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Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing


Chapter 1

How Things Work, and Why Stories Matter

Chapter 2

What It Means to Be Colonized

Chapter 3

Becoming Human

Chapter 4

The Angry Indian and a Culture of Blame

Chapter 5

Invisible Roots

Chapter 6

Fractured Narratives

Chapter 7

What the Body Remembers

Chapter 8

Sacred Being

Chapter 9

Recreating the Structures of Belonging

Chapter 10

Killing the Wittigo

Author’s Note





About the Author


We may be through with the past, but is the past through with us?

Reg Crowshoe (Awakaaseena), Piikani Elder and Ceremonialist

To create health, you need a new kind of knowledge, based on a deeper concept of life.

Deepak Chopra, MD

We work in the direction of ending the trauma, and letting our children be children.

Shelley Niro, Kanienkehaka artist

Chapter 1

How Things Work, and Why Stories Matter

Indigenous people do funerals really, really well.

When a young man I know is stabbed and killed in a street fight in Toronto in 2016, there are no fewer than three memorial services: one at the local friendship centre, one at his workplace, and one on his mother’s reserve. A vigil is also held at the site of his death. News of his passing filters through the Indigenous community on Tuesday and Wednesday, and by Thursday, the first memorial is in progress. The events come together beautifully: drummers, elders, a photo slideshow, room rentals, social media invitations, a written program, a speakers’ list, gifts for the family, a basket of tobacco ties (cobbled together from at least three different urban organizations), platters of food, his favourite music piped into the auditorium, a guestbook, and people gathered to support the family and discuss This Thing That Has Happened.

I have lived in and worked for Indigenous communities in Ontario since 1992, and I can tell you: this kind of co-operation, positive energy, and amenability does not exist on an everyday basis.

If you don’t believe me, then believe the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). Between 1998 and 2014, the AHF — a non-profit organization managed by Indigenous peoples — conducted research and supported community-based healing initiatives across the country. These projects were meant to address the legacy of residential schools in Canada, including intergenerational impacts. According to the AHF, as a result of the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse suffered by those who attended residential schools, the capacity of Indigenous peoples to build and sustain healthy families and communities has been compromised and, in some places, completely erased.

The AHF says psychological and emotional abuse in Indigenous communities is common. Rage and anger are widespread at all levels — individual, family, and community. Indigenous peoples carry multiple layers of unresolved grief and loss, and they suffer chronic physical illness related to their emotional and spiritual states. Families, communities, and workplaces suffer from toxic communication patterns. According to the AHF, there is disunity and conflict among individuals, families, and factions within Indigenous communities. Indigenous people in positions of authority often misuse their power to control others. The social structures that hold families and communities together — trust, common ground, shared purpose and direction, a vibrant ceremonial and civic life, co-operative networks and associations — have broken down, and in many families and communities, there are only a few people working for the common good. Many Indigenous people fear personal growth, transformation, and healing.

In addition to those listed above, the AHF has documented 22 other impacts of intergenerational trauma that it says are contributing to dysfunction and negative outcomes in Indigenous communities. These findings have been corroborated by other organizations, including the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, which released a 2015 report on the increased prevalence and root causes of depression among Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The AHF makes a direct connection between residential schools and the challenges we see in Indigenous communities today. In so doing, it delegitimizes the notion that colonization — or “civilization,” as some people like to call it — has benefitted Indigenous peoples. It also delegitimizes the notion that current challenges within Indigenous communities are the result of inherent deficiencies in Indigenous peoples and cultures. The AHF list of intergenerational impacts makes it very clear: where Indigenous peoples and communities are dysfunctional and/or in crisis, it is because of colonialism, not because they are Indigenous.

The way in which the Indigenous community in Toronto came together in 2016 to mourn the death and celebrate the life of the murdered young man shows that age-old philosophies — of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships — continue to underpin our communities despite the negative effect of colonization and settler colonialism. These philosophies also support the transformative healing work underway in many Indigenous communities across the country. However, I have seen the dysfunction and negative outcomes described by the AHF at every level of Indigenous society, from my own life and the life of my family, to the people I know, the communities I have worked with, and the Indigenous organizations I have worked for.

Indigenous peoples are more than victims, and they are not defined only by the traumatic events of colonization. As Nehiyaw poet Billy-Ray Belcourt wrote in a blog post after being named a Rhodes Scholar in 2015 (an achievement that was inevitably framed around Belcourt’s experiences with racism and the trauma of residential school), “Dear Media: I am more than just violence.” Despite the Indigenous desire to leave the past behind, however, the past doesn’t seem quite done with us.

This past-as-present reality is reflected in the lives of many Indigenous people in Canada, including the life of Robert Arthur Alexie. Alexie was chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in band council in Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, and chief negotiator for the Gwich’in regional land claim in 1992. After serving his people in multiple roles, he was elected president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in 2012. Alexie was also a musician, a photographer, and the author of two novels including the groundbreaking Porcupines and China Dolls, which deals with the impacts of the residential school system on Indigenous peoples. Alexie was knowledgeable, principled, and funny, and he made enduring contributions to his nation and to the country. And in 2014, at the age of 58, he was found at the side of the Dempster Highway in the Northwest Territories, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In a 2015 piece about Alexie’s contribution to Indigenous and Canadian literature, journalist Noah Richler surmised that Alexie’s “terrifying private demons” had finally caught up with him.

These demons are a persistent reality in the lives of all the Indigenous people I know and have known, affecting those on the fringes of society and those in positions of influence and authority. They exist in people who seem to be functioning just fine, thank you — the kind of people who are profiled in good-news media stories that seek to overturn common myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and communities.

The young man whose death brought the Toronto community together in an all-too-familiar ritual of mourning was certainly a success story. He worked at a major cultural institution. He had graduated from high school, studied a trade at the college level, and was registered in another college program when he died. He had pursued his goals, even completing a course to overcome his fear of public speaking. He bicycled to and from work and was trying to quit smoking. He had a girlfriend and he was saving up so they could move out of her father’s house. He was well liked and he wanted to work for his community. He did everything the student support workers at his high school and college said he should do. And he still died at age 20, stabbed in the neck and chest, after taking a bar fight outside.

