A Native woman's journal
One month before my fourth birthday I saw my mother killed in front of me.
I'm not mentioning this for pity.
I'm telling you about the day that I think my journey toward cancer began.
I am also giving an example of the kind of trauma that Native researchers,
doctors and psychologists say may be driving our epidemic rates of cancer,
diabetes and, most clearly, post-traumatic stress disorder.
I remember clearly what came next, as if I were watching a movie. I was in
my dad's arms. We stood transfixed on the sidewalk as the bus sped out of
control. She walked ahead across the street in San Francisco, laughing, not
We lived outside that grand city then. My schoolteacher parents, at 31 and
33, were still young enough to enjoy hanging out on weekends. The only
child of a Yakama mother and Irish-American father, I was carried along to
civil rights meetings and even the Monterey Pop Festival. They didn't have
money for tickets but they liked the scene outside the gates.
Regardless, we rode in the ambulance. My mother on a gurney told my dad,
"Take care of the baby." We got M&Ms from a machine in the hospital. A
black woman in scrubs said, "I'm sorry. Your wife is dead."
Memory is a funny thing. It's a rug woven with bits of story, jumbled
together until they're inseparable. It's an oil painting with one reality
smeared over by white paint, a whole different picture painted on top.
Still, some dismembered part of the old shows through.
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, director of the Denver-based Takini
Network, said that Natives are nearly three times as likely to suffer from
PTSD as other Americans. Between the domestic violence, the drunken car
crashes and the freak accidents, I don't doubt it.
Brave Heart goes several steps further. Contained in us, she said, is an
ancestral memory of the genocide that we, the indigenous peoples of the
Americas, have endured since first contact with our colonizers. As
contemporary people, we remember the trauma of our own lives.
We also, by some means of both family stories and subconscious, recall --
can sense -- our ancestors as they were herded into boarding schools, as
epidemics wiped out communities, as they endured atrocities.
When my great-grandfather was a boy 150 years ago, the territorial governor
threatened tribal leaders that their land would flow with blood if they
didn't sign his treaty. Is it any wonder that the weight of history piles
up so high on a child that he gets drunk and wanders out in a snowstorm?
I met Brave Heart at a conference hosted by Portland's Native American
Rehabilitation Association, which is one of the country's oldest Native-run
drug and alcohol treatment programs. The conference, which was free to the
Native community, attracted about 400 people, many of them past clients of
the association. I attended because I wanted to understand the role trauma
played in the cancer in my breast.
I asked author and psychologist Eduardo Duran, who also spoke at the
conference, about how this transference of traumatic experience occurred.
Is it in our DNA, deep inside our cells, or in our souls? He shrugged, yes.
Historic trauma has also been documented among Aborigines and the
descendants of Holocaust survivors and Japanese-Americans who the United
States interned during World War II.
It has been found among Native children who have survived multiple traumas,
but whose symptoms went beyond those common to PTSD.
"I see in our communities a lot of loyalty to ancestral suffering," Brave
Heart said. "We unconsciously live out their suffering in our lives. We do
things out of guilt. But the problem with that is that we don't get to be
who we are."
The other problem is that carrying around all this trauma wears out our
"When you've been traumatized on an ongoing basis, it affects your
hormones," Brave Heart said. "It affects your internal organs and the way
your brain functions. Staying in a heightened state of awareness is
unhealthy if it lasts."
But that state becomes addictive. A 1980s study of Vietnam veterans showed
that their brains had an opiate-like response to the hormonal release
caused by trauma. The effect, Duran said, is that traumatized people need
to keep the chaos going, so they can keep feeling the hormones flowing.
Hormonal imbalance is an underlying factor in a variety of diseases,
including cancers like mine and diabetes. It can also lead to weight gain
and sleeplessness, which contribute to many diseases.
I told Duran the story with which I started this column, and then I said,
so I guess this cancer wasn't just the Diet Coke I drank. He shook his head
and said, "No, it wasn't."
I can't help but think that if we treated trauma, historic and
contemporary, as real health issues, we might begin to get a grip on the
diseases that are ravaging our communities.
But I strongly believe that if there is historic trauma in my cells, there
is also an older, more powerful -- grandmotherly -- resilience within me,
which knows how to heal even the wounds we can't see.
Duran said that we all have an inner psychologist, who operates through our
dreams. If we pay attention, we will heal.
Brave Heart said our ceremonies have the power to calm turbulent emotions.
"We already have all the wisdom about how to heal our people," she said.
"We just have to bring that into the modern world to deal with today's
Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she is
currently on medical leave from her job at The Oregonian. She chronicles
her battle with breast cancer in this biweekly series. She is a former
president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the
2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. Contact her by e-mail at