A note to the reader: this post mentions thoughts and feelings of suicide. If you experience thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help. There is so much goodness left on Earth for us all, and we want you to stay. Immediate help is available via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
If you’ve tuned into any conversations about race or reparations in the past year, you’ve probably heard the terms ‘historical trauma’ and ‘intergenerational trauma’ used by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) when describing the ways they experience the world. But have you paused to think about what these words mean, and what they look like in a person’s life?
These words represent many different experiences, making them difficult to define. That’s part of why it’s important to listen to the stories and experiences of BIPOC, and reflect on your own experiences, because you can’t solve a problem until you understand it.
Thankfully, there are brilliant people researching these issues. From her work with tribal communities, clinician and researcher Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart describes historical trauma as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experience.” She describes the historical trauma response (HTR) as “the constellation of features in reaction to this trauma”. These features often include “depression, self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and gestures, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. It may include substance abuse, often an attempt to avoid painful feelings through self-medication. Historical unresolved grief is the associated affect that accompanies HTR; this grief may be considered fixated, impaired, delayed, and/or disenfranchised.”
In other words, as Indigenous people, we are born with a great lake of grief in our hearts because of the terrible things that have happened to our people. As we go about life and experience further loss and harm, the lake may grow into an ocean. Watching the water rise is terrifying, and can lead to difficult feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Many of us have constructed dams to prevent our grief from drowning us. These dams take a lot of time and energy to upkeep. Some people make their dams out of empty beer, wine, and liquor bottles. Some people build them out of exercise equipment, or college degrees. Others use empty pill bottles, roaches, or junk food wrappers, all of which can be highly effective dam construction material. We are not addicts; we are highly skilled engineers. It takes a lot of drugs and food and weed and studying to hold back the collective grief from multiple lifetimes of pain. And why wouldn’t you want to avoid it? Breaking down that dam can make you want to kill youself. But it can also set you free.
With the help of my friends, family, and mental health professionals, I am learning how to feel my grief without letting it swallow me up. Grief is an important part of life, and so is joy. I am learning how to find a balance that includes grief and joy and lets me feel free. In fact, many Indigneous people are on similar healing journeys. Others aren’t ready yet, which is understandable. Everyone, Indigenous or not, is trying to navigate how to live in what we know as America today. Passionate Indigneous students are trying to understand how to prevent future trauma in our communities. Indigenous therapists are trying to teach us how to cope with this trauma and grief while dealing with their own. Indigenous mothers and fathers are trying not to pass their deep sadness onto their children. Allies are overwhelmed, wondering if, and where to start.
A few years ago, my friend gave birth to a beautiful daughter in the wake of a huge emotional trauma that devastated her life. “I try not to cry in front of my daughter,” she told me in tears one night after her daughter was asleep. “Even though she won’t remember this, I don’t want her earliest experiences to be my facial expressions of sadness.” Facial expressions are a small but mighty example of how history has shaped Indigeous experiences throughout the generations. Trauma is perpetuated partially through the adult faces that Indigenous children have been looking up at for centuries, and through the messages behind those expressions.
Indigenous children have seen the terrified faces of their parents as they ran and hid from the U.S. troops that were hunting them. “We might not survive this.”
They have seen the angry faces of the American soldiers who were imprisoning them at concentration camps. “You deserve to be in this hell.”
They have seen the disapproving faces of nuns at boarding schools. “You are a dirty Indian savage, but I will fix you.”
They have seen the pained expressions of their elders, massaging their tired feet, black from diabetes. “Life is pain.”
They have avoided their relatives’ drunken, angry eyes filled with misdirected fury. “Everything has been taken from us, and nothing matters anymore.”
Living in present-day America and Canada means living with ongoing trauma for many Indigneous people. We have no access to clean food or water in some communities. We are legally restricted, or cannot afford to live on our homelands, where we’ve always gathered food, water, and medicine. We watch people we love destroy themselves to build their emotional dams, and we learn from them. We struggle to access the support and medicine we need to heal. And we scream as our sacred sites are destroyed for the profit of others.