Behind all our goals, our successes, and our attempts at success, there is a story. It is a story of terror, anger, grief, and loss. It is a story that still, after hundreds of years, determines Indigenous lives in Canada. The young man in Toronto carried this story, as all Indigenous peoples do. It is not the only story we tell — there are stories of happiness and achievement, too — but it is the one that sometimes seems to have the most influence. The time has come to understand this story and the mechanisms of its transmission.

European stories usually follow a linear conflict-crisis-resolution format. They are discrete and almost always aim to communicate a central moral or lesson. For Indigenous peoples, however, stories are spirals: they exist in time and space as they happen, and they also exist in each subsequent telling, spiralling off from a common root to become part of the lives of successive generations. There is no separation between “fact” and “fiction” in Indigenous stories, only a distinction between everyday stories and sacred stories, which means that all stories are true. These stories belong to people, families, and communities — and they are as important today as they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and 500 years ago.

For Indigenous peoples, stories are about movement, transition, and change. Instead of being centred on events, Indigenous stories tend to reveal an emotional narrative. The purpose behind Indigenous storytelling is to evoke the same emotions in listeners, so that they can make connections to their own lives — sparking the learning and the transformation that Indigenous peoples consider sacred.

The AHF correctly identifies residential schools as a major part of the story of terror, anger, grief, and loss. But this story actually begins long before the first residential school opened.

So. This story starts here.

In his book The Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale quotes Christopher Columbus’s initial impression of the Taíno he encountered in the Bahamas in 1492. Columbus describes them as noble and kind, and says, “They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal . . . Your Highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people . . . They love their neighbours as themselves . . . and are gentle and always laughing.”

Columbus’s thoughts are echoed by the Spanish historian and missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas. Before his ordination as a Catholic priest in 1513, Las Casas took part in the 1502 conquest of Hispaniola and the 1513 conquest of Cuba. In 1542, he wrote a chapbook entitled “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” in which he writes that the Taíno of Hispaniola “are devoid of wickedness and duplicity . . . by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome . . . devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. . . . [T]hey are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy . . . They are very clean in their persons, with alert, intelligent minds.”

Las Casas mentions “the very few Indians who are hardhearted and impetuous” and, as if to assure readers that he is not speaking from a religious bias, also takes care to point out that “[s]ome of the secular Spaniards who have been here for many years say that the goodness of the Indians is undeniable.”

The events of the 15th to 20th centuries — the height of European colonial endeavour — have changed Indigenous peoples and communities in political, economic, cultural, and social terms. These events, which Las Casas described as a holocaust, were an attempt to destroy Indigenous systems and societies.

As Las Casas wrote about Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti), “[T]he Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes, began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against [the Indigenous people]. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags, or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers . . . Other infants they put to the sword . . . They made some low, wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground . . . then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. . . . And because all the people who could do so fled to the mountains, the Spanish captains . . . pursued them with the fierce dogs they kept, which attacked the Indians, tearing them to pieces and devouring them.”

Writing about Nicaragua, Las Casas said, “Who could exaggerate the felicity, the good health, the amenities of that prosperous and numerous population? Verily it was a joy to behold that admirable province with its big towns . . . full of gardens and orchards and prosperous people. . . . And since these Indians were by nature very gentle and peace-loving, the tyrants and his comrades (all of whom had aided him in destroying other kingdoms) inflicted such damage, carried out such slaughters, took so many captives, perpetrated so many unjust acts that no human tongue could describe them.”

When English colonists entered into what is today known as the United States, the terror continued. During the Pequot Massacre of 1637, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, celebrated the Pilgrim victory in his History of the Plymouth Plantation: “Those [Indigenous people] that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived [the Pilgrims] thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and [the Pilgrims] gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”

But it wasn’t just the English. In New Netherland in 1643, at a site in New York City that is now the home of the National Museum of the American Indian, Governor Willem Kieft ordered his soldiers to destroy two refugee camps filled with displaced Lenape: “Infants were torn from their mother’s breast and hacked to death in the presence of their parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and in the water,” wrote David Pietersz de Vries, a Dutch witness. “Other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavoured to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown.”

Most Canadians think that genocide did not occur in Canada. In fact, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, deliberately starved Indigenous peoples on the Canadian prairies in order to open the west to settlers and clear the way for the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR). After the CPR was built and the bison were hunted to extirpation by settlers — as a result of industrial-scale hunting and the colonial government’s plan to destroy the food source of Indigenous peoples on the Plains — Indigenous peoples were left hungry and desperate. When they asked the federal government to honour the treaties, which guaranteed food in times of famine, Macdonald denied their request and ordered the Department of Indian Affairs to withhold food until they moved to designated reserves far from the CPR line.

Once on the reserve, Indigenous peoples were trapped and could leave only with the permission of the Indian Agent. Hunters could not hunt and subsistence farming was impossible on substandard reserve land — especially when the government failed to provide tools as specified in the treaties. If Indigenous peoples complained, their rations were cut. Food was withheld for so long that much of it rotted, while Indigenous peoples fell sick from malnutrition and disease. Thousands died. As James Daschuk, an associate professor at the University of Regina and the author of Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, wrote in the Globe and Mail, “The uncomfortable truth is that modern Canada is founded upon ethnic cleansing and genocide . . . Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape.”

The genocide continued under the national system of Indian Residential Schools. From the 1870s to 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) states that at least 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities and sent to residential schools funded by the federal government and operated by the Anglican, Catholic, United, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, where Indigenous children were forced to adhere to European societal and cultural norms, forbidden to speak their own languages, and alienated from their cultures, families, and communities. Parents were threatened with imprisonment or denied treaty rations if they failed to surrender their children. The RCMP were employed to forcibly remove children from their homes. Many students were physically, psychologically, emotionally, and sexually abused in the schools. According to the TRC, more than 3,000 children died in residential schools across the country, but the actual number is believed to be much higher, as the federal government stopped collecting annual death reports after 1917. In fact, former TRC chairman (now senator) Murray Sinclair believes the number could be as much as 10 times higher — which would mean that 30,000 children died in residential schools.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Indigenous population is estimated to have been approximately 100 million. Up to 90 per cent of the population — or 90 million people — died in the first 250 years after contact due to epidemics, slavery, war, and mass extermination. By the late 1700s, when explorer George Vancouver landed in what is today British Columbia, entire Indigenous villages were littered with corpses and emptied of people due to epidemic outbreaks of smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza that spread through migration and Indigenous trade (before first-hand contact with European peoples). The trauma inflicted on survivors is almost unimaginable; the genocide unprecedented. According to Las Casas, the Spaniards “spread terror throughout those kingdoms and filled the people with bitterness, anguish, and revolt. That calamity . . . meant, for them, the end of their world, and they have never ceased lamenting and recounting the story in their songs and dances . . . They have never recovered from that loss.”

