Excerpt: Chapter 2

“More than a Boat”:

Bias, Institutional Frameworks, and Testimonial Injustice

Kishan Lara-Cooper

Indigenous identity is often influenced by single narratives demonstrated in textbooks, literature, media, and social indicators. These imposed identities characterize Indigenous populations as having the highest rates of suicide, deaths due to violence, high school dropout, alcoholism, and child welfare cases. Social indicators highlight that even among health related issues, Indigenous people have the highest rates of diabetes and tuberculosis. Although these social indicators are critical to expose the need for support systems and services for Indigenous peoples, these forms of assessment paint a grueling and often depressing outlook for members of Indigenous communities.  The purpose of this chapter is to emphasize the importance of Indigenous knowledge to healing. This chapter will discuss current challenges facing Indigenous youth, the causes of these challenges, and initial steps to healing.

Current Challenges Facing Indigenous Youth

Indigenous people make up 1.7% of the United States population[1]. In the 2010 census, 5.2 million people identified as American Indian/Alaska Native, and 2.9 million identified as American Indian/Alaska Native alone[2].  Thirty-two percent of the Indigenous population is under the age of 18, which indicates future growth of the population.

Despite the size of the population in relation to other peoples, Indigenous peoples experience the highest rates of health disparities, addiction, and violence. According to Indian Health Services, Indigenous people have the highest death rate in all of the following categories: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, liver disease, kidney disease, and influenza[3]. Alcoholism rates are 510% higher than the general population; Indigenous teens experience the highest rate of suicide, ten times the national norm; and violence accounts for 75% of deaths for Indigenous youth ages 12-20[4]. Indigenous peoples have a 229% higher rate of death in a car accident. While the number of fatal car accidents decreased by 2.2% throughout the rest of the nation in the last five years, the number of fatal accidents increased by 52.5% on reservations.[5] Indigenous adolescents have death rates two to five times the rate of Euro-American adolescence in the same age group[6]. Indigenous peoples have the highest proportion of those killed by police—a rate of 7.8 per million compared to the rate of 2.9 per million of Euro-American counterparts. Finally, high school dropout rates are double the national average and 50% higher than any other ethnic group in the State of California[7].

It is important to note that these statistics reflect more than numbers. These statistics affect our people: our parents, our siblings, our aunts, our uncles, our grandparents, and of course, our children. I remember when my son was born. I would gaze at him for hours and think of all the wonderful contributions that he would make to the world. Would he be a singer or dancer of our ceremonies? Would he be a protector? Would he be kind and generous? Would he be an advocate for our way of life? When a child is born, typically we think of their potential and we wish them a long and healthy life. Never do wish for them to become a statistic, a victim to a violent crime, or a sufferer of an addiction or a disease. Yet, these are challenges that our children face. Furthermore, our children must survive through the loss and hardship of their family members who have fallen victim to statistics.

A few years ago, I helped to chaperone my nephew’s tenth birthday party. He was thrilled to stay at a hotel, eat pizza, and swim with three of his friends. As the boys splashed in the pool, I was struck with the reminder of statistics that I had read earlier in the day: “1 out of every 10 become victims of violent crimes[8], 1 of every 2 will drop out from high school,[9] and 1 of 4 will live in poverty.”[10] What did this mean for these four boys? As I thought deeper about each child’s situation, I realized that one of the boys was struggling with the divorce of his parents and another had lost his mother in a car accident two years earlier. It pained me to realize that these statistics were already manifesting in our children.

That night, around two in the morning, the third child’s father arrived at the hotel. The child’s mother had just passed away. I can still see the three boys huddled on the hotel room bed around their friend as he struggled to tie his shoes to leave with his father. The boy who had lost his mother two years earlier patted his back and said, “Don’t worry, I know how you feel right now, but we are going to be ok.”

The next morning, my nephew sat alongside me with a stressed look on his face and asked me, “How much longer do you think my mom has before she dies?” Thinking back to that moment, I feel like sobbing once again. It seems so unjust that a ten-year-old should have to worry about the loss of a parent, yet this is a fear of many Indigenous children. Often when we hear the statistics that our Indigenous people are facing, it is so overwhelming for us that we forget about the children who are witness to these atrocities.

In another experience, I watched a classroom full of third graders in our local community describe their “self-less acts” to each other as part of a classroom assignment. One child spoke of assisting in a ceremonial dance camp; another child spoke of helping her parents search for her missing brother, and every other child (one out of two) spoke of self-less acts related to loss and grief from within the last year. In many cases, Indigenous children have experienced so much loss that they are unable to fully grieve one loss before another occurs.

It is important to understand that these traumatic occurrences are not anomalies. Rather, they are evidence of intergenerational trauma and on-going oppression. These traumatic events further perpetuate health disparities, stress, depression, and anxiety, which continue the cycle. Furthermore, the statistics themselves provoke fear and negative thinking in Indigenous children. Likewise, Yellowbird, a scholar in Indigenous people’s health and neuro-decolonization, argues that, “Unconstructive, negative thinking, feelings, and behaviors dampen and short circuit our brain’s creativity and optimistic networks, and increase our susceptibility to stress, failure, complacency, and fear[11]”.

