Bringing the spirits home

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - There is forgiveness for a teen curfew violation or childhood mischief, for example, and then there is forgiveness on a different scale altogether.

;'Our last test as Native people may be whether we are able to forgive the unforgivable. If we are able to forgive what happened to us, we can transform our society,'' said Don Coyhis, Mohican, founder and president of the nonprofit White Bison Inc.

The 2009 Way Home Tour, consisting in part of two coast-to-coast youth bicycle relays, is intended to raise awareness of the intergenerational impacts of boarding schools on Native communities and to ''promote the forgiveness of those responsible,'' he said.

Stopping along the tour at Indian boarding schools and at grave sites will be for ''all the little spirits that are left there, to bring them back home'' and to bring about acknowledgment from men to women and adults to children for shortcomings of the past, he said.

Letters about the tour will be sent to both presumptive presidential candidates, and the tour sponsors hope that June will be designated National Forgiveness Month.

The bicycle tour will begin May 16 at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., and, via northern and southern routes, is planned to stop at the following nine Indian schools: Stewart, Carson City, Nev.; Sherman, Riverside, Calif.; Phoenix, Phoenix, Ariz.; Albuquerque, Albuquerque, N.M.; Riverside, Anadarko, Okla.; Concho, El Reno, Okla.; Sequoyah, Tahlequah, Okla.; Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Kan.; and Wahpeton Indian School (now Circle of Nations School), Wahpeton, N.D.

Working with tribal leadership grants, youth in each state along the way will plan the rides for the 10 - 12 who will participate in each leg of the tour.

''We are trying to put them in the planning and leadership role,'' Coyhis said.

He is coordinating with Freita Fuller Keluche, of the Ancient Ways of Knowing Foundation in Colorado Springs, who is working on a boarding school documentary, as well as with an intertribal council of elders. He uses research on the intergenerational nature of trauma as well as experience gained in living and working in Native communities.

The tour is being organized as part of the ''Wellbriety Movement,'' a term coined by White Bison to denote the grass-roots efforts in Indian communities to get well through culturally based programs and practices. The tour will include workshops, facilitated talking circles, and traditional Indian ceremonies at some of the school sites.

Whether or not the U.S. government follows the lead of Canada and Australia in apologizing for past horrors inflicted on indigenous peoples, ''We came to forgive, whether or not that apology occurs,'' he said. ''Indian people can heal from the boarding school era without waiting for a formal apology or monetary settlement from the U.S. government for what happened.''

The 2009 Way Home Tour is not about lawsuits, he stressed in a recent interview. ''This isn't about suing, it's about healing.''

The Canadian government apologized recently and also made limited restitution to First Nations people who were forced into boarding schools. Australia expressed regret for having forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families. In the U.S., the 2008 Colorado Legislature issued an apology for the nation's treatment of Native peoples and a similar statement was attached to the federal Indian Health Care Improvement Act, currently awaiting action in Congress.

''Intergenerational trauma that began in boarding schools doesn't surface until two or three generations later,'' when it manifests as diabetes, domestic violence, sexual abuse, addictions and suicide, he said. ''And relocation was a continuation of a different kind of boarding school.''

After 20 years of working with Indian people to heal, Coyhis is convinced that the anger, guilt, shame and fear underlying social ills in Indian communities are the curses left by the boarding school legacy.

''Whatever was done to them, it's handed down through the generations,'' he said. ''Once you understand where it comes from, you can stop it from continuing. Once you understand the history, you can finally break the cycle.''

Other traumatized groups also had intergenerational problems of addictions, violence and sexual abuse, but they were slightly different. He said that for the Hmong of Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War was their ''boarding school'' and for American blacks, it was slavery. For the Irish, it was famine and displacement.

What is unique to American Indians, however, was that ''the intent was different. It was to assimilate people of a culture into being something that they weren't,'' he said, drawing a parallel to an attempt to turn eagles into crows.

Healing begins within the individual, spreads outward to the family, and from there to the community, he said.

The contemporary impetus for healing and forgiveness seems to have been triggered by talking circles where intergenerational trauma came up.

''In many communities we go to, we don't know how to grieve,'' despite the fact that 99 percent of the continent's original inhabitants were annihilated, and ''we were left with the messages 'don't talk, don't get close.''' Ceremonies and other lifeways went underground because ''what we were had to be secret,'' he said. It created an identity crisis, he said, in which ''no one knew who they were.''

He quoted Kevin Gover, Pawnee, former head of the BIA, as saying, ''It's important for people to understand why Indian country is the way it is, why there is all this social pathology going on in the communities.

''And you can draw a straight line from the boarding schools to alcoholism, substance abuse, the exploitation of children, and violence against women in the Indian communities.''

Coyhis said he believes recovery began with bringing back ceremonies and traditions - the pre-trauma ''old ways'' - which are ''not as lost as we think'' because older tribal members can remember what their grandparents taught them.

Ironically, despite apologies and potential assertions of regret, the U.S., Canada and Australia joined New Zealand as the only countries voting against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted last year by the U.N. General Assembly. The complex declaration includes protections against genocide, proposals for actions to assist indigenous peoples, compensation in some instances, and many other measures.

Coyhis attributed the reluctance to ratify the declaration as similar to the unwillingness of a stern father figure to admit he was wrong. But, in any case, the admission is ''not the point,'' he said. ''We have to forgive whether the apology comes or not, or we can be permanently stuck in healing.''