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Heritage Month brings recollection and hope for reconciliation

DENVER – November is proclaimed American Indian Heritage Month in Colorado by Gov. Bill Ritter amid congratulatory fanfare.

Although celebratory events this month will stress the positive aspects of Native survival and achievement, others will recall a darker past.

A day-long discussion of historical trauma by a national expert in the field begins the month, followed at Thanksgiving by a Sand Creek massacre observance, and, overall, the lingering issue of an official apology sought by some for past atrocities committed by the U.S. government.

“American Indians are genocide survivors,” said Professor Maria Yellow Horse Brave-Heart, Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota, of Columbia University, referring to the “near extermination of a race so nearly total and complete.”

She addressed faculty, scholars, social workers and others from the Native community on “Indigenous Peoples of America and Historical Trauma” at Denver’s urban Metro State/University of Colorado-Denver campus Nov. 2.

The 9/11 tragedy has been regarded as the first attack on civilians on this soil, but “Our people have been surviving trauma collectively since 1492,” she said, and the result has been layers of symptoms ranging from depression and psychic numbing to self-destructive behavior and suicide.

Brave-Heart, who co-founded the Takini (Survivors) Network in South Dakota, said the results of trauma may take the form of stress hormones which can, in turn, affect memory, brain functioning, weight, sleep, and the health of internal organs, and may interfere with the use of insulin in Type 2 diabetes.

Her recovery programs include confronting and understanding trauma, releasing pain and transcendence, using traditional cultural experiences and healing to help fill a void left when collective healing ceremonies were forbidden by the U.S. and driven underground.

“In the United States, there is very little acknowledgment of Native genocide,” she said. Indian people can also be in denial, “which is surprising, considering our history.”

She recounted meeting a young Lakota man from Pine Ridge, S.D. – near the Wounded Knee massacre site – who said, “Wow, I never knew that happened to Native people – I thought it only happened to African American people.”

Natives have yet to hear an official government statement “that acknowledges our genocide,” and the United States’ reluctance to sign the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may stem from fear that reparations will be sought, she said, although funding should be provided for “healing for our people.”

A Colorado Springs man is also waiting for an acknowledgment of the trauma visited upon Native peoples by the U.S. Don Coyhis hopes for an apology on behalf of the government from President Barack Obama.

Coyhis is founding director of White Bison Inc., a Native substance abuse recovery program that initiated a 7,000-mile cross-country Journey for Forgiveness this year in an attempt to gain a national apology “to promote a collective healing of all Americans for this tragic chapter in our nation’s history.”

He commented on the recent Senate-passed measure that apologizes for U.S. violence against Natives and “ill-conceived policies.” The measure was in a defense spending bill and mirrored a similar resolution that last year passed the Senate, but not the House.

Coyhis remains hopeful Obama will issue an apology on behalf of the U.S. government, in keeping with Coyhis’ belief that the nation is on the cusp of a major change – “a stirring of consciousness.”

Since the journey across the continent, calls to White Bison around the issue of intergenerational trauma have quadrupled, he said, and “What we’re finding is that trauma issues are surfacing in communities where we have not been. This is where I think the sobriety movement is going to go.”

He is appealing again to Obama to issue the national apology, because “We’re at the ‘tipping point’ that shifts us into quantum mode in terms of healing. The time is so right – and we’re ready for it to happen.”

Harsh calls for reparations or stringent curbs on government actions could ruin the moment, he indicated, but, at the same time, action by Obama “would accelerate the healing and could save years and years of waiting.

“After all,” he said, “isn’t it easier for a victim to heal if the perpetrator acknowledges it happened?”

Thanksgiving Day will be marked by runners leaving Eads, in southeastern Colorado, for the 186 miles to Denver, on the annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk that spans American Indian Heritage Day.

Members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma begin their journey with a sunrise pipe ceremony to commemorate ancestors killed by Colorado militia Nov. 29, 1864 in a peace camp along Sand Creek.

Theirs is another means of addressing the intergenerational grief commemorated in November in present-day Colorado, which comprises traditional lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, resident Ute tribal nations, and scores of other tribes throughout history.