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Seeing trauma for what it is

January 19, 2009

I am aware that I may seem to have suddenly gone overboard, identifying as Indian and learning more about my heritage, and now trying hard to learn the Cherokee language. From (Swedish) DH’s reactions, I suspect that he is considering this both a perseveration and a grief reaction. I also get the idea that he is a bit uncomfortable with it, but that is another topic. (I’m catching the whiff of a lot of kinds of unexamined privilege there, and it’s not very pleasant.)

It’s true that I started identifying more fully as Native when my mom was sick, and not just because I got to take over for her as sub-lineage Clan Mother (intended to take over for the full lineage after I’ve proven that I can do the job, and when the other female cousins decide to pass it along.) Hearing her account of getting dismissed as a drunken Indian in the local emergency room–when she could barely stand up, much less walk straight, from undiagnosed bone cancer, and had stabby broken ribs from the collapse which took her there, which they didn’t even check!–did have some effect. They honestly suggested rehab, and assumed she was lying about not drinking at all, being diabetic. It somehow seemed even more relevant when my mother, who looked more stereotypically Indian, was treated that way by the incomers running the place now.

Before, I was working off a more multicultural identity, and I still acknowledge various inputs, including Gaelic. That was my primary–more accessible and socially acceptable–identification for years. During Mom’s illness, I got more firmly knocked upside the head by information that was difficult to ignore, and was able to look at the (formerly purposeful*) optical illusions differently. One way you look at the picture, our family background is mostly Scottish/Irish with a sprinkling of Indians (along with a few Germans, Welsh, and Angolans) for flavor; another way, there are an awful lot of Indians passing for more acceptably exotic Gaels, with a sprinkling of the real thing, and a rather bigger dash of African flavor. Just the other day, I found out that yet another part of my paternal line which I had assumed started out Irish, were most likely Cherokee, for example.

This, BTW, would be why I haven’t been following a primarily Celtic spiritual path for a while, though I do still maintain an interest in CR. Years ago, some ancestors started not-so-subtly reminding me that I’d been neglecting them, and things have gone from there. There has been a lot of letting go of what I’d preferred to think involved, oh my. Good thing I had the background to deal with it with some equanimity, even if I can be really stubborn sometimes.

My life has been shaken up pretty thoroughly these past five years or so, and not necessarily for the bad–another set of optical illusions, possibly. In the process, I have had to identify and face a number of things which have caused me problems. Lately, I have had to see that an awful lot of my PTSD and confusion has come from forced assimilation, through intergenerational trauma and more personal experiences with the modern public school equivalent of the Indian boarding school. I could tell that a good bit was coming from school experiences, but not exactly what was behind them.

Again, I should not have to say this overtly, but to try to prevent some iffy conclusions being jumped to: I am not trying to minimize the abuse suffered by people confined to boarding schools. I could go home at night and was not physically abused (beyond rather psychotic control of when I went to the bathroom, etc.), but as discussed in my earlier post on Insitutions and PTSD, physical beatings are only the most blatantly obvious examples of abuse, easily understood by people who have not been subjected to the rest of it.

No, part of a peculiarly Eastern Native approach was the continual denial that I could possibly be who I said I was, to the point that I stopped saying it at all. Only once was the ostensibly prior existence of Siouan people in Virginia mentioned, by a student teacher who pronounced it “Sigh-ox” and offered no further explanation nor context–I assumed she was just misinformed, as was so often the case. Some of the ignorant people in charge probably did truly believe that all my people were dead, and some of them were no doubt trying to “help” me learn to be a “better” person with more chance of success in a wétiko society.

It is harder for me to be as filled with rage these days toward people who have hurt me, applying some compassion and understanding to other people’s motives. That still does not make their actions, nor their adherence to the same old racist stereotypes–conveniently aimed at “hillbilly white trash” these days–right in any shape or form. This ruse is a handy way of evading accusations of racism, while still selling more of the same old crap. I got convinced enough that I couldn’t be who I said I was that I was past 30 before I saw the racist motivations behind the abuse–in spite of my “stupid hillbilly trash” mother pointing it out repeatedly.

