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Healing Unresolved Grief in Indigenous & Settler Societies

Dina Gilio-Whitaker
8/1/16

As Native people we are no strangers to grief. Profound grief. With a growing literature on historical trauma, we have clearer understandings about how the political realities of colonization have affected us on the individual level. We can, for example, understand addiction as individual responses to trauma, rather than a pathological inability to adjust to a world that was thrust upon us without our consent, as it has historically been framed.

Perhaps the first writers to theorize colonization in terms of post-traumatic stress were the psychologists Duran and Duran in their 1995 book Native American Postcolonial Psychology. They helped us to understand that mental illness in Native America cannot be separated from the history of genocide, the loss of land and culture, and the forced breakup of families. And that as strange and sad as it may sound, some of the social problems we see today in Indian country like addiction and suicide could even be seen as rational responses to profound loss.

Further complicating mainstream theories on Indian maladjustment to the modern world, the research on intergenerational trauma increasingly points to evidence that such trauma may be genetically inherited. This would mean that the genetic inheritance of trauma is not limited to the experience of indigenous peoples with colonization, but to other groups who have experienced profound oppression or loss. This would include African-Americans who were forcibly taken out of their homelands and brutally enslaved for centuries, and Jews whose ancestors survived the Holocaust. It could even apply to other groups who have suffered extreme loss. Even European settlers and immigrants.

I know what you’re thinking—that settlers are the ones who gained everything as a result of indigenous loss. Not only that, but that they are the people who continue to benefit the most from the colonial system we live in, which includes every kind of privilege that structures a hierarchical, class-based society. And you are right. The structural inequities are immense and the work it’s going to take to balance centuries of injustice to indigenous peoples will take generations. But please bear with me as I try to shed a slightly different light on our collective U.S. American society.

In a brilliant essay titled “Justice As Healing: Going outside the Colonizer’s Cage,” authors Caslin and Breton argue that decolonization is necessary for both the colonizer and the colonized because colonization dehumanizes everyone. “What is destructive and catastrophic to the well-being of one cannot be good for the other. To dehumanize others can only dehumanize the dehumanizers…” (pg. 513). Referring to the “internalized colonizer,” they go on to say that “[t]he remedy is to peel away the layers of colonization within us, so that we can feel the lifeblood of healing justice and plant ourselves within Mother Earth by affirming who we are as peoples” (pg. 514).

Healing from colonialism is certainly a political project that involves everyone. But there’s another element as well, one that addresses the psychological experience of immigration and its generational effects. Pauline Boss, author of the book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, believes that many people of immigrant stock in the U.S. live with grief that has become frozen, having lost a sense of home and disconnection from family. When not resolved, this grief can be passed on for generations to come.

This point is poignantly illustrated in a recent memoir by Allan Johnson called Not from Here. A leading sociology scholar on racial privilege and oppression, Johnson reflects on his life through the experience of finding a place for his father’s ashes, leading him on a journey across the United States to places where his ancestors settled in the Midwest. Journaling along the way, Johnson expresses a sense of anguish knowing that although they may have been in a place for over 100 years, it really wasn’t his or their homeland. And that having been severed from the original homeland in Norway for two or three generations, that was no longer home either.

Exacerbating Johnson’s distress is knowing that what his ancestors thought of as their new “home” came at the expense of the Dakota people whose home it originally was.

The resulting sense of not belonging Johnson expresses this way: “I have no People, as if I came from nowhere and nowhere is where I am. And yet this [the U.S.] is where I was born, the only home I have ever known. I am a walking displacement of soul.” Johnson, in other words, verbalizes what seems to be a sense of frozen, unresolved grief.

Even more, Johnson’s ruminations exhibit a stunning level of awareness that bridges the personal with the political by recognizing his part in the unjust system as it exists today for American Indians, as a beneficiary of the settler colonial state structure that is the U.S.

I am simply posing questions. If we recognize colonialism as a structure from which everyone needs healing, how might it change the conversations between indigenous and settler? Do the psychological wounds of settlers contribute to the system of abuse they have created? Recognizing that we all have to live together, is it possible to create a space of mutual compassion that might inform a more just future for indigenous peoples, and more harmonious relationships between settler and indigenous?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.

