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The Past Isn’t Past

An Interview With Former Council on Social Work Education Minority Fellow Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D.

by Shelley Alonso–Marsden

Photo Credit: Smith College School of Social Work

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D., was a Council on Social Work Education Minority Fellow as a doctoral student at Smith College. Today she is renowned for her work on defining and researching the experiences of historical trauma and historical unresolved grief among Lakota and other Native communities. Dr. Brave Heart defines historical trauma as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.”1 The concept of historical trauma and unresolved grief is relevant for multiple populations; similar concepts have been applied to other oppressed groups.

Dr. Brave Heart is associate professor and director of Native American and disparities research in the Division of Community Behavioral Health at the University of New Mexico [UNM] Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She is Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota and is also the president and co-founder of the Takini (“Survivor”) Institute, originally based in Rapid City, S.D., and Denver, Colo., which addresses historical trauma and unresolved grief through therapeutic work, prevention, research, publication and community education. Dr. Brave Heart graduated from Columbia University with a master of science in social work in 1976 and from Smith with a Ph.D. in clinical social work in 1995.

Before joining the faculty at UNM, Dr. Brave Heart was associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and associate professor at Columbia University School of Social Work. While at Columbia, she had an affiliation with the New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia University School of Medicine, where she worked with Dr. Roberto Lewis–Fernandez on his National Institute of Mental Health–sponsored study on Interpersonal Psychotherapy.

Current MFP Fellow Shelley Alonso–Marsden, also at the UNM Division of Community Behavioral Health, recently sat down with Dr. Brave Heart to talk about social work, her memory of being an MFP Fellow, historical trauma (among Native Peoples and others), clinical practice, research, training, and the strangeness of fame.

Q: Can you describe your experiences as a master’s student in social work?

A: What I was really attracted to with Columbia was the emphasis on clinical practice and the psychoanalytic orientation. You had to really do your own work on yourself. They used to require you to be in therapy while attending the school. When I started they were transitioning away from that, but the culture was still there at the school so everybody was getting into therapy. I didn’t know about that before I went there, so I was a little bit intimidated at first. Eventually I got more curious, and I relaxed.

It was so funny because my mother at the time got very anxious about it. She said: “I know what they’re going to say. They’re going to say you hate your mother.” She said, “A surgeon doesn’t have to undergo surgery to learn how to be a surgeon.” But she calmed down after she saw that I wasn’t getting upset with her.

Columbia was a really good school with good supervision. But because they were very psychoanalytically oriented you had to do a lot of looking at yourself, and you’re not necessarily expecting that when you first go in.

Q: What did you do after your master’s program?

A: After I graduated, I practiced in outpatient mental health as a psychotherapist. I got my license, and then I started getting postgraduate psychoanalytic training. It was an excellent learning experience. I worked for years as a clinician and clinical supervisor in New York, South Dakota, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Q: What were your favorite things about your clinical work?

A: I was working in a racially and socioeconomically diverse area, which included an affluent community—but the other side was very impoverished. This was at a time when people on Medicaid could come several times a week.

I worked with a former gang member, 14 years old, and he came twice a week, and he sat and talked. He was an awesome kid. He had a lot of trauma, of course, and he had seen his best friend killed. It was tough going sometimes because I was worried about him getting suicidal. But he really blossomed.

The stereotype back then was that poor people and people of color were not analyzable because they just didn’t have insight. Most everyone has the capacity for insight.

I think it’s really about building rapport. The patients I was working with really appreciated being able to talk about themselves and their problems and have somebody listen to them. Plus it was confidential, and there was no stigma attached to it. I got that training at Columbia—to just be very nonchalant and matter of fact—saying, “Do you ever think about killing yourself?” like you’re asking about the weather. It takes the stigma away and then people feel relaxed and that you’re not going to judge them. It makes it easier for them to tell the truth. That was really a good foundation. I feel very blessed that I had that experience.

Q: Please tell us more about your time as a doctoral student and a Minority Fellow.

A: I think I may have first heard of the MFP Fellowship as a member of the National Association of Social Workers. I didn’t find out until I was already at Smith that their School of Social Work was founded to work with war neurosis, so it was a ”trauma school.” That’s the uncanny thing. And at that time it was a top school of social work in the country. It’s one of the few schools that still provides psychoanalytic or psychodynamic coursework and clinical internship opportunities for learning good in-depth treatment and that’s too bad. I think you can blend both.

Q: You mean both psychoanalytic and other modalities?

A: Right. It doesn’t mean that you’re siding with the oppressor. Some people don’t understand that and will talk about psychoanalysis as fostering dependency. It actually isn’t, because in people’s outside lives they become more and more healthy and autonomous, because it’s a safe place where they really can work on themselves and not be judged and be valued.
“I got that training at Columbia—to be very nonchalant and matter of fact—saying, ‘Do you ever think about killing yourself?’ like you’re asking about the weather. It takes the stigma away. And then people feel relaxed and that you’re not going to judge them. It makes it easier to tell the truth.”
It’s good to be able to practice different techniques, because not everybody wants or needs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or will respond to it. The same thing with trauma therapies. Some people really do not want to go back and relive and recount their traumatic events. There has to be some sort of a balance with all of that.