Contemporary statistics tell us the same thing.

Research conducted by Statistics Canada in the 1996 and 2006 censuses, the Environics Institute in the 2010 Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the Toronto Star, the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada, and the World Health Organization has identified a wide range of issues within Indigenous communities, both on- and off-reserve. Tuberculosis rates are 17 times higher in Indigenous communities in Canada. Nearly half the on-reserve population has type 2 diabetes, putting diabetes rates at nearly six times higher than the national average. Suicide is two times higher for Indigenous peoples, six times higher for Indigenous youth, and Inuit have the highest suicide rate in the world. The overall death rate for Indigenous peoples is three to four times higher than for non-Indigenous Canadians and life expectancy is six to ten years lower. Unemployment is three times higher than for non-Indigenous peoples. Forty-eight per cent of Indigenous youth have no high school diploma, 54 per cent of Indigenous adults lack a diploma, and 44 per cent of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 living off-reserve have less than grade 9. Indigenous males make up 25 per cent of the inmate population in federal men’s prisons and 50 per cent of all inmates in the Prairie provinces, while Indigenous women make up over 40 per cent of all inmates in federal women’s prisons. Nationally, Indigenous peoples make up just over 4 per cent of the population, but 17 per cent of homicide victims and 23 per cent of those accused of that crime. Nearly 50 per cent of youth inmates in Canada are Indigenous, although that figure rises to 80 per cent in the province of Manitoba.

These socio-economic challenges are not the result of an innate deficiency in Indigenous peoples, communities, or societies. They are not the result of so-called primitive societies unable to adapt to “civilization,” or of what is often described as a “culture clash.” They are responses to prolonged, repeated trauma. They are manifestations of unresolved terror, anger, grief, and loss.

In Indigenous philosophy and science, the only thing that is constant is change. For Indigenous peoples, the only fixed static “law” is that the world and everything in it is in a constant process of movement, transition, and transformation. Human beings are dependent upon creation, and we learn from creation. This means that we, too, must adapt and change over time. One of the tools Indigenous peoples use to understand and accomplish movement and transformation is the medicine circle (or medicine wheel).

In its simplest form, the medicine wheel is shown as a circle divided into four quadrants. The quadrants and lines are often drawn at different angles, but each is correct, because there are two parts to the whole:

A line drawing of the simplest medicine wheel, containing four quadrants

According to Nehiyaw grandfather/elder Michael Thrasher, the two versions of the medicine circle represent the sun and the moon, or fire and water. Both ground our ways of knowing and being in the world. Both measure time and distance — through the equinoxes, solstices, and cardinal directions — and both illustrate the balance of active and receptive energy in the universe (fire is active, water is receptive). The 13 moons that are seen during one cycle of the sun are each named by, and for, the seasons. This grounds us in our geographic location. In essence, the medicine wheel is about where we live over time. The purpose of the medicine circle is to help human beings learn how to live in a particular place — our body, mind, and spirit, as well as our families, communities, or places on the land — at any particular moment.

The medicine wheel represents a vast store of knowledge. Multiply it by the many people who adapt the wheel for their own purposes — in counselling, addictions treatment, or as a model for sustainability — and it becomes a wide-ranging tool for understanding interconnectedness, human development, balance, and change.

According to grandfather/elder Thrasher, the east quadrant of the medicine wheel represents vision: the ability to engage in the hopeful thinking necessary for change. When a guiding vision is created or received, we see what needs to be done, and we begin to envision strategies that will enact that change. For this reason, the east is matched with the spiritual — the stories, ceremonies, and teachings that must be respected because they bring us awareness and vision. The south quadrant of the wheel represents time: the time it takes to relate to an idea or vision and to understand it. For this reason, the south is matched with the physical — the land around us and the body we inhabit, which change over time and teach us about relationship. The west quadrant represents feeling and reason: the ability to gain knowledge and figure things out. This is why the west is matched with the emotional — because the head and the heart are both involved in making sense of life and the world around us. Knowledge can only be gained through this balance. The north quadrant of the medicine wheel represents movement: the ability to do things, and the transition from knowledge to the wisdom that accomplishes movement and change. This is why the north quadrant is matched with the intellectual: because each individual must engage in behaviours that embrace change in a conscious way. We begin each cycle around the circle in the east and we end in the north, gaining awareness, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom with each turn around the wheel. Change is only possible when each stage in the wheel is acknowledged and undertaken — when we embody the wholeness that exists in the universe and when we maintain balance while embracing change.

The centre of the wheel represents humanity and the energy of human agency, because it represents the planet’s core. We live inside that power and are connected to it. If we are in tune with it, we can access it to create movement and change. In that way, the centre of the wheel is an axis: a place of individual movement around the various aspects of the circle, where all the aspects converge to create sacred being. Movement and change is accomplished by reflecting inward and balancing what we see and feel inside ourselves with what we see and feel in the external world. Grandfather/elder Thrasher calls this process the “right inner measure” of the individual, key to maintaining health and wellness.

A line drawing of a simple medicine wheel containing four quadrants and a centre
A line drawing of a complex medicine wheel, complete with aspects of the circle

When people cease to be in constant movement, they are out of balance with creation. When human beings are out of balance, it results in dis-ease. The “dis-” prefix is from the Latin, meaning “apart” or “away.” “Ease” means to have freedom from pain or trouble, comfort of body or mind, and a lack of difficulty. If you are away from the world and out of balance with creation, you are away from yourself and your reason for being. If you are away from yourself and your reason for being, you are in pain, troubled, in discomfort, and having difficulty.

