For the last several months my priority has been Secretary Haaland’s Not Invisible Act Commission, designed to address the epidemic of Missing Murdered and Trafficked Indigenous People (MMTIP). I am honored to be part of the facilitation team and have given the effort everything I’ve got… perhaps a bit too much. After facilitating public hearings around the country where victims, survivors and family member told horrific stories of loss, abuse and pain, I began to carry their grief with me. The accumulation of traumatic stories, broken people, anger, desperation and despair became unbearable. I was numb, depressed, and hopeless. I felt broken myself.
And so, as the conscientious White woman that I am, I sought help from a psychiatrist who has been there for me in times of need for many years. I was suffering from trauma, he said, not as a victim, but as a witness to the trauma of others. Having treated veterans and victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking, he said: “Retelling the traumatic story will not lead to healing. To heal, to live with the trauma in a healthy way, that requires something else, something beyond words.” I saw many witnesses at the hearings testify in tears and struggle through their stories. Clearly the retelling can re-traumatize. But many take that risk in order to educate and advocate for solutions and system reforms to address the epidemic. And many of them have non-verbal resources – ceremonies, songs, prayers, dances, drums, medicinal herbs, healers — within their cultural traditions to help them heal.
I realized I had experienced this at my first public hearing. I was sitting next to a young Indigenous woman from a nearby tribe who was also on the staff for the MMTIP commission. We were at a table along the side of the room, listening and taking notes. One of the witnesses, 18 years old, was telling her experiences as an abused foster child, as a runaway in a big city, as an abused patient in a treatment facility and as a trafficked sex worker. Her will to survive and her courage in telling the story touched me and I began to cry. My young table mate noticed. She reached down and pulled a gnarled tree root about the size of a grapefruit from a canvas bag at her feet. Holding it in her lap, below the table, she used a small pocket knife to carefully scoop out a little hollow in the root. She lit the sawdust in the hollow with a lighter and a tiny wisp of smoke arose. She breathed it in and with her hand below the table she waved the wisp in my direction. I breathed it in, sweet and gentle, and immediately felt comforted – both by the smoke itself, and by her generosity and kindness toward me. Not a word was spoken. The healing was in the aroma. She repeated it several times during the three days of hearings, and I was the grateful beneficiary.
The psychiatrist suggested I find a way to comfort and heal myself that went beyond talking about the trauma. He suggested I could invent my own ritual, maybe using fire, or water, or music, totems, time in nature, meditating, whatever worked for me. I followed his advice and have regained my balance. I continue to work with these distressing issues and am witness to deep pain, but now I enter the room prepared. And I hope for a seat next to my friend with the wisp of healing smoke, but if we are separated, I take comfort in knowing that she is there. And if I close my eyes and breathe deep, I can bring back that sweet, gentle aroma.
The irony, of course, is that Native American cultures have had ceremonies and rituals for healing trauma for centuries. They had the wisdom to know what a suffering human being needed to be whole again and reintegrated into the community. The dominant society has for so long and in so many ways worked to dismantle and discredit this wisdom and these practices. And now we are realizing that these cultures have had the answers all the time. Hopefully in rediscovering this wisdom we are respectful and careful not to appropriate cultural practices that are not ours. Hopefully we can find our own way to heal that is authentically our own, that taps into those deep nonverbal places within us where comfort and healing live.