There’s also the cultural fit. That’s one of the things that I’m aware of with historical trauma. It was initially very Lakota-centric, but there’s also some universality to it too because of our history as Native Peoples. We share so much in common—like the boarding schools.2 Even though we have cultural differences, I see more similarities than differences in terms of the underlying values and the underlying meaning of things. We try to focus on those similarities.

Q: What experiences, personal or professional, inspired your theory of historical trauma?

A: I actually had some dreams in childhood that one of our healers interpreted for me later. He felt like that was really connected to doing the historical trauma work, but unconsciously. Around probably 1976 or ’77, I had finished Columbia and I was working and taking psychoanalytic courses. One day I was looking at some historical photographs and I just got overwhelmed with grief. It felt like it was something really old and much broader than my own family or even my own community, so I paid attention to that. I was just sobbing, and that’s when I had this light bulb go off in my head about how we carry this trauma, which is generational—and it’s collective.

Simultaneously, I met one of my classmates in the psychoanalytic training institute who was a child of Holocaust survivors. At that time, I knew little about the Holocaust. I knew what the average person knows. I knew it existed. I had seen some movies about it. But I didn’t know anything about this whole body of literature on the Holocaust. That’s when Helen Epstein’s book Children of the Holocaust came out in 1979. It was a qualitative piece. She interviewed children of survivors and started writing about all of these common characteristics that she was seeing. One of my sisters looked at the book, and she said she couldn’t read it because it was too emotional for her. So there was something there that we had, this shared experience of massive generational group trauma.

Q: How did you first disseminate your work on historical trauma?

A: I delivered a lot of conference presentations nationally in the 1980s and 1990s. We had this big historical trauma conference in 2001, and then we had follow-ups in 2003 and 2004. Our conference was called “Models for Healing Indigenous Survivors of Historical Trauma: A Multicultural Dialog Among Allies.” My idea was to look at other massively traumatized groups and that we shared some things in common.

Our presenters included not only American Indians and Alaska Natives but also Native Hawaiians, First Nations from Canada, children of Holocaust survivors, African Americans dealing with the legacy of slavery, Latinos dealing with migration trauma, and—as many Latinos have indigenous ancestry, also dealing with that—and Japanese American internment camp survivors and descendants. There were all these people presenting and workshops. What was so striking is that with all these diverse groups, we were talking about the same kind of psychological effects, across generations.

Q: What types of response do individuals have when learning about this phenomenon?

A: Overwhelmingly positive. The only problem, I think, is there have been some people who heard pieces of it but never went through a whole training experience on it. Some of them are still so wounded, and what’s coming up for a lot of them is a lot of anger. So then they go out and start presenting on it, they alienate people because they’re stuck in their anger.

When we started, those of us who were working on it, had all done enough work on ourselves that we weren’t stuck in the anger. Otherwise you’re just going to alienate people. You need allies. You need people who understand you. We want to have people increase their compassion for the suffering of Native Peoples or oppressed people in general. You don’t want to make people feel that you hate them. You don’t want people to feel tremendous guilt about things that they personally didn’t cause. That’s not going to be helpful to the whole healing process.

Q: You still do ongoing trainings. What is the response like these days in New Mexico?

A: When I’m presenting, I feel like I get a good response because I know the whole backdrop, I know the whole back story. I don’t go into all this detail, but the purpose is not to dredge up the past or stay stuck in the past or get people angry and riled up. It’s to foster healing. I talk about how we carry this, and a lot of it isn’t conscious, but it’s affecting us. Part of it is making certain things—things that are not conscious—conscious, and developing that awareness. Then you have more choices when you’re aware of things. You’re more able to make different choices. Before people get exposed to the concept of historical trauma, they feel angry, guilty, self-blaming, like they’re “crazy,” and “What’s wrong with me?” So in talking about historical trauma, people start to really brighten up. They say, “Oh, it’s not just me. It’s my whole family, my tribe, my community that’s been suffering.” It starts to make sense to them.
“Before people get exposed to the concept of historical trauma, they feel angry, guilty, self-blaming, like they’re ‘crazy,’ and ‘What’s wrong with me?’ So in talking about historical trauma, people start to really brighten up. They say, ‘Oh, it’s not just me. It’s my whole family, my tribe, my community that’s been suffering.’ It starts to make sense to them.”
Our experience of doing the historical trauma intervention is that people start to relax and open up. And they get more curious about learning more, and they get more interested in learning about themselves. They open up more about their trauma, their history, and their pain. They feel validated and hopeful.

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