It would be a mistake to assume that pre-contact Indigenous communities were some sort of paradise. In fact, as Val Napoleon, the director of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria, says, “We have always struggled, as every other society has, with problems of human beings living together. Our societies were no more peaceful or no more violent than any others.” Virginia colonist William Strachey also commented on this reality, writing in the 17th century that among Indigenous peoples, “as amongst Christians,” some were “great people . . . some very little . . . some speaking likewise more articulate and plaine, and some more inward and hollow . . . some curteous and more civill, others cruel and bloody.” The Indigenous world is (and was) neither idyllic nor depraved. Like any society, it is (and was) a mixture of hardship and joy, harmony and conflict, brutality and compassion.

The reason we must look back at how Indigenous societies functioned prior to colonization is not to claim that they were idyllic but to remind ourselves that Indigenous peoples once lived in a world of movement and balance that fostered connection and relationship. The writings of Las Casas and Columbus tell us how relationships were destroyed, joy extinguished, harmony disrupted, and compassion annihilated in the face of seven generations of genocide and colonial rule. Indigenous peoples are no longer in constant movement; instead, we are stuck in an event-centred story that has an undue influence on contemporary Indigenous emotional narratives. Indigenous peoples are no longer in relationship with one another or the world; instead, we are stuck in the disruption and disharmony created by colonialism. This has resulted in dis-ease that will continue to affect contemporary Indigenous peoples until it is addressed.

As Senator Murray Sinclair said in a speech to the Aboriginal Justice Learning Network, “As a result of the dysfunction within some of our communities, people believe this is the way all Aboriginal people would tend to be if it were not for the grand civilizing process we have come through with the help of the churches and Canadian society. When we look around us at our communities . . . we see great discordance, we see great pain. Our young people are killing themselves at incredibly high rates, six to eight times the national average rate of suicide among young people. We have among our women incredibly high rates of domestic violence, of sexual abuse. Some of our communities are bordering on social chaos and anarchy, where people have no respect, not only for their brothers and their sisters, but they have no respect for their parents, they have no respect for their elders, they have no respect for their leaders — if there are any — and they have no respect for their society, however they see it, which is not to say that we all live that way.”

“We have not always been this way,” Sinclair said. “Our people did not appear to be acting out and committing crimes at such excessive rates. Our people did not appear to be abusing themselves and others in the the same way we see today. A part of it, for me, is because of the way the government has treated our leadership, the way the government has treated our families, the way the government has treated our cultures. There has been and there still is great disruption among our people today as a direct result of some of the laws that have been passed in this country. . . . The government set out on a deliberate attempt to undermine the very existence of Aboriginal communities, to undermine the very nature of Aboriginal families within society. . . . The government had a deliberate policy that it did not want the Aboriginal communities of this country to flourish economically. They did not want Aboriginal communities to become self-sufficient and stable.”

The ability of Indigenous peoples to maintain any form of culture or community in the face of genocide and colonialism speaks to a resiliency created and sustained by spirituality, humour, and a unique form of Indigenous adaptability characterized by the interplay between accommodation and resistance. However, the unresolved terror, anger, grief, and loss created by the holocaust in the Americas has had deleterious effects on Indigenous identity, as well as on the interpersonal skills, parenting skills, and emotional and physical well-being of most, if not all, Indigenous peoples, leading to challenges in every aspect of contemporary life, from health and education to crime and victimization. Pre-contact mores and values have been replaced with attitudes and beliefs that negatively affect future generations, such as poor self-concept (negative beliefs about self), internalized shame and hatred, passive compliance, and learned helplessness. These negative inheritances are part of a process that results in a circular reliving of the trauma of genocide and colonialism generation after generation.

Intergenerational trauma was first identified in the children of Holocaust survivors and the descendants of Japanese people interned during the Second World War. It has also been identified in the children of American veterans of conflicts including Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf Wars. In one study, researchers reported that 45 per cent of American veterans’ children exhibited “significant” signs of PTSD, with 83 per cent reporting “elevated hostility” scores and more dysfunctional social and emotional behaviours. Like contemporary Indigenous peoples, these children weren’t there at the time of their parents’ traumatic episode — yet they exhibit the same symptoms as their traumatized parents.

In one case in the research literature, a Jewish man tells his therapist about his dreams: he is hiding in the cellar from soldiers who want to kill him, standing in line for selection, the smell of burning flesh is in the air, shots are fired, and starving people in striped uniforms are marching to the crematoria. He is trapped in a pit full of skeletal dead bodies, and he attempts to bury them, but limbs keep sticking up from the mud, and he feels guilty for what has happened. He then awakes in a sweat “with a prevailing sense of numb grief for all those anonymously gone.” According to Natan Kellermann, executive director of the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of the Holocaust and Second Generation, this man was not interned in a concentration camp — he was born after the war, in another country, far away in both time and place from the horrors of the Second World War. However, his mother had survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Kellermann asks, “Why was he dreaming such dreams half a century after the war? Why are children of Holocaust survivors still experiencing the effects of the Holocaust as if they themselves had actually been there? How do we explain that the so-called second generation seems to share the grief and terror of their traumatized parents?”

According to Kellermann, trauma can be transmitted across generations by four distinct but sometimes overlapping means: psychodynamic processes, sociocultural processes, the family system, and biological processes. When trauma is transmitted through psychodynamic processes, the anger, fear, and repressed grief of parents is externalized and projected onto their children, leading subsequent generations to engage in behaviours without insight or awareness as to the unconscious processes behind those behaviours. When intergenerational trauma is transmitted through sociocultural processes, the younger generation is socialized through behaviours modelled by the older generation and come to believe things about themselves and the world around them via their parents’ parenting style. When the family system is the vehicle of transmission, children become enmeshed in the emotional issues of their parents; this lack of boundaries encourages children to ignore their own emotional needs in favour of meeting the parent’s needs, resulting in problems with the child’s development as an individual. Biological processes describe the physiological and genetic means by which trauma is transmitted across generations.