By the constant mental abuse, denigration, and humiliation–often in the form of pitting kids against each other, and encouraging them to humiliate one another–they did make me deeply ashamed of my family, speech, and culture for years. I have recounted already how one speech therapist tried to completely wipe out my regional speech, “for my own good”. This is the next logical step, dealing with people whose own native language has already been wiped out. Nothing about me was acceptable, including identifiably Indian physical characteristics. It makes no difference that they were operating under the pretense that we were all dead or safely shipped out West, they could still zoom in on non-Euro features and build. It was not considered acceptable to openly criticize the Black kids over this, but the rest of us locals were fair game. There were not many local kids left in the school system, even then, most local people having already chosen to move into one of the surrounding counties. Gee, I wonder why.

Cultural characteristics made me stupid and crazy, and in dire need of reeducation. This did also apply to the identifiably Black (largely Black Indian) local kids. I did not understand why people were being so cruel to me at the time, and assumed that I must have done something wrong; eventually, I came to assume that I must be a deeply flawed person, because nothing I did made it better.

A few days ago, I ran across a very good example of some of the cultural differences that made things more difficult, which really clicked for me, in an educational document from the Cherokee Museum in NC:

Many Cherokee people still live with traditional values even though they may live with modern technology. Cherokee children are still taught to observe from an early age. They are taught to find the answers to questions or problems by observing the natural world, being patient, and letting the answer come to them. They are taught to be cooperative rather than competitive, in all situations, including the classroom. They are taught not to embarrass others. In the classroom, this often means that if a child gives a wrong answer, other children will not provide the correct answer because it would embarrass the first child. It is also considered impolite to look someone directly in the eye, to brag, to act in anger, or to directly confront someone. Cherokee people traditionally believe in a large degree of personal freedom and personal choices, as long as one takes responsibility for one’s actions and considers the good of the whole. The Cherokee people have always been democratic by consensus (rather than majority rule.) Women have always had equal power with men. Traditional Cherokee stories reinforce all of these values for children.

This does not just apply to the Cherokee, but describes a set of wider cultural characteristics. You can probably see the many ways in which this set of expectations will conflict with a Lord of the Flies educational environment, much less one enforcing norms of a sexist society. My big eureka moment came from the observations about embarrassing other people. In my experience, public embarrassment was just about the harshest disciplinary approach, reserved for some pretty awful behavior. Being an autie, I frequently did not understand why I should be ashamed of myself, but had obviously done something that the adult in question did not like. Transfer this to an authoritarian school setting, in which humiliation is frequently used as a tool for social control, and you’ve got a real recipe for emotional disaster. I did not understand why people kept embarrassing me, but continued to assume that I had probably done something awful to warrant it.

This is one of the reasons I went from the stream-of-consciousness chattering that comes natural to me, to “ghosting”. Most of it was just from the content of everything that came out of my mouth being ridiculed, and generally avoiding notice being a good strategy. Another part came from the form being ridiculed, what with my accent and lingering rhotacism from a low palate even now. Being in southern England has made me expect much less ridicule about the rhotacism, what with the prevalence of a cultivated version. I still have trouble speaking to people I don’t know. Remember, a speech therapist had already kept going on about how I was Not Trying Hard Enough to change my speech, trying to drive the point home with escalating humiliation as I did not react as expected. The other kids were encouraged to poke fun at any of us who were deemed to need extra “help”. Despite what a lot of people prefer to think, this kind of thing does not stop affecting your life overnight.

When I started school in Bluefield, my thick rhotacism was only a communication issue. It apparently didn’t occur to anybody that making fun of it might be acceptable. The same went for my meltdown episodes. The teacher may not have understood what was wrong, but obviously something was, and she figured out that taking me to a quiet room for a while helped me calm down. No big deal was made of that. She did not make me feel bad about “odd” behavior, nor did the other kids. Our time and behavior were not micromanaged to the same extent, as long as we seemed to be doing something constructive without hurting other people. I was not made to feel stupid, but had the option of moving up a few grade levels. This was more the type of behavior I had learned to expect. Point is, that school system was still being run by local people, who were operating by familiar cultural standards. Radford schools came as even more of a shock after that.

I do not think I can go into all the manifestations of mental cruelty again right now, though I’ve already discussed a lot of it here and on LJ. Let it suffice to say that I was made to hate myself and my people for years, and it’s testament to strides in recovery that I no longer spend half my time suicidally depressed. I came very close to being torn apart by conflicting expectations and worldviews, which can never be successfully combined into one coherent way of looking at things.

I would recommend reading pretty much all of Jack Forbes’ articles online, especially his spot-on Colonialism and American Education, a PDF.

