Mitakuye Oyass’in. This Lakota phrase translates to, “We Are All Related.” We are all connected. The universe, stars, waters, earth, animals, nature, and people. Everything has a spirit and that is how we are connected to our Creator.  

As a future social worker and licensed mental health clinician, it is imperative that I take a multidimensional approach to the helping profession, with an emphasis on cultural humility to appreciate individuals, families and communities. It is important to understand something from the root instead of what appears on the surface. A story must be told from the beginning, with factual evidence. It is when a story is told from a single perspective that information can get distorted. On this holiday, where many are still unaware that Columbus never stepped foot in what is now America, I wanted to take the opportunity to educate on two important historical events that have greatly affected our Indigenous brothers and sisters across generations.

Historical trauma refers to many cumulative events that have happened to a specific individual or generation that has caused severe emotional harm. Traumatic responses are manifestations of this perceived experience. Trauma can be transferred to generations through biological, psychological, environmental and social means, resulting in a cross-generational cycle. It is experienced by a specific cultural group that has a history of being systematically oppressed.

The first historical time stamp is understanding the Indigenous Holocaust (1492) in the Western Hemisphere. Researchers are amazed by the contributing factors of diseases, wars, genocidal violence, germ warfare (smallpox from Amherst colonial era), enslavement, forced relocations and destruction of food sources that affected these individuals. How many Indigenous people have died in the holocaust in the Western Hemisphere between 1492 to the present? Since 1900, an estimate of about 200,000 total Indigenous deaths can be linked to the legacy of colonialism and institutionalized racism (unconscious bias, discrimination and oppression). From 1492-present day United States, an estimated 12 million Indigenous deaths have occurred with an additional 790,000 deaths that occurred in Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. Regarding the Western Hemisphere from 1492-1900, Indigenous deaths appear to be about 175 million. Estimates vary for Indigenous population prior to 1490 (5-20 million). After the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre on Pine Ridge, there was an estimated 250,000 Indigenous people left in America.  

Another important historical time stamp was the Boarding School era. There were two different models of boarding schools (on and off the reservation). In the 19th and 20th century, the United States boarding schools inspired a similar program in Canada, which is reeling from the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the residential schools. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania. This was the first “off” the reservation boarding school to educate Native American children. The federally funded schools’ philosophy was to “Kill the Indian … Save the Man,” forcing a Protestant ideology by forbidding use of native language and cultural practices. In 1891, the United States passed a law, making attendance compulsory for Indigenous children, and this school became the proposal for over 300 such schools across the United States.

Due to the amount of Native American children being taken to boarding schools, families were separated. Traditional and cultural values were not taught, and these children did not have their parental figures and elders to raise them. For many of these schools, the environment was a place of degradation and abuse. They were a place of unsanitary conditions due to overcrowding, unclean living areas and communal diseases. Children were often forced to cut their long hair, dress in uniforms, speak English, change their names, practice Christianity, work on farms and work in and around the school community to keep it running. Discipline at these schools often consisted of confinement, deprivation of privileges, threats, physical punishment, shaming or restriction of diet. In the 1920’s, Indian boarding schools were found “inhumane” due to the poor diets, hard labor of children, military style discipline, high mortality rates, overcrowded conditions and spreading of disease. It was due to this discovery and advocacy that changed this era and allowed for integration back into families and communities.  

Within the nine reservations in our state, there are limited resources, limited quality medical access, increased unemployment rates, increased suicide rates and increased adverse childhood experiences. Life expectancy is 30 years less than other South Dakotans. There are many contributing factors that explain this, and it can relate to the roots of historical trauma.  

Through my educational journey, it has been humbling to learn about Native American culture and values. As I continue in my profession, cultural humility, lifelong learning and partnership is essential. The values of harmony, respect and self-determination are admirable with how Native Americans incorporate this way of being into their communities. Their tribal rituals and ceremonial practices provide a way of moral thinking and collective bonding.    

I would encourage every non-native person to “Walk the Red Road.” This is a phrase used to convey the message of “living a life of purpose and fulfillment.” Using a humanistic approach often leads to understanding, humility and positive influence. I will use this approach as I prepare to make a difference through service for our future generations. As the famous chief Sitting Bull stated, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

Madysen Pravecek, a Freeman native, is a resident of Yankton and is pursuing a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) at the University of South Dakota. She received a BA in Human Services from Mount Marty.

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