The Tragedy; Awareness of Multi-generational Trauma
By Judith R. BrownHawk MS/P  ~  509-879-5792

Native Americans represent a very heterogeneous grouping of cultures. However diverse; Native Americans do share beliefs in unity, the sacredness of nature, and a focus on the community versus the individual. This racial group comprises 1.6% of the total United States Population.

Currently there are 565 federally recognized tribes in the United States. There are also tribes that are not federally recognized. Federally recognized tribes are provided health and educational assistance through a government agency called Indian Health Services. There are currently over 630 recognized First Nations or Bands spread across Canada. Those tribes who are not recognized, do not receive any help or funding.

Native Americans have suffered historical trauma, sometimes referred to as ‘multi-generational trauma’. A lot of our Native American children have been through not only one trauma but often multiple traumas in their life, in terms of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, as well as emotional/mental abuse. Additionally, these atrocities have happened multiple times to multiple generations of Native Americans.  ‘Multi-generational trauma’ is based on shared experiences by American Indian and Alaska Native people of historic traumatic events like: displacement, forced assimilation, language and culture suppression, boarding schools, foster homes, and forced adoption.

In other words, it is passed down through generations. There is a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness associated with historic trauma that contributes to high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, and other health issues. We need more programs with culture-based strategies to address the effects of historical trauma in individuals, families, and communities.

I am from the Choctaw Nations of Mississippi and Oklahoma. The Choctaw were named one of the 5 civilized tribes because, we wore clothing made of bright cotton rather than animal skins, we had a written language we tried to become like the whites, attempting to assimilate to the foreign cultures, even owning slaves and building wealthy plantation homes. However, surrounding whites saw us as little more than animals attempting to copy white behaviors. Jealousy and covetousness erupted from the whites and in order to quell the skirmishes, President Andrew Jackson created and passed the Indian Removal act in 1830.  Just 54 years after the war for independence, and 42 years after the Choctaw helped him to win the war of 1812.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed on September 27, 1830 between the Choctaw Tribe and the United States Government which made way for the first removal treaty carried into effect under the Indian Removal Act.

The Trail of Tears was the relocation and movement of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the present-day United Sates where Native American historians describe as an act of genocide. Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while on route to their destinations.

In the winter of 1838, 22,000 Cherokee began the thousand mile march. The march began in Red Clay, Tennessee; the location of the last Eastern capital of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee were given used blankets from a hospital in Tennessee where an epidemic of small pox had broken out, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 5,500 Cherokees. Because of the disease, the Indians were not allowed to go into any towns or villages along the way; many times this meant traveling much farther to go around them, (please let that soak in.)

For the next ten years the tribal peoples of those nations, who stayed behind and chose not to go to the reservations, were objects of increasing legal conflict, harassment, and intimidation. The Choctaws describe their situation in 1849, “We have had our habitations torn down and burned, our fences destroyed, cattle turned into our corn fields and we ourselves have been scourged, manacled, fettered and otherwise personally abused, until by such treatment some of our best men have died. Yet there are no legal repercussions to the white perpetrators.” (Green, 2008)

1842 the Bureau of Indian Affairs enacted a law that established six boarding schools that were originally run by missionaries, until the early 1900. Native American children were forcibly removed from their parents, and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles from their homes, for the purposes of assimilation. In these schools, the children’s hair was cut, clothing and native jewelry was removed and discarded, and they were violently punished for speaking their native languages.  This was a far more devastating and cultural shaming activity than you might imagine. The primary agenda of the day was, “Kill the Indian and save the child”.

On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill granting Native Americans full citizenship. Prior to this we were reduced to non-human status and were not allowed to vote.

The nuclear family of the 50s, 60s and 70s was ready to continue the practice of assimilation by the government in what was called, “The Ultimate Rescue”,  (In their defense, they genuinely believed they were saving us from going to hell by placing us in Christian homes, which more often than not, was a sentence of slavery and sexual abuse.) This created the reception of Indian and half-breed children into truly “American” households, where they might grow up, and learn Christian values. Native American children were forcibly removed and placed in white Christian homes without the approval of the parents. These adoptions and fosterings gained full momentum in 1958 when the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) collaborated with the BIA to establish the Indian Adoption Project. The Association on American Indian Affairs showed that between 1941 and 1978, roughly 55% of Indian children in the United States had been separated from their families. According to the First Nations Orphan Association, during the same time 68% of all Indian children were removed from their homes and placed in orphanages, white foster homes, or adopted into white families without their birth parent’s permission.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, 1978 allowed Native Americans to practice their religion; finally after 200 plus years in a country that supposedly prides itself in freedom of religion. In the same year The Indian Child Welfare Act came into being; stopping the random removal of Native American Children, though cultural damage done cannot be removed or unknown.

In conclusion, the result of government intervention has produced a high percentage of Indians identify as “food insecure”. The suicide rate among young American Indian & Alaskan Native males ages 15-24 is higher, accounting for 64% of all American Indian & Alaskan Native suicides. This is 2-3 times higher than the general U.S. rate. Alcohol-related deaths among American Indians between the ages of 15-24 are 17 times higher than the national average for the same age group. Fetal alcohol syndrome is at 25%. 74% of persons in custody in the Federal Bureau of Prisons system were American Indian & Alaskan Native youth, a 50% increase since 1994.  When faced with memories of abuse compiled with stories of abuses to past generations, we only leave a person feeling hopeless and looking for a way to stay sedated to feel less awkward and more like others.

In the winter of 1958, myself and all 6 of my brothers and sisters were forcibly removed from our home, placed in a black and gray car, and taken to a train station from Hanobia, OK,  to Vancouver, WA, where we were split up into separate foster homes and adopted out without our parent’s consent. I was torn from my mother’s hip clawing at her clothing and screaming. I am 62, and I will never be the same. I can never get back what was taken from me that day. I was taken out of school in the 3rd grade to be a slave. At 10 years old I was raped by my adopted father who continued till I could leave there at 13 when I went to find my family. It took me 3 years of hitchhiking around the country till I finally met my father, the last of my journey. I weep as I write this; my pain is on the surface as it is for many of us.

The reason I chose to write this is to help you be aware when working with, or engaging Native American peoples of your own biases; be aware of the privileges you are afforded as a white person. And mostly, be gentle. Be kind. Our wounds are right on the surface.  Also to let you know that this government has done to Native American children the same thing they are doing to Mexican children. It is atrocious. We must not be silent, complacent or complicit. The results that happened to Native American children will be the same for this population and this government is responsible. Thank you for listening.