Christina Rose
Cecilia Fire Thunder, shown in this 2013 photo at the Black Hills Pow Wow, offered a presentation on lateral oppression in a webinar sponsored by Futures Without Violence.

Endless Oppression: How Colonization Affects You

Christina Rose

Colonization left a legacy of oppression that continues to affect reservations and communities at home, in schools, the workplace, and more. A webinar called “Returning to Being Good Relatives: Addressing Lateral Oppression and Violence,” presented by Cecilia Fire Thunder, Oglala Lakota, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, explained that when oppressed people cannot express their anger or frustration, “Aggression has to go somewhere, so it goes out towards others. We don’t put it where it needs to go. We turn it on each other,” Fire Thunder said, adding that healing lays in “looking at ourselves and seeing how we can change—but first, we have to know what these behaviors are.”

The webinar was sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and Futures Without Violence and is a part of the Defending Childhood Initiative, which addresses issues of childhood exposure to violence and trauma.

How Colonization Continues to Affect Indian Country

Colonization imposed fear-based power and control techniques including warfare, genocide, threat of death, male gender and economic power, and the idea of superiority of some and inferiority of others.

Those who are oppressed turn their hostility on others less powerful, such as children. Reverta Drags Wolf, of New Town, North Dakota, is a social worker in an elementary school. “In our school we are trying to get a handle on bullying. There’s a lot of belittling, controlling or vengeful behavior. A lot of those children, you can see the anger in them but they don’t know how to release it.”

Domestic violence, child abuse, and abuse of power by community members can be the result of lateral oppression and violence. Fire Thunder said lateral oppression can be seen in behaviors including gossip, jealousy, blaming, shaming, shunning, greed, selective hiring, bullying with physical, mental, and spiritual attacks, and sabotage at work.

Contessa Big Crow-Jenkins, Sicangu Lakota, is an employment counselor at the Connecticut Indian Center in North Stonington. She believes the historical ties of oppression to today’s violence are significant. “I don’t think people realize how their behavior has been affected unless they are practicing their traditional culture,” she said. Big Crow-Jenkins felt the webinar was a positive step in healing. “Not by excusing things but it will bring some understanding and change,” she said.

For Yvonne Tobey, director of employment and training for the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, the webinar provided her with information she hadn't had. “The knowledge I gained on lateral violence tells me that the successes or failures of my client go beyond the individual (or me) but are also rooted in what we have experienced as a people,” she said.

Cecilia Fire Thunder, back row, center, is the president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Consortium, seen here in Rapid City, South Dakota in 2013. (Christina Rose)

Power and Oppression

With colonization came the misuse of power. Fire Thunder asked the participants, “How do you use your own power?” Drags Wolf suggested that power in leadership is being responsible to those you are helping or leading. “In a sense you have to be last and put your people first. You address their needs before yours.”

One program participant noted, “Increasing the oppressed person’s confidence and self esteem will reduce the oppressor’s power and control.”

Melissa Cole, another participant said, “Powerful leadership equals empowerment.”

Fire Thunder said that recognizing how one uses their own personal power is the first step to avoiding oppressing others. “Awareness is key. Once you are aware of what you bring to situations, you can change it for the positive,” Awendela Dana, child support/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program coordinator for the Penobscot Nation, said.

Language and Oppression

“All languages of the ‘conquered’ were considered non-languages and the speakers "non-people,” participant Rogelio Tabarez noted within the presentation. Fire Thunder reported that the colonizers made people feel their culture and language were not good enough. “The two main objectives were for us to speak English and become Christian,” she said. These days, the tables are turning as some tribal members feel inadequate because they cannot speak their language.

Oppression, isolation, domination, alienation and marginalization can be imposed through language, including body language. “Become more mindful of your own body language and tone of voice; then we begin to be mindful of other people,” Fire Thunder suggested.

Breaking Through Oppression

Fire Thunder notes that increasingly there are policies that protect people from bullying, verbal abuse, and other oppressive behaviors, and she believes more will come.

But for those facing oppressive situations, “Speak up,” Fire Thunder says. But that may be difficult for children, people in business or abusive relationships. “How many people are driven by fear even though they have been hurt or feel inadequate? Or by being put down and feeling that they cannot speak up and be heard?” she asked.

Keeping secrets, using selective information sharing, and keeping people out of the loop is oppressive and results in others being penalized for mistakes because information was kept from them.

“I encourage your self-awareness, and to change roles or patterns that sustain oppression. No matter how smart you are and how many degrees you have, until you begin to look inward and take action to change your behaviors, only then will you become aware of all those things that are happening around you. Take some responsibility for yourself,” Fire Thunder said. “No matter how balanced we think we are, we all have triggers, especially family triggers. No matter how much we love them, they can still push our buttons. If you are upset, don’t try to problem solve or try to have a dialogue until you’re calmer.”

Dana was excited to put a name to the behavior that she believes exists within some communities. “Many tribal nations experience lateral oppression differently. I really think it is a challenge for communities to speak up. Many people are not aware of what lateral oppression is or how it plays out in the workplace or the community as a whole.”

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