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Deeper Than Scars of War: Healing PTSD with Old Ways

Veteran James Tom has turned to traditional skills like hide tanning to help cope with PTSD—the results have affected more than just himself.

The scars of war run deep for Oak Park Heights, Minnesota resident James Tom, the type of scars that can’t be seen at first glance. Where the battlefield could have taken his limbs or his life, it instead gave Tom the debilitating affects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression that eventually took his self-identity. When the United States Army and the Veteran’s Administration gave Tom the status of full disability benefits, living with the illness could have “driven me stir-crazy,” Tom said. Instead, Tom found the only thing that runs deeper than any of his scars is his culture and heritage.

Tom traces his family roots to both the Mississippi and Oklahoma Bands of Choctaw, and there are about 20,000 Choctaw living in the United States today. Tom began an effort to not only preserve the skills and traditions of indigenous cultures, but to teach others what he has researched and learned.

“The Oklahoma Choctaw were the ones that were forced out of Mississippi during the Trail of Tears,” Tom said. “Only a few families stayed in Mississippi.”

Tom started slowly with research into his family, into the Choctaw and the indigenous people of the region. Tom said his parents had not taught him many skills or traditions of the cultures, so he began to learn by trying what he read about and saw by going to powwows and other gatherings. Making a drum for a powwow began by learning how to tan hides from deer. After deer hides, Tom turned to tanning buffalo hides using the traditional methods of brain tanning by using animal brains rich in emulsified oils to soften the skin for leather making.

Tom also incorporates language into his research. There are fewer than 10,000 native speakers of the Choctaw language.

“Simple things, like the word for buffalo in Choctaw is ‘yvnnvsh,’” Tom said. “The kids are much better at picking it up.”

“It’s fun to be able to say something in a different language, especially one that you know not a lot of people know,” said Tom’s daughter, Natane.

Natane’s jingle dress and moccasins, worn during dances at powwows, were sewn by Tom out of deerskins he tanned. However, many of the dozens of skins that Tom tanned over the years were given as gifts or traded with others in the Native American community.

It was through word of mouth in the community that Tom became known for his skill of the traditional method of brain tanning, causing many to seek him out to learn the skill.

“There are not many people who know how to do this in the old way,” said Jay Bury, a resident of South Saint Paul and a member of the Winnebago tribe. “I heard about James from a co-worker, and I just got in touch to learn how to do it.”

The week-long tanning process is difficult and requires a lot of commitment to do it correctly. The skins must be fleshed—scraped of all fats and membranes—then stretched and soaked in water. The fatty brain material is rubbed into the skin, soaked in water again and then smoked in a special fire.

“James said that he would work with me if I made the commitment to see it through,” Bury said. “Now my wife and I do hides together.”

Tom plans on traveling to Nebraska to teach brain tanning to members of the Winnebago tribe.

“I know there are some elders in their late 60s that are excited to see this tradition come back,” Bury said.

On April 24, Bury joined Tom to work with students from the Nawayee Center School in south Minneapolis on the completion of brain tanning a buffalo hide. Seven students spent the week coming to Oak Park Heights to learn from Tom.

“These are the kinds of skills that their grandmothers and great grandmothers would have done,” said Carol Ladd, a program director from the school.

Nawayee Center School is a charter school that teaches students who are predominately from Native American families. While the school teaches classes like math and reading, its mission is to connect students with their cultural identities through hands-on learning and programs like brain tanning and other indigenous arts.

“We were able to get a grant to bring James in and teach the students,” Ladd said. “He first came to the school with squirrel hides. Now the kids are working on the big buffalo hide.”

Many of Ladd’s students come from tough backgrounds and can often feel disconnected from their culture. Students at the school come from Dakota and Ojibwa tribes in greater Minnesota, as far as the Pacific Northwest and the Navajo Nation, but can feel out-of-place in the cultural norms of the dominate Scandinavian and German traditions.

“When you don’t have a connection to your heritage, it can have an effect on your self-esteem and how you view yourself,” Ladd said. “Up until the late 1970s, Native American religion was banned in the United States, and many traditions were lost. What would our society look like if minority cultures, like Native Americans, were as celebrated as Swedish or German?”

Ladd said that being able to learn from other members of their culture gives students more confidence in themselves.

“James is such a good teacher to these kids because he has an expectation for them,” Ladd said. “It’s hard work, but then they can say you did it—you have that ability within you.”

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Sofia Hernandez, a student at Nawayee. “It feels good to be able to do this, and that there are still people that know how to do it.”

For Tom, teaching others about this part of his heritage has helped him find peace.

“I absolutely think it has helped me. I have been able to find my own identity again,” Tom said. “Everyone has a heritage and a big part of who you comes from it.”

This piece has been republished with permission from the Stillwater Gazette, where it originally was published on May 4.