Possibly the most destructive aspect of this indoctrination was that, as survivors of boarding schools keep reporting, I could not understand half of what my more traditional family members were telling me. We may as well have been speaking different languages. Not only did I view them as stupid, backward louts who couldn’t have anything valuable to say, my way of looking at things had become so contorted that we were frequently speaking at cross purposes, and not understanding one another. I am still slightly ashamed to admit this, but the poison did not come from inside me, and I did the best I knew to do at the time. Thank goodness I have been able to regain some perspective, recognize that poison for what it is, and start getting rid of some of it. I can also see that emotional abuse is not something that I just have to accept if I want to be around other people.

One of the saving graces was that my mother was more traditional in outlook, thanks to having been adopted into her father’s lineage. She was remarkably patient with me, even through the yelling and throwing up of hands. She had needed to be adopted, because my grandmother is pretty thoroughly assimilated in a self-loathing way. My uncle was not adopted–presumably because he didn’t seem to need it as badly, and was not a candidate for necessary positions later on–and does not consider himself Native. This was brought home to me when I was back in VA, and had to leave the room to avoid a conversation about how “they” (Indians) were just as warlike and destructive as “we” are. That demonstration just about made my heart crack open, on top of everything else that was going on at the time.

Both sides of my family have been under great pressure to assimilate for a long time now (again, see Mann’s “Slow Runners”), with wildly varying success rates. When my mom was sick, it became obvious that some of her cousins were less thoroughly Methodized than I’d assumed–some of the rest of us were able to throw off the surface Christianization earlier. One of those cousins was actually shocked a couple of years ago, running across a box of old photos chock full of stereotypically Indian-looking people. She is five years older than my mom, and had managed to Pleckerize the family herself, assuming that the Indian story was a cover for the number of Africans in the family. (Her grandfather–my great-grandfather–was a Black Indian, and he wasn’t alone.) She was also surprised to find out that her great-grandmother’s family had escaped the Trail of Tears by heading up the New River Valley, and being adopted into the local Tutelo. It took a family Bible with Cherokee writing to bring that home. Nonetheless, that/my lineage has done pretty well at staying traditional in worldview, continuing to live in an extended family setting as far as possible (not always easy with the strong push toward nuclear family) even after they were pitched off their remaining land in the ’20s and impoverished. That was after my grandfather was born on what’s now the bottom of Claytor Lake.

This historical marker has been put in the middle of what was family land, which apparently only had Dunkards (described by Moravian missionaries as a “kind of white people who wore deer skins, lived by hunting, associated with the Indians and acted like savages”), with surrounding nations–the only actual Natives, apparently–unfairly harrying them. Does the transliterated “Mahaniam” sound German? I have no doubt there were a few German eccentrics by 1749, allowed to settle there, and treated overly politely until they had shown way too much disrespectful behavior. Dunkards still have a mission to the Navajo, apparently. The Long Way Home “historical” drama was also held on family land, right across the river from the house where my great-great-grandmother was born (in that link, at the top of p. 16, you can just about see the big limestone house that belonged to her granny, along with a mound smack in the river bottom); if you run the ferry, you can control who gets across the river, not to mention who tries to camp out there, even if that didn’t work so well with the Ingles bunch. The Shawnee from over Bluestone way didn’t attack Granny Terry’s family to make a point, either. I am glad to see that racist piece of tripe is gone now. Even as self-loathing as I was at the time, I absolutely refused to work on it when most of my friends were doing so.

I had heard a lot about this kind of thing all along, growing up, and was still bludgeoned into considering myself “not really Indian”.

Some of us have found ourselves in the position of living the culture without much idea why–other than “that’s just the way we do things”–while others have been more Westernized. Some have been all too aware of why all along.

You should hear some of the comments my grandmother still makes about my grandfather’s “trashy” family, to the point that I really wonder why they got married at all. She tried her hardest to “help” him by making him ashamed of his entire background, and has continued to “help” us in the same way, repeatedly apologizing for leaving my mom with those horrible people while she worked. My grandfather and his mother were serious casualties of cultural genocide, made to feel ashamed for life over hideous circumstances well beyond their control. It was mostly due to luck that she did not wind up in the same situation as her contemporary, Carrie Buck, who had been forced into domestic servitude for “foster parents” in Radford; I am not sure if those were the ones with the rapey nephew. My great-grandmother and Carrie apparently knew each other. The New RIver Valley is also full of Bucks. “Grinding our children’s faces into the dirt,” indeed.