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Christina Warden's picture
Dina Gilio-Whitaker, I am so glad I found this article! I could not agree more with your hypothesis that oppression harms all parties. It is an imposed hierarchy of unearned privilege, authority, and domination. I am doing a project on Native American women and empowerment, and have been looking for resources on intergenerational trauma and grief and holistic views of healing. This is perfect! As someone with the unearned privilege of white American-ness, it is incumbent upon me to use that privilege to promote the liberation of us all. And liberation requires that the truth be spoken. Thank you, and be well. “The truth is out and getting louder. Now we stand and claim our power.”
Christina Warden
dinagw's picture
Christina Warden, thank you. Your project and others like it is what we need more of. More dialogue between diverse, historically contentious groups, and more widespread recognition of unearned privilege. Many well intentioned non-native people emphasize personal spiritual growth/enlightenment as a path to a more harmonious society, but that is not enough if it doesn’t include an honest assessment/acknowledgement one’s place in society. This is how we bridge the personal with the political on the journey toward justice and true democracy.
dinagw
Sammy7's picture
Dina, I had decided that I have been posting too much on Indian Country and had decided to cut back; then, your article appeared. I am struck not only by your intellectual capacity but by your compassion. My soul is lifted by your words and I offer my sincerest thanks.
Sammy7
Mojo Hand's picture
Ms. Gilio-Whitaker: very nice essay. I would further add that overcoming trauma and grief is dependent upon the raising of consciousness for both parties. That those victimized can overcome the tragedy and the after effects and that those who inflicted harm can come to understand the effects of their actions….until we all raise our consciousness and learn that we are truly connected to one another and must treat each other as ourselves (Golden Rule), we will always be stuck in conflict. We have forgotten the lessons of the ancients ones and now we have brother against brother, sister against sister, nation against nation——- We come into life with a role to either teach something or to learn something (we all do both, but for our lifetimes, there is usually an emphasis on one). The Buddha told us, in the Four Noble Truths, the first truth is that life has pitfalls and suffering, and can be painful. The second truth is that suffering is caused by cravings (think greed, selfish desires, and ignorance). To free ourselves, we must FREE OUR MINDS of such cravings and desires if we ever hope to break the cycle of rebirth into conflicts and enter into a real peace.——–Real peace comes from the spiritual awakening in that we are all spiritual beings created by the Great Spirit/Cosmic Engineer/All That Is. The Christian texts tell us that whatsoever we do unto others, we do unto All That Is and ourselves. It also informs us that we reap what we sow. If not in this lifetime, then when? The next one. And the cycle continues if we do not break the karmic bonds. The Buddha informs us that the purpose of life is to help others and the Dalai Lama tells us “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible” and that his religion is simple: kindness———– Johnson wrote : “I have no People, as if I came from nowhere and nowhere is where I am. And yet this [the U.S.] is where I was born, the only home I have ever known. I am a walking displacement of soul.” He may be stuck in frozen unresolved grief, but to me, it sounds as if he is really searching for the connection to All That Is. Once the spiritual consciousness is raised, then Johnson can know that until we address the original sins of this country (slavery and genocide), there will be no peace unless we work to make right what was wrong. Until we see ourselves in strangers and people different from us. The Dalai Lama said, “Forgiveness does NOT mean forget what happened….practicing forgiveness does NOT mean accepting wrong doing….Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” For the Buddha warned us about anger and hatred: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” ———If we can all raise our consciousness and remember that we are all sparks of divinity from the great Creator, then humanity can fulfill what is possible: that we love and care for one another and act with compassion and kindness. Then true brotherhood and sisterhood will emerge.
Mojo Hand
Mojo Hand's picture
@ Ms. Christina Ward: “As someone with the unearned privilege of white American-ness, it is incumbent upon me to use that privilege to promote the liberation of us all.”———You may have unearned privilege of white American-ness, but to me, your statement informs me that whatever action you take in service of justice, or liberation, or to humanity, that is more important than the color of your skin. Of importance is what is in your heart and mind. It sounds like you have a good heart. My best to you in your endeavors to help be a voice to those with no voice.
Mojo Hand
taheshakc259@gmail.com's picture
If we recognize colonialism as a structure from which everyone needs healing, how might it change the conversations between indigenous and settler? This is interesting thinking about how colonization has also affected the colonizers in way that seeks to redress colonialism as a shared experience. To be honest, as a mostly Native mixed with European settler stock, I have less empathy for those (including my foremothers and forefathers) who made the choice to come here and benefit off of their white privilege at the expense of dispossessing my other foremothers and forefathers of their homelands for whatever reason the migration occurred. What I will say is that I appreciate the sentiment of peace and empathy from a humanitarian standpoint and I believe it is necessary for us all to try to work together to reverse some of the harm that the process of colonization had done to both the privileged beneficiaries’ and Natives’ mindsets and spirits. For me as an individual, the answer to the first question is that there can be no reconciliation until there is acknowledgement on the part of the privileged party. I don’t need an apology on behalf of your ancestors but just plain acknowledgement and understanding of the history of trauma that we as Natives has been through and an acknowledgement that the immigrants that come here have benefited from our displacement and our physical and cultural genocide. I think Christina Warden’s comments are a perfect example of how this should be done. Thank you Christina Warden. When these conditions exist then I say, Yes, let’s move on with the healing. As to the 2nd question, Do the psychological wounds of settlers contribute to