Intergenerational and On-going Trauma

Research indicates that there is a direct correlation between historical experiences, such as genocide and boarding schools, and the current social indicators of Indigenous peoples. Likewise, these social indicators “have been theoretically and empirically linked to social, economic, cultural, or political inequalities and not an inherent Native trait or gene.[12]” Trauma is “an experience that creates a lasting substantial, psychosocial, and somatic impact on a child.[13]

Intergenerational trauma is sometimes referred to as historical trauma, multigenerational trauma, or unresolved historical grief. Intergenerational trauma occurs from an overwhelmingly traumatic event on an individual or a shared group. For example: In the early 1940s, two brothers— one five years old and one seven years old—played on Requa Hill in Klamath, California. The boys were engaged in a tag game when they saw a flatbed truck making its way up the gravel road. At that time, these types of trucks would travel in highly populated Indigenous communities to kidnap children and take them to government-operated boarding schools. Having heard about these incidences, the eldest boy threw his little brother into the brush to hide. Unable to get away, the eldest boy was captured and taken in the truck to Chemauwa Institute in Oregon. When the truck was out of sight, the five-year-old crawled out of hiding and ran to tell his grandparents. The boys’ grandparents were told by the boarding school that they had no parental rights as Indigenous children were considered wards of the State, and that they would see their grandson again when he was finished with his schooling. Ten years later, the eldest boy returned. He never spoke of his experience, but history would tell the story of the boarding school experience. Children at these institutions were stripped of regalia, given biblical names, beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages, and abused physically, sexually, and emotionally. Boarding schools operated on a military system. Children wore uniforms, and survived on small rations of food.

A few months after his return, this boy got into trouble and was sent to a Southern California prison. From his perspective, this institution was comfortable to him; in his words, “it was no different than boarding school”. After release from prison, he married and divorced several times and fathered several children. His children fell victim to the same neglect and abuse that he had once endured.

Reversely, his younger brother grew up with the love and nurturing of his grandparents, and he likewise extended this love to his community, his family, and his grandchildren. Seventy-five years after the kidnapping, the younger brother’s granddaughter asked him, “Why are you always joyful, loving, and happy, and Uncle is always cold, distant, and harsh?” The younger brother responded, “Because he gave his life up for me.[14]

In this example of the two brothers playing on Requa Hill, the eldest brother experienced trauma from this and subsequent events. In turn, his children and his grandchildren—who were not kidnapped and never attended boarding school—experienced intergenerational trauma, including acts of abuse and neglect as well as an absent and detached father. In addition, his children and grandchildren may have experienced a collective of historically traumatic events. Braveheart, a scholar in historical trauma, argues that, “…American Indians also have a pervasive sense of pain from what happened to their ancestors and [from] incomplete mourning of those losses… Closer examination of suicide studies [among Indigenous peoples] reveals implicit unresolved, fixated, or anticipatory grief about perceived abandonment as well as affiliated cultural disruption.”[15]

Initial Steps to Healing: Pre-service and In-service Professionals

This section will identify three initial steps for pre-service (those going into the field) and in-service (those already in the field) professionals who work with Indigenous children, families, and communities to foster healing. Professionals in the field may have been exposed to terms such as cultural sensitivity, mindfulness, decolonization, strengths-based approach, or diversity and equity. These integral philosophies (and many more) begin with self-reflection. In order to create safe spaces for others, one must first explore what influences personal preferences, perceptions, assumptions, and realities. For example, one might ask herself, “What is important to teach my children?” to better understand personal values that influence thoughts of child-rearing best practices. Being aware of bias, shifting the paradigm of institutional frameworks, and creating spaces for testimonial justice are initial steps to healing. However, it is important to note that this is a topical list, and that in-depth pathways to healing should be further explored. For example, Yellowbird’s neuro-decolonization equation, the White Bison Well-briety Movement, and Murphy-Shigematsu’s mindfulness to heartfulness research are a few of these critical tools to healing.

Being Aware of Bias:

The first step to creating a safe and nurturing environment for Indigenous children, families, and communities is being aware of personal bias and how one’s perception of others is influenced by personal worldview and environmental surroundings. Worldview refers to a way of thinking and existing in the world that is influenced by our values, experiences, and beliefs. Each person has one. “A worldview consists of the principles we acquire to make sense of the world around us. Young people learn these principles, including values, traditions, and customs, from myths, legends, family, community, and examples set by community leaders.”[16] It is also important to understand that each person has an epistemology, a “philosophy of knowledge”[17] or the way in which one makes sense of the world based on one’s natural environment, surroundings, and view of the world. Although one’s worldview and epistemology may constantly evolve, many deeply held beliefs are rooted in childhood experiences.

Within the first five years of a child’s life, a self-concept, grounded in worldview and epistemology, is developed. As a matter of fact, bias is established during the infancy stage of development. At around three months of age, an infant will develop bias toward their home settings. For example, an infant may feel more comfortable with people that have a familiar sound, smell, touch, or appearance. What this means is that from a developmental perspective, it is nearly impossible to be non-bias. Although no individual person can completely eliminate her own bias, she can be aware that she has biases that influence her perceptions, expectations, and assumptions of others.

