A Wisp of Smoke

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.

wisp of smoke

16 thoughts on “A Wisp of Smoke”

  1. Thanks of this, Lucy. I’ve been having a similar experience in my work photographing the homeless at an ABQ shelter. I’ve been at it for almost a year and have gotten to know many people well. The anger, heartbreak and death have been difficult. Many, actually most of the times, there has been laughter and joy. But the dark moments come often. A young woman I know said the only way to handle it was to turn it over to God. Not being a God person, that doesn’t work for me. What worked was that she had a solution. It meant all of us are having to find ways to manage the sadness. I like your idea of coming to meetings prepared. That hadn’t occurred to me, but I’ll be using it next Tuesday when I go again.

    1. Pam, I had no idea you were spending time, giving yourself, to this. You know exactly what I am talking about. God is an option for a lot of people that I hear from in the MMTIP work, too, and I am always really glad for them. I have found several things that help prepare me — walks in nature, Sleepy Time tea, deep breathing. And then when I am hearing the trauma I have something that I can touch and “worry” — turquoise beads, or a small stone. It helps the words and emotions travel through me and into the object. Good luck and let’s talk sometime.

  2. Thank you Lucy for sharing. Years ago, when I was beginning my facilitation practice a friend made an observation and recommendation. She said that being present, holding space for people was a gift for them, but that during that time I was also vulnerable and that often/sometimes their energy (summarizing here.. good or bad) attached itself to me. One of the things she suggested that I have adopted is to, especially after a difficult or emotional or draining meeting to simply take a shower and envision the release of that energy. In the case of the negative energy, literally down the drain. … This she said would sever the cords.. perhaps similar to the mini smudging your friend offered you. Thank you so much for the work you are doing. Your ability to hold space, I’m sure is a gift to this most difficult but necessary process.

    1. Hi Lori and thanks so much. You described perfectly the risk and vulnerability of doing the kind of work we do, and I like the image of washing that energy down the drain. I hope we can all share healing, cleansing practices. The bigger the repertoire the better.

  3. Lucy, This post touched me deeply. Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal. You’re good advice about the role of ritual and ceremony can apply to a wide range of trauma.
    What a gift to have immediately connected with such a wise woman.

    1. Thank you, Anne. So glad this resonated with you…and I’m not surprised. Your Navajo mysteries (Chee, Leaphorn, Manuelito series) deal with trauma, its impacts, and ways of healing with such respect and sensitivity. Take care, Anne. Hope to see you two soon.

  4. It was suggested to me that by using an herbal root in my pocket as a touchstone for healing an injury was actually reintroducing me to to the trauma. I found their idea so counter productive to healing, I had to distance myself from them.

  5. snaps to “those deep nonverbal places within us where comfort and healing live.” so much power in relearning how to listen to those places….lifelong practice! thanks for bringing so much heart to this field, Lucy, it needs it.

    1. Thanks so much, Cheyenne, and you’re right, it is a process of re-learning, not learning. Those nonverbal places have been there all along, waiting to be tapped. I know your heart is in the field, as well. We need all the hearts we can get!

  6. Having spent several years as a volunteer as a restorative principles facilitator in public schools and hearing the stories of these children that had experiencie all sorts of traumatic events, I can only imagine what you experienced. I had to stop volunteering as it was more than I could handle.

    For some reason my “d” key keeps printing as a t.

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