A Powerful Awakening: Understanding Historic Trauma for Native Abuse Survivors
Friday, February 06 2015
Written by Jon Lurie,
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a powerful awakening-nancy bordeaux-web.jpgAs attention turns to relationships this time of year, for some Native American women, the reality of their lives is less than loving.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, Native American women are victims of domestic violence or physical assault at more than double the rate of other racial group. An estimated one in three Native American women are assaulted or raped in their lifetimes and three out of five experience domestic violence.

The White House proclaimed January National Stalking Awareness Month and the U.S. Department of Education declared the same month as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Both issues have an impact on Native women on and off the reservation. But for one women's advocate in the Twin Cities, the goal is to heal the root of the problems through traditional methods, addressing historical trauma.

Nancy Bordeaux ran away from the Rosebud Reservation in 1986, escaping an abusive husband who nearly took her life. She was 27 years-old when she started over in Minneapolis. There she met other Native people, refugees of government relocations programs and women like her. There were a lot of women like her; while Bordeaux’s circumstance was tragic it was, unfortunately, not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon now.

Bordeaux found work keeping books for the Mdewakantowan Dakota’s casino operations in Prior Lake, Minn. She established a peaceful home, but was unhappy in her professional life, counting money for the tribe. She wanted to help women seeking to put their lives back together after leaving abusive relationships.

After several attempts Bordeaux thought she had found a job doing just that when she was hired by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. They put her to work, however, on Indian child welfare cases. Bordeaux’s duties included entering people’s homes, alongside county child protection agents, to investigate reported maltreatment of Indian children. “That’s when I started learning about the institutional racism that exists within the American system of justice,” she said.

The job, she says, started to eat her alive. “They were opening cases against Indian parents when they shouldn’t have, removing children from homes, transferring them into the care of non-Indian people. I no longer wanted to work for a system that perpetuated genocide – the forced removal and transfer of children from one ethnic group to another.”

After the realization that she “couldn’t continue to exist as if I was an assimilated Indian living in the city,” Bordeaux returned to the Rosebud Reservation where she sought help and healing among traditional spiritual people. “Looking back, I realize that the most powerful thing I did to help my people was return to our ceremonies,” she said.

Today, the 56 year-old Sicangu Lakota says she is optimistic about the futures of many of the women she’s helped through her work in women's advocacy. Bordeaux feels some satisfaction knowing that the extensive networking she’s done seems to be having an impact at the national level.

At the urging of Attorney General Eric Holder, congress passed the 288-page reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act last month, which included language proposed by the Justice Department that for the first time would allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who assaulted native women on tribal lands. It would also allow the courts to issue and enforce protective orders, whether the perpetrator is Indian or non-Indian.

While Bordeaux welcomes the tightening of laws to aid in the prosecution of abusers, she is focused on healing the victims. Over the course of her career she has come to see that no law can mend the flesh, bones and psyche of Native women who survive assault. There is only one thing that can accomplish that, she says – a return to traditional spiritual ways, a practice that will not only heal the present generations, but future generations as well.

The Circle: You’ve been working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault at the Minneapolis American Indian Center since 2007. How has your approach to healing changed over those years?

NB: When I first started I was surprised to learn that many of the women seeking help and healing did not know their culture. Most could not do something as simple for themselves as smudge with sage and create a healing space for themselves. I started looking at how that loss or lack of cultural knowledge contributed to their hardships.

The Circle: How did you begin infusing your work with traditional knowledge?

NB: At first, I didn’t. I looked at all of the programs that were out there for women and emulated some of the things that were being done. I thought I had to develop all of these technical skills, organizational strategies, short term and long term goals, benchmarks, and objectives. None if it came from a traditional indigenous point-of-view, and most of it did little to promote healing. Finally, to put it nicely, I realized that it was all a bit sterile. I began looking for ways to improve my clients’ lives using methods that were true to where I came from, to where they came from. I began to infuse my approach with traditional teachings from medicine people, elders, Native doctors and thinkers.

The Circle: As you engage this way of healing, what were some of your challenges?

NB: The best thing I ever did professionally was give myself permission to be true to myself, to do what came naturally. But as I did, I realized that a lot of the leaders in our Native communities had not yet dealt with their own historic trauma. They had not done the hard work of looking back at what our people have been through and sorting it all out. A prominent female leader here in Minneapolis said to me, “You can’t use healing in your work because you’re not a therapist.” I said to her, “But I know my culture.” That’s when it started to click for me: to heal our women of effects of abuse they have suffered, it is necessary to address their historic trauma. For Native women, this can really only be accomplished by restoring traditional culture and spirituality to the center of their lives.

The Circle: How does addressing historic trauma heal victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault?

NB: When women understand historic trauma they can see its effects everywhere in their lives. Once they understand their place in history they can see how genocide has contributed to their homelessness, poverty, illnesses, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and lack of self-esteem. When we look into the past we realize that Native people once lived in harmony with one another, with the Earth and all living things. When we realize this, we can look at those practices that kept us healthy, and we see they can be restored and help us thrive as individuals, families and communities.

The Circle: When women start to understand how the experiences of their ancestors are still affecting them today, what changes do you observe in them?

NB: I see in them the same thing I experienced when I recognized my own historic trauma – a powerful awakening. I’ve always wanted to make a difference for my family. I’ve experienced extreme hardships in my life coming from the Rosebud Reservation. I had to flee from my reservation, flee from my life because I used to be married to a man who was terribly abusive. He went to prison for almost killing me. I blamed him for a lot of years for doing that to me. I ran up to Minnesota first, then went to California, then to Washington State. I was looking for something. I came back and found it in Minneapolis. When I started my own healing journey I realized that there was something more to domestic abuse. It was happening in family after family and on reservation after reservation. This awakening was so powerful that it affected everything I did in my personal life and my work. This also coincided with my ability to really help women.

The Circle: As you changed your professional approach, what were some of the ideas and methods you incorporated?

NB: The most effective thing I did was ask for spiritual help in the way our people have been doing for thousands of years. At first I had trouble believing what I was seeing, because until then I had not had much success at helping my clients. But when I asked for spiritual help I received it. I realized that there are spiritual forces who really want to help. I started using sage and prayer with all of my clients, and helping them learn to do these things. One day I was asked to go present at a local organization that serves battered women. One of the Native women working there asked me, “How can we practice our culture and our ceremonies even while we live in the cities?” I said, “For the most part you can, there are only a few things that you can’t do, like the sun dance. But always remember you live on ancestral lands, and that right here is the Bdote, the confluence of the Minnesota River and the Mississippi Rivers, the origin place of the Dakota people. Just because we’ve lost some of our ways doesn’t mean those ways were lost to us. Our ancestral spirits have been here all along. They’re still here. We know this because when we call upon them, they come to help.”


The Circle: How is historic trauma passed from generation to generation?

NB: We have understood for some time that the conditions of one’s upbringing will dictate much about the course of their life. What we are now coming to see is that body memory, or DNA, has gives us inherited traits that also effect who were become. It is important to note that the trauma that was inflicted upon our forebears is genetically coded in our bodies. But what is fascinating is that studies are showing information stored in our DNA can be changed through positive input as well. When we practice our culture we pass that on through body memory, and we pass on the information future generations need for their own healing. I believe this is the most powerful lesson we can learn about ourselves as Native American people: how to restore culture to the center of our lives— not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of future generations.

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