Investigating historical trauma endured by Native Americans, Alaska Natives

An Ojibwe woman and independent journalist Mary Annette Pember recently visited Alaska for a series of stories on historical trauma and Native American mental health practices.

Pember says the troubled lives of Native Americans reflect their troubled history.

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In one of her articles, Mary Annette Pember tells the story of Oseira. In 1944, at the age of five, she was removed from her home in a Bristol Bay area village and sent to a Catholic boarding school in Interior Alaska. There Oseira says she and her sister joined dozens of other children in a strictly regimented life of hard work, harsh punishment and little schooling.

Pember says her interest in historical trauma has its roots in her own family history. Like Oseira, Pember’s mother was removed from her Wisconsin family as a child.

“My mother was a boarding school survivor,” Pember said. “She’s passed on now. But as I began this whole looking at historical trauma, I wanted to look at myself and my own family’s struggles with disease, health issues.”

Pember says the history of Native Americans is one of overwhelming trauma such as widespread death from war and disease, dislocation from their homelands, and removal of children from their families:

“That seems like it’s a common human response is that when I’m really hurting I want to stop the hurting. I’m going to do that, and I’m going to want to do it with what is most readily available and sometimes that’s with alcohol or drugs, or, you know, some other aberrant behavior,” Pember said. “We have a lot of that kind of stuff in our communities. There’s a lot of hurt. There’s a lot of pain. As humans I think it’s a pretty human response to want the pain to go away. And I think that’s what folks are doing.”

Dr. Dewey Ertz, of Rapid City, South Dakota visited Alaska last fall to speak at a conference on substance abuse hosted by the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. He’s a member of the Cheyanne River Lakota, survivors of a notorious massacre.

“I descend from the people who defeated Custer at Little Big Horn, but we’re also the victims of Wounded Knee,” Ertz said.

During his 40 years as a psychologist, Ertz has treated trauma survivors and conducted research about trauma. He says people’s reactions vary depending on the type of trauma, and the individual, their support system and resilience. But he says many people find ways to numb overwhelming emotions:

“One very commonly is addictions or substances, including food. Another is anger, because anger is a secondary emotion and covers up other emotions very effectively. Another is bad relationships because if you’re in bad relationships you have somebody else to blame for everything,” Ertz said. “And the last one actually is sex, people are not numb during sex but that’s all that they’re thinking about.”

And, Ertz says, some people use more than one of those numbing techniques.

“And then you have gladiators, who say if one thing is good to numb with, I will use all four,” he said. “So they partner up with someone they can drink and use drugs with, have a bad relationship with and be angry at, and have sex with, and that produces lots of children.

Ertz says children learn these adverse maladaptive coping mechanisms from their parents, and later model them for their children. He says there’s also now a theory that trauma alters the way genes express themselves. He says the idea behind epigenetics is that in the right – or wrong – environment, a person may be predisposed to unhealthy psychological reactions.

Still, Ertz says healing is possible – therapy helps. And in an article published March 16, Pember describes the success of a Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation program headed by Rose Dominick that uses ancient Yup’ik traditions in healing. Pember says healing occurs when survivors of trauma are in a safe environment and can share their story:

“I think awareness is a big deal,” Pember said. “One of the things that Rose Dominick and her people talked about is laying it out on the table, on what you’re dealing with, whether it’s substance abuse, sexual abuse, really just talking about it and putting it out on the table really helps you gain perspective on it.”

Pember says that sharing helps people understand that they’re having a normal human reaction to repeated or prolonged stress, and they can learn to behave and respond differently.

“It’s not an excuse but understanding,” Pember said. “Understanding leads to healing: maybe there’s a way not to feel this way.”

You can see Mary Annette Pember’s work at websites for Indian Country Today, and Daily Yonder, or at

Joaqlin Estus is a reporter at KNBA in Anchorage.

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