Healing Unresolved Grief in Indigenous & Settler Societies

As Native people we are no strangers to grief.

Profound grief. With a growing literature on historical trauma, we have clearer understandings about how the political realities of colonization have affected us on the individual level. We can, for example, understand addiction as individual responses to trauma, rather than a pathological inability to adjust to a world that was thrust upon us without our consent, as it has historically been framed.

Perhaps the first writers to theorize colonization in terms of post-traumatic stress were the psychologists Duran and Duran in their 1995 book Native American Postcolonial Psychology. They helped us to understand that mental illness in Native America cannot be separated from the history of genocide, the loss of land and culture, and the forced breakup of families. And that as strange and sad as it may sound, some of the social problems we see today in Indian country like addiction and suicide could even be seen as rational responses to profound loss.

Further complicating mainstream theories on Indian maladjustment to the modern world, the research on intergenerational trauma increasingly points to evidence that such trauma may be genetically inherited.This would mean that the genetic inheritance of trauma is not limited to the experience of indigenous peoples with colonization, but to other groups who have experienced profound oppression or loss. This would include African-Americans who were forcibly taken out of their homelands and brutally enslaved for centuries, and Jews whose ancestors survived the Holocaust. It could even apply to other groups who have suffered extreme loss. Even European settlers and immigrants.

I know what you’re thinking—that settlers are the ones who gained everything as a result of indigenous loss. Not only that, but that they are the people who continue to benefit the most from the colonial system we live in, which includes every kind of privilege that structures a hierarchical, class-based society. And you are right. The structural inequities are immense and the work it’s going to take to balance centuries of injustice to indigenous peoples will take generations. But please bear with me as I try to shed a slightly different light on our collective U.S. American society.

In a brilliant essay titled “Justice As Healing: Going outside the Colonizer’s Cage,” authors Caslin and Breton argue that decolonization is necessary for both the colonizer and the colonized because colonization dehumanizes everyone. “What is destructive and catastrophic to the well-being of one cannot be good for the other. To dehumanize others can only dehumanize the dehumanizers…” (pg. 513). Referring to the “internalized colonizer,” they go on to say that “[t]he remedy is to peel away the layers of colonization within us, so that we can feel the lifeblood of healing justice and plant ourselves within Mother Earth by affirming who we are as peoples” (pg. 514).

Healing from colonialism is certainly a political project that involves everyone. But there’s another element as well, one that addresses the psychological experience of immigration and its generational effects. Pauline Boss, author of the book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, believes that many people of immigrant stock in the U.S. live with grief that has become frozen, having lost a sense of home and disconnection from family. When not resolved, this grief can be passed on for generations to come.

This point is poignantly illustrated in a recent memoir by Allan Johnson called Not from Here. A leading sociology scholar on racial privilege and oppression, Johnson reflects on his life through the experience of finding a place for his father’s ashes, leading him on a journey across the United States to places where his ancestors settled in the Midwest. Journaling along the way, Johnson expresses a sense of anguish knowing that although they may have been in a place for over 100 years, it really wasn’t his or their homeland. And that having been severed from the original homeland in Norway for two or three generations, that was no longer home either.

Exacerbating Johnson’s distress is knowing that what his ancestors thought of as their new “home” came at the expense of the Dakota people whose home it originally was.

The resulting sense of not belonging Johnson expresses this way: “I have no People, as if I came from nowhere and nowhere is where I am. And yet this [the U.S.] is where I was born, the only home I have ever known. I am a walking displacement of soul.” Johnson, in other words, verbalizes what seems to be a sense of frozen, unresolved grief.

Even more, Johnson’s ruminations exhibit a stunning level of awareness that bridges the personal with the political by recognizing his part in the unjust system as it exists today for American Indians, as a beneficiary of the settler colonial state structure that is the U.S.

I am simply posing questions. If we recognize colonialism as a structure from which everyone needs healing, how might it change the conversations between indigenous and settler? Do the psychological wounds of settlers contribute to the system of abuse they have created? Recognizing that we all have to live together, is it possible to create a space of mutual compassion that might inform a more just future for indigenous peoples, and more harmonious relationships between settler and indigenous?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.