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For Native Americans, legacy of trauma poses heavy burden

For Native Americans, legacy of trauma poses heavy burden

Picture of Mary Pember
Mardy Hanson, center, of the Calricaraq team talks with family members of a homicide victim and the perpetrator in a Yup’ik village on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta east of Bethel, Alaska. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember)

For Ojibwe women, it’s all about story. Although this is journalism, I have to begin the way I was taught so long ago by my mother, an Anishinabe-ikwe, one of the great storytellers.

The story of historical trauma and Native peoples begs to be framed in a narrative, like one of my mother’s stories with the suffering embedded in allegory. Any other beginning would be too much to bear.

It happened exactly as she had described it to me, first as a real life terrible fairy tale told to me over and over in my childhood, and then as part of her personal history as she tried to work through and make sense of the senseless doings at the Catholic Indian boarding school, the Sister school and the irrational actions of the nuns who held absolute power over the lives of the Ojibwe children. Chief among them was Mother Superior Sister Catherine, who became the bogeyman of my childhood, a monster who exercised her authority over my mother and her peers, often beating and shaming them with a delusional zeal, as though she believed that she was the very right hand of God.

My mother would often tell me of one glorious day at the Sister School, the day Sister Catherine died after falling down the kitchen steps. “Maybe it was terrible, but oh what a silent cheer us kids made that Christmas season!” she would say clasping her hands together in childlike delight, savoring Mother Superior’s delicious comeuppance. As I entered adulthood, I assumed the story was a child’s fantasy. Surely the tale, with its juicy moral reward, couldn’t be true.

But then as part of my research about the impact of Indian boarding schools, I visited the library at the Jesuit University Marquette in Milwaukee, where all the Catholic Indian Boarding School documents are stored.

I had hoped to find records relating to my mother’s years at the St. Mary’s boarding school in Wisconsin. Instead, I found only her name listed in a roster of students. I was disappointed by the lack of personal records.

But there amid the boxes and boxes of ledgers and dusty administrative correspondence was the real story; it was far more personal than I dared to hope.

I found a yellowed type written letter dated Jan. 3, 1934. It was addressed to the Rt. Reverend Mgsr. William Hughes Director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in Washington D.C. from Sister Mary Macaria of St Mary’s Indian School in Odanah, Wisconsin.

In part it read:

By the time these lines reach you, our dear mother superior sister Catherine will no doubt have been called to her eternal reward. On December 19, she fell off the second last step leading down to the kitchen entry.

She must have pitched forward with great force, for in striking her head against a windowsill; a gash was cut in her forehead by the temple of her glasses. (It seemed for a time they thought she was recovering.) On Friday, Dec. 29, the Sister nurse noticed a change in Sister’s condition and told us she feared a stroke.

Our dear sister had convulsions, was anointed and has been speechless since. The doctor says it can hardly be but a matter of a day or so at most if she does linger even that long.

We know you will pray earnestly for her eternal repose and for a speedy relief from her sufferings. Sorrowfully yours in the agonizing Heart of Jesus.

Sister Macaria

I sat open mouthed for some time in the silent library. The revelatory moment in which I held the letter of Sister Catherine’s death in my hand has gone a long way in my continued understanding of the impact of trauma on my mother and my family’s lives. Here at last was proof of the Sister Schools stories of my childhood, of the crucible that formed the little tightened fist that was my mother. The letter’s discovery is an allegory for the power of validation as well as the intimate nature of recovery from trauma; recovery is personal and it has to emerge on our own terms.

During my fellowship year, I chose to focus on the impact of historical trauma and unresolved grief on the lives of Native peoples and ways that they are healing from the trauma and building resiliency. In support of the historical trauma premise I also wrote explanatory articles about the science of trauma, its impact on our growing minds, bodies as well as our genes.

One of my sources, Michelle M. Sotero, at the University of Nevada, offered a three-fold definition of historical trauma. In the initial phase, the dominant culture perpetrates mass trauma on a population in the form of colonialism, slavery, war or genocide. In the second phase, the affected population shows physical and psychological symptoms in response to the trauma. In the final phase, the initial population passes these responses to trauma to subsequent generations, who in turn display similar symptoms.

For me the definition, although clinically accurate, fails to fully describe the long, generational train wreck that Native peoples experienced as a result of years of misguided federal policies. The impact of these policies, such as forced attendance at Indian boarding schools, has been catastrophic, robbing us of our language, culture, traditions and even our children.  As a result, we are often depicted in mainstream America as the gold standards for intractable social dysfunction and bad health.

