Unresolved grief, anger and guilt

By Tina Deschenie
Special to the Times

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FARMINGTON, Aug. 28, 2008

A Diné gentleman, likely in his eighties, asked in Navajo with great earnestness, "What were we born for? Why were we brought here? To fight in wars? To defend a man who died on a cross?"

The elder explained he suffered trauma in the war back in the 1940s when he was still a young man.

A middle-aged man said, "This is real. It affects us, from the newborn to the elderly. We have learned how to copy others really well. But we need our own teachings and our self-identity as Diné people. We are Diné people. We do not have white skin."

He went on to emphasize that communication using traditional stories is essential.

A young man said, "There's a breakdown in the Navajo family structure. Our traditional values are not being passed on."

A middle-aged lady said, "The shootings in Hogback were traumatizing to me. Why didn't we as a community deal with it? When someone passes on, everyone gathers together to help the survivors, but when a trauma occurs, people don't gather together to deal with it. We need to learn how to do that."

These heartfelt comments were voiced by individuals attending a late evening workshop titled "Intergenerational and Historic Trauma's Impact on the Diné" by Larry Emerson, Ph.D., at the Shiprock Chapter on Aug. 26.

The workshop was one of a series planned by the Restoring and Celebrating Family Wellness Committee. The organizers were on hand to provide approximately 60 people with a potluck meal at the start and door prizes at the end.

Emerson talked about the damaging effects of trauma on Native people. For the Navajo, these traumas began with the Long Walk, then continued as the boarding schools separated children from their families and relocation separated people from their homelands.

An older woman who nodded at each reference explained that her own boarding school trauma prevented her from teaching her children the Navajo language and led her to discourage them from learning traditional teachings. She said that she now faces their questions about why she did not teach them about their Navajo-ness.

Another woman commented that many Navajos who survived boarding schools "were strong" and have somehow managed to live responsible lives. She asked why today's young people who mainly attend public schools turn to alcohol, drugs and other unhealthy lifestyles.

She said, "They didn't go to boarding schools. Why aren't they doing better?"

Emerson responded that unresolved, unhealed trauma can carry through multiple generations, getting worse with each generation. He also pointed to the fact that the first generation affected by boarding school trauma often knew the Navajo language and had strong traditional teachings from early childhood at home, so they had a strong foundation to help them cope. Later generations lost these resources for resiliency.

Much of Emerson's PowerPoint presentation credited research by Van der Kolk (2003) that centered on the loss and grief suffered by Native people who were forcibly separated from their traditional teachings and values. These traumatized people became ashamed of their Native identity, which led to confusion, and resulted in guilt and anger.

Emerson explained that these individuals, like those who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, tend to become incapable of expressing emotion. They are often unable to express love to their own children and family.

In the end, the group considered how to address trauma as a community. Several indicated more culture and language studies are needed in the schools.

When almost no one responded to the question "How many of you have read the Fundamental Law of the Diné?" it was apparent that everyone needed to know more about Navajo laws.

One woman suggested that greater spirituality is needed. She said that youth who have faith "do well." Another man seemed to feel the problems had been overstated.

He said, "Look at us in here. We're not all drunks. The perceptions need to change. There are only a few Navajo policemen covering the entire Navajo Nation of (over 17 million) acres.... So why isn't there more chaos on the reservation?"

The presentation was serious and thought provoking and close to 40 people remained to the end, ranging in age from teenager to elderly, offering comments. It was perhaps an indication that this community intends to begin a process of self-education, intends to start healing and seeking solutions to community needs.

As Emerson said, "Just because these things happened a long time ago doesn't mean they don't matter now."

Karen Sandoval, one of the committee members who planned this workshop, invited everyone to future sessions which are held at 5:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month at Shiprock Chapter. Marshall Plummer will speak in October; Russell Gould will speak in November; and a one-day conference will be held in December. Sandoval also encouraged interested individuals to participate in a planning session for next year's sessions on Sept. 2 at 9 a.m.

Tina Deschenie, Diné /Hopi, resides in Farmington and is editor of Tribal College Journal.

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