DSHS Tribal Affairs liaison earns national award

Marie Natrall-Ackles is the Behavioral Health Administration’s first full-time tribal affairs administrator.

One of Marie Natrall-Ackles’ priorities as the Behavioral Health Administration’s first full-time tribal affairs administrator was to put protections in writing for Native American patients’ cultural practices and beliefs.

The publication of this policy (BHA 10.22) among other accomplishments earned her the National Indian Health Board’s Outstanding Service Award in early May.

“It felt amazing, but it wasn’t so much the award, it was the awareness and the information sharing I wanted to share with other Native Americans,” said Natrall-Ackles, noting that the conference brought together Native American leaders from across the nation.

Natrall-Ackles, who earned a doctorate in public policy and administration, has been an advocate for Native Americans her whole career, from supporting child welfare to working in the Department of Social and Health Services’ Office of Indian Policy.

She is a member of the Squamish First Nation and the Selkirk First Nation, and she shared her own family’s history as she explained the impacts of historical trauma and the importance of supporting the cultural identities of Native American patients.

“My grandparents were in boarding school, and they didn’t achieve a very high education. My grandfather received a grade five education and my grandmother received a grade two education,” Natrall-Ackles said. “With their boarding school process, they weren’t able to teach us our language, our culture.”​

Growing up in Canada, she spoke English as her first language, learned French as it’s the country’s official language, and learned German at school.

“I learned three European languages before I got to learn my own language when I was 12, and I’m not fluent in my language today. It’s important to be an advocate for our patients because I can speak about it and speak about a lot of our history, and I’ve done a lot of healing to advocate for those people who didn’t have a voice,” said Natrall-Ackles. “Patients with trauma may not be open about it, they may put a wall up and you may wonder why you can’t reach them, or they might just not be willing to share their trauma, or they may not know that they have trauma.

“What’s most important is having that strong sense of identity, especially when you look at the history, because it was almost taken from us,” she said.

Protecting this sense of identity includes supporting Native American patients’ participation in cultural ceremonies and practices, protecting and respecting patients’ sacred items, and including elders, extended family members, and community as a part of patients’ treatment plans. Respecting sacred items, for example, could mean staff only visually inspecting such items if new patients have them on their person. In addition, while patients may not be allowed to burn sage or sweetgrass for purifying or healing, staff can work with patients to properly store sage or sweetgrass in spray form for patients’ use.

Natrall-Ackles also emphasized the importance of offering tribal support for patients who may not want to take prescribed medications due to a conflict with cultural beliefs. The policy asks staff to provide support to Native American patients by offering communication with a client advocate, spiritual advisor, tribal elder, family friend or relative to encourage the patient to take their medication.

In the future, she hopes to implement more Native American cultural services at BHA facilities and to increase advocacy for Native American patients.

“The identity piece is really important, especially when you’re struggling with mental health and not knowing who you are, and so having that strong sense of identity is important in helping you achieve balance and wellness in life,” Natrall-Ackles said.

She believes educating staff is key to better supporting patients.

“I feel very honored and privileged to be in this position, and a big part of this job is educating our staff and working with our staff to achieve that knowledge and that understanding.”

(By Suzie Ovel)

Learn more about the history of laws against First Nations people:

Compulsory Enfranchisement


If a Native person from 1880–1951 got a university degree, became a doctor, lawyer or clergyman, they lost their status as a Native person.

Potlatch Ban-1885–1951


Pursuit of Claims Law-1927


Section 14–1 to the Indian Act. Section 141 outlawed the hiring of lawyers and legal counsel by Indians, effectively barring Aboriginal peoples from fighting for their rights through the legal system.

Right to Vote (1960)