- A Healing Journey
Sitting in a musty room at the Pacific Alaska Region National Archives in Seattle, Washington, I opened a file and held in my hands my father's Chemawa Indian boarding school report cards and letters from home, and wept.1 Carrying my request, the archivist had disappeared behind a closed door, returned, and gently laid a thin, gray government file in front of me on the heavy oak table.
It had been a yearlong journey to find his school records, a journey that led from my home on the Turtle Mountain Indian reservation in North Dakota, to Chemawa, Oregon; a journey that encompassed Don Coyhis and his White Bison Journey for Forgiveness, and my involvement in the National Boarding School Healing Project as an interviewer of boarding school survivors living in the northern plains states. This essay weaves the history of American Indian boarding schools into the story of my father's experiences at Chemawa industrial boarding school.
In researching boarding schools I came across terms I had not heard of before, such as historical trauma, generational trauma, collective trauma, multigenerational trauma, and unresolved grieving. Historical trauma, the term used most often by scholars of American Indian trauma, is conceptualized as a collective complex trauma inflicted on a group [End Page 5] of people who have a specific group identity or affiliation—ethnicity, nationality, and religious affiliation. It is the legacy of numerous traumatic events a community experiences over generations, and encompasses the psychological and social responses to such events.2 Scholars have suggested that the effects of these historically traumatic events are transmitted intergenerationally, as descendants continue to identify emotionally with ancestral suffering.3
When I read that unresolved grieving is mourning that has not been completed, with the ensuing depressions being absorbed by children from birth onward, I felt like I had been punched in the gut.4 Years ago I had come across the term "adult child of an alcoholic" and was shocked to realize that it defined me. Once again, upon hearing the terms and seeing the definitions of generational trauma and unresolved grieving, I thought, "My god that is me; it is my family, my brother, my sister, aunts, uncles, grandparents."
Scholars have characterized this collective trauma as the soul wound.5 The damage from boarding school abuse, loneliness, lack of affection, and subpar parenting is seen as a major factor in the ills that trouble tribes today.6
One day, about a year before he died, I brought the documentary In the White Man's Image for my father to watch.7 The video spoke of the government's attempt to stamp out American Indian culture, language, tradition, stories, and ceremonies. It reviewed the background of Captain Richard Pratt and detailed his educational experiment designed to transform the Indian into the white man's image. Pratt's first school, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was profiled, and the second school, in Chemawa, near Salem, Oregon, where my father was sent, was mentioned. 8 The video documented the use of whistles, bells, bugles, and military-style punishment and daily regiment, the building of guardhouses on school campuses, kids dying of homesickness, disease, and poor nutrition. The narrator said that boarding schools left a legacy of confused and lonely children.
Following the video, and after a long silence, with head in hands, he said softly, "So that's what the goddamn hell they were trying to do to us." The power and impact of his words slammed into me and I sat trembling, fighting back tears, unable to say a word, unable to comfort him. He had never learned, throughout his entire life, about the government's assimilation policy, why he was stolen, why his hair was shaved off, why he was beaten for speaking Cree, why he had Christianity forced on him. This was his soul wound.
Now I understand that my father suffered all his life from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, both from his days at Chemawa Industrial School, and the horrors he saw fighting the Japanese in the Aleutians during World War II. My brother, sister, and I are the first generation of survivors of boarding...