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Echoes of historical trauma: Effects of centuries of loss can hamper recovery from violence

Linda Thompson, director of the victim assistance program at Spirit Lake and executive director of the First Nations Woman's Alliance, makes a point during a breakout session Wednesday at a two-day conference in Grand Forks dealing with trauma and violence on Lakota Indians.

GRAND FORKS -- People who want to help American Indian victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and other crimes need to understand the deep, lingering effects of "historical trauma" suffered by Indians generally, a victim advocate from the Spirit Lake Nation told participants in a conference in Grand Forks on Wednesday.

Linda Thompson, director of the victim assistance program at Spirit Lake and executive director of the First Nations Women's Alliance, a statewide association, said centuries of loss, discrimination and subjugation have had a lasting psychological impact that can work against recovery.

The loss of identity, homelands, culture and belief systems -- coupled with the introduction of alcoholism and diseases and the loss of children sent off for years to boarding schools generations ago -- all had devastating effects that continue today, she said.

Thompson spoke to therapists, teachers, nurses, victim's advocates and others, Indian and non-Indian, at a two-day conference on the effects of trauma and violence on Lakota Indians.

The Grand Forks Safer Tomorrows initiative, the Community Violence Intervention Center and Native Streams, an Indian advocacy group, sponsored the conference "to better connect people who have been traumatized by violence to culturally sensitive and competent services," said Kristi Hall-Jiran, executive director of the CVIC.

Thompson, an Ojibwe Indian born in Bemidji, Minn., and raised in the Twin Cities area, went to Spirit Lake in 1995. When the personal relationship that took her there ended, "the people of Spirit Lake took good care of me and my kids," she said.

"I have great love and respect for the people of Spirit Lake," including those who are working to improve the health, safety and security of the tribe's children and other vulnerable people, she said.

Struggles and lessons

Thompson said she understood little as a young woman about what historical trauma had cost her and her family.

"Up until my 20s, I was just living and surviving," she said. But as she began to understand things that were missing in her own cultural education, she looked for reasons why -- and that led to her mother, who had been sent to boarding school from when she was 4 years old to 11, with just two visits home.

Her mother struggled with alcohol and violence as an adult, Thompson said.

"That was my teacher," she said. "But who helped my mom? Who taught her things? How does an institution (such as a boarding school) teach you about love and the importance of relationships?

"She did the best she knew how," but Thompson chose to chart her own course, which included choosing not to drink.

'A lot of rules'

Thompson gave the nurses, therapists and others who may frequently have Indian clients a primer on the "unique relationship" reservations have with the federal government and how that affects everything from health care to law enforcement.

"There are a lot of rules to being Indian," she said.

She said that Indians, about 3 percent of the nation's population, are more likely to be victimized but less likely to get the services they need after being victimized.

She said she had never known anyone who lost a child until she went to Spirit Lake. There, she met women who had lost children, and eventually she attended the funerals of children of people she knew.

One in three American Indian women suffers a physical or sexual assault by age 18, she said. They need help with medical attention, treatment and counseling. Understand, she said, that many of those women will be frightened by or suspicious of "outsiders" and reluctant to talk.

"There is a big trust issue with outsiders," she said, especially people who may have the authority to "take your child away" or deny employment or benefits.

Thompson also sought to clarify what she called "misunderstandings" that often cause resentment or anger toward Indians, such as the widely held notions that Indians don't pay taxes, get free education and receive a "per capita" check from the government just for being Indian.

"I've worked since I was 13 and I have always paid federal taxes," she said. "And because I didn't live on the reservation, I paid (Minnesota) state taxes, too."

Indians who live on a reservation, are members of that tribe and work for the tribe are exempted from state taxes, she said. But while she lives at Spirit Lake and works for the tribe, she is not a member of the tribe, so she is not exempt.

The "free education" and "per cap checks" also are myths, she said.

That drew a grateful response from Elaine Gunville, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe and a mental health registered nurse at Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks.

"I find myself explaining those things to people all the time," she told Thompson.