America Is Trying to Fix a Mental Health Crisis That It Created

Lawmakers and advocates are trying to help Native American youths, who are dying in record numbers.

(Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

(Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

By Jamilah King,

Julian Juan was only 13 when he noticed the scars. A high school freshman on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation, about an hour and a half southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Juan had a tight-knit group of seemingly gregarious friends. But even in southern Arizona’s desert heat, some of those friends wore long-sleeved shirts. Once, a friend’s sleeve rode up high enough to reveal scarred flesh.

“When I asked about it, they would say, ‘Oh, I cut myself doing yard work,’ or ‘I got caught in a fence,’ ” Juan remembered. He persistently pushed them for the truth. “They would say they were having these thoughts and would never fully explain,” he said. He could tell the people closest to him were suffering. And he wanted to do something about it.

Today, Juan is a 23-year-old junior at the University of New Mexico who serves as a youth cabinet member in the National Congress of American Indians, the largest advocacy organization for Native Americans in the country, where he’s worked with a broad coalition of young people to put mental health among tribal elders’ top concerns.

“This issue is really taboo for people in my community,” he said. “They don’t like to talk about it, and it does hurt to talk about, but it’s not going away.”

There’s a growing mental health crisis among Native American youths, and it’s being driven by poverty, violence, and lack of resources. It’s difficult to definitively assess how pervasive the problem is, partly because cultural stigma about mental illness makes it difficult for experts to access many Native American communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 34—a  rate that’s two and a half times higher than the national average for that age group. The crisis appears to be afflicting Native American communities across the country.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, nearly 1,000 suicide attempts were reported between 2004 and 2013. In roughly the same period, the local hospital has apparently treated more than 240 people under age 19 who planned or tried to commit suicide.

The crisis is getting national attention. Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama touted the Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge, a White House–backed initiative with the U.S. Department of the Interior. The initiative has the lofty goal  of “removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and their opportunity to succeed.”

The first lady outlined a “long history of systemic discrimination and abuse,” ranging from 19th-century laws that forcibly removed Native Americans from their land to the early-20th-century boarding schools that meticulously extinguished many tribes’ language and culture. Those injustices set the tone for the dire situation in many of today’s tribal communities. Here are the statistics, according to the American Psychiatric Association: Native Americans are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than the rest of the U.S. population. They’re also nearly twice as likely as to suffer psychological distress, usually in the form of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today,” the first lady said. “And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it—we own this.”

In November 2014, a U.S. Justice Department task force, led by retired Democratic U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, submitted a report to Attorney General Eric Holder outlining several actions that could help address the trauma experienced by Native American children. The task force recommended that a Native American Affairs Office be fully staffed within the White House Domestic Policy Council and more federal money be spent on funding tribal criminal and civil prosecutions.

People working in tribal communities are searching for answers. Sheri Lesansee is program manager of New Mexico’s Native American Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse. She says that understanding the diversity of 22 tribal communities is key to accessing their needs. “The outreach and technical assistance really does have to be tailored to meet the needs of that community,” Lesansee told TakePart, pointing to therapists who are well versed in the concepts of generational trauma and familiar with tribal family dynamics. At the same time, Lesanee said it’s important to focus on the tools tribal communities already possess, such as endurance. “We believe—as Native people—we are strong and resilient, and we emphasize that in prevention efforts,