Native American Culture and Generational Trauma

How trauma is passed on through generations, and how we can heal

Similar to many groups who have experienced genocide, some American Indians today might experience life different than others around them and not know why. This is where the science of epigenetics comes in, proposing that people pass along trauma memories in their genes, and the genocide of Native Americans on US soil was not something that was experienced in the past, but is continuing its trajectory through current day Native American populations.

This generational trauma can influence how we react to trauma and stress, so an engagement in community healing can be hugely helpful. I recently attended a cultural competency exercise entitled Through the Diamond Threshold  which proposes to help with generational healing within Native American communities as well as immersing non Native people in the Indian experience. The training was led by Bob, professor in Kansas City and a member of the Lakota tribe, and Patrick, a member of the Chickasaw tribe and a social worker at the American Indian Center in Kansas City.

American Indian, Native America, Indian, First Nation or Indigenous? 

First of all, this essay, and the lecture given by Bob and Patrick, uses many of these different terms to describe the people who first populated the Americas. Yet, one shouldn’t let fear of not knowing the right terms get in the way of real dialogue. Preference for labels vary by person, so ask a person what they prefer when speaking to them.

“I prefer to be associated by my tribe, the Sicangu Lakota. But if we’re using general terms, I prefer the term Indian,” Bob states. “Why is this? When I was growing up, there was not debate over what to call my people. We were Indians. Then, more Asian Indians started coming to America, so we became American Indians. Indian is the legal term that was on all the treaties, and references a history of everything that was done to my people. I use the term Indian as a reminder of my political relationship with the US.”

There are 566 federally registered tribes in the US. Though traditions and philosophies vary greatly between these tribes, there are some traditions that are similar across tribes, or have been adopted across tribes. Sharing ceremonies across tribes is common in American Indian culture.

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Dances have cultural and healing significance and should not be confused with the social dance such as the pow wow (though the pow wow is also an import part of Native American culture).

The sweat lodge ritual of cleansing and rebirth has been adopted by many Native peoples from the Lakota tribe. The sweat lodge is a dome shaped structure covered with a cotton material tarp. The ribs holding the structure together are symbolic of the buffalo.A fire will be kept going outside while the participants are in the hut, and hot stones from the fire will be brought inside the hut. In some cultures, water is poured over the hot stones to produce steam.  Songs are sung inside along with hand drums, and men and women are sometimes together, and sometimes separated by gender. The heat inside the hut is symbolic of Mother Earth’s womb, and when one leaves the hut one is reborn and leaves all the negative things behind in the lodge.

Vision quests (Hanbleceya) are also an important part of many Native American cultures. Hanbleceya means to “cry through the night”. The vision quest can last one night to as long as eight days with no food. During the vision quest one is isolated physically, but not spiritually. People on vision quests are guided by spiritual leaders, as well as supporters singing and praying from afar. Vision quests are common in other indigenous cultures around the world, such as the Australian walk about, and wandering the desert.

Making relatives is a practice across Native American cultures of joining as family with another tribe as part of a peace treaty. The practice originally begun with the Lakota people who made relatives with the Mandan people (a waring tribe), but has now become an adopted practice by many tribes. People who have become relatives through this ceremony are known as hunka family. Native Americans have strict rules of not marrying within the same family, and this goes for hunka relatives, though these relatives are not blood related.

Naming ceremonies vary across tribes, but in general tribe members are given a name at birth, but then they are given an Native American name later on in a tribal ceremony. Bill explains that when he was growing up, it was common to be called son #1, #2, #3 as a young boy before the naming ceremony had taken place. In Lakota culture, kids are given the names of ancient relatives, and elders might call a young person “grandmother” because of their namesake. In this way, a tribal name is sometimes used to shape a person into who they will be in the future, and also to keep memories of ancient relatives alive and present in the young people. If one is named after a living relative, this indicates a special task to look over their namesake.

The Give-Away is a custom in many Native cultures implying wealth is not merely what you have, but what you are able to give away. When someone stays with you, there is great pride in what you are able to give your guest when they leave. Poorer people gather community and family members to be able to provide a good gift.