Many people believe that an individual’s DNA is set at birth and remains unchangeable, but this is untrue. The science of epigenetics has shown that human genes respond to their social context, and traumatic experiences such as neglect during childhood and severe stress in adulthood actually change the expression of a person’s DNA. These traumatic experiences leave molecular scars that also appear in a traumatized person’s descendants.

In Indigenous science and philosophy, epigenetics is a part of “blood memory.” For Indigenous peoples, blood memory is carried from generation to generation through psycho-spiritual-biological processes that encompass culture (for example, the belief that dreams are important sources of knowledge), the energy of the universe (known as manitow in the language of the Nehiyawak), and the systems of the body (life essence stored in the kidneys, for example, or grief stored in the lungs). Blood memory expresses both presence and what the late Anishinabe scholar Gail Guthrie Valaskakis calls “goneness,” representing a connection to the past built through shared relationships and collective experience. These connections can be positive or negative. More than simply memories, blood memory is an inheritance. As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, writes in his memoir, The Names, “Some of my mother’s memories have become my own. That is the real burden of the blood.”

The late Judith Kestenberg, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at New York University Medical School, refers to the transmission of intergenerational trauma as “transposition.” Kestenberg describes the process as an unconscious one, where the parent does not explicitly speak about their traumatic experiences, but the child picks up the parent’s trauma through comments and actions that reveal the parent’s worldview and approach to relationship-making. The parent never says outright that “the world is a dangerous place” or “people are not to be trusted,” but these ideas are key to how these parents function in the world — and this style of engagement is transposed onto their children, in effect transplanting the trauma.

Kestenberg theorized that transposition might serve as a mechanism to resurrect the murdered and missing people whom the parent — the trauma survivor — cannot adequately mourn. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a Hunkpapa Lakota research associate professor at the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry, also recognizes this pattern. Yellow Horse Brave Heart says that Indigenous peoples have a loyalty to ancestral suffering that causes them to create suffering in their own lives. Yellow Horse Brave Heart says this is not a conscious process but a result of Indigenous peoples having internalized the suffering of their ancestors to the point where vitality in one’s own life is seen as a betrayal of those ancestors. In order to remain loyal to their suffering community, individuals become fixated on the trauma, recreating the murdered and missing people in their minds and hearts at the cost of extinguishing their own spiritual and emotional centres. As Yellow Horse Brave Heart says, “It’s hard for [Indigenous peoples] to be joyful in our own lives and really free and happy.”

Indigenous knowledge is based upon thousands of years of observation, experience, and data. It is no less empirical than European knowledge. It does, however, illustrate a different way of seeing.

The European Enlightenment view of the universe is a mechanistic one, as described in the work of English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton and his laws of motion and universal gravitation. In this view, the human body is composed of mechanical parts that work together like a machine. Although there is now some debate as to whether Enlightenment ideas are responsible for creating the health and prosperity that are often ascribed to them, the fact is, the philosophical underpinnings of these ideas still resonate in much of Western thought. In the Indigenous world, however, the physical body is connected to the mind, the spirit, and the emotion, and to the external forces of the universe — the particles and waves, the manitow, that form and act upon all living things. Human beings are created from this energy, acted upon by this energy, and in turn affect the energy of the universe. By observing the world, Indigenous peoples have seen that human beings do not exist in isolation. The human body-mind is a manifestation of the forces that surround it and a powerful force in determining how the universe unfolds. Intergenerational trauma, by definition, proves that humans do not exist in isolation from the forces that surround them.

Although many other ethnic groups have had adverse experiences, survived traumatic episodes, and been the victims of genocide, the ongoing cycle of trauma in Indigenous communities is perpetuated by the loss of land and the consequent loss of the stories and ceremonies that once connected Indigenous peoples to the land. These stories and ceremonies construct identity, ground us in our geographic locations, help us make meaning, and play a vital role in maintaining health and well-being; without them, Indigenous peoples have found it difficult to recover from the traumatic experiences of colonialism and colonization.

An interruption or disruption in the present that connects to the past is often referred to as a ghost, or a haunting. When this ghost/haunting becomes a collective experience — transferred from the realm of individual traumatic memory to collective traumatic memory — it creates what sociologists refer to as “post-catastrophic memory.” In the Indigenous world, the encounter with the ghost is often described as a form of possession.

In Nehiyawak and other Algonquian cultures, possession takes the form of the wihtikiw (or wittigo), a cannibal spirit-creature. According to oral tradition, the wittigo’s heart, and sometimes its entire body, is made of ice. Its eyes roll in blood, its voice bellows and whistles, its hands and feet are clawed, and its lips are blackened by decay. The wittigo is strong, and it can travel as fast as the wind. It is greedy and has a ravenous appetite for human flesh. A wittigo can take possession of a person’s soul, and it can also haunt a community — and once a wittigo appears, it is extremely difficult to get rid of. Once a person is overtaken by a wittigo, they lose their humanity, destroying their family members and those they love the most. No one can outrun a wittigo, and no one can outsmart it. Once possessed, an individual has to fight the wittigo and destroy the evil in order to be free again.

The wittigo often appears when peoples and communities are in crisis or transition. In the fur-trade era, for example, when Indigenous societies were under stress from outside social and economic forces, the wittigo appeared in oral tradition as a personification of greed and selfishness, serving as a cautionary tale against those who would turn away from the Indigenous belief in reciprocity and relationships and toward the European belief in individualism. In his 1978 book, Columbus and Other Cannibals, Powhatan-Renape/Delaware-Lenape writer Jack D. Forbes uses the wittigo to personify the forces of capitalism and colonialism, which separate human beings and human societies from their relationships with the earth and with each other. Nehiyaw poet Louise Halfe and Anishinabe novelist Louise Erdrich have both used the wittigo figure in their recent writing to describe the emotional and spiritual famine that has been created within Indigenous peoples and societies by the trauma of colonization, and the lateral violence that results when traumatized people try to regain a sense of power or control by becoming predators over others.

