Overcoming Historical Trauma
Heather Purser reflects on the legacy that years of extermination and assimilation have had in modern Native communities.
On Friday night I went to the University of Washington to listen to a lecture about historical trauma among Indian people. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, an Oglala Lakota woman and Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University, first conceptualized the term in 1985 when she realized that she was “carrying around grief that was much bigger than herself.”
Historical trauma is unresolved grief that has been passed down to each new generation of Native people, first as a response to policies of extermination by murder, and later to policies of cultural extermination by assimilation and boarding schools.
This leftover grief, I learned, is powerful. It affects all Native communities and takes on many forms. It’s one of the reasons why our youth have the highest rate of suicide of any other ethnic group and why so many of us struggle with substance abuse and poverty.
I’ve seen evidence of historical trauma on my reservation, Suquamish, and in my own family. The Suquamish tribe lost a lot of its language, traditional practices, and teachings when the United States government and Catholicism moved in. And we lost even more when our ancestors were forced to go to boarding schools and were adopted out to non-Indian families when they were children. For a long time it was illegal for us to practice our ceremonies; it was even illegal to possess the tools to conduct them or anything else connected to our spiritual practices. We learned to cope with our pain in ways that developed into inter-generational self-destructive patterns.
But things are changing, and as I grow in my own healing I notice how much stronger the people on my reservation have become. Suquamish has changed in some important ways over the past few years, and I imagine that to the elders here, witnessing our communities’ transformation is as inspirational as the presidential election of Barack Obama.
Today, Suquamish people have better access to mental health services, health care, and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. We have a youth center where kids can be in a sober environment after school and where they learn and participate in our tribal songs and dances. We have a program where other tribal members teach us our Lushootseed language; a cultural co-op board that works to revive our tribal practices; and finally, sgwedzadad qe’B ?altxw—the House of Awakened Culture, our new longhouse.
We are finally getting to a place where we can support ourselves and not have to depend on the government for survival. I worry that Suquamish is one of the luckier tribes and that it is going to take much longer for others to get to where we are. But if we can reach out to each other, we can get closer to healing from the historical trauma that’s kept us divided for so long.
Heather Purser is a YES! Magazine editorial intern.