Teachers, social workers, and child advocates (to name a few) likely chose their career path in an effort to “help” people. Professionals in these fields often consider themselves to be “good” hearted people who want to ensure that children have “good” lives where they are “happy” and can be “successful.” I have utilized quotes around these words because they are subjective words. For example, the use of the word “happy” is reflective of a person’s worldview. Therefore, happiness to one may look very different to another. Despite the best of intentions, an individual’s effort might actually have detrimental effects. For example:

A man—let’s call him Harry— was sitting in the front of a crowded conference room participating in a training when a fly landed on his ear. He brushed the fly away and continued to listen to participant’s introductions. Once again, the fly landed on his ear; nonchalantly he brushed it away. Meanwhile, a woman sitting behind Harry rolled her papers into a cone and swatted the fly! Although she missed the fly, the coned papers left a red mark on the side of Harry’s head. Startled, Harry clasped his hand to his ear. As the group nearest him chuckled, he sunk into his seat. A few introductions later, the woman introduced herself and proceeded to justify her actions by placing her hand on his shoulder and saying, “I saw that fly bothering you. I am a good person and I am in the business of helping people. So, I took care of it for you.”

As you may notice. Harry was more affected by being hit with “good intention” than he was by the fly.

In a similar example, the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA) of 1879 “saw Indians as childlike, existing within a heathenistic culture that needed to be properly cleansed and replaced by the superior American culture”[18]. Because of this world view, this group of “missionary minded”[19] women had no value for Indigenous knowledge or epistemology and “believed sincerely that it needed to be replaced for the good of the Indian.”[20] Thus, “their efforts encouraged the U.S. government’s assimilation policies designed to replace American Indian cultures, reduce the Indian land base through allotment and sale of reservation lands, and diminish the historic concept of Indian nations’ sovereignty.”[21]

As these examples illustrate, it is critical for professionals who work with children, families, and communities to understand how one’s worldview and epistemology influence perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and interpretations of what is “right,” “good,” “correct,” and “successful.”   Consequently, not only is it important to self-reflect on how worldview and epistemology influence personal perceptions, but it is also vital to understand that every human being with whom we interact holds values, beliefs, and experiences that undoubtedly influence their view of the world. In the story of the fly, the “caregiver” was bothered by the fly, while the “victim” wasn’t even fully aware of the fly’s presence.

In another example, a research study on giftedness among an Indigenous community in Northern California indicates that Indigenous language is an integral component of Indigenous thought, perception, and application of knowledge. Not only were speakers of Indigenous languages recognized as gifted, but Indigenous language was also identified as one of the most important things to teach to the community’s children. [22] In contrast, a monolingual English-speaking professional working within this community might mistakenly characterize Indigenous language as insignificant or an unnecessary skill in today’s society. As such, it is critical to be mindful of personal preference, assumptions, and expectations that influence our interactions and decision-making for others. These assessments are often reflections of our own bias.

According to Kang, a scholar in equality, diversity and inclusion, there are two types of bias: explicit bias (bias to which one is aware) and implicit bias (bias to which one is unaware)[23]. A person is typically aware of her explicit bias and may choose to unveil this bias to others. Explicit bias that is unveiled to others tends to be non-threatening to a popular view. For example, the statement “my child is the smartest” is a typically accepted statement because society almost expects that a parent would feel this way. Furthermore, explicit bias may be exposed when a space subsists that nurtures similar thinking; for example, the statement, “It takes a special person to be a social worker; we are the greatest” to a room full of social workers can be shared explicitly because a space exists that supports this belief. Explicit bias that has been previously held privately might emerge when a space is generated that nurtures the bias. For example, an onlooker who observed the scenario of Harry and the fly may sit quietly and keep his bias private. However, once a space is created that supports his opinion about the scenario, he may be inclined to share his explicit bias.

Reversely, one might not be aware of her implicit bias. Mental associations may be so deeply rooted in previous environmental experiences that a person does not realize that it exists. As Banaji and Greenwald, authors of the Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, state, “…often these thoughts or feelings are reflected in our actions too…and they are at times completely at odds with our conscience intentions[24].”

Social mindbugs, an aspect of implicit bias, are “ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions.”[25]They might show up through an exercise where all the vowels are missing from a paragraph yet one is able to read it, by remembering something that didn’t occur because of an automatic association, or when predicting a person’s personality or qualifications based on a facial image. Often, professionals in the fields who work with children and families, have such large caseloads that they rely on “quick readings” to assess their clientele. Consequently, social mindbugs influence these professionals’ assumptions of the client and can give false illusions of the client’s trustworthiness, competence, and character. Therefore a person classifies and interprets people and situations based on personal biases.

This type of monological thinking fulfills a human need to categorize and sort (a skill that is developed in middle childhood or school-age) through rapid intuitive thinking. This is referred to as automatic processing, whereby “we implicitly know something or feel a certain way.”[26]

Numerous Implicit Association Tests (IAT) developed through Project Implicit[1] rely on the stored values, experiences, and beliefs (worldview) of participants in order to make categorizations. Results from nearly 700 million IATs indicate that:

Most participants demonstrated implicit attitudes in favor of one social group over another…people are generally not “color” blind to race, gender, religion, social class, or other demographic characteristics. More important, participants systematically preferred socially privileged groups: YOUNG over OLD, WHITE over BLACK, LIGHT SKINNED over DARK SKINNED, OTHER PEOPLES over ARAB-MUSLIM, ABLED over DISABLED, THIN over OBESE, and STRAIGHT over GAY.[27]

How does this relate to professionals who work with children and families? Despite our desire to be objective, “open-minded,” or a “good” person, we as human beings are influenced by our view of the world and the dominant narratives that construct our perceived identity of clients. It is our professional and humane responsibility to be cognizant of how these deeply rooted values, personal beliefs, and environmental experiences impact our “truth.”

