Interview With Maria Brave Heart (cont’d)
Q: What have you been working on most recently?
A: We got a National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH] grant, and that just ended. It was a pilot randomized, controlled trial with the Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief Intervention combined with Group Interpersonal Psychotherapy [IPT] with tribal communities. One group got both; the other group got only the IPT but no historical trauma component. We had different standardized measures we use for depression and trauma symptoms.
“Around ’76 or ’77, I was both 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.”
We also used an original instrument called the Indigenous People Survey/Interview.
I actually had a diversity faculty fellowship at Columbia, which allowed me to work on developing that measure. We wanted to create a comprehensive instrument that could be used in clinical settings. We want to do more with it, maybe do some psychometric testing. That’s a next step.
In the NIMH study we looked at things like grief, amount of trauma exposure, and traumatic events and symptoms. There are very promising findings, but I cannot yet share the results. We respect our tribal communities and maintain confidentiality. Whatever we release, present, or publish must have tribal research review board approval first. It is very important to protect the tribes and individual tribal members’ well-being.
Q: When you’re doing trainings, do you find people have heard of historical trauma before? Are you finding that more and more people are familiar with the concept?
Yes. It’s really gotten out there, but there’ve been distortions. People don’t always have the full definition, they don’t have the whole story. We actually did some radio broadcasts in South Dakota about historical trauma and other people are doing that too. It’s become really popular, and most of that’s positive. But where it’s challenging is if people only have a little bit of the story or information and then jump on the bandwagon and go out and present on it without going through the training.
We first did a training of the trainers back in September 1992 for all our people who were going to be facilitators. There were mostly Native folks there and a couple of non-Native providers who worked with the Indian Health Service. We had a retreat training for the facilitators in the Black Hills. Then we held the group intervention a month later at a very sacred place in the Black Hills, where Sitting Bull had a vision where an eagle came to him and turned into a man and told him that he was to protect the Lakota Nation, which he did until he was killed in 1890, which was a very traumatic event, followed shortly thereafter by the Wounded Knee Massacre of our ancestors. That was my dissertation—focusing on our collective traumatic past and our healing work.
We’ve done historical trauma interventions different places in the country with different tribes. The way we work is we try to plan with the tribes first what they want, what their needs are. We encourage them to get a planning committee together of people who can carry this on and try to select people who are not controversial, because this is also very spiritually grounded for us and you’re supposed to stay out of conflict and controversy. That’s one of the tenets for things for us that are spiritual or sacred. It’s much like being the therapist, you have to be very neutral, you have to really be very thoughtful about what you do in your personal life as well as your public life.
Q: You have become a bit of a public figure yourself. What’s that been like for you?
A: It’s kind of overwhelming and astonishing. I like going out and presenting, and I really enjoy when I’m with people. They’re usually so gracious. For instance, I just got back from Marquette University. Native folks put that together, and all the Native communities around there were so awesome and so gracious and excited. I got fed well. It was very nice.
“The concept of historical trauma has really gotten out there, but there’ve been distortions. People don’t always have the full definition, they don’t have the whole story. Where it’s challenging is if people only have a little bit of the story and then go out and present on it without going through the training.”
But I remember one time I went to a university in Minnesota. After my talk there were all these people lined up—a lot of them were students—and they wanted my autograph! That was a little shocking for me, because it is about the healing work. I was also very touched. Then somebody else called me an academic rock star. It’s really a weird feeling, but I really enjoy being with people. We are taught to be humble, and our work is to help our People. I really am very protective of the Takini Institute and the historical trauma work because our work is really sacred.
Back in 1991, when I was pulling stuff together for our first historical trauma intervention conference, one of the first things I did was ask for prayers from the Sitting Bull Sun Dance Committee. And we continued our prayers at Sitting Bull Sun Dance and White Lance Sun Dance and other Sun Dances and ceremonies. So it had a spiritual foundation from Day 1, and then we’ve had ceremonies to pray for the work, that it will help people. That’s really important to us.
It’s a sacred commitment so my work here [at UNM] is part of that. That’s why I’ve been at different institutions; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Before I went to Columbia, we had a ceremony in South Dakota and wanted to make sure it was a good thing that would help us, which it did. There, my work with Dr. Roberto Lewis–Fernandez was invaluable. We still collaborate; he has been very helpful with the NIMH study.
When we submitted to NIMH and got funded, that also felt miraculous to me. We had to resubmit, and you were only allowed to resubmit once then. When the resubmission was being reviewed, I was in South Dakota and it was the anniversary of Sitting Bull’s assassination. In a ceremony, we prayed that whatever was best for our people would happen. There was an amazing synergy. We got funded, and we know that our study has been helpful to our people. My division and department at UNM seem to be ideal because there’s a lot of work with tribal communities, and I think the people that are working here are very committed people and I think they really have good hearts. They are supportive of my ongoing work with the Lakota as well as local tribes and other tribes nationally, as I have been doing that for many years. I really think this was the right place to be to get that NIMH proposal submitted. I’m still awed by it when I think about it.
Author Shelley Alonso–Marsden is the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship Program Postdoctoral Fellow for 2017–18. Last year, she earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duke University. She is now completing her postdoctoral training with the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Her current clinical training concentrates on psychotherapy and assessment with children and adolescents exposed to trauma, with a special emphasis on Hispanic and Native populations. Before she endeavored down the clinical psychology pathway, she earned a BSJ in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University.
1M. Y. H. Brave Heart. (1998). The return to the sacred path: Healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the Lakota through a psychoeducational group intervention. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 68(3), 277–304. and M. Y. H. Brave Heart. (2003). The historical trauma response among Natives and its relationship with substance abuse: A Lakota illustration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35(1), 7–13. and M. Y. H. Brave Heart, J. Elkins, G. Tafoya, D. Bird, & M. Salvador. (2012). American Journal of Public Health, 102(S2), S177–S183.
2The United States carried out a policy of forced cultural assimilation to transform American Indian culture to European American culture from as early as 1790. Beginning in 1879, tens of thousands of Native American children were removed from their families and taken off the reservation. (The Dawes Act of 1887 opened Native land to white settlement and further stimulated assimilation.) For some 50 years, most of these children were placed in boarding schools, where they were prevented from having contact with their families and from speaking in their Native tongues, and were forced to go to church in lieu of practicing their Native religions. American Indian children’s negative experiences in boarding schools—including physical and sexual abuse—are well documented in literature and personal testimony.