Some Indigenous peoples are not comfortable discussing intergenerational trauma. They believe that focusing on trauma-related issues within Indigenous communities — especially when those issues take the form of lateral violence — undermines the deliberate nature of genocide and colonization or recasts Indigenous peoples as somehow complicit in their own oppression. Neither is true. Acknowledging the damage that colonization has wrought on Indigenous communities is a crucial first step in healing and in reconciliation. Acknowledging the need for individual and collective change is also part of the process.

Wab Kinew, leader of the Manitoba NDP, has spoken openly about his family’s struggle with intergenerational trauma. Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut Kinew, was a residential school survivor who self-medicated with alcohol and was abusive to his son. Kinew responded by acting out his own pain and anger, getting into conflict with the law. As Kinew told the CBC, “My father was put into a situation where he was powerless. It unleashed anger and rage inside of him . . . My experience growing up wasn’t as severe as his was by any means, but it was similar in that I was made to feel powerless. Instead of a priest and a nun, it was my father.” Kinew now says that he is mindful of his responsibility to create a healthy relationship with his wife and children. “Now, as an adult, I look at how I parent and I recognize that . . . I’m creating the same situations for my own sons to grow up with. I’m a hockey-coaching, homework-helping, bedtime-reading superdad. Yet I can also be too quick to raise my voice or make a cutting remark that can damage my sons’ self-esteem. In these moments, I recognize my father in myself. I am still on the journey to dealing with my own anger . . . That’s the thing that we’re still carrying in our families and our communities today. If we understand the trajectory and the path by which it is transmitted, we might be able to work toward doing the hard internal work in our own hearts, in our own spirits, in our own minds, to be able to make ourselves better parents, to be able to make ourselves the generation where that is going to stop.”

Indigenous prophecies tell us that human societies are in a time of change. According to the Anishinabek, we are in the time of the Eighth Fire; according to the Hopi, we are in the Fifth World; according to the Inca, the condor has met the eagle; and according to the Maya, the 13th baktun has ended and a new world has begun. The terror, anger, grief, and loss that has possessed Indigenous communities for the past 500 years is coming to an end. With Canada taking its first tentative steps toward reconciliation, this is an era of change in Canadian society. This is our collective opportunity to rewrite the narrative of genocide and oppression and envision another better way of living — not just within Indigenous communities but between Indigenous peoples and the settler population.

According to visual artist and photographer Jeff Thomas, a self-described “urban Iroquois” who curated Where Are the Children?, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s online photographic exhibition on residential schools, “To heal is to visualize what has happened to you. What are you fighting back against? In the residential schools, there were children who fought back. They could see their enemy. . . . In today’s world, we have generations of people who cannot fight back because they cannot see the enemy their parents and grandparents saw.”

At the young man’s memorial in Toronto, many of those in attendance say he died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many others see him only as a victim, the helpless recipient of someone else’s choice of action. Only his sister tells the real truth. When she gets to the stage and takes the microphone, she is angry and she doesn’t always choose her words wisely — but she is brave enough to name the issue. After listening to everyone else speak, she gets up and says, “Our father abused us.” This might seem like a non sequitur, but in fact her comment speaks to a developing awareness and understanding. This is the story she and her family must begin to tell. This is the story that will lead them toward healing. If the young man had understood this story, he would have understood the anger and grief that he carried, and he might not have decided to take that fight outside.

For Indigenous peoples, the work of the next seven generations will be to make meaning of present issues in light of past events and return to the habits and routines that ensure movement, balance, connection, and relationship. This will reframe how Indigenous youth understand themselves and their world, allowing them to carry the story of colonization in a way that does not define them or limit their opportunities.

Healing from intergenerational trauma isn’t just work for Indigenous peoples, though. Non-Indigenous Canadians must recognize the wisdom contained within Indigenous science and philosophy and must accept this wisdom — this way of seeing — as a legitimate body of knowledge within Canadian systems and institutions. This means going beyond “inclusion” and actually making room for another culture’s worldview. Then, and only then, will Canada be a post-colonial country.

In a 2015 workshop, Rose LeMay, the director of Northern and Indigenous Health at the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, told a story about learning to drive a really fast car. She couldn’t make the course’s hairpin turn until the instructor told her, “Don’t look at the corner! You’ll drive off the road! Look ahead. You go where you look.” After that, LeMay made the turn. She now applies the lesson to her own healing and to her work with Indigenous communities. LeMay says Indigenous peoples must acknowledge where they came from, where they are now, and where they want to be in the future. To LeMay, “that is what balance is about.”

Colonization has changed Indigenous communities. The only way to regain sovereignty — true independence, as opposed to the reductive political meaning — is to unlearn the worst of what Indigenous peoples have learned from colonial society and go back to the respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationship-building that we used to know and enact. That starts with a return to Indigenous ways of knowing and being, beyond mere ritual and toward the heart of what it means to be an Indigenous person on this land in the 21st century.

Intergenerational Impacts of Trauma

The unresolved trauma of Indigenous peoples who have experienced, witnessed, or inherited the memory of horrific events creates an ongoing cycle of patterns and behaviours that are passed down from generation to generation. These intergenerational impacts are felt on a day-to-day basis by survivors and their families. Different communities experience different impacts and to differing degrees.

Processes of Colonization = Trauma

  • Genocide
  • Decimation by disease
  • Sexual and physical abuse, primarily of women and children
  • Banned ceremonies
  • Residential schools (re-education, separation from family, banning of Indigenous languages)
  • Imprisonment and murder of spiritual/political leaders
  • Imposition of colonial/patriarchal governance systems
  • Land appropriation and large-scale development (hydroelectric dams)
  • Removal from land and relocation to unknown and/or non-viable territory
  • Confinement to reserves
  • Social welfare policies
  • Racism
  • Psychological and emotional abuse

= Loss of personal & collective agency

= Negative effect on feelings of safety

= Socio-economic & political dependency

= Internalized hatred

= Learned behaviours

= Lack of resources to support healthy living

Everyday Impacts of Trauma (Historical & Contemporary)