Another form of bias of which to be mindful is the cloning mechanism. In this circumstance, an individual may recognize a similar quality in another individual and will consequently assume that everything else about the individual is the same. For example, a teacher with a childhood history of being withdrawn from class due to illness may have a student that is withdrawn in the classroom. In turn, the teacher may address the student’s behavior as if the student were ill. Similarly, cloning mechanisms can occur with those of the same age, gender, race, community, or occupation. In the story of the fly, the woman assumed that because of similarities with Harry (both of them were professionals attending the same training), his needs were the same as her needs.

Understanding that our worldview and epistemologies shape our interpretations, assumptions, and expectations of the children and families we serve is a critical first step in multilogical thinking. Multilogical thinking perpetuates awareness that each human has a worldview and an epistemology that has been established through their values, experiences, and beliefs since birth. Furthermore, awareness of implicit bias, explicit bias, social mindbugs, and the cloning mechanisms withheld in each of us creates an opportunity for self-growth and reflection.

Shifting the Paradigm of Institutional Frameworks:

Institutions such as the child welfare system, judicial system, and educational system are built on frameworks influenced by historical, social, and economic interests. As professionals, it is important to research and be mindful of these influences, as well as how these interests continue to resonate in the genetic pools of institutions. For example, the educational system for Indigenous peoples was designed as an assimilation tool, meant to “Kill the Indian, save the man.[28]” In this educational philosophy, constructed by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, the values of Indigenous peoples were seen as insignificant, “heathen,” and “savage.[2]” Consequently, the tenets of colonial education were identified as key to the education and civilization of Indigenous children. These tenets include: 1) Native Americans are “savages” and have to be civilized, 2) Civilization requires Christian conversion, 3) Civilization also requires subordination of Native communities, frequently achieved through resettlement efforts, and 4) Native Americans have specific mental, moral, physical, or cultural deficiencies that require specific pedagogical practices[29]. Furthermore, parents were excluded from the educational systems, as interaction with parents was deemed as detrimental to the “civilization” process.

It is important to reflect on how these ideologies manifest themselves in educational systems of today. For example, in thinking about ways in which to solicit parent involvement in the school system, one must also think about what changes have occurred to shift the paradigm of education. At one time, the purpose of education was to exclude parents from the education of their children. What changes have been made to retract this policy? What has the educational system done to ensure that parent involvement is now welcomed? In another example, how has the educational system shifted from the deficit model or the assumption that something is wrong or missing? I am often asked, “How do we teach Indian children?” This question indicates that there are still remnants of the genetics of an education system that believes that “Indians” have deficiencies that require specific pedagogical methods.

Awareness of the historical influences of such institutions might explain why some clientele benefit and thrive from these institutional frameworks while other clientele continue to suffer and retrogress. Likewise, the authors of The Role of Social Work in Advancing the Practice of Indigenous Education state that “The greatest obstacle to advancing Indigenous education may be the lack of acknowledgement and redress of its oppressive history. The removal of Indigenous children from their homes by the social work profession is part of that legacy.[30]

In order to address the alarming social indicators presented at the beginning of this chapter, institutional racism and on-going oppression must be addressed and a paradigm shift is needed. Furthermore, there is continued need for on-going self-reflection and assessment by professionals in the field. As a professional in the field, you might ask: How do I benefit from the current institutional framework? Am I aware of my position of power within the system? Do I take extra steps to create safe spaces for my clients?

Although it may not be solicited or desired, professionals who work with children and families inherit a position of power and authority within the current institutional framework. Yet professionals often expect clients to self-advocate, step out of their comfort zone, and initiate communication. These are difficult tasks to accomplish when you are not in a position of power. Furthermore, many professionals who acknowledge a need for a paradigm shift would like the formula delivered in a package to their front door. However, there is no blueprint for shifting the paradigm. Each community is unique and will require active participation, listening, brainstorming, reflecting, and exploring to foster change.

Healing through testimony:

Norton, a California Indigenous historian, states that, “in the telling and in the listening, humanity meets.[31]” This concept of bringing “meaning to the engagement between the storyteller and listener[32]” is critical in shifting the paradigm and initiating steps toward healing. In mainstream society, when an individual has experienced a traumatic event, opportunities are often provided for the person to talk about his experience. Support groups, vigils, community events, and mentorships are developed to support the healing process. Although the traumatic event is always a part of a person’s life, these humane efforts assist the individual in movement toward healing. However, many Indigenous peoples have not been allocated this opportunity to share and heal from their pain. Often when an Indigenous person begins to speak of how he has been affected by the boarding school experience, genocide, or on-going institutional racism, he is silenced with statements such as, “that was a long time ago, get over it;” “that wasn’t my fault, I didn’t do it”; “stop wallowing in self-pity and make something of yourself”; or “you’re too emotional.” These responses are vile acts to humanity; dismissive of Indigenous experiences; and seeds of testimonial injustice.

