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Tribal leaders tell senators of trauma on their lands, in people

BISMARCK--At a hearing on trauma among Native Americans on Wednesday, tribal leaders asked North Dakota's senators to consider the potential traumatic consequences of building an oil pipeline.

Panelist Dr. Kathryn Eagle-Williams said more mental health professionals are needed at Elbowoods Memorial Health Center on the Three Affiliated Tribes Indian Reservation. Photo by Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune
Panelist Dr. Kathryn Eagle-Williams said more mental health professionals are needed at Elbowoods Memorial Health Center on the Three Affiliated Tribes Indian Reservation. Photo by Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK-At a hearing on trauma among Native Americans on Wednesday, tribal leaders asked North Dakota's senators to consider the potential traumatic consequences of building an oil pipeline.

"We can still achieve economic development. We can still achieve national security," Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said in tearful testimony. "But don't do it off Indians anymore. We pay the cost, and this is the cost: historical trauma."

Archambault was speaking to Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., at a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing Wednesday.

Tribal members and medical professionals filled the Lewis Goodhouse Wellness Center at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. A panel testified in front of the senators about the lack of services and the need for more mental health professionals on Native American reservations.

"We as Native people have heard the stories of historical trauma and are still suffering from not only the traumas that have affected our ancestors, but also the traumas that are daily occurrences on the reservation," said Dr. Kathryn Eagle-Williams, CEO and quality care director of Elbowoods Memorial Health Center in New Town.

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Trauma includes adverse childhood experiences, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, substance abuse and suicide. Historical trauma comprises difficult events that affect people in later generations.

"There's a dire lack of services to mitigate the effects of trauma," Heitkamp said Wednesday.

Eagle-Williams spoke about her experience with trauma when her daughter committed suicide in 2011. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native Americans ages 15 to 24.

Eagle-Williams lived in Tucson, Ariz., at the time. Within several months of her daughter's death, she returned home to North Dakota.

"The general basic health care services are limited due to funding and expertise in working with Native populations," she said. "We don't have enough staff. We have one counselor."

Myrna Warrington, a counselor and enrolled member of the Wisconsin-based Menominee Indian Tribe, described her own trauma: the loss of her group's tribal status in 2001.

"It was devastating," Warrington said. "We lost a lot of our cultural identity."

Her tribe was part of a pilot program in Wisconsin on trauma-informed care in 2012. The program only lasted through 2014, but the tribe has continued to conduct training and meetings on the issue.

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She emphasized the importance of tribes and counties working together to provide services.

"There's just so much that we can do. There's so much you guys can do," Warrington told the senators.

At the hearing, Commissioner Lillian Sparks Robinson of the Administration for Native Americans, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency is developing a comprehensive policy on trauma, including historical trauma. The department is also continuing outreach to tribes, she said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, left, and Sen. John Hoeven listen to testimony from panel members at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee field hearing on trauma Wednesday at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. Photo by Tom Stromme / Forum News Service
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, left, and Sen. John Hoeven listen to testimony from panel members at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee field hearing on trauma Wednesday at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. Photo by Tom Stromme / Forum News Service

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