  • Cultural identity issues: Christianization and the loss of language and cultural foundations, resulting in assimilation, cultural confusion, and cultural dislocation
  • Destruction of social support networks that individuals and families could once rely on
  • Disconnection from the natural world as an important dimension of daily life, leading to spiritual dislocation
  • Spiritual confusion: alienation from one’s own spiritual life and growth process, as well as conflicts over religion
  • Dysfunctional families and interpersonal relationships
  • Parenting issues such as emotional coldness, rigidity, neglect, poor communication, and abandonment
  • Chronic widespread depression
  • Layer upon layer of unresolved grief and loss
  • Deep-seated sense of shame and shame-based family dynamics
  • Unconscious internalization of residential school behaviours including false politeness, not speaking out, passive compliance, excessive neatness, obedience without thought
  • Breakdown of social glue that holds families and communities together, such as trust, common ground, shared purpose and direction, a vibrant ceremonial and civic life, and co-operative networks and associations working for the common good
  • Flashbacks and associative trauma: certain smells, foods, sounds, sights, and people trigger flashback memories, anxiety attacks, and physiological symptoms of fear (e.g., the sight of a police vehicle)
  • Becoming an oppressor and abuser of others after suffering abuse to oneself

Intergenerational Impacts Most Common in, but Not Exclusive To, Contemporary Time Period

  • Chronic widespread anger and rage
  • Disunity and conflict between individuals, families, and factions in the community
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse, especially but not exclusively of women and children
  • Psychological/emotional abuse
  • Chronic physical illness related to spiritual and emotional states
  • Internalized sense of inferiority or aversion to white people, especially white people in positions of power
  • Toxic communication patterns, including backbiting, gossip, criticism, putdowns, personal attacks, sarcasm, and secrets
  • Suicide and the threat of suicide
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Accidental deaths
  • Dysfunctional community environment, including patterns of paternalistic authority linked to passive dependency; patterns of misuse of power to control others; and community social patterns that foster whispering and malicious gossip but a refusal to support or stand with those who speak out or challenge the status quo
  • Educational blocks: an aversion to formal learning programs that seem “too much like school,” fear of failure, self-sabotage, and psychologically based learning disabilities
  • Dysfunctional/co-dependent family behaviours replicated in the workplace
  • Fear of personal growth, transformation, and healing
  • Voicelessness: feeling that one cannot influence or shape the world one lives in; passive acceptance of powerlessness within community life; passively accepting whatever comes and feeling powerless to change it

Text for “Everyday Impacts” and “Intergenerational Impacts” sections adapted from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation Program Handbook, Second Edition (Ottawa, 1999)

Chapter 2

What It Means to Be Colonized

As a child, my identity isn’t my own. It’s something that is decided for me and assigned to me based upon categories and rules that other people have drafted. I am never sure how or what to be, but I know that to keep other people happy I have to be what they want me to be.

I am entertainer-storyteller for my mother on her good days and parent-caregiver on her bad days. I am a dutiful daughter for one member of my family (who doesn’t like it when I tell the truth about how I’m feeling) and the patient listener to another (who, when in crisis, tells me everything).

To the white boys in my northern Alberta hometown, I am a squaw. I know this because I am 12 years old and riding a bike up High School Hill and they toss a beer bottle at me, out the window of their pickup truck, as one of them yells, “Suck this, squaw!” To most of my teachers, I am a walking stereotype, or a convenient target for public shaming, or an anomaly because I do well in school and I talk a lot — it depends on the day. But I only figure this out later, as an adult. As a child, I’m just confused when Mr. Graeme subs in music class and he asks me why I’m a bass player, and shouldn’t I be the drummer, since my ancestors played drums? On another day, when the student teacher says I can’t know all the right answers and accuses me of cheating in front of the class, I just accept the fact that people will always have the wrong idea about me. When one teacher takes more than a professional interest in me, the other teachers tease him, but no one reports it. I don’t realize this is a bad thing until I am in my 30s. Instead, at 14, I write “Sexy Suzi” on my binders over and over, glad to finally be someone. One teacher, a female friend of his, gives me a bad second-term mark, and I wonder what I’ve done wrong.

Indians are squaws. Indians are stupid. Squaws are sluts. These ideas are part of the fabric of everyday life in northern Alberta in the 1970s and 1980s; I know them as surely as I know my own name. I don’t want to be a squaw, because squaws are bad. I don’t want to be stupid. I don’t want to be a slut. So I definitely don’t want to be an Indian. But everyone tells me I am these things, so they must be true.

To Mr. Donnelly, who runs the general store and buys pelts from the local Nehiyawak, I am a dirty Indian. I know this because when I fart, he turns to his youngest daughter and says, “Did you do that?” and she says, “It was her!” and he turns to me and snorts and says, “Figures.” To the Nehiyawak men in Mr. Donnelly’s store, I am out of place. I run around the stuffed owls and used washing machines with my friend Moira, the second youngest daughter in her blond-haired family of 10, and when the trappers see me, they always look at me, and I know they’re looking at me, but I don’t know why. They make eye contact with me but never with Mr. Donnelly. I start hanging around the counter while Mr. Donnelly examines the pelts, until Moira tells me to stay away. Even though she doesn’t come right out and say it, I understand what she means: Indians are dangerous.

The author, 1975

The author, 1975

To Mabel Osborne, a pioneer and the town historian, I am a potential friend to her granddaughter, Sandra, whose mother is gone. Like Lloyd Kozlow’s mother, who is also gone. I am a stand-in for all the missing Indigenous women whose children are being raised by white fathers and, sometimes, white stepmothers. A little bit of cultural connection, or so Mabel assumes. Too bad, though: Lloyd and Sandra want nothing to do with Sexy Suzi. They are Good Ones, because they’re quiet and don’t act like Indians. I am not a Good One, because I call up the disc jockeys at the local radio station and talk dirty to them. I’m trying to be what other people want me to be, because I want to be good. But how can I be good when I am a dirty, slutty Indian? I am pulled back and forth; I am disjointed. When the DJs invite me to the studio and one of them says something about Indian chicks being easy, I tell him I’m French, and he says, “Yeah, that’s what they all say.” I have learned many things in my 14 years on the planet. One thing I’ve learned: when white people say “they,” it means Indians. I begin to understand that there are sides in this town, like two opposing teams. I don’t choose a side; my position is chosen by those around me.

