International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
  Common Bond Institute  and
  International Humanistic Psychology Association

Place, Historical Trauma, and Indigenous Wisdom

“Place is the first of all beings, since everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place.” – Archytas, as cited by Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.

“To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.” – Carson McCullen, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Largely missing in the discussion of how to treat communal and personal trauma is concern for the ways in which citizens of the earth are connected to, and an extension of, the landscapes they call home. When a sense of “home” is upset either due to violence, dislocation, or changes that happen due to the passing of time, individuals and communities may exhibit what may commonly be understood as psychological trauma, but the root of their experience – and healing – may call for the inclusion of place and all the history it can hold Renos Papadopolous (2002) writes about trauma treatment for refugees but the applications of his work on involuntary dislocation has wider applications as he believes some psychological symptoms are really “nostalgic disorientation,” a yearning to restore a specific loss of place. He argues, “When people lose their homes and become refugees, there is a bewilderment, a sense of unreality and an inexplicable gap because people lose something they were not aware they had.”1  Panic, depression, apathy, suspicion, and spiritual splitting can easily be misunderstood as psychological trauma. Integrating indigenous viewpoints of place, this article explores how the history in a place and the loss of connection to places not only illustrates what Papadopolous calls “nostalgic disorientation,” but offers insight into why the loss of place must be considered in the healing of communal trauma for any group of people experiencing the pain of losing a sense of home, and thus, a sense of self, and often, the place itself must be included in healing.

Indigenous Views of Place and Historical Trauma

“American Indians hold their lands – places – as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point in mind” –  Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red

Historical trauma is remembered in the land. The land holds the history and story of what was here, stories of human survival across generations. Land shapes people as much as people shape land. Finding place and belonging helps people locate a sense of purpose. It is in this place of familiarity we call “home” that we know safety. When a sense of home is disrupted due to war or violence and people are forced to physically flee, the fissure is not only between a place and its people, but people “split” within, too. It is important to account for the role of place in identity and how to heal the microcosm of a person by also healing the place that they called home.

Place speaks to us in rhythm and vibration. When we are there, we are moved and stirred in a language without words. There is a word among the Ojibway, “nishnabe”, which means “the land to which the people belong.” Tribal knowing says we do not own the land, it owns us. We are spiritual people influencing and being influenced by all that is around us. Each place has its own influence, its own vibration, and when both our ancestors and we are pulled from our home, we bring some of that place with us, just as we leave something of ourselves behind. It is that land that gives us our identity and our sense of who we are. For refugees, it is a constant struggle to recreate familiarity as if still in the old neighborhood.  To demonstrate the power of place and identity, here is a case example from my work with Syrian refugees at Zaatari camp in Jordan:

A mother brings in her 17 year old daughter for counseling at the psychosocial clinic. She worries because her daughter runs away and keeps being brought back. The mother is concerned that her daughter might be having an inappropriate relationship with a family relative.  In meeting with the young woman alone, a very different picture emerges. She has tried to go back to Syria several times. Partly, she misses her father who is fighting in the Syrian Free Army, but mostly, she misses the life she had in the old neighborhood.  She reports unwanted advances by a family member at the camp. She sees no future in Jordan and wants to go home. Each time she has tried to go back she has been stopped at the border and returned to the camp only to run away again. “I know it is not there any more (“home” has been destroyed by the war), but all that I am is there.”

In the case of this young refugee, her body is one place while her soul remains with the place she once knew as home; when understood from this angle, a psychological diagnosis may overlook the root of her unrest. To address her needs fully, we must include the implications of violence on the landscapes of home for refugees. Our split from ourselves begins with our disconnection from place, and in our loss of this connection, indigenous people believe we cannot know who we are. For Indigenous people, the real impact of violence is to be displaced at multiple levels. Violence destroys our ability to feel human. We are lost in a landscape that has no vibration, no way to locate ourselves. How do we find a location with meaning in a barren landscape?

Many indigenous cultures hold a belief that all personal healing begins with healing place. An example of this belief system are the Aboriginal people of Australia.

“Land has recuperative aspects that are essential to Aboriginal well-being. Our land also has an important role to play in healing. The land is a powerful healer. When your ancestors have walked these places for millennia, they hold an energy of timelessness that invokes serenity and the feeling that one is not alone, but in the presence of these ancestors, who are able to communicate via the senses and convey the feelings and thoughts that are most conducive to healing. When we are able to sit on our land in contemplation and hear, feel or see the spirits of our old people, then we have been to a place within ourselves of great depth and connectedness. It is this place that we need to go to in order to truly heal ourselves.”2

For indigenous people, the relationship to place defines an entire cultural identity, and thus it is often the case that to heal a community of people, one must start with the land. This is clear when we hear the words of one Cherokee who, while protesting the building of a dam in the Tennessee Valley said, “If we were to make our offerings at a new place, the spiritual beings would not know us. We would not know the land and the land would not know us. We would not know the mountains or the significance of them. We would not know the land and the land would not know us. We would not know the sacred places. If we were to go on top of an unfamiliar mountain we would not know the life forms that dwell there.”3

The following case studies elaborate on this complex relationship between individual, community, and place in the healing of violence and trauma.

