Join | Login


Julia Sebastien


Re-envisioning the History of Psychology

Mitig’s WigWam of Spiritual Needs: A Critical Reimagining of the Life and Works of Abraham Maslow

Undergraduate Winner, 2022 Graduate Student Committee Essay Contest:
Addressing The Legacy of White Supremacy and Western Dominance in Psychology

Julia Sebastien, York University

Unlike Maslow, an atheist New York Jew born in 1908 to first generation Russian-American working-class immigrant parents (Hoffman, 2008), Mitig was a pious Ojibwe man born in 1908 in the impoverished L’Anse Michigan reserve. As such, Mitig was forced to attend a residential school until the eighth grade (Jones et al., 2011).  Since his white-oriented residential school pressured students to urbanize and discard their Indian status, Mitig experienced a loss of identity in his adolescence (Jones et al., 2011), so he decided to research how to live authentically from his heart, which his people call Mino-Pi-Matisi-Win: “The Good Life” (Benton-Banai, 1988).  Mitig could not pursue this research interest in an off-reserve academic institution, however, because his reservation lacked adequate financial assistance and scholarships from the government (Prucha, 1984). Furthermore, although the nearby University of Michigan was established on indigenous land (Dowd, 2003), it deterred indigenous applicants, denied the land’s tribal history, and endorsed prejudiced student groups such as the Michigamua senior honor society (Dowd, 2003).

Given Mitig’s inability to access and participate in psychological research and laboratories, and given the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which strengthened Indians’ status and cultural autonomy (Kelly, 1975), Mitig would instead research and develop his theoretical model over the course of qualitative interviews with respected Ojibwe men and women in his community, rather than with a sample of predominantly white male interviewees (Flannery, 1994).  As a product of these interviews, Mitig’s theory would be unisex and would emerge from within Ojibwe rituals and values (i.e., living one’s identity, cleansing/healing, and spiritual oneness; Benton-Banai, 1988) instead of androcentrism and Western individualism (Flannery 1994). Given the impoverished state of Mitig’s Ojibwe interviewees (Prucha 1984) and the spiritual value placed upon fasting, Mitig’s model would not situate material or physical needs as the basis of living “The Good Life” (Benton-Banai, 1988).

In further contrast to Maslow, Mitig never would have been exposed to, or inspired by, the pyramidal shape of Marx’s model of historical materialism; having never left his reservation, neither would Mitig have been surrounded by New York’s proliferating, scaffolded skyscrapers—monuments that extoll Western progress and industrialization (Deamer, 2014). As such, Mitig’s theoretical model for Mino-Pi-Matisi-Win would not resemble Maslow’s scaffolded, pyramidal structure, modelled after the sturdy buildings Maslow would have seen so often in his city environment; rather, Mitig’s model would resemble another, much more familiar stable, triangular structure: the Ojibwe wigwam (see Figure 1). In Maslow’s tiered, or scaffolded, model, each block must rest on the back of another to achieve greater heights; conversely, each component of Mitig’s structure for “The Good Life” would be equally important and would play a vital role in interconnecting with and supporting the others, as do members of Mitig’s own tightly-knit community. Since “three” is the number of poles necessary to construct a secure wigwam skeleton before more sticks can be added, and the tent can be deemed stable (Cleland, 1992), the three poles supporting “Mitig”’s model for living “The Good Life” would likely be informed by his culture’s understanding that the wigwam resonates conceptually with three core values of the Ojibwe people: living one’s identity, spiritual awakening and direction, and cleansing and healing (Benton-Banai, 1988; see Figure 1).

Regrettably, Mitig would not be able to publish this theory of Mino-Pi-Matisi-Win, as he had neither a sophisticated mastery of English, an American mentor, nor a university affiliation.  Mitig and his ideas would be rejected by the top 14 journals in his day for failing to conform to the empirical, androcentric, and Western paradigms that dominated twentieth century Psychology (Allport, 1940). Furthermore, indigenous teachings and theorists were especially devalued, as they were deemed primitive and unscientific by the larger scientific community (Naidoo, 1996). Mitig would thus have to be content with sharing his theory and offering informal counseling within his on-reserve community.  Mitig, an uneducated indigenous man, would not be able to participate in laboratory experiments at universities, which means his contributions to psychology would not be widely known in his day (Allport, 1940); neither would his findings be commemorated in the Eurocentric history of psychology as they were non-experimental and did not follow the Western conventions of psychological research in his day (Naidoo, 1996). Unfortunately for us, Mitig’s secrets for living “The Good Life” would remain just out of Western psychology’s white-gloved reach.


Figure 1

Mitig’s Wigwam of Spiritual Needs

Note. Based on the assumption that all famous theories are inescapably influenced by the cultural and environmental exposures of their conceiver, this model plays with how Maslow’s linear hierarchy of needs might have changed had Maslow himself been a man called “Mitig”, a hypothetical, impoverished member of the Ojibwe tribe. Thus, this diagram is a conceptual, structural and cultural re-imagining of Maslow’s theorized stepwise road to self-actualization, redesigning it instead as a model for how to live “The Good Life” according to Ojibwe wisdom.

About the author: Julia Sebastien received her Honors Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies and Advanced Arts and Humanities from Western University, alongside Western's Double Major Gold Medal Award, in 2019. Afterwards (funded by the Canadian Scholarship Trust Foundation’s Graduate Award), she pursued a second Honors BA at York University, specializing in Psychology to understand the cognitive, social and behavioral forces underlying people's interactions with media, cultural objects, and each other. Outside of class, Julia managed Dr. Jennifer Steele's Interpersonal Perception and Social Cognition lab and ran several media-psychological studies on the side, including a study of physically-distanced couples' virtual communications and satisfaction during COVID, and another on culturally diverse populations' experiences using e-mental health apps. Before graduating from this second BA this past summer, Julia was fortunate to present her prosocial research projects at multiple conferences, including APA, Life Improvement Science, and SPSSI. Julia is now pursuing her Master’s in Learning Design, Innovation and Technology at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, where she hopes to hone her knowledge of media psychology to improve the prosocial and educational impact of our media landscape. Her favorite pastimes include fitness, cooking, and theatrical plays with important social-emotional messages.


Allport, G. W. (1940). The psychologist's frame of reference. Psychological Bulletin, 37(1), 1–28.

Benton-Banai, E. (1988). The Mishomis book: the voice of the Ojibway. Red School House.

Cleland, C. E. (1992). Rites of conquest: The history and culture of Michigan’s Native Americans. University of Michigan Press.

Deamer, P. (2014). Architecture and capitalism: 1845 to the present. Routledge.

Dowd, G. E. (2003). Native American Studies in the Program in American Culture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Indigenous Nations Studies Journal, 4(2), 93–106.

Flannery, D. (1994). Changing dominant understandings of adults as learners. New Directions
for Adult and Continuing Education, 1994
(61), 17–26.

Hoffman, E. (2008). Abraham Maslow: A biographer’s reflections. Journal of Humanistic
, 48(4), 439–443.

Jones, J., Bosworth, D. A., Lonetree, A., & Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways.
(2011). American Indian boarding schools: An exploration of global ethnic & cultural cleansing: A supplementary curriculum guide. Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways.

Kelly, L. (1975). The Indian reorganization act: The dream and the reality. Pacific Historical
44(3), 291–312.

Naidoo, A.V. (1996). Challenging the hegemony of Eurocentric psychology. Journal of
Community and Health Sciences, 2
(2), 9–16.

Prucha, F. (1984). American Indian policy in the twentieth century. The Western Historical
15(1), 5-18.

back to menu