Testimonial injustice[33] occurs when an individual or a group is omitted from a story because they are not deemed credible to share. Adichi, a novelist, argues that there is “danger in a single story” and, through omitting narratives of marginalized groups, a construed picture of those groups is created. She states:

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become…But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. [34]

In response to the human desire to categorize, and a conditioned craving for concrete, single answers, society has established intuitive attitudes, thoughts, and perceptions of Indigenous identity. Deloria, an Indigenous scholar, refers to this automatic processing as “misplaced concreteness[35]”. Relying solely on social indicators, statistics, or a single narrative to define Indigenous peoples creates a false, imposed, and misplaced sense of identity.

Due to testimonial injustice in textbooks, social media, newspapers, court systems, and educational systems, Indigenous communities are plagued with stereotypes. Furthermore, the Indigenous narrative is often omitted from United States and California history; Indigenous testimonies have been excluded from court proceedings that relate to Indigenous ceremonial sites, burial sites, water rights, and children’s rights; Indigenous community concepts of giftedness have been omitted from standardized testing, academic State standards, and gifted education programs; and Indigenous experiences with colonialism are absent from pre-service and in-service professional development. These exclusions of testimony have led to a single story, a dominant narrative that has been executed on Indigenous children, families, and communities. Moreover, testimonial injustice has contributed to on-going oppression and institutional racism:

The ignorance and prejudice toward Indigenous cultures by social workers was present for two reasons. First, social workers, like educators, were the products of a European American education system that disrespected or ignored Indigenous cultures while promoting its own history, heroes, language, and culture. Second, the education system did not (and still does not) equip students to understand how European American colonization oppressed the social, political, and economic lives of Indigenous peoples…to counter this reality, social workers and educators must seek out narratives of Indigenous peoples.[36]

Consequently, there is a need to solicit, create space, and actively listen to Indigenous narratives and testimonials.[37] For example, an Indigenous research project utilized testimonials to define giftedness from a community context. [38] The study included 250 Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk participants who reside on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Hoopa, California. Methods included in-depth interviews, survey, and focus groups. Participants were asked: 1) What do you identify as characteristics of giftedness?  2) What do you feel are the five most important things to teach to your children?

From testimonial, giftedness is defined as K’winya’nyan-ma awhiniw, “the way of the acorn eater (or, the human way)” to live in harmony with the world by valuing relationships with the human, natural, and spiritual realms of the world. Therefore, the community’s definition of giftedness is constructed from the natural environment, including homeland, stories, songs, ceremony, and language. The testimonials identified important aspects to teach children as relationships with elders, community, self-respect, and for gathering sites, homeland, animals, water, and the environment; a spiritual connection to songs, ancestors, regalia, canoes, and the energies of the world; values of respect, responsibility, humility, a good heart, sincerity, generosity, and discipline; and cultural skills of basket-making, regalia-making, story-telling, fishing, hunting, gathering, and being a good listener[39].

It is important to note that—despite depictions of imbalance, struggle, or loss of culture—this Indigenous community has deemed the above characteristics as components of giftedness that they wish to teach to children. Few, if any, of these characteristics appears on standardized tests, classroom assessments, or discussion boards for the local newspaper (where an excess of uninformed assessments appear). Yet, if the community were assessed on the increase of Indigenous language speakers, basket makers, regalia makers, singers, or dancers in the last twenty years, the community would excel. In turn, this excellence would undoubtedly impact the self-esteem, self-worth, and ultimately the self-actualization of Indigenous community members.

Initial Steps to Healing: We are getting a little closer…

Because of movements to shift the paradigm and create spaces for multiple narratives, educational systems, for example, have implemented activities that give children an opportunity to share their personal experiences, worldview, and epistemology with their classmates. The following example illustrates first steps to embracing testimonials of children, while also exposing a need for further self-reflection and institutional exploration:

Ijo entered his first day of Kindergarten with excitement and nervousness about what the school year would bring. His teacher explained that they were going to have an assignment to get to know each other. “Each student will take home one of these paper bags,” the teacher said with excitement, “and you will fill the bag with four items that are important to you.”


Ijo could not wait to get home to pick out his items. His mind was already thinking of all of the things that he might bring to share with his new friends. When he arrived home, he immediately ran to his room and began to select items. He pulled a baseball out of his toy box and placed it into his bag. He carefully selected a Spiderman figure from his superhero collection. He pulled out his step stool, crawled up to his shelf, and grabbed his auth wayatch (a Yurok dugout model canoe). He massaged the side of the canoe, whispered “aikuywee” (a special greeting), and placed it in his bag. Finally, he pulled a small trunk out of his closet, opened it, and selected an eagle feather. The eagle feather was not real. It had been made and hand-painted by his father so that Ijo could practice ceremonial dances at home.


Ijo carefully placed the eagle feather in his bag and ran out to show his mother his selection. “What do you want to say about each item?” his mother asked. “I’m going to tell them I’m Nererner, Natinixwe, and Mvskoke. I love baseball. My dad and I play baseball in the backyard every day. I chose the Spiderman because I am going to be a superhero one day.” Ijo spoke rapidly as he pulled each item out of the paper bag. “I’m taking this guy, the canoe, because he has his own spiritual life and I take care of him and he takes care of me. This feather has his own life, too. He helps us in the dances to pray.” As he spoke, his mother smiled with pride. She was overjoyed that, at five years old, her son had already established his own sense of identity and love for himself.


“Will you go to school with me tomorrow and stand in the back?” Ijo asked. His mother nodded, knowing that, since he was new to a classroom environment, she had already planned to go to school with him all week anyway.


The next day at school, Ijo was the first person asked to share. He nervously walked in front of the class and quietly uttered his first words, “My name is Ijo and this is my baseball. I play baseball with my dad every day.” The class watched silently. “I brought Spiderman because I’m going to be a superhero.” The class began to make noise and get excited by the toy. Next, Ijo pulled the canoe out of his bag and said, “This is my auth wayach.” Immediately a child hollered out, “That’s not an auth wawa! That’s a boat!” Ijo looked down at the canoe and mumbled, “Um, it’s a canoe.” “Whoa!” another child hollered, “this is deja vu!” Another child asks, “What does deja vu mean?”


The teacher, anxious to take advantage of the “teachable moment,” responded, “Deja vu is when you experience something that you feel as if you have experienced before.” One side of the classroom listened, engaged in the vocabulary lesson, while the other side of the room engaged in discussions about their summer vacations, paddling, and large boats.


Confused, Ijo put the canoe back into the paper bag, folded it closed, and said, “And that is all.” He sat down in his seat and hung his head. When all the children ran off to recess, Ijo’s mother, having had observed the entire incident, told Ijo, “You did a great job! How did you feel about your presentation?” “I didn’t share my eagle feather,” Ijo mumbled. “Why didn’t you share your eagle feather?” Ijo looked into her eyes and shook his head, “They didn’t deserve it.”

At five years old, Ijo and his classmates are transitioning from early childhood to middle childhood, often referred to as “school-age.” At this stage, children have typically established a self-concept that is based on their worldview. As such, the idea of this assignment was to create a home-to-school connection, whereby a safe space is created in the classroom that nurtures a child’s self-concept and helps him to identify his space in the classroom. What wasn’t understood by Ijo’s peers or his teacher was that each presenter was sharing a gift, a piece of themselves, with the class. It was an opportunity to embrace multiple perspectives, interests, and worldviews.

Although with “good intention,” the teacher seized the opportunity to teach an important vocabulary lesson. In so doing, he forgot about the lesson being given by the child. An auth we yoch, a traditional redwood Yurok dugout canoe, is made with a heart, lungs, kidneys, and nose. Yurok creation stories describe how the redwood became the keeper of the forest, and anything that is made of redwood has its own spiritual life. A caretaker of a canoe has a responsibility to nurture this life. Dismissing these lessons and referring to an auth we yoch as simply a mainstream interpretation of a boat minimizes its significance. At the initial dismissal by the students it could have been the opportunity for the teacher to be clear to Ijo and all the children that the purpose of sharing was to respect and learn more about each child’s life and worldview.   Consequently, by the second day of school, Ijo understood that what he treasured most was not valued in school.

During school age, children begin to evaluate themselves in comparison to their peers. This stage of development is referred to as self-esteem. Consequently, a kindergartner enters the classroom with a strong sense of self-identity but will typically experience a decline in self-esteem within the first year of school due to continual social comparisons with peers. Self-esteem will eventually increase as children learn to self-evaluate and cognitively regulate. However, Indigenous children are often faced with in-congruency between their personal values and beliefs and those of the mainstream classroom. In addition, they are in danger of falling into self-fulfilling prophecies. Deloria refers to this epidemic as the “schizophrenic nature” of education, whereby children are constantly trying to meet the expectations from mainstream education as well as from their home and community. Although a typical struggle for Indigenous children, this is not the norm for children whose philosophies and worldviews are constantly validated in the educational system. This inequity resonates from the genetic pool and historical legacy of educational systems for Indigenous people. From these experiences, children like Ijo might intentionally separate their home life from the understood expectations of the classroom.

Social indicators, explicit and implicit bias, and institutional frameworks often perpetuate stereotypes and generalizations of Indigenous communities. Perhaps, in these cases, the assessors (professionals) are unaware of the “eagle feather” tucked away in the bag, and so an effort is never made to listen to and observe the values and beliefs (i.e., worldview and epistemology) from a community context. Perhaps the assessors got a glimpse of the auth weyoch, yet label it a “boat.” When this happens, an opportunity may have been created to listen, but the treasure is misinterpreted and minimized through the assessor’s own perception. Or perhaps, the assessor becomes excited over the Spiderman figure and, through the cloning mechanism, walks away thinking, “we are all the same.” Consequently, it is critical to be aware of multiple views of excellence in and out of the classroom.