All this has surely contributed to the health situation I have found myself in as I’ve gotten older, with the depression, scads of PTSD, body image problems, diabetes (years of being awash in stress hormones, along with trying to follow inappropriate one size fits all dietary recommendations), chronic muscle pain, you name it. I directly trace the four generations of body dysphoria and disordered eating behavior in my maternal grandmother’s family (extending down to me, though I’ve been fighting it pretty hard) to large, powerful women becoming less and less acceptable. Our folks have always been known for being big. These days, it’s treated less as “superior build” than as “grotesquely and offensively overweight” and “definitely unfeminine”; I am so underweight at the moment that my patellar tendons are standing out, and am still at a BMI of 27, with a xylophone-like ribcage upward of 45″. My last GP here–who preferred to treat me like some kind of horrible barbarian anyway–refused to prescribe more birth control pills because I was so fat and old (at 28, and probably 15% body fat at that point, in the absence of hip and thigh deposits). Yeah, that one still pisses me off. My Mohetan/documented Scottish maternal great-grandmother was about 6’4″ and robustly built, and kept herself so thin that what jumps out at you from photos is the razor-like bones; it’s just plain frightening. She sewed up my grandmother’s bra cups to try to keep her breasts from growing to the “vulgar” proportions common in her family. The same lady thought she was “getting ahead”, leaving a large and prosperous farm (which her mother still ran, and was given full credit for running), for nuclear family living in an apartment above a shop in town. This idea about health problems was only confirmed by a paper I ran across, Reconceptualizing Native Women’s Health: An “Indigenist” Stress-Coping Model.

Being caught between cultures had taken its toll on all of us. Now I am more able to pay attention to those who are still pretty traditional, and I hope that TIm’s kids also can eventually. Part of my new job is trying to provide the education and counseling their parents are not able to. In fact, one of the reasons I am well suited to the path I’ve found myself on is that I have needed to learn to understand various permutations of the dominant culture, and of my birth culture, so can understand and deal better with people from all of them. I can present things so that the more Methodized family members get the point–in a way that sounds acceptably like their grandparents talking–which is sorely needed by now. Living between worlds may not always be comfortable, but I guess it can be useful.

At this point, I do understand some of the politically convenient reasons some people would consider me some kind of wannabe, but have lost all patience with that. Anybody with that willfully poor a grasp of history can kiss my rusty ass. I am still going to try to get back some of what has been bludgeoned out of us.

That’s just a small taste of intergenerational trauma, as I’ve been running up against it. An unexpectedly good taste is also provided by a video I somehow ran across earlier this week, Billy Ray Cyrus’s Trail of Tears. Then again, he is another Grey Eyes from the same area as a lot of my father’s passing-for-Irish family, to the point that my mom got a kick out of ribbing me over the resemblance for a while there. People in that area were threatened with exposure and land confiscation by mining goons in the late 19th and early 20th Century, with a huge push around the time of Wounded Knee. The Hatfield and McCoy thing was exascerbated and exaggerated by the media to grab land. Tom McElwain (himself a distant cousin) confirmed my idea that the Hatfields (and probably McCoys) were/are Mingo cousins of my father’s family.

It may be continuing snottiness that I wouldn’t expect such a good mountain blues number out of Billy Ray, but it may also be memories of “Achy Breaky Heart”. Not to my credit, a good part of my reaction to his hit with that one was revulsion at the distinctly Appalachian sentiments (sparing dignity, vs. entitlement to violent reactions), expressed in such familiar phrasing. It was too reminiscent of multiple things I was supposed to be ashamed of. So yeah, it’s probably mostly residual trained snottiness, hard as it can be to admit to myself. I couldn’t appreciate mountain blues at that point, but found it embarrassing. Ouch.

“The price I have paid, to live and to learn,” (as the Stanley Brothers so aptly put it).

What do you do when you look at family history and see that kind of thing, especially when you can see how it’s continuing? For an extra touch of Eastern experience, what do you do when you don’t fit convenient stereotypes, yet are sitting in the middle of this situation? How do you deal with it at different stages of life? The theme of the embracing green is also effective.

Again, Mann–part of a Grey Eyes Seneca lineage–in “Slow Runners” gives a good nutshell view of some of the stereotypes, including appearance-based ones, as they apply to Eastern holdouts. Some of the things that made it easier for our ancestors to hide in their own skins continue to be used against us.

“Too many times you walked away, and was made to feel ashamed.
And though you only try to give, you were often blamed.”

*See Barbara Mann’s “Slow Runners” in Make A Beautiful Way

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