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National speaker explains how historical traumas haunt Native American communities

Acknowledging past events and lingering impacts helps the healing process
Saleena Boyington, left, a social services case worker, and Elena Giacci, an advocate for Indigenous communities and victims of sexual and domestic violence, share a moment outside the Southern Ute Multi-Purpose Facility in Ignacio. Both said discussions about historical trauma can help Native American and Indigenous communities heal. (Shannon Mullane/Special to the Herald)

Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of violence and abuse that can be sensitive to some readers.

IGNACIO – In a room on the Southern Ute reservation, almost 65 people were told to take a rubber band, bite one end, stretch it away from their mouths and hold it.

The group was attending a training about historical and current trauma among Native American and Indigenous communities, held Monday on Indigenous Peoples Day. National speaker Elena Giacci was demonstrating a tactic used against Native American children at residential boarding schools to teach English and punish native speech.

At the front of the room, Giacci stretched a rubber band away from her demonstration assistant, 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne.

She asked him to say “Hello, how are you?” in the Lakota language. When he couldn’t, she stopped the demonstration. Boarding school teachers weren’t as kind.

“This was told to me by a grandfather. He said that would happen from three to 30 times a day,” Giacci said, adding that other elders told her similar stories. “He said, ‘Elena, when I speak my own language, my lips hurt.’ And he’d been out of the residential school, at that time, probably about 65 years.”

Hotline

Grief and counseling services are available through community resources such as the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado, Axis Health System and Colorado Crisis Services at (844) 493-8255.

Giacci shared this memory as part of a presentation about historic events, the traumas they caused and the lasting impacts they have today. Acknowledging the pain of the past is one step of the healing process, said Giacci, a Diné trainer and advocate specializing in anti-sexual and domestic violence and advocacy for Native American and Indigenous communities.

The two-day training was attended by a mix of Native American and non-Native community members, therapists, attorneys, teachers, health providers and more.

It was organized by Champagne and the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, Mercy Regional Medical Center and the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The first day focused on the connections between the traumas experienced by past generations and the lasting impacts. Giacci presented decades of harmful policies and practices against Native Americans, alongside discussions about bias, the importance of apologies, healing and advice for non-Native people who want to help.

“It’s like there’s one thing after another after another,” she said during the presentation. “But you need to understand this history to understand our rage.”

Historical trauma and now

Giacci started her historical outline in 1500 – but its impacts, she said, stretch into 2021.

Around that time, historians estimate there were about 60 million Native Americans in North America. By 1900, the population dropped to 1 million, Giacci said.

“Just imagine how your life would change if you were the only person to survive in your entire state,” she said.

In the late 15th century, the Doctrine of Discovery was issued by the Catholic Church. It made its way into settled U.S. law to justify “Manifest Destiny,” the takeover of Native American lands, the punishment of non-Christians and eventually the creation of boarding schools.

The Sand Creek Massacre was described as murder and barbarity in a report by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in 1864, Giacci said. But still to get to the massacre site, people pass near the town of Chivington, which carries the name of the colonel who led the attack against noncombatant women, children and the elderly.

The historical trauma and sexual violence training held Monday and Tuesday in Ignacio by national speaker Elena Giacci sought to give participants a better understanding of past events that influence Native American experience to this day. (Shannon Mullane/Special to the Herald)

She talked about the forced sterilization of Native women in the 1970s and transracial adoption practices, when an Indigenous mother was told her baby was stillborn while adoption agencies gave the healthy baby to a non-Native family.

People ages 43 and older lived during a time when Native Americans could not freely practice their traditional religions before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, she said.

“You may get to practice your religion without fear of punishment. Not our community,” she said.

She described Ronald McDonald wearing a headdress, which has symbolic and ceremonial importance, in an advertisement. She compared it to how religions are represented in advertising, asking if it were a priest’s collar, how long would it last?

She joked about her love of the cheese available on reservations, one of many low-nutrition commodity foods provided by the federal government.