Everywhere we turn, we are reminded of the traumas we’ve sustained. “Take a left on Indian school road”. “Beat those R*dskins!”. “Happy Independence Day!” While I was thru-hiking the Colorado Trail during the month of July last summer, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grazing lands were most disturbing to me. I remember standing on a high point of the trail, weeping while I looked out at hundreds of acres of “federal land” that is leased to cattle ranchers for grazing.
Ute people were massacred and forcibly removed from this land so that cows can shit on it and rich people can eat steak.
I felt envious that other non-Indigenous thru-hikers didn’t have those same thoughts every damn day. My dam sprung a leak and grief trickled through.
Allies often ask me what they can do to help Indigenous causes and Indigenous people. It’s such a difficult question, as we are desperately trying to figure out how to help ourselves. I can give you a checklist, and you can feel good while you buy art directly from Native artists, pay us for doing emotional labor, and use your platforms to share Indigenous stories (please keep doing those things). But my life’s work is to go deeper to the heart of the matter. In that spirit, I came up with these guidelines:
- Understand the problem and the role you play in it as an American or Canadian citizen.
- Apply compassion and humanity.
- If you’re causing harm, apologize if warranted, and change your behavior. It’s that simple.
Understand the problem AND the role you play in it.
Allow me to be blunt with you about the problem: the government which you are a citizen of worked with the church that you are a parishioner of to commit genocide against Indigenous people. Their ultimate goal was for me to not exist. Despite their best efforts, we persevered. So they made rules that broke our families, made it nearly impossible for us to cultivate healthy communities, and left us with a crushing burden of grief to process. Today, in America and Canada, we are still playing by these rules, and they have been normalized even though they are still doing so much harm to BIPOC.
I know what you’re thinking.
It wasn’t me who did that to you. I’m not responsible for your pain.
This is a normal response to this unfortunate information. We know you didn’t. Your character and reputation are intact. Let’s go deeper. If you live on American or Canadian soil, you are benefiting from the government’s genocide of Indigenous peoples. When the government marched Indigenous people off of our lands, they did it for your benefit. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t ask them to. The American government hunted, imprisoned, and killed Indigenous people so that you could live on the exact plot of land you live on today. Please don’t run from that information. When you’re ready, absorb it, accept it, dissect it, grieve it, and let it change the way you think.
Apply compassion and humanity.
A large part of genocide is dehumanization. If you don’t see a person as human, it’s much easier to treat them poorly. Have you ever been expressly taught that Indigenous people are human? Unless you grew up in a place with a high Indigenous population, you’ve probably only seen us objectified as halloween costumes, school mascots, and cartoon characters. Learn more about Indigenous cultures, what we celebrate, and what we struggle with. Imagine what life must have been like for the children in the boarding schools. What if your children were taken from you in such a way? What if someone marched you barefoot out of your home at gunpoint in the wintertime, then burned it down? How would you feel? Ask yourself these hard questions in regard to the issues we care about. Let those feelings change you too.
If you’re causing harm, apologize if warranted, and change your behavior.
Historical trauma can be a complicated subject, but the solutions are simple. If, in your reflection on this new information, you learn that something you’re doing is causing harm, change your behaviour. If you align yourself with an organization that has harmed Indigenous people (like a government or a church), try to understand the true history, and start thinking about what it would take to make things right. If an Indigenous person tells you that something you did hurt them or the community, apologize and reflect on the experience.
If all of that seems too hard, here is an alternative plan: find a token Indigenous person. Tell them you’re sorry for the sins of your forefathers. Cry. If they look uncomfortable, don’t worry- it’s a cultural thing, and it means they forgive you. Go to an ATM. Give them all your money. Take them with you to your lawyer’s office. Sign over the deed to any land you own. And your car. And your house. Give them the shirt off your back. Then, and only then, can you call yourself an ally.
See? It’s simple.
I’m kidding, obviously………you can keep your shirt.