Native American Soul Wound

The following is excerpted from an unpublished Masters Thesis (2004) entitled The Peyote Ceremony of the Native American Church: A Gateway to Healing and Transformation by Michael J. Melville (pages 31-37).

In their book Native American Postcolonial Psychology (1995), Eduardo and Bonnie Duran sketch out the wounding of soul and its symptoms from a psychological perspective. The recurrent wounding of the Native American soul took place from the time of initial contact with the European invaders. The various peoples or tribal groups of Turtle Island on Planet Earth had established a harmonious balance with their natural environment over thousands of years. This evolution of culture had spirituality at its core. Family groups participated in cyclic patterns of ritual and activities of farming, hunting and gathering of foods. Children were initiated into new roles as they grew older. The culture had expectations, which guaranteed the survival of the species. Life is sustained by the death of animals and plants. These givers of life, who sacrificed their bodies for the survival of the humans, were treated with respect by those who took their life-gifts. Native cultures gave thanks to the spirits of those who fed them. Life was nurtured by men and women alike.

The males who hunted animals did so to feed the extended family. They also protected the family and its food sources from predatory animals (including other humans) so that life could continue. The females became pregnant with life and brought life into the world, nourishing their children with the milk of their bodies. Although men are unable to give birth in this way, they can be psychologically and spiritually pregnant and thus “carry and give birth to the spiritual life in the community” (1995, p. 38) just as women do to the spiritual life of the community. Transformations from childhood to adulthood were marked by ritual initiation into the new phase of life. As the Durans put it, “Native Americans had a very well structured society in which everyone’s role and place was well defined. Our family systems and self-governance supported these roles and functions, and everyone felt valued as a member of the community” (p. 44). The Native Americans experienced the world as a “totality of which they were an integral part” (p. 44). According to the Durans (1995), the Native Americans had a centered awareness that was fluid, making possible a harmonious attitude toward the world. It was at the core of this awareness that the wounding of the soul by the European invaders took place. Since this core is the source of myth, dreams and culture, anything emerging from a wounded soul manifests as embodied suffering.

The sources of the soul wound are found in history. The first contact with the Europeans brought new sicknesses for which no immunity existed in the Native Americans. The Durans (1995) characterize this phase as environmental shock.

The lifeworld as had been known for centuries became threatened, and in most cases that lifeworld was systematically destroyed. The makeup of the lifeworld consisted of all cultural experience, with spirituality at its core. The psychological trauma perpetrated by such an intrusion had collective impact at the beginning of what was to become a process of ongoing loss and separation. . . from loved ones . . .[and] the relationship the people had with their daily world. These losses were not allowed the time for proper bereavement and grief process, thus adding to the wound in the Native American collective psyche. (p. 32)

Succeeding wounds occurred. During the next phase of economic competition, lands and wildlife, which were the foundation of Native American life, were destroyed or taken by the European settlers. The Natives experienced this as disrespect for the Mother of all life, because the Europeans did not try to live in harmony with our Mother. They treated Her as an object to be consumed; they were violent and destructive in their ways with each other as well as the earth. With the settlers’ desire for more land and resources, the Native Americans were objectified by the American power structure. The original inhabitants were then exterminated by the United States governmental policy by the use of military force. According to the Durans,

This type of policy greatly impacted the psyche of Native American people since many were killed or removed from traditional homelands by force. Many Native American people acquired a refugee syndrome as they were displaced from their loved ones and from the land. (1995, p. 33)

Relocation destroyed the connection to the land, which for centuries had been the basis of cultural and spiritual life. Thus culture was also destroyed as the Natives were told to stay put on the land reserved for them. Often these Reservations were not suited to the traditional lifestyle of tribes relocated there, causing further trauma to the psyche of the people. The nineteenth century Indian Wars and the subsequent treaties brought about the Indian territory of Oklahoma with Reservations spread throughout the Great Plains of America. Ironically this was the beginning of the most devastating phase of wounding.

With the end of war, the conquered were considered a potential danger and in order to Christianize, and thus civilize them, the United States government next instituted the use of boarding schools to assimilate the Native Americans. The Durans see this, as most Native Americans do, as an attempt to destroy the fabric of the culture, the family unit.

Native American children were forcefully removed from their families and taken to a distant place where they were assimilated into the white worldview. These children were not permitted to speak their native language or to have any type of relationship with their tribal roots. Children were physically made to look as close to their white counterparts as possible in order to strip them of their Native American-ness. (Duran & Duran, 1995, p. 34)

At the boarding schools, boys were taught a trade and girls were taught to sew and perform housework. Native Americans became the servants and employees of the dominant culture when they graduated from these schools. Their worldview changed from interdependence with the environment and family to dependence upon the civil and governmental power structure from which they were excluded, since they were not considered citizens and could not vote until the 1920s.