Talking Circle, common across Native American communities looked similar to any recovery meeting you might attend. People are seated in a circle, and there is a ritual way of giving everyone a chance to speak.

The Native American Church

The Native American Church is a blend of Western Christian religion expanded to incorporate other belief systems along with the presence of the traditional peyote. The Native American Church is an individualized belief system, but the gathering is an embrace of community and heritage.

The use of peyote in rituals has been controversial because it is listed as a schedule 1 dangerous drug with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) because it contains mescaline. Drug enforcement has attempted to link peyote use to drug and alcohol addiction in Native populations.

This is ironic however, because European settlers have been trying to forbid peyote use even before there was a Drug Enforcement Administration. The first legal challenge to peyote was within Oklahoma when it was just still a territory. Native people fought this legal battle by providing evidence that the peyote ceremony could be hugely beneficial for all, specifically indicating alcoholics who had been transformed and healed by the ceremony.

During the presentation, Bob comments that the effects of peyote are similar to “drinking way too much coffee” and starting to think you see and hear things. He explained that most of the magic of the ceremony had to do with the Native American belief system, and a highly choreographed eight hours of drums, chanting and traditional stories.

“These stories are so well crafted that they take the mind to other places and can changed lives. The peyote ceremony is a deep intrapersonal and interpersonal space, and the peyote is a part of this ceremony,” Patrick explains.

The Firewater Myth 

The firewater myth refers to American Indian use of alcohol and association with alcoholism. The history of American Indian’s first contact with alcohol was when the European settlers came over to the Americas and initiated land treaties with the Native people. As is custom in European culture, these negotiations were accompanied by a few alcoholic drinks. Since Native Americans had never had alcohol before, they were intoxicated more quickly than the Europeans. Additionally, there is an enzyme in some Native American peoples, similar to some Asian peoples, which doesn’t allow alcohol to be processed as quickly. Some European settlers took advantage of this, and used alcohol as a way to exploit Native peoples in a way that stood up in the European settler’s courts of law. Bob explains that this was not uniquely a Native American experience, but an international one of colonization.

Contrary to popular belief, Native American people tend to drink alcohol at the same rate as everyone else. Though Native American youth have an extremely higher rate of drug and alcohol compared to other demographic groups, the rate of drug and alcohol use becomes similar to other populations by the age of 30. Part of the way that this myth came into place is because the only Native Americans who were being studied for alcohol and drug use were the ones who were coming to the Urban Indian Health Clinics. The correlation between poverty and loss of culture of the people visiting these clinics are not representative of the larger picture.

Patrick, the other presenter, tells a story to illustrate the harmful effect of stereotypes. Graduating with a Masters in Social Work a few years ago, he was about to accept a job that he really wanted. Right before he accepted the job his new supervisor said she had just one more question.

“Do you drink? I’ve heard that your people have problems with alcoholism.”

Patrick, needless to say, did not accept this job offer after that comment. This was a few years ago, and this was a comment coming from a social work professional.

Soul Wound 

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One of the most emotional activities involved with Through the Diamond Threshold exercise is called the Soul Wound. This exercise is a space for Native American people to explore what was lost when European settlers came to America, and what continues to be taken away from them.

A loss of life through the genocide of Native peoples in a continual land grab that we still see today (as with the Dakota Access pipeline, threatening to poison the water that these tribes survive on and desecrating sacred spots). A loss of language and culture through Indian boarding schools, where Native American kids were forcibly taken from their homes and their families by white settlers and forced to practice English and European customs. Physical violence was used when they were assaulted for speaking their own language.

Patrick and Bob finished their presentation on Through the Diamond Threshold training, and I was so thankful for them sharing their time. Though I can never know what it is like to be a Native person in America, that does not mean I should not continually listen and learn.

Many thanks to Dr. Robert Prue, Associate Professor
UMKC School of Social Work and Mr. Patrick Pruitt, Program Director of Morningstar Program, Kansas City Indian Center

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