American Indian leaders convene for discussion on historical trauma, revitalizing Native American communities

Nov. 22, 2019, 1:23 a.m.

American Indian leaders in medicine, law and education came together on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz, to discuss historical and modern issues facing indigenous American populations. Panelists addressed the effects of historical trauma and the ongoing missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic. They also discussed efforts to rename campus landmarks — including the University’s official address — that bear the name of Father Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Catholic missionary known for his mistreatment of Native Americans.

The Native American Cultural Center (NACC) and Stanford Medicine’s Office of Community Engagement co-sponsored the event. 

Teresa La Fromboise, Chair of Native American Studies at Stanford and a professor in the Graduate School of Education, addressed how historical trauma can lead to worsened health conditions in American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) communities. La Fromboise cited scholarly works on historical trauma, a term coined by Native American social worker Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart when describing the “intergeneration transmission of trauma” that is “due to loss of land, language and vital aspects of culture.” Historical trauma manifests in various forms, Fromboise said, including obsessive rumination over one’s ancestral history and guilt of not having experienced trauma inflicted upon previous generations. 

La Fromboise also referred to a longitudinal study conducted by Les B. Whitbeck that reveals the significant influence of historical trauma on the younger generation’s cognitive development. According to the study, 24% of early adolescents think of loss of land almost daily, compared to 12% in surveyed adults. 

“Native American history is not all about trauma, however,” Fromboise said. “A lot of Native American history and culture is grounded in people’s resilience and perseverance.”

Anna Epperson, a Ph.D. in pediatrics, further illustrated the damaging impact of historical trauma on contemporary Native populations. She said exposure to trauma can lead to long activation of stress response, which consequently heightens the likelihood of substance use, anxiety, disorder and maternal health issues like preterm birth. Preterm births were more likely among American Indian women than women in most other minority groups.

The panelists discussed the intervention and revitalization process that is becoming more powerful in native communities. These include Sacred Path in the Lakota tribe, programs for women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence, and Chahta Anumpa, a series of online indigenous language video courses brought into place by Epperson’s own tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Epperson said that, in her experience, Stanford has made efforts to promote the inclusion and training of more AIAN health professionals.

Moderator Melissa Eidman ’17, an M.D. student, read a written statement from Leo John Bird ’19, who facilitated the discussion for renaming prominent campus landmarks. He said he was motivated by his experience living in Casa Zapata, situated across from the recently renamed Sally Ride dorm, and by insights from a class in comparative studies in race and ethnicity (CSRE), to urge the University to remove building names that could be traumatizing for Native American communities. 

His proposal was submitted to the ASSU and subsequently considered by the Graduate Student Council (GSC) and Faculty Senate. After more students began rallying for the name change, Bird organized a teach-in to educate members of the broader community about the history of the California mission system and its role in erasure of Native American culture and life. 

“I hope this sparks more conversations regarding reconciliation and the treatment of indigenous people,” Bird wrote at the end of his statement.

Karen Biestman, law professor and associate director of the NACC, presented on how the indigenous practice of peacemaking circles can be included in classrooms to teach empathy and leadership. In collaboration with Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, she teaches a course on managing conflict with empathy and intentional listening. The techniques were utilized by those involved in the renaming of the Serra landmarks. 

“We are all engaged in healing our communities,” Biestman said. “This is value-based and community-based. What peacemaking does is get you out of your head and into your heart.” 

April McGill, the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health’s director of community partnerships and projects, brought attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, also known as MMIW. The epidemic manifests itself in fatalities, domestic violence and human trafficking. California is ranked fifth in the nation for the most missing and murdered indigenous women. 

The day of the panel marked the 50th Anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz, a student-led movement for Native American rights, and McGill noted that many of the women at Alcatraz went missing or were murdered. McGill’s work involves bringing healing to these communities. 

“[This event] connects the historical to the current trauma that is still going on,” said Jan J. Vasquez, research director at Pathways to American Indian & Alaska Native Wellness. “We want people to be aware of it because it still affects the indigenous community today.

This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Leo John Bird’s name. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Patricia Wei at patwei ‘at’ and Dongming Zhang at dongming ‘at’

Patricia Wei ’23 is a reporter on the news and data section. She believes that everyone has a meaningful story to tell and is excited to approach her storytelling with curiosity and compassion in order to listen to the stories of people in the community.

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