The latest wounding of the Native American psyche occurred in the 1950s with the governmental policy of termination, which forced relocation from the reservation to metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. Although these families were promised housing, jobs, and other support, the reality was abandonment in what seemed like a prison camp. Many survived these relocations, but not without the additional trauma of loss of the support system they had on the reservations. After centuries of physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse, the victims acquired the tendency to internalize the abuse and become like the abuser. Native American family systems, broken apart by trauma, have become dysfunctional. In their landmark book Native American Postcolonial Psychology Eduardo and Bonnie Duran (1995) claim that “this dysfunction and oppression have been internalized to such a degree that the oppressed members of the family seemingly want to continue to be oppressed or abused” (1995, p. 35). Violence, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and other pathological patterns abound in Native Americans. The Durans’ analysis of this situation is intergenerational posttraumatic stress disorder.

The adaptive/reactive behaviors occurring in the initial response to trauma are learned by family members living with the traumatized persons. When the trauma cannot be healed, in the Native American case by ritualized actions and ceremonies, the “reactive behaviors are passed on and learned and become the norm for subsequent generations” (Duran & Duran, 1995, p. 40). Using the PTSD paradigm as a continuum of trauma reaching toward possible recovery, the Durans provide a picture of Native American adaptiveness which explains the dysfunctionality. Adapting the work of Peterson, Prout and Schwarz (1991) to make it relevant to Native American populations, the Durans list five phases.

The first phase is dealing with the impact or shock of the initial trauma. Here the ego splits in order to avoid complete dissociation. “There is either a partial or complete regression, which allows the complex to develop a life of its own in the unconscious. Lack of resolution of the repressed issues are continuously manifested in symptoms that require some type of medication” (Duran & Duran, 1995, p. 40). Either the individual self-medicates or they dissociate from the pain.

The second phase is characterized by emotional withdrawal and repression. To avoid the pain, the emotions are literally shut down. In pre-colonial times the warrior could respond to trauma imposed by a hostile enemy by fighting back. The Durans refer to this as the activation of the warrior archetype. In post-colonial times the archetype is withdrawn, because in this second phase, the emotions are unavailable as the source of activation. The result is “an emptiness in the life of the person, family, and community” (1995, p. 41). If the warrior archetype does become activated, as in the case of the Native Americans who enlist in the United States Armed Forces (who often serve beyond the call of duty), it can contribute to further splitting of the ego. This can occur because the warrior is serving to protect the way of life which destroyed his people’s traditional way of life.

The third phase of acceptance is characterized by denial. The person minimizes how bad things are and/or hopes for a miracle. Many feel that the correct ritual will heal them, if they could only find the right person to perform it. The Durans believe that in this phase the individual usually has “forgotten that what gives medicine its effectiveness is the cohesive community” (1995, p. 41) and the cohesive community no longer exists. An additional problem with this phase is that persons claiming to be traditional are often maintaining dysfunctional lifestyles which also contributes to the loss of power by the medicine.

The fourth phase of decompensation occurs when the denial characterizing the third stage is replaced with the belief that things are bad and are likely to continue that way. This creates a sense of anger, and often, ambivalent rage, since the target of the rage is no longer clear. Rather than targeting the abusive dominant power structure, the individual may target family members. This is the point “at which the internalized self-hate creates ego-splitting” (1995, p.42). Much of Native American culture is stuck in this phase. Alcohol use lowers impulse control and allows for venting of rage. Native Americans who have identified with the dominant culture (the aggressor) in order to acquire the aggressor’s power and eventually use it against the aggressor to restore their traditional culture are completely frustrated, since their repressed rage has no appropriate target, they turn it on themselves and their families.

The fifth phase of trauma mastery or healing occurs when the person understands the dynamics of the preceding four phases and can validate their own reality. This leads to refocusing one’s anger and frustration at the appropriate targets (not oneself and one’s relatives). One of the main spiritual attempts to deal with trauma and its effects, the Peyote Ceremony, was begun in the 1880s during the boarding school era. Because of the wide spread use of the Peyote Ceremony, it is important that therapists understand its function in the context of the lives of their Native American clients.

Eduardo and Bonnie Duran, cite research studies which support peyote as

a useful ethnopharmacologic agent in alcohol dependency treatment (Blum, Flutterman, and Pascorosa 1977). . .because of its use in the Native American Church and its properties that enhance “suggestibility” (Albaugh and Anderson 1974) and the possible “lasting and permanent effect. . . (by) promoting self-actualization and spiritual consciousness” which is missing from orthodox Western approaches (Pascarosa and Futterman 1976). (Duran & Duran, 1995, p. 98)

The Native American worldview regards peyote as a “medicine” in its own right, because “Native Americans believe that peyote helps attain insight through visions, which enhance the healing process and diminish the need for alcohol” (p.98). The Durans’ theoretical position, that a soul wound or hole in the psyche accounts for the dis-ease of addiction, accounts for their claim that “peyote may be the vehicle that fills the void and helps to restore balance in the psyche” (p. 98).

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About Michael J. Melville

People describe me as a Spiritual Catalyst because their spiritual evolution speeds up when they share their process with me. Discussing dreams, addictions, sacred medicines, family histories, or personal relationships moves one closer to the core, where the inner child dwells. Once contact with her/him is made, growth resumes.
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One Response to Native American Soul Wound

  1. Pingback: Healing the Ancestors | Spiritual Transformations

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