welfare reform program, where she saw the need for timely, credible data to inform policymaking at the tribal and national levels, a gap that her Buder training helped her fill.  Policy is still a focus for her at NICWA, a national child advocacy organization. 

The Buder Center had a similar impact on Caitlin Donald (Osage, Ponca), MSW ’14, the Program Manager for the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon. “The Buder Center transformed my graduate school experience, providing me with a robust and lifelong learning community of American Indian and Alaska Native capacity builders, change makers, and healers,” she said. “Years later, I still feel and am grateful for its impact on my life.” And the impact it has had on the people she serves is also profound. 

The center’s director of research is David Patterson Silver Wolf, associate professor, who also chairs the American Indian and Alaska Native concentration.  He said training students from native communities provides better social work and public health services to those communities.

“Buder Scholars are obtaining a graduate degree so they can better help their own people.  When social workers have personal connections to communities they plan to serve, practices and decisions are rooted in how they will impact on us, rather than on them,” he explained. 

He also points out that having Buder scholars in other classes brings context and awareness the Brown School would not have otherwise. 

The changing needs of Native communities have prompted a fine-tuning of the concentration, for example the addition of an Indigenous Mental Health Practice course, Patterson Silver Wolf said. “We’re also branching out from student services to increase our research capacity, partnering with nations and tribes to figure out what works for particular communities.”

Noting that 70% of Native Americans live in urban areas, he said the center is aiming to develop a science around the needs of urban Natives, as well as graduates who serve their Native communities off reservations.

Although Joe Masters has spent his years since graduation in St. Louis, he plans to return someday to his Michigan roots to practice his skills as a therapist. In the meantime, he said, he’ll stay connected with the Buder Center, which he looks forward to visiting regularly.

“It feels like going back home again,” he said.

“The Center’s founding goals have helped to inspire and fulfill the Brown School’s mission to achieve equity and social justice for vulnerable populations,” said Mary McKay, Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean at the Brown School. “We are so proud to have this one-of-a kind Center and its alumni working for the benefit of Native communities across the United States.”

Learn more about the Buder Center.