Breakdown of Indian family has its roots in the past
April 13, 2005
The tragedy on the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota has placed native people and our "social ills" on the mainstream media news for our 15 minutes.
Most of these stories retrace the same well-traveled ground, citing our high levels of poverty, substance abuse and lack of opportunities, before we recede, once again, into news oblivion.
A recent piece in the New York Times, however, came close to looking at a very real and complex problem in Indian country: the breakdown of the Native American family.
The history of the Indian family in this country details a nearly foolproof formula for destroying a culture. From European contact onward, our culture has been under assault from outright genocide to government policies meant to undermine our way of life and take our lands.
The results of this history continue to plague Indian people to this day.
If you ask many Indian people today about their family's history, you are likely to hear a story similar to my own. My mother and her siblings were raised in a reservation mission school in northern Wisconsin. After my grandfather's service in World War I, he went through what we now know as shell shock, for which there was no treatment at the time. He turned to alcohol, neglecting and abusing his young family. Abandoned by their frightened, overwhelmed teenage mother, the children ended up in "the sister school," run by the Franciscans.
At the school, they were beaten for speaking their language or clinging to any notion of "Indianness." The school was run with relentless military precision, mostly aimed at producing good servants.
My mother tells of the occasional visits from her parents, which were conducted in a small room with an ever-present nun, vigilant, should anything "Indian" be transferred between parent and child. The message my mother and generations of Indian people received was clear: You are bad, dirty and unfit to learn anything beyond servant-related skills.
The final, most awful result, though, was the destruction of the very notion of family. My mother emerged from the boarding school experience hurt and angry, with only a dream of the concept of family.
Indian people have an existing worldview of leading a life in balance, which makes them especially vulnerable to shame and self-blame. The schools unwittingly tapped into this by making children feel that if a person is physically or mentally ill or falls on hard times, it is ultimately the result of wrongdoing on his or her part. So, not only are you bad, it's also your fault.
This sense of shame pervades Indian country, sadly passed on to each new generation. Many of our people struggle to ease this nameless pain. Some of us self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. For others, the shame takes the form of defiant, violent anger, cloaked in bravado.
It wasn't until my teens that I learned that going to prison was not necessarily a badge of honor in some families. Given our history, maybe the real news is that tragedies like Red Lake don't happen more often.
Fortunately there are movements in Indian country seeking to address this intergenerational trauma head on. The Boarding School Healing Project is one such effort. Drs. Andrea Smith and Eulynda Toledo-Benalli are among a group of native women working to help their people create a framework to begin this painful process. "The healing must come from our own people," says Toledo-Benalli.
Until we native people are willing to confront our history, we won't be able to begin the healing.
As a people, our strength has sustained us, and we have physically survived. Now it's time to learn how to survive that survival.
Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is past president of the Native American Journalists Association. She is currently lives and works as an independent journalist in Cincinnati. She can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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