Case Examples of Place Being Integrated in Healing Communal Trauma

1.   The aftermath of the Jeffrey Dahmer history (aka the “Milwaukee cannibal,” 1978-1991) left dozens of family members and neighborhood people with profound shame and grief. His acts of sexual perversity, macabre dismemberment, and killings received international attention. After his arrest, the Oxford apartment building, where the killings occurred, was torn down by the city of Milwaukee in 1992. In the spring of 2000, an ecumenical healing ritual was organized to memorialize and heal all that had transpired there.

People in the neighborhood were hoping for some type of spiritual service to bring healing and restore vitality to the place. At first, the neighborhood association was embracing the idea of an openly performed ecumenical service, but later asked that the service not be performed as a public event. Most of the ministers expected to come did not do so, leaving a Catholic priest and myself to lead the service.

When the priest and I arrived, the sense of death at the site was overwhelming. The lot was devoid of any living plant life. A dead tree and dried out weeds filled the lot, along with concrete rubble and stones. Nothing there was alive. Neighborhood people, family members who had lost loved ones to murder by Jeffrey Dahmer, and other community people to bring healing to the place. As I invoked the circle, I asked all to speak from their hearts. Many tears flowed. This crying was the water of healing for this land, as well as, an honoring and remembrance of the lives lost. As people shared their grief, their shame, and prayers for healing, others from the area were coming out to watch. They asked what we were doing. At that point, they wanted to join the ceremony and thanked us for what we were doing.

The priest blessed the land with water and prayed that the land would know peace. Each person was given water and seeds to offer as prayer that this place come back to life. At the end of the ceremony, a history professor in Native American studies shared a story about the place. “This place in Milwaukee is the highest point in the city. In the old days, the Native people of the area would meet here to hold peace council when there were conflicts. In the 1800’s, during one of these peace councils, U.S. troops had massacred hundreds who had gathered. It is believed by indigenous people that places relive the history until it is healed.” After he told this story, a prayer was offered to release the dead spirits trapped there, asking that their suffering end and they be released from the earth. Everyone there was given tobacco to make this prayer in their own way and give the tobacco to the land.

A year later, flowers and grass were growing where there had been rubble.

2.   A Ho Chunk Nation Elder, Tom, asked if I would be willing to come up and do a place healing ceremony for some land the tribe had purchased youth work to care for the animals and for tribal spiritual leaders to teach them traditional ceremonies. For some reason, nothing was working right on the land and he thought it needed healing. I asked him who would be there for a healing ritual and he said, “A couple of us Elders and about 10 teenagers.”

When I entered the farm building on the day we had agreed upon, it was full with about 300 adults and another 20 or so teenagers. A large circle of chairs had been set up, and we gathered in circle. I was asked by Tom to tell about how I learned to work with the spirits of a place, and to explain what we would be doing. I told stories of trauma and violence in my childhood because I was Jewish, and how I spent most of my childhood in nature to be safe. The spirits there would come to talk with me. My great aunt was what she called a “dreaming woman,” and she would ask me about what I learned when I would sit there. She taught me that places hold history of what had happened and how places could make people sick.

As I told this story, many of the people were teary eyed. I finished with telling the circle that my spiritual prayers had told me the land was Bear clan land and the spirit of the sleeping bear had to be wakened for the land to be used for ceremony. At this juncture, a Lakota man who was visiting says to me, “Your story is my story. My people had a holocaust as well.” He began to cry and then told his personal story. Other people spoke as well, starting with the phrase, “your story is my story.”

We shared food and then we traveled to the ceremony site. A “calling in the spirits” song and prayer was made, and then one of the teenagers (who was a member of Bear clan) and I went into the woods where we found a clearing that had a bear-shaped mound. Here, we made tobacco prayers for the land. When we returned, an elderly Ho Chunk woman, who was suffering from extreme dementia, stood up and said, “I am not of the Bear clan, but when I was a little girl, I remember hearing the Bear clan songs.” She began to sing the song from long ago. The Bear clan teenager who had helped me did not know the song, so I encouraged him to sing with her until he knew it. As soon as he knew the song fully, she sat down and returned to being confused.

In the weeks ahead, the tribe was able to hold a number of ceremonies with the youth, and teach them some of the old ways. The ceremony to waken the sleeping bear of the land had been successful in removing obstacles that had previously sabotaged earlier attempts at this program to restore the land for ceremonial purposes.

