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Center for Action and Contemplation

Attorney and activist Sherri Mitchell from the Penobscot Nation writes about the collective trauma and “soul wound” [1] that Native Americans have suffered:

My group, Native Americans, have suffered an unrecognized holocaust in this country. The brutal genocide of Native peoples is hard to acknowledge for many, especially for those who have inherited some value from the loss and destruction that occurred here. How do you acknowledge the injustice of genocide, disruption of culture, and the destruction of a way of life when you’re living on the lands of those who have been victimized? It is hard for people to accept that horror and continue to live with the outcome, so they choose to ignore it or minimize the story. The simple truth is that this country was founded on genocide and slavery... 

When we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge the pain—the deep, agonizing soul pain that results from historical trauma—we aren’t able to recognize that we are all carrying some measure of that pain within us. Instead, we allow it to isolate us and keep us cut off from one another. We also fail to recognize that the cause of that pain is not only a violation against us, it is a violation against life itself, and its mournful cries echo through our DNA, and become lodged in our genetic memory. [2]

The collective and intergenerational trauma that Sherri Mitchell describes manifests in individual bodies and requires healing on multiple levels. Kaitlin Curtice, a dear personal friend and member of the Potawatomi Nation, shares:

I am someone who journeys with trauma.

The next step after naming my trauma—the trauma of assimilation, the trauma of being an Indigenous woman who grew up in the Baptist church, the trauma of a broken family, the trauma of struggling with anxiety, and more—was to learn how to live with the reality of those traumas, because once we name something out loud, it becomes true in a way it wasn’t before. My journey with trauma includes learning to love myself in a more embodied way, continuing therapy, and actually stepping out of toxic church spaces and institutions into a fuller journey with the Christian faith that accepts me as I am.

Learning to love myself—my child self, my adult self, my scared self, the courageous self that I keep tucked away a lot of the time—has been the hardest part of my journey with trauma. When we learn to stop blaming our child selves for their trauma, fear, and behaviors, we learn to understand who we are as adults, and we get the chance to become embodied again.

[1] Trained in a Western clinical model, Eduardo Duran is an esteemed psychologist who has worked with Native American communities for over two decades. Native elders taught him about intergenerational trauma through the language of “spiritual injury, soul sickness, soul wounding, and ancestral hurt.” See Eduardo Duran, Healing the Soul Wound: Trauma-Informed Counseling for Indigenous Communities, 2nd ed. (Teachers College Press: 2019), 17.

[2] Sherri Mitchell, Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change (North Atlantic Books: 2018), 57, 66–67.

[3] Kaitlin Curtice, “Trauma as a Journeying Partner,” “Trauma,” Oneing, vol. 9, no. 1 (CAC Publishing: 2021), 61–62.

Image credit: Belinda Rain, Water Drops On Grass (detail), 1972, photograph, California, National Archives.

For more Daily Meditations, please visit Richard Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation