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What Is the Half-life of Historical Trauma?

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I was visiting my friend and some of his relatives yesterday and we were discussing the usual happenings on the rez and Indian country in general. Out of the blue my friend asked, “Do you know what the half-life of historical trauma is?” We all gave him a funny and he went on, “You know everything has a half-life, so why wouldn’t historical trauma?”

This set off a good discussion at the end of which we came to a consensus that if there was a half-life for historical trauma that it would be 500 years. Everyone felt that should be sufficient time to get over something. But the problem is there was not just one historically traumatizing event, there was one after the other beginning in 1493.

We agree that in North America it has abated somewhat and that there have been some minor events since the 1950s. But we felt that due to the relentless onslaught, and provided nothing massively traumatizing happens again, we might get over it by the year 2500.

Then I told them about the article in Indian Country Today where scientists estimate that there were some 50 million indigenous peoples murdered from 1493 to about 1610, and this massive amount of death coupled with the loss of Indigenous agricultural economies could trigger climate change.

One friend laughed and said, “See, they’ve come up with more thing to blame on us.”

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50 million is the starting point because the killings didn’t end in North America until the beginning of the 20th century and are still going on in parts of South America.

But this is not just about the number of people murdered. It includes the complete loss of hundreds of indigenous civilizations, cultures and languages. It is about the uncountable losses of innovation, creativity, imagination and potential contributions from indigenous scholars, scientists, engineers, designers, musicians, etc.

And we haven’t even begun to liberate and de-colonize ourselves from the continuing effects and impacts of settler laws, policies and state-sponsored oppression. We know we’ve got a long ways to go when some think that the recently introduced modifications of the Indian Education and Self-Determination Act are a victory. Oh joy, we get to run the settlers programs for them. We can assist in our own oppression. Apparently, the indigenous folks celebrating this haven’t taken the time to think about this phrase in the announcement: “... making it easier and more efficient for tribes to carry out federal programs.” This is the continuation of “delegated authority.”

Sorry to burst your bubble folks, this is not nation-to-nation or government-to-government relations. This is the same old game of our oppressors once again telling us no, prescribing to us how we get well from their atrocities and abuses while they go on murdering and disappearing our women, undermining and usurping our legitimate rights, raiding our natural resources, and cynically pretending to engage us as “governments” and “nations” with no real intention of that ever happening.

I’ve always appreciated Buckminster Fuller’s quote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Our challenge is to build a model of indigenous nationhood founded on our original principles and teachings that will endure seven generations into the future. This model of building needs to be integrated into our healing and de-colonizing efforts, and with some luck we will speed up the 500 year half-life as we reclaim our rightful place in the global family of nations and peoples.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The Network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.