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Circle of Violence: Living With Trauma

A column by Dr. Art Martinez about childhood trauma

I have been in the unusual position of treating childhood and family trauma over the last 30 years in our communities. In seeing so much pain among our people, I have found that trauma response can be described as a response to a life-altering wound to the soul or the spirit. This wound serves as a ripple in the waters of our experiences. As we know, the wound causes behaviors, experiences and thoughts which change our ability to interact with others. The ripple effects flood generations of our families as the experiences of the family are altered. Also, the ripple effects can grow with each additional stress experienced by the family or by the individual.

As a Native psychologist, I’ve been in the unique position of observing intergenerational post-traumatic stress in our families and communities. I have further seen the strength of spirit which exists amongst our people and our culture. This strength shines through in many of our elders and in our traditions of community that we live on a daily basis.

When trauma affects us, our families are forced to react to our wounds. In order to live with these wounds we develop extreme behaviors to protect ourselves—a heightened alertness to ward off thoughts and responses that hurt us. Initially, we revisit the traumatic events through triggers, flashbacks and wounds which keep the experience alive in our spirit.

Click here for a list of resources for victims of abuse.

As Native people we live in larger and more unified extended families and communities. The trauma of one becomes the trauma of all and the hurt of one becomes the hurt of all. These wounds and trauma responses resound within various levels of our family and community. The decay of our family way can be impacted by layers of wounding events that have happened within our history. Continuing assaults on our families, communities and culture serve as a triggers and symptoms of the traumatic responses.

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Boarding schools and residential and the foster-care home programs were purposeful actions designed to deplete our cultural resources and our cultural futures: our children. Likewise, child abuse and neglect combines to put our families at risk for expression of continuing trauma.

In my experiences and in my prayers, I often come to the thought of what can we do to protect our future generations. Our elders speak of the strengths that I see within the people and the families that I treat or assist in their survivorship. As I witness these experiences of families and our continuing commitments to culture I see hope. There are many, many steps which have been taken by many communities. The empowerment of our communities with family wellness programs is vital. In our children’s experience, the healing circle and protective circle of our most early experiences of ceremonial and traditional wellness may define familial rebirth.

We must also stop the violence that impacts our communities and our families; violence exterior to our communities as well as violence from within. Notably, we change that which puts us most at risk through clean and sober living as a foundation of community and our definition of leadership. We must also protect our culture, our communities and our lands from the abuse and the degradation that we all experience. Stopping the violence from within—be it domestic violence or child abuse—is vital in this effort. We must not forget the chipping away of our tribal rights and the ill-treatment of our people. This occurs not only through the outside dominant society, but from within our own communities through something known as “identification with the aggressor”. Our work must not only be on healing the wounds but must include attention to our experience of who we are as a people.

So what do we do to change this experience and to put our families on a path of a strong future and a vibrant community? In many of our communities, this work is already begun. We center ourselves culturally. We focus ourselves spiritually. We work together toward community wellness. We increase our safety by addressing the risks to our families and by nurturing the spirit of our families and communities. Clearly the time is now to act upon these issues as our communities and our children need our help. What is that help? Our help started with the prayers of our elders, that we must protect the legacy and the right of our future generations. So generally, if we are to survive in America, we must be concerned for how we are to act in that survival and how we will exist as a people rather than blaming the aggressors (wherever they might be) or ourselves for the violence that we’ve experienced on many levels. Our efforts are best spent in stopping the violence and building on the healthy strength and the healthy culture that was given to us in the beginning of time.

Dr. Art Martinez, a member of the Chumash Tribe of California, works as a psychologist and clinical consultant for the Shingle Springs band of Miwok Indians. He is a nationally known expert in traumatic stress and trauma survivorship.