Historical grief and trauma persist in Cherokee people

Patricia Grant speaks to more than 50 people at UNCA about historical grief and trauma on April 5. Photo by Caitlin Byrd.

Historical grief and trauma do not dissipate after one generation, Patricia Grant explained at a recent presentation she gave at UNC Asheville on April 5.

“When I think about being a Cherokee and what has happened to my people, then I begin to recognize the psychic wounding on a massive root level, and how it has continued to impact many members of my community,” Grant shared with the more than 50 people who attended the campus event.

As a licensed social worker, Grant serves as program director for Analensigi, a mental health and substance abuse program located on the Qualla Boundary. Due to her work and interaction with people in the Cherkoee community, Grant says she has seen just how deep this trauma goes for the Cherokee people.

“We as Cherokees are a unique people, and we’ve been here at least 10,000 years. We live here,” she says. “But when our life was interrupted and our culture was interrupted by these historical events,  it left people wounded.”

And with the Cherokee, these wounds kept happening. Grant called it the original Holocaust as she navigated through historical events from the time of European settlement in America all the way to the present day. Whether it was watching the size of Cherokee land shrink from 40,000 square miles to 54,000 square acres by 1838, or describing the assimilation of the Cherokee through boarding schools, Grant asserts that current generations still feel this pain.

For Grant, it was something she could speak about from her own personal experience. Both of Grant’s parents attended boarding schools focused on assimilating Native Americans to European culture. “My mother would tell us as we were growing up, some of the experiences she had in the boarding school,” she recalls. “My mother said when they would speak Cherokee, that they were severely punished.” This was because children were required to speak English, not Cherokee, when they attended these boarding schools. It was one of the major reasons why Grant says her mother never taught her or her siblings to speak Cherokee.

When these historical events happened, Grant says that a psychic wounding occurred and, though unintentional, was passed down to at least seven generations. It is something that she sees sometimes when helping people work through substance abuse at Analensigi. “We know that substances are used to numb our emotions, and when we talk about when we started, our first use, oftentimes it is because of family members have used it, or we’ve grown up around it, or we’ve been exposed to it through friends,” she explains. “When someone has experienced trauma, using substances is a way to numb, or to forget, or deal with that pain. But at some point we cross the invisible line and it becomes a way of life. We know that nothing good comes out of using chemicals and that’s what we’re trying to impress upon individuals that seek treatment.”

They are also trying to emphasize that the best way to heal from this trauma is to “forgive the unforgivable.” For this reason, the Cherokee Healing and Wellness Coalition has organized a 2012 Journey to Forgiveness. The journey includes traveling the Trail of Tears in reverse, with conferences held at both ends. The journey is available to enrolled members of the federally recognized Cherokee tribes and invited guests.

However before she ended her presentation, Grant emphasized that historical grief and trauma is not a term limited to the Cherokee. “Every culture has experienced historical trauma of some kind,” she says. “We are trying to heal for generations of what has occurred.”

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