the system of abuse they have created? Yes I believe they do. When you are psychologically damaged and don’t heal properly, you become toxic to your environment. It might not be on purpose but I think people do what comes naturally to them when it comes to interacting with others. Most do not really think about how they communicate or how what they say and how they say it might affect the way others feel and respond. No one knows how to truly listen and think before they post something anymore. The heart to the tips of the fingers just flies out in an impulse of rage or sadness. Everyone reacts to feeling and opinion but not with measured reasoning and empathy. I also think that colonizers do not want to be confronted about their privilege because inherently they feel guilty and afraid of being called a racist. Their usual response is to be defensive and charge you with “PC run amok.” So if we are to work with people of this mindset I think its important to find a way to approach the topic without necessarily using the R word but at the same time, and more importantly, not sacrificing our own feelings of invisibility and traumatizations so that they can continue to be comfortable. We should not allow them to stick their head in the sand and ignore our perspective if healing and communication is the goal on both ends. Recognizing that we all have to live together, is it possible to create a space of mutual compassion that might inform a more just future for indigenous peoples, and more harmonious relationships between settler and indigenous? Yes but I think these ideas and spaces should be informed by traditional practices that exist in our oral cultures and not necessarily ONLY rely on modern Western science including psychology. It would be great if there could be an intercultural approach using both mediation and modern counseling methods. I also think we should always put the indigenous perspective first. Settlers have had their turn in the media and government. Its time for us to try our ways now. Exercising sovereignty in a way that makes sense for each community whatever their level of assimilation. Some may want to be more traditional and some less depending on each community. I wouldn’t care to focus on settler’s feelings. Not that I want them to be hurt but it just doesn’t matter to me. I have let go of my anger towards them. I don’t feel they deserve the privilege of making me feel anything really but the history of systematic trauma in my family runs deep and right now I am more focused on healing myself and my community from Native traditional perspective and I don’t have the time or energy to worry about privileged people and how they feel about benefitting from colonization and why they’re messed up in the head about the their past. In all honesty, they should feel bad because they descend from murderers and thieves and maybe don’t deserve peace until they give peace back. What I want to know is what is settler america going to do with their white privilege to restore the pain and trauma they have caused by continuing to occupy our lands while ignoring our calls for help in issues of local politics and justice? In order to heal we need white warriors for our cause too. Those are the ones whose wounds I will nurse. They will be considered my friends and I can find peace with them when they join with me to decolonize.
taheshakc259@gm…
human being's picture
Great article! I think you raise some important questions here. This might sound crazy but I would rather deal with the intergenerational trauma or psychological wounds that we Natives may struggle with today than what the settler’s might have to deal with. I think I would suffer from “white guilt” to the point of self hatred. I don’t think I could live with it but “white guilt” serves no purpose unless it motivates settlers to change the system of about they have created such as what Christina discusses in her comment. I would rather deal with all the struggles that we Natives face. Unfortunately, I don’t think many settlers have any idea of the abuse/oppression/genocide committed in the past or the system of abuse they created that continues to this day. Obviously that is part of the privilege they enjoy. They don’t have to. But I also agree with Cristina….”the truth is out and it is getting louder.” There is much healing on our side when the truth is acknowledged. That is an important step in the right direction. Thanks for raising some great questions for the reader to think about. I appreciate you.
human being
Mojo Hand's picture
@taheshakc259: “To be honest…I have less empathy for those (including my foremothers and forefathers) who made the choice to come here and benefit off of their white privilege at the expense of dispossessing my other foremothers and forefathers of their homelands for whatever reason the migration occurred.” —–Perfectly understandable position………..”What I will say is that I appreciate the sentiment of peace and empathy from a humanitarian standpoint and I believe it is necessary for us all to try to work together to reverse some of the harm that the process of colonization had done to both the privileged beneficiaries’ and Natives’ mindsets and spirits.”————I agree. Our fates are tied to one another. People think yin and yang are separate; they are not. One cannot exist without the other, night cannot exist without the day; and just like the Han Chinese have tied their fate to the Tibetans by their actions, the karmic bond now exists and cannot be undone by trying to ignore their bad deeds. They need to address it to be free. No real peace can be obtained either by the white majority ignoring the original sins of this country: slavery and genocide, the treatment of indigenous peoples.——–“For me as an individual…there can be no reconciliation until there is acknowledgement on the part of the privileged party. I don’t need an apology on behalf of your ancestors but just plain acknowledgement and understanding of the history of trauma that we as Natives has been through and an acknowledgement that the immigrants that come here have benefited from our displacement and our physical and cultural genocide.”…….Exactly. But I would like more than just acknowledgement of the privileged for what they wrought upon others. And it shouldn’t be burdened with “white guilt” (like human being had mentioned), but I would like to see them, with true desire and compassion, to help in some small way those that have been disadvantaged by history. I want to see their consciousness raised even higher beyond acknowledgement. Be of service to the less fortunate, not just indigenous peoples, but everyone in need. Maybe we can all heal and benefit if we all seek to be of service to our fellow humans in need. As the Dalai Lama said: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others, and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
Mojo Hand