Ongoing Trail of Tears

Photo by Sarah Whiting

With a master’s degree in clinical social work, I have learned how to assess mental health symptoms and form a diagnosis. I’ve learned about terms such as “historical trauma” and “intergenerational trauma,” and what those terms mean in a clinical setting. I also know the history of the near genocide of Native Americans in our state and country.

However, learning terms and diagnoses does not compare to what I learn working with Native American families who are struggling through the most personal and painful situations — witnessing how their life circumstances can be directly tied to the historical trauma they have endured. It is hard for me to put into words how significantly I have seen trauma permeate the lives of our Native American brothers and sisters. 

My work as a social worker in the Indian Child Welfare Act division of child protection involves developing case plans with families, working on goals to address safety concerns, and giving referrals to outside providers such as mental and chemical health specialists. I most frequently encounter post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. 

The families I work with have acute need. Increasingly, I realize that the solutions our European-based clinical training offers is a band-aid on the issues. 

Terms as distancing mechanism

Frankly, I don’t like the term “historical trauma.” It does attempt to explain the rape of sacred people and their culture. But my concern is that the term distances us from the reality and impact of what our white culture has done. “Historical” implies there is not a “present” to the impact. Putting a label on it enables us to put it in a metaphorical box, over there. 

Yet a Native American who is over the age of 30 is only one generation removed from the boarding school era. That was the white culture’s practice, from 1819 to 1978, of removing Native American children from their homes to “civilize” them in boarding schools and in homes with white families. What are we doing to address that unresolved grief?

While I might refer a mom, dad, or child to seek help for mental health symptoms, my concern is that the system I work in — the professionals I defer to and society as a whole — is not prepared to fully, truly acknowledge the pervasive impact of historical trauma on Native American people. 

The statistics we see over and over again show that Native American families suffer the most disparity in education, foster care placement of their children, socio-economic status, suicide, health care, and life expectancy. This is disturbing to me. 

I believe this is due to the deep-seated denial of our white culture about what we have done to others, ongoing systemic discrimination, a false belief that reparations have been made, the idea that mental health issues are solely the responsibility of the individual to change, and the Western-centric view that we know the best way to heal an individual. 

It’s not working. 

If a parent I work with, for example, is suffering from combined mental health symptoms and chronic chemical dependency, she or he will most likely be asked to participate in treatment that most often looks like a 30- to 90-day stay in an inpatient treatment facility. The parent is expected to maintain ongoing stability and sobriety with little support. But what is being done to address and heal the communal sense of loss due to generations of persecution, oppression and discrimination? 

In mental health, the emphasis remains focused on individual causes and solutions, even though trauma has been transferred through generations and is not individually based. 

Native American communities suffered traumas that were systemic in nature — massacres, Trail of Tears, large-scale removal of children. I believe the systemic trauma has never ceased. It has simply changed how it looks over time — the current opioid epidemic ravaging through the Native American community, the corporate white supremacy of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A gap I see is a lack of funding to support and increase culturally specific educational ways of teaching, and resources that offer Native families traditional methods of healing and a sense of community ownership. From a clinical perspective, I also see a lack of empirically demonstrated treatment methods to address the unique needs of Native American clients. 

Despite all these inadequacies in our current system, I find hope and strength from the families and communities I work with. Resilience is not easy, but there are Native elders, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who are stepping up and stepping out every day to meet the challenges head on. And thus, so shall I.