If someone sees higher levels of diabetes among Native Americans, “stop and look at what’s happening on the reservation,” Giacci said.

Then, during the boarding school era of the 19th and 20th centuries, children were taken from their homes, forced to abandon their Native traditions and adopt non-Native practices in a nationwide policy of forced assimilation.

Canadian boarding schools’ records showed incidents of beating, poisoning, electric shock, starvation, radiation exposure and pedophile rings, Giacci said.

The history of these schools, like the “Old Fort” owned by Fort Lewis College, was further amplified this summer when unmarked graves of students were discovered at former school sites in Canada and the U.S., according to national news reports.

Saleena Boyington, a Diné tribal member who works as a counselor and social services caseworker, remembered she was 7 or 8 years old when it was her turn to go to a boarding school.

“You’ve got the love of your parents, and all of the sudden, you’re just ripped out. Then you’re put in an institution, and you don’t even understand the reason why,” she said. “Then you’re called savage or slow and delayed. ... You learn to be, in some sense, stoic. I see that with a lot of American Indians. They’re like, I’m good. But in reality, they’re not.”

Christianity was pressed on her at the school and is still an important part of her life. She was told not to share her birth name, which means the warrior who turned around. She was given a number: 13, she said.

“To this day, that’s all I know,” Boyington said. “I don’t know anything about my culture and traditions. I have struggled with that.”

It’s confusing, she said.

“I don’t know who I am,” Boyington said.

These historical policies are linked to an ongoing distrust of medical institutions and organized religion, and health challenges, such as diabetes, substance use, suicidality and depression, Giacci said.

Sometimes, in medical settings, Boyington said she appears angry or unapproachable. But internally, she is coping with memories of nurses at the boarding school, she said.

Younger generations recall grandparents using corporal punishment at home or the impacts of destroyed family systems.

“When you see corporal punishment, where do you think it came from?” Giacci asked during the training.

Righting wrongs

Inside the Southern Ute Multi-Purpose Facility, the atmosphere was often heavy, punctuated by moments of humor from Giacci.

As the discussion moved to the process of healing, she shared a music video by The Stylehorse Collective with a message of resiliency from Native American artists. The group listened to the “Never Again” speech, a formal apology to Native Americans from Kevin Gover as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Giacci gave tips for non-Native people who wanted to help the healing process. They could call for the removal of stereotyping images, like the “chief” sign at Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango.

Medical practitioners could make it clear to patients that after procedures, they will still be able to have children, Giacci said.

“One of the deep takeaways I have is that we need to do a better job in the criminal justice system in working with people of color, especially our Native American community, to help them believe we are here to serve them,” Champagne said. “Being here to serve them with honesty, fidelity and integrity is the best way to achieve that.”

He saw a deep distrust of the justice system reflected during the training.

“We need to do a better job to bring them into the fold and help them understand we work for them also,” he said.

The seminar was a reminder of how present these issues are, said Cristen Alexandria, multicultural advocate for Alternative Horizons.

“And being reminded of how much work we have to do to continue the conversation and to further our understanding of trauma and historical trauma, especially within our Indigenous community,” Alexandria said. “We have a lot of listening to do.”

Some attendees came to connect with others with similar experiences; others to gain tools and cultural competency.

“This event was hard. It was really difficult to hear about some of these traumas,” said Mandi McKinley, operations director and former attorney with Alternative Horizons. “I came away with a feeling that there is a lot of room for people who are not Native to become allies and play a role that can help.”

“It’s a really big eye-opener for me,” said Anna Spencer, a forensic nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center. “The historical trauma, it just trickles down. So how do we fix that?”

For Boyington, her goal was to help other Native Americans in her capacity as a caseworker.

“All this information I’m getting here, I kind of use this for educating a lot of Native American Indians about why we behave and do the things we do,” Boyington said.

In the future, she hopes more Native Americans can find healing by processing both historical and current traumas.

“We’re not just stuck on a reservation. We can be more than that,” she said. “For non-Native people, as far as educating them, there’s a reason why Native Americans are the way they are and why they behave that way.”

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