Indeed, much of our “dis-ease” has proved remarkably resistant to even the best-intentioned western methods of mental health care interventions.

This is no mystery in the failure of these efforts, at least not for Native peoples. How could such a destructive force offer true healing and restoration? Genuine healing emerges from within, from a place of choice and power.

In addition to support from the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, I also received support from the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism for this project. The combined financial support allowed me to travel and spend quality time pursuing this important issue. I’ve written 14 stories so far in which I researched and described the physical and mental impact of trauma, the high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences among Native peoples, and the likelihood that epigenetics may play a role in explaining our high rates of disease. I traveled to Ottawa for the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, part of Canada’s Indian residential schools settlement agreement with the aboriginal peoples, and reported on the five-year mandate that included long-term support for mental health services and traditional forms of healing.

I also wrote about Indian boarding school survivors’ efforts to gain government support for healing and mental health care interventions on this side of the border. In my research, I read stacks of dense research papers, talked with numerous Native and non-Native health care professionals and grassroots community members. I quickly identified a common thread running through the research. The most important element of successfully addressing the historical trauma that underlies mental health disparities in Indian country is valuing and supporting grassroots spiritually and culturally based interventions.

The main stumbling block, however, for these type of interventions is the disconnect between the Native worldview and that of Western, science-based perspectives on effective mental health programs. In the Lakota worldview, for instance, incorporating healing of the spirit is essential to healing the body and mind.

“People are spiritual beings; we (Lakota) don’t question that,” Cindy Giago, program manager for the Healing Center in Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation, told me. “Federal funding agencies want proof that our interventions work in the form of science and logic. But how do you measure spirituality?”

Holly Echohawk, a member of the First Nations Behavioral Health Association, pointed out, “Empirically-based science leaves no room for the cultural context that is crucial to the success of a treatment approach within tribal communities.”

Joe Gone, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, also of the First Nations Behavioral Association, noted that Western biomedical mental health interventions focus on the absence of disease and imply mind-body separation in treating illness. Cultural interventions, on the other hand, measure wellness as a harmonious relationship within the whole person, including mind, body, emotion and spirit.

Native researchers like Echohawk and Gone are working to build bridges between these worldviews. Echohawk coined the phrase “practice-based evidence” – a reversal of the scientifically accepted measure “evidence-based practice” – to describe the success of Native culturally based interventions on Native terms. In other words, the community rather than an outside evaluator determines how well an intervention works. Echohawk and other Native mental health professionals and researchers are part of a movement to create a new framework for evaluating and guiding Native designed interventions. They call it the cultural competence movement. This movement, according to Echohawk, is driven by experiences in the field versus the science-driven evaluation philosophy of academia.

So I went in search of successful examples of culturally competent interventions in the field to give some legs to the story. Since Indian Country is very diverse — there are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. — my Native health care sources emphasized that really effective programs needed to be tribal specific. There is no one-size-fits-all  approach for Native peoples.

I was able to spend time in Alaska’s Yukon Kuskokwim Delta with folks from the Calricaraq (Healthy Living) program, a tribal program that is a sort of a Yupik-specific rapid response trauma team. The Yupik are a truly unique group of folks who occupy over 50 remote, isolated villages on the tundra that leads to the Bering Sea. They represent a keen example of the distinctive quality and diversity of tribal communities.

Because of their inaccessible location, the Yupik were relatively unaffected by Western contact until the beginning of the 20thcentury. Diseases including measles, tuberculosis and the 1918 flu epidemic (which they call “the Great Death) devastated the Yupik; entire villages were wiped out. Thousands of Alaskan Native children who survived the initial onslaught of disease were orphaned.

“Out of necessity, missionary groups and the federal government began establishing orphanages for these children. In many ways, the Great Death jump-started boarding schools in Alaska,” said Jim La Belle, Inupiaq and a retired professor of Native American Studies at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

The impact of historical trauma is especially fresh for the Yupik. For the past 50 years or more, horrific levels of suicide, violence, sexual violence and substance abuse have plagued these tiny villages.

Mark Anarak, tribal behavioral health consultant noted that many mental health approaches have been used over the years in the region to address the cycle of trauma. “The western interventions were very expensive. Mental health professionals logged hours and hours in their efforts to help the communities but to no avail. All the programs, clinics and interventions simply didn’t work, people just kept getting sicker.”