When a family member puts an ad in the paper in 1980 to sell an old bike, an Indian guy shows up to buy the red 10-speed. When he gets out of the car, he looks around nervously. Then he sees me, smiles, and tells me he lives across the river in West Peace. He asks me where I’m from, and I don’t know what to say — I mean, this is my house. Well, a family member’s house, but I live here. Then he says, “Good price for what they’re selling, eh?” Another thing I’ve learned: when Indians say “they,” it means white people. He claims me, just like the trappers do. “They” do not.

I am Entertainer-Storyteller, Parent-Caregiver, Dutiful Daughter, Patient Listener, Squaw, Descendant of Drummers, Stupid, Anomaly (White Teacher Version), Sexy Suzi, Anomaly (Cree Trapper Version), Dirty Indian, Potential Friend Failure, Not a Good One, They (White Version), and Easy. These assigned identities become my guides as I negotiate the task of growing up in a family that doesn’t teach me how to be, in a town that doesn’t want me to be. If there is a Suzanne inside here, I have yet to meet her. I don’t know who or what I am.

Every individual has two kinds of self: the subject and the object, or the knower and the known. The subject is the self that an individual knows inside themselves. This is how we know the world. The object is the self that is known by others. This is how we are seen by the world.

For most Indigenous peoples, the division between subject and object is blurred. Myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples persist within the dominant society, and they continue to shape Indigenous identity. Because Indigenous peoples are marginalized within the dominant society — they have little to no power to influence that society’s systems and institutions of education, policing, justice, and media, for example — what Indigenous peoples know or believe about themselves is inevitably affected, if not entirely shaped, by the assumptions of others. This is a form of control.

Control is a central factor in intergenerational trauma, because it is central to the development of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become a well-known issue in the wake of retired senator Roméo Dallaire’s 2000 hospitalization — he was found intoxicated and unconscious under a bench in a park in Gatineau, Quebec, after retiring from the Canadian Armed Forces, where he served during the genocide in Rwanda — CPTSD is less well known.

When an individual survives a single traumatic event (such as sexual assault or a car accident) or traumatic events that occurred within a limited timeframe or context (such as war), the experience can result in a set of responses and behaviours referred to as PTSD. These cognitive and physiological adaptations — including but not limited to hypervigilance, irritability, dissociation, problems with memory, negative beliefs about oneself and about the world, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and a persistent negative emotional state (fear, anger, shame) — are useful during the traumatic event, as they may contribute to the individual’s ability to survive the incident in physical, emotional, and spiritual terms. However, when the individual returns to daily life, these adaptations become counterproductive, creating a disorder. Individuals with PTSD are essentially stuck in time, reacting to situations in daily life as they did at the moment of their trauma, unable to move past that traumatic event.

The rate of PTSD among the general population in the United States is 8 per cent, according to the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart says that the rate of PTSD for Indigenous communities in the U.S. is 28 per cent, or nearly four times higher. No national studies about the prevalence of PTSD in Indigenous peoples in Canada have been conducted, but in a 2003 sample of residential school survivors in the province of British Columbia, 64 per cent were diagnosed with PTSD. Studies of women in prison show that up to 50 per cent of incarcerated women have PTSD — important to the Indigenous context because although Indigenous women make up only 4 per cent of the total female population in Canada, they represent almost half of the population in federal women’s prisons.

Clearly, the rates of PTSD in Indigenous populations in the Americas point to the fact that Indigenous peoples have experienced traumatic events as a result of colonization. The rate of PTSD in Indigenous populations also points to the underlying issue behind the ongoing cycle of intergenerational trauma: that Indigenous peoples are living those traumatic events as unfinished business in the present day.

Mae Katt, an Indigenous nurse at Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay, Ontario, has been working with remote First Nations communities for 30 years. Katt, who testified at a 2016 inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations students who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011, says that many students who leave their reserves to come to Thunder Bay for high school exhibit classic symptoms of PTSD, including recurrent distressing memories of traumatic events, sleeplessness, problems with concentration, and reckless and self-destructive behaviour. Katt believes the high rate of PTSD in the student population is related to the fact that children are being raised by parents who are themselves coping with unresolved terror, anger, grief, and loss. The resulting dysfunction creates a highly stressful environment for children and youth, resulting in post-traumatic stress.

When former Ontario Health Minister and War Child Canada co-founder Eric Hoskins visited the Mushkegowuk community of Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario, in 2016 after dozens of young people tried to kill themselves, he told media that what he saw reminded him of the years he spent as a medical doctor working in war zones around the world. This is an accurate comparison, and it’s how most people conceptualize post-traumatic stress: as traumatic experiences happening within a limited timeframe or context.

The work of the late Nehiyaw author Larry Loyie, Sto:lo chief Ernie Crey, Nlaka’pamux educator Shirley Sterling, former Sagkeeng First Nation chief Theodore Fontaine, and Mi’kmaw writer Isabelle Knockwood, who have all written about their residential school experiences, points to the ways in which the residential school experience can be understood through the lens of PTSD: these individuals were taken from childhoods spent on the land or in their communities with extended family — where they felt safe and experienced normal personality development through their connection to family and community — and put into institutions where they experienced traumatic events that continued to have an impact on their lives after they left the schools.

An individual with PTSD experiences heavy stress during a limited period of time during which they are exposed to threats or demands that are at or near the limits of their internal capacity to cope. The traumatic incident is a shock to the individual’s assumed path in life, and the unfinished business of PTSD is created partly by the individual’s unanswered questions about why the traumatic incident happened. Constantly asking the question “Why?” and never receiving an answer creates an endless repetitive loop within the individual’s mind, body, and spirit that constantly triggers the traumatic incident.

Generations of Indigenous peoples, however, have never had an assumed path in life or any belief that the world around them is safe. Their development has been marked by repeated traumatic episodes and instances of prolonged abuse, from genocide to residential schools to the ongoing racism and discrimination of the dominant society — and now to the lateral violence present in post-contact Indigenous communities. Contemporary Indigenous peoples are not shocked by their traumatic experiences, because these experiences are commonplace and, for some, even routine.

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