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Ceremonial approaches essential to healing in Native American community

August 30, 2017
by Jesse J. Morris, PhD, LPC, and William Nevin
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“Collateral damage” is defined as a general term for deaths, injuries or other damage inflicted on something other than the intended target. The “other” in this definition can easily be expanded on to include emotional, psychological, spiritual and cultural effects. The impact of collateral damage does not simply begin and end with the individual originally subjected to the event—that person is damaged along with those directly and indirectly a part of their lives. The impact of this event may constitute an ongoing, potentially endless struggle for the victim and his/her immediate relationships, affecting generations to come.

When evidence is gathered to consider the effects of addiction, for example, researchers have presented study after study regarding the effects on the user as well as on family members and friends. It is from this research that we hear terms such as codependency and adult children of alcoholics.1

Research on the violence against Native Americans living on tribal lands has shown that victims of violence often reported manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, chronic pain, substance abuse, promiscuity, suicidal ideation and communal deterioration. It also was reported that those close to the victim experienced similar symptoms.2 The impact of this damage is felt in all areas of the victim’s life, as well as in the lives of those around them.

The impact on future generations can be seen in the consequences of trauma and abuse experienced in the residential and day schools that many American Indian children attend. The impact affects every part of the person. These children never learned how to play, to be a friend, to be a member of a family, to be a member of their culture, or how to participate in their ceremonies and become a member of their community. Therefore, they did not have the knowledge to pass on to future generations. A vast amount of research has shed light on the painful influences of these schools and their overall agendas. Even after two, three or more generations of federal and mission schooling and assimilation, it has not taken away the interest and learning that Native people desire.3

This challenge for Native people involves how to be Indian and also how to deal with the severe pain from these experiences. In many, what is experienced, felt and lived is what has been referred to as the wounded soul or the “soul wound.”4 This concept also is referred to as historical trauma and intergenerational PTSD.5 The impact is seen in all areas of the victim’s life and affects all relationships, as it is always present. The result is what we have referred to as collateral damage.6

This state of being in which the victim lives is then passed to those around them, and what they experienced has created a person often unable to be the parent, spouse, grandparent, sibling and so on because they never had the teachings, lessons or role models to take on those responsibilities. Instead, they pass on the emotional struggles that they live with to everyone in their circle. This loss has gone unspoken and undefined, but the impact can be seen in the high rates of addiction, depression, anxiety, suicide, PTSD and other emotionally laden disorders so commonly seen in many Native communities. It has been documented that of the 1.2% of the U.S. population identified as Native American or Alaskan Native, 21% had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year. Rates of PTSD are also twice as high as that seen in the general population.

Treatment and intervention

In order to change these behaviors in a healthy manner and to begin any healing, the trauma must be faced from a ceremonial perspective. It is only then that a new attitude and life can be passed to the next generation. Just as the collateral damage has affected so many generations, this healing can then begin to affect the generations to come. It is only through tradition and ceremonial ways that this will occur.

This can be viewed directly at the Lone Eagle Treatment Center in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick in Canada. The treatment center provides short-term substance use treatment focused on traditional and cultural teachings, with direct involvement with one of the largest Sun Dances in Eastern Canada. As people in treatment begin their healing journey, they are involved from the beginning with the standard Western society approach to addiction treatment along with a Native ceremonial approach.

The typical day begins with breakfast, daily chores, smudging, prayers and a talking circle. The treatment members attend groups on the physical effects of alcohol and drugs, family dynamics, dysfunctional family units, anger management, relapse prevention, personal and spiritual development, individual recovery planning, recreational therapy and crafts. Everyone is provided with a treatment orientation, case management services, assessments, aftercare planning and life skills development. The Native treatment focus includes talking circles, instruction from elders and therapists, pipe ceremonies and sweat lodges. There also are groups on the history of Native American people, as well as crafts focused on Native culture.

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