What an Indian Reservation Can Teach Us About Trauma

South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the site of the 19th-century Wounded Knee Massacre and the 20th-century American Indian Movement rebellion. Pine Ridge, with an estimated population of 30,000, has 80 percent unemployment, eight times the U.S. rate of Type II diabetes, and four times the number of suicides.


Still, in many ways, Pine Ridge offers an inspiring, hopeful contrast to Washington, DC, where I live.

For four days last month, I and a dozen of my colleagues collaborated with the Little Wound School on the first phase of a three-year program of youth suicide prevention. We taught the fundamentals of mind-body medicine to 90 school counselors, teachers and tribal elders, and 30 activist teenagers. They learned meditation to quiet stress and relieve historical and present psychological trauma; guided mental imagery to mobilize intuition and discover answers to previously insoluble problems; shaking and dancing to free bodies frozen with memories of pain; and mindful eating and basic nutrition to help the Lakota people find their way through the reservation’s food desert.

I arrived at Little Wound preoccupied with raising money for our global trauma programs and an overdue writing assignment, unsteady from the anti-human political winds blowing through my hometown. Five days later, my feet felt comfortably planted on the earth. My heart was more open, my mind easier.

What follows are some glimpses of the wiser, more hopeful perspective I brought back to Washington.

Mitakuye Oyasin ('All my relations'). This Lakota phrase of welcome and farewell is woven through our days on Pine Ridge, reminding us that we are connected to every living being and to trees and rocks as well. It reassures and invites generosity, urging the Lakota people and all of us to abandon petty quarrels and self-protective fear for the embrace of diversity as well as community.

Mitakuye oyasin offers an inevitable and painful contrast to the attitude of our president and our Congress, a government functioning for the benefit of a privileged few, decision makers who refuse to recognize that damage to any part of our nation inevitably harms us all.

Everything is sacred. This is the consequence and corollary of mitakuye oyasin.

Back in DC, I live in a world that separates the secular from the sacred. Sunday—or Saturday or Friday—for worship, the rest of the week for work. The separation is well-intentioned, ensuring that our government doesn’t demand allegiance to a particular god or his injunctions. But at Pine Ridge, on great rolling land, among otherworldly mesas of rock, under a wide sky, separation seems arbitrary and limited. “Lakota spirituality,” says Basil Brave Heart, the 86-year-old elder who first invited us years ago to Pine Ridge, “is not a religion. It’s a way of life.”

We begin each day with chanted prayers and smudging, cleansing with burning sage. When we teach the practices of mind-body medicine, elders and kids nod and smile in recognition. Our program, they tell us, is completely in harmony with the Lakota way. “Our footsteps are our prayers,” says Basil, “every breath is a communion with the sacred.”

Honesty is revered. Again and again the adults and young people in our groups feel the relief that comes from saying what is in their hearts, from sharing pain they have suffered in silence.

Many Lakota have used drink and drugs to avoid responsibility; they have invoked the terrible damage of dislocation and discrimination to justify their addiction. And people on Pine Ridge can be as guilty of deception and back-biting as any Washington player. There is, however, a growing commitment to realizing the consequences; they know they must break the cycle.

Warren “Bim” Pourier, long ago an alcoholic, now a respected elder and a school dean of students, speaks for everyone in our group when he says our meditative work helps him “to come, once again, to my center.” A musician is determined to “fix a brain bent by hereditary trauma, bad diet and drugs.” A teenage girl draws herself “being honest and kind” to family she had rejected.

Meanwhile, Washington is increasingly, aggressively, a city of deflection and projection. “It’s not my fault. It’s yours.” “You did it, too,” or “You did it first,” or both. Our president takes no responsibility for the hurt he does or the lies he tells. Critics, immigrants, the media, the previous president, or a defeated opponent are to blame. Fair enough for a child, but it seems to me, looking back from Indian country, utterly irresponsible, pathetic for our leader and the rest of us.

We listen respectfully. In our small groups, as in traditional ceremonial gatherings, we pass a talking stick. The group member's job is to respect the one who holds it, the speaker; to consider what her words teach, how her experience may reflect and inform our own. How different from cable news, where each head shouts to be heard over everyone else, where communication and learning are a poor second to declamation and self-justification.

What happens in Washington does affect the Lakota people. Charles Cuny, the Little Wound school principal, recalls Trump’s campaign commitments and recent executive orders. He shows me a digest of a Heritage Foundation report that the administration is using as a blueprint. In Washington these are casual cuts, but they would go deep into the flesh of daily life on every inch of the reservation.

“Eliminating discretionary education spending,” Charles explains, could cut the already tight school budget by 25%. Department of Agriculture food that sustains more than 800 hungry kids—three meals, four days a week, and breakfast and lunch on Friday—may disappear. Mental health and addiction services, already inadequate, have been marked for elimination. HUD funding to replace tiny shacks in which three generations are crowded may be cut. The numbers of tribal police and Indian Health Service clinicians could decrease. And opening nearby land to energy exploitation will likely pollute the reservation’s clear water and clean air.

And it won’t destroy the Lakota. “Regardless of who the president is,” Charles assures me, “and what he does, in spite of poverty, oppression, and despair, we’re going to survive.”

Sitting with Charles and in my small group, I feel that quiet, sustaining determination. I see it in the drawings our Lakota participants do at the end of four days of training, recognizing the hard work of breaking bad habits, but filled with hope and humor. I hear it in their commitment to share what they are learning with all the kids on the reservation and all those kids’ teachers and families. And I feel it in the closing ceremony the elders offer us: each of us moving slowly in a circle, all 130 of us looking in the eyes of each and every person, shaking hands or embracing.

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