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National speaker to offer tools for better understanding Native American traumas

Boarding schools, hurtful symbols and sexual violence can have cumulative impact on well-being

National speaker Elena Giacci has two goals in mind for her upcoming training about historical and current trauma: education and healing.

The two-day training, which begins Monday, Indigenous Peoples Day, pulls together people in criminal justice, health care, Indigenous communities and advocacy organizations. Some participants might walk away with tools for coping with personal trauma. Others might see new ways for health care and justice systems to meet the needs of people experiencing trauma.


“One of the biggest components about historical and current trauma is just to acknowledge that it even occurred,” Giacci said.

Giacci, a Diné trainer and advocate based in New Mexico, specializes in anti-sexual and domestic violence training and advocacy for Native American and Alaska Native people.

For more than 30 years, she has worked with governmental task forces, law enforcement agencies, researchers and advocacy groups around the nation to build resources and awareness about sexual and domestic violence.

After participating in Giacci’s training about historical trauma with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Durango, District Attorney Christian Champagne worked with Mercy Regional Medical Center and the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault to bring her back for another training session in 2021.

“We have to start with communication, training, this historical context to help folks sit in these uncomfortable spaces of acknowledging our history – and how we can better be there and provide services and response to victims of sexual violence,” said Gina Lopez, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe working with CCASA who helped organize the event.

Historical trauma is the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding from massive group trauma across generations or a lifespan. The trauma can manifest as anxiety, depression, suicidal thinking or substance abuse even across generations, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

The residential boarding school era is a “perfect example” of historical trauma, Giacci said.

The U.S. government spent a century and a half taking Indigenous children from their families and putting them in boarding schools. The policy caused cultural erasure and abuse.

The discovery of unmarked graves last summer at former boarding schools in Canada and the United States amplified awareness of the era and its ongoing impacts. In July, Fort Lewis College in Durango was considering its own search for student graves at the Old Fort campus, a former boarding school in Hesperus.

Those who left boarding schools were often ignored or told not to talk about harmful experiences, Giacci said.

“People want to say, ‘Just lift yourself up by the bootstraps. That happened a long time ago and just get over it,’” she said. “You can’t even get over it until you acknowledge that something even occurred.”

Numerous unresolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women in North America can trigger historical and current trauma for communities, she said.

In Durango, “the Chief,” a two-story-tall Native American caricature outside Toh-Atin Gallery, prompted protests in 2020 that raised questions about racism, discrimination and the area’s history.

These topics, in part, motivated Giacci to take on another seminar in Southwest Colorado, she said.

The training will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday in the Southern Ute Multi-Purpose Facility on the Southern Ute Reservation.

The first day will include sessions about the impacts of historical and current trauma, bias and advocacy, healing stories and being an ally. On Tuesday, participants will dive into the topics such as dynamics of sexual violence in Native American communities, personal and community resilience, issues with disclosure and violence against women.

Bethany Bernal, a forensic nurse with Mercy who helped organize the event, hopes attendees will leave with a better cultural awareness.

“As a non-Native provider caring for native patients, I think it’s very important for us to have that awareness around our practice,” she said.

The training is limited to 75 participants because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants must have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the training or proof of vaccination, and face masks are required. Participants will be able to maintain 6 feet of social distancing and undergo symptom screening at the door.

Reservations were nearly at capacity Monday, but people interested in attending can contact Bernal at bethanybernal@centura.org.

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