3.   I am walking with client in his old neighborhood where much of his childhood  trauma had occurred. He was afraid he would be emotionally overwhelmed by all the feelings he had buried long ago. The place which had been a poor working class white neighborhood was now a poor Black neighborhood. As we walked, he told stories of all that had happened, and part of his healing was to have his stories witnessed. As we got in front of his childhood home, he began to scream uncontrollably, in a gut wrenching cry that emanated from the depths of his being. This brought a lot of people out of their homes who wanted to know what was going on. As he regained control of his emotions, he told them he had come there to find the parts of himself he had left behind and what had happened to him. What started as a personal ritual became a communal ritual as people shared their own experiences that his story had stirred. A man from the group that had gathered began to sing “Amazing Grace” and others joined in. The client reported that coming to this place, witnessing the stories of others who lived there, and hearing the song brought him an inner peace he had never felt before.

Summary

As the case stories attempt to convey, places have a unique role in the treatment of communal trauma. In its simplest terms, a return to place offers a sense of healing completion for certain populations that have experienced a severing of place and self due to violence. Stories about American soldiers to Viet Nam/Cambodia to heal the torment they carry from the war and visitation to death camps/community memorialization by Holocaust survivors are a couple of examples where direct encounter with places has been a key factor in their healing. As Renos Papadopolous reminds us in his work with trauma and refugees, the loss of place and the subsequent “nostalgic disorientation” experienced by these communities is a key factor in understanding refugee symptomatology. This disorientation has more to do with loss of home than psychological trauma. At this juncture in human history, the numbers of displaced people are at the highest levels known. For most displaced persons, return may not be possible or because of the ravages of war are no longer the places they remember.

From an indigenous viewpoint, places in the spiritual realm remain the same, and we can draw from these real, if not tangible, landscapes for support to bring the wholeness that still exists in the spiritual realm into the fractured physical one. Just as individuals carry the pain of what they have experienced, so do places. As Toni Morrison reminds us in her book, Beloved, which speaks to the post-slavery experience in the United States, “Some things you forget. Other things you never do. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays , and not just in my memory, but out there in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there right in the place where it happened. Where I was before, I came here, that place is real. Its’ never going away.”4  The symbolic and ritual use of place from an indigenous viewpoint is a key factor in restoring harmony to a people who have lost their sense of who they are because the relationship between land and people is inseparable and co-creative.

References

  1. Papadopoulos, Renos. ed., Therapeutic Care for Refugees: No Place Like Home, London, Karnac, 2002, p.18
  2. Clarke, C. and D. Fewquandie (1996). Indigenous Therapies: Old Ways of Healing, New Ways of Being. Brisbane: 1-22.
  3. Mander, Jerry and Victoria Tauli-Carpaz, Paradigm Wars: Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Globalization, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 2006, pp.17
  4. Morrison, Toni. Beloved, New York, A.Knopf, 1987, p.46

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Author(s)

  • Myron Eshowsky, M.S. is co-coordinator of Common Bond Institute's Social Health Care Program for Syrian Refugees and on its core training faculty. For over 40 years, he has pioneered the integration of indigenous healing models to address mental health issues of modern life. Recently he learned that his practice is now called Two Eyed Seeing (term coined by Mi'kmaw Elder Albert Marshall. the integration of indigenous viewpoints with traditional western psychology. A life long community activist, Myron developed his first NGO at age 19 to address abuses of migrant workers in Indiana. Working and living with migrant families, he helped shape legislation passed in his home state of Indiana which protected wages of the workers and assured healthy living environments for the workers and their families. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, he put together a restorative circle based approach for working with the chronically mentally ill in Madison,Wisconsin. Serving about 150 people, the program taught supportive listening skills to its members, opened a 24/7 telephone support line, and taught peer facilitators how to do case management. This innovative program facilitated local patient rights efforts at that time and led to consumers being added to the local community mental health center board. He presented at two National Institute of Mental Health national conferences on the approaches developed and was an invited keynote speaker. Integrating shamanic healing practices with therapy, he ran healing/talk circles with youth gangs and youth at risk for several years. Additionally, a similar project was run in Wisconsin and Michigan state prisons. Through the years, he has worked with these populations, AIDS orphans/child soldiers in Africa, various communities in conflict, opiate addiction, and health/trauma issues. As co-developer of the Social Health Care Program for Syrian Refugees, he wrote a training manual in group work based in restorative circles model that is used in all trainings offered and used in support groups for the refugee community. He is the author of numerous journal articles,books, and book chapters on topics of integrating indigenous healing approaches to modern life. Currently , he is developing Two Eye Seeing Approaches for addressing transgenerational, communal, and historical trauma. Additionally, Myron has taught peacemaking and healing approaches based in cross cultural healing models throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. -- Email: meshowsky49@gmail.com / Web: www.myroneshowsky.com