The best efforts of such Western-based mental health intervention models didn’t work for a simple, basic reason, according to Anarak. “People in the villages didn’t embrace them.”

Calricaraq, however, is different. “Although we don’t yet have any precise data, Calricaraq is by far the most requested behavioral health service that YKHC Yukon Kuskokwim Health Care has ever offered,” Anarak reports.

Rose Domnick, coordinator of Calricaraq, told me something I’d heard many times from elders from both my tribe and others about the power of Native culture and traditions.

“We are our own resource experts; we have it within us to transform ourselves and our communities into healthy, thriving places. We can do this by reinforcing what we already know as Yup’ik people.”

Rose and her team invited me along to see them in action during an intervention at one of the villages where a 19-year-old girl stabbed and killed her uncle, also 19. The murder was a senseless crime committed during a now-forgotten argument, fueled by alcohol and maybe drugs that escalated into blind rage. These young folks had grown up together, the niece often staying at the uncle’s family home. Both families were devastated.

We entered the victim’s home where his wake was in progress; the little house on stilts was full of friends and relatives. The Calricaraq team members comprised of elders as well as mental health care professionals sat down with the family and shared their similar experiences, often crying as they described how the guiding principals of the Yupik traditional ways of healing (qaruyan) and moreover of (kaholian) unconditional love and understanding helped them. 

One of the elder’s words was later translated for me.

“Our ancestors gave us tools to understand our minds and name our feelings,” one told the group. “Our subsistence way of life, the very act of surviving and providing food for our families is also an important means for healing. We say that true healing can be found on the tundra.”

Although most of the conversations took place in Yupik, I noticed some tension surrounding the presence of one of the local elders. She seemed to bear the scrutiny of others with a kind of calm courage that was noteworthy.

After meeting with the victim’s family we later visited the perpetrator’s home. The scene here was quite different. The perpetrator’s father sat alone in the dark, listlessly smoking cigarettes. As the team talked with him, the door opened and in walked the same elder who I had noticed at the victim’s home. This was his mother, the grandmother of perpetrator!

The grandmother sat down with her son and the team. She said to him, “I have prepared you, I have taught you our ways that can help you go through tough times; I have taught you kaholian, unconditional love and understanding. There is health and wellness in our ways.”

As he cried bitter tears she reassured him, “It’s safe to express your feelings and your pain here. We will not belittle you or talk behind your back.”

Rose explained to me that her actions demonstrated the real Yupik way.

Traditionally, Yupik people openly discussed their feelings, often turning to elders to help sort out difficult situations and problems. A structured system provided guidance for behavior and working out conflict with others. In the unforgiving climate of the tundra, survival depended on cooperation, effective conflict resolution and maintaining good mental and physical health. Health and healing were found in the everyday actions of subsistence living.

By including elders in mental health interventions who speak the language, they are finding that many of them are remembering old Yupik terms and concepts describing emotional healing that they had forgotten during the boarding school process.

“In the Kass’aq (white person) way, we were taught to stuff our feelings and isolate ourselves from our Yup’ik traditions,” Domnick says.

Calriciraq is partially supported by a SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) grant that supports “promising practices” among tribal peoples. In program evaluations, Calricaraq clients report that the teachings have helped them reexamine their lives using the wisdom of the Yupik elders and they are feeling better and more whole.

The healing process, however, will take time. Domnick noted, “Who we came to be today has a lot to do with what happened to us over the last 100 plus years.”

I will end as I began with another story, this time about my grandma Cele, who was also raised in an Indian boarding school. I recently learned of her terrible last beating at my grandfather’s hands. In a drunken rage he managed to nearly bite off one of her breasts. Driven to despair she fled, abandoning her five children in the process. Secretly returning to the reservation, she would gather medicines for a then unknown illness. I see now that she had no choice in leaving; she could not afford to look back. In the end, though, Cele thought she could swallow all of those traumas whole but they lodged in her belly where they silently poisoned her. She succumbed at last to their hidden power, dying from colon cancer at age 56, a disease that what we know now is slow growing and often preventable.

Despite the boarding school lessons about the inferiority of her heritage, however, Cele still believed that the mashkiki, the traditional Ojibwe medicines, could heal her. In the end, the mashkiki alone wasn’t enough but her core belief in the traditional Ojibwe ways spoke volumes about the power and roles of culture, language and spirituality in the lives of Native Americans. This core belief is the spark of resiliency that has sustained Native peoples and offers great promise for the future. 


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