First Steps to Healing: From a Community Context

In attending a ceremony of Northern California Indigenous peoples, you might be told, “Be aware of what you say, think, and feel at ceremony, because every word that is spoken is a wish for yourself.” Likewise, Yellowbird argues that, “…creative, healthy, decolonized thinking, actions, and feelings, positively shape and empower important neural circuits in our brain, which in turn provide us with personal resources, strengths, and abilities that we need to overcome colonialism[40].” Yellowbird’s neuro-decolonization research suggests that ceremony and culture can heal the body from the effects of intergenerational trauma and on-going oppression. Furthermore, a study on Indigenous youth found that, “…cultural affinity promotes self-esteem and that cultural identity, combined with high self-esteem, is a protective factor against alcohol and substance abuse.”[41]

When a child experiences trauma, shrinkages of the white matter in the brain occur. These shrinkages can be expressed in multiple ways; for example, a person’s emotional regulation, attention span, or memory may be affected by traumatic events. The brain, however, is malleable. This means that the brain can heal. Healing occurs when the brain is stimulated. According to Yellowbird, stimulation transpires when an Indigenous person is engaged in regalia-making, basket-making, singing, and ceremony. At this moment, a person has a sense of well-being, the temporal parietal junction of the brain becomes activated, and the individual transcends to a level of happiness, joy, and optimism.[42] In other words, the act of participating in cultural activities stimulates the brain and releases feelings of positivity which can lead to healing. An example of this transcendence can be depicted in the following journal description from a contemporary Indigenous California woman:

The sun has dipped over the horizon. The smell of Majache xolen (medicine root) from the small fire within the dance pit still lingers in the air. Only moments ago the medicine woman performed the ritual of her healing. A hundred or more family members huddle together on benches surrounding the dance pit. A light chatter of greetings, well wishes, and sighs of the work week slowly began to slip away. At some time, the illumination from the pit becomes the center of the world, and the dancers file in—circling the perimeter of the dance house. The heavy song (the first prayer) begins and for an instant—I am breathless. The prayer seems to swirl into the darkness above and my soul is taken with it. Just as quickly, the men in unison begin a deep guttural chant. My body is grounded with new enlightenment. Throughout the song, I am paralyzed in fear it will stop. A brief rest and the song begins again. I am ascended even higher into the darkness. Only when the men back up the song with the heavy guttural chant does my mind slam to the ground and become one with the heartbeat of the world. Three rounds, I succumb. This is where the healing has taken place within me. I wrap myself tightly in blankets to hold on to this feeling of xoji doni—what is pure.[43]

This journal entry reflects the woman’s feelings of transcendence at a Brush Dance ceremony. Although the ceremony is for the healing of a sick child. Many participants and on-lookers benefit from the healing energies of song, dance, and prayer. The engagement in deep levels of mindfulness, meditation, and repetition through ceremony, song, and language activate a sense of well-being. Yellowbird contends that healing “requires going back to what we know.[44]” In other words, the remedy to intergenerational trauma is within Indigenous knowledge.

For Indigenous families that are out of balance due to trauma, oppression, and colonialism, it is important to “reweave the social fabric and recapture the old ways.[45]” In re-centering and reclaiming Indigenous knowledge, children build an anchor in their home culture that gives them the strength to cope with marginalization by mainstream society.  Ijo, for example, had a strong enough foundation in his Indigenous identity from his experience with culture, ceremony, language, and family relationships that he was able to protect his eagle feather and state, “They didn’t deserve it.”

Perry, a senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy and a leading practitioner of children’s mental health, states that key aspects of healthy child development already exist in healthy Indigenous cultures. For example, Indigenous cultures are wealthy in relationships with grandparents, extended family, and community. These communal interactions with children help to nurture physical, social, and emotional health. The implications from research indicate that the tool to healing rests within the epistemology of Indigenous communities. Had it not been for colonialism, testimonial injustice, institutional frameworks, and bias, Indigenous knowledge might have been validated sooner.


Social indicators of Indigenous peoples specify alarming rates of suicide, alcoholism, deaths due to violence, and health disparities. There is a direct correlation between the current struggles of Indigenous families and historical and on-going trauma. Initial steps for professionals in the healing process are 1) becoming aware of bias, 2) shifting the paradigm of institutional frameworks, and 3) seeking testimonial justice. From a community context, the tools to healing rest within Indigenous knowledge.


[1] Project Implicit is operated through Harvard University, University of Washington, and the University of Virginia

[2] Terms used by educational systems


[1] 2010 Census. “The American Indian and Alaska Native Population.” Census Bureau. Accessed October 3, 2017. https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf

[2] Ibid

[3] Indian Health Services. “2009-2011 Health Disparities Fact Sheet.” Indian Health Services. Accessed October 1, 2018. http://ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/disparities

[4] Aspen Institute. “Fast Facts on Native American Youth.” Aspen Institute. Accessed October 1, 2018. http://assets.aspeninstitute.org

[5] National Congress of American Indians. “2018 Demographics.” National Congress of American Indians. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://ncai.org

[6] Aspen Institute. “Fast Facts on Native American Youth.” Aspen Institute. Accessed October 1, 2018. http://assets.aspeninstitute.org

[7] Ibid.

[8] National Congress of American Indians. “2018 Demographics.” National Congress of American Indians. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://ncai.org

[9] Aspen Institute. “Fast Facts on Native American Youth.” Aspen Institute. Accessed October 1, 2018. http://assets.aspeninstitute.org

[10] Ibid.

