Book Excerpt: Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask
By Anton Treuer
Historical trauma is a complicated subject. It’s kind of like this. Someone was hitting the Indian in the head with a hammer for decades, and it did a lot of damage. Now the government is (for the most part) done hitting the Indian in the head with a hammer. But there is still all this damage that takes a very long time to repair. And the government is not interested in repairing the damage—it all happened in the past. So Indians are left to heal themselves. Language and culture loss, many health issues, substance abuse, the educational opportunity gap, lack of economic opportunity, and many other problems in Indian country can be directly attributed to specific government policies. It’s easy to push people into a pit, but it can be very hard for them to climb back out.
Another way to look at it is this. If a husband cheats on his wife but then decides he wants to reconcile the relationship and make it work, he cannot say, “It all happened in the past. Just forget about it.” Making peace has to start with him saying, “Hey, I did you wrong. I am sorry. And it will never happen again.” Then there is a chance that they can reconcile the relationship. That is a fair analogy to what happened with the U.S. government and the Indian. Instead of cheating in a marriage, the U.S. government used genocidal warfare, residential boarding schools, suppression of religious freedom and a host of pernicious policies against Indians. But the government has never even said that it was wrong, much less apologized, much less tried to make things right. And every time the government comes up with a new English-only law, or ignores the 50 percent unemployment rate in some Indian communities, or allows a state like Arizona to ban the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools, or tries to renege on or renegotiate a promised treaty right, Indians see it as another hammer blow to an ancient wound. The historical baggage and the ongoing damage make it very difficult for Indians to move on, discard anger, forgive, or heal. And the fact that most Americans have no understanding of this dynamic makes the struggle all the more frustrating,