[11] Michael Yellowbird. Decolonizing the Mind: Healing through Neurodecolonization and Mindfulness. Produced by Cheryl Easter and Neil Ruckman, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2018. Vimeo.com/86995336

[12] Karina Walters, Selina Mohammed, Teresa Evans-Campbell, Ramona Beltran, David Chaex, and Bonnie Duran. Bodies Don’t Just tell Stories, they tell histories: Embodiment of historical trauma among American Indians and Alaska Natives. US Library of Medicine National Health Institute, 2011.

[13] Cathy Malchiodi (2015). Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children. New York: Guiford Press.

[14] Walt Lara. Personal Interview, August 7, 2005.

[15] Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart and Lemyra M. DeBruyn “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief,” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health, 8, no. 2 (1998): 56.

[16] Angayaqaq Oscar Kawagley. Yupiaq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit. (Long Grove: Illinois, 2003), 7.

[17] Manulani Meyer. Ho’oulu our Time of Becoming: Hawaiian Epistemology and Early Writing. Honolulu, HI: Native Books, 2003.

[18] Valerie Mathes. “Nineteenth Century Women and Reform: The Women’s National Indian Association.” American Indian Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1990): 1-18.

[19] Ibid, 3.

[20] Ibid, 3.

[21] Margaret Connell Szasz. “Foreward.” Women’s National Indian Association: A History, ed. Valerie Sherer Mathes.  (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2015), ix.

[22] Kishan Lara. Concepts of Giftedness on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Unpublished Dissertation. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, 2009.

[23] Jerry Kang. “Immaculate Perception.” Ted Talkx. Filmed in San Diego, California. Accessed August 10, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VGbwNI6Ssk

[24] Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People. (New York, Delacorte Press, 2013), 55.

[25] Ibid, 4.

[26] Ibid, 55.

[27] Jerry Kang and Kristin Lane. “Screening through Colorblindedness: Implicit Bias and the Law.” UCLA Law Review 58, (2010): 474.

[28] John Reyner and Jeanne Eder. American Indian Education: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

[29] Tsianina Lomawaima. “The Unnatural History of American Indian Education,” ed. Karen Swisher and John Tippeconnic Next Steps: Research and Practice to Advance Indian Education. (Charleston, West Virginia: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1999), 1-32.

[30] Michael Yellowbird and Venida Chanault. “The Role of Social Work in Advancing the Practice of Indigenous Education: Obstacles and Promises in Empowerment Oriented Social Work Practice” ed. Karen Swisher and John Tippeconnic Next Steps: Research and Practice to Advance Indian Education. (Charleston, West Virginia: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1999), 201-238.

[31] Jack Norton. Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried. San Franciso, CA: Indian Historian Press, 1979.

[32] Michael Yellowbird and Venida Chanault. “The Role of Social Work in Advancing the Practice of Indigenous Education: Obstacles and Promises in Empowerment Oriented Social Work Practice” ed. Karen Swisher and John Tippeconnic Next Steps: Research and Practice to Advance Indian Education. (Charleston, West Virginia: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1999), 201-238.

[33] Miranda Fricker. Epistemic Injustice: Power and Ethics of Knowing. New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[34] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Danger of a Single Story. (National Geographic Learning, 2016) 85.

[35] Vine DeLoria and Daniel Wildcat. Power and Place: Indian Education in America. Colorado: Fulcrum Resources. 2001.

[36] Michael Yellowbird and Venida Chanault. “The Role of Social Work in Advancing the Practice of Indigenous Education: Obstacles and Promises in Empowerment Oriented Social Work Practice” ed. Karen Swisher and John Tippeconnic Next Steps: Research and Practice to Advance Indian Education. (Charleston, West Virginia: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1999), 201-238.

[37] Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: ZED Books, 1999.

[38] Kishan Lara-Cooper. “K’winya’nya:nma-awhiniw: Creating a Space for Indigenous Knowledge in the Classroom.” Journal of American Indian Education 53, no. 1, (2014): 3-20.

[39] Kishan Lara. Concepts of Giftedness on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Unpublished Dissertation. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, 2009.

[40] Michael Yellowbird. Decolonizing the Mind: Healing through Neurodecolonization and Mindfulness. Produced by Cheryl Easter and Neil Ruckman, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2018. Vimeo.com/86995336

[41] Mick Adams, Peter Mataira, Shayne Walker, Michael Hart, Neil Drew, and Jess John Fleay. “Cultural Identity and Practices Associated with the Health and Well-being of Indigenous Males.” Journal of Indigenous Studies and First Nations and First People’s Cultures 1, no. 1, (2017): 42-61.

[42] Michael Yellowbird. Decolonizing the Mind: Healing through Neurodecolonization and Mindfulness. Produced by Cheryl Easter and Neil Ruckman, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2018. Vimeo.com/86995336

[43] Callie Lara. Journal Entry, July 17, 2017.

[44] Michael Yellowbird. Decolonizing the Mind: Healing through Neurodecolonization and Mindfulness. Produced by Cheryl Easter and Neil Ruckman, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2018. Vimeo.com/86995336

[45] Bruce Perry, What We Have Always Known: A Program Presenting Key Parenting Skills of the Native American Culture. The Child Trauma Academy, 2003.

boats on river

Photo by Gary Colegrove

girl walking in river

Photo by Gary Colegrove

grass skirt hanging on post

Photo by Gary Colegrove


Photo by Lozen Nez

man by nogo sign

Photo by Gary Colegrove

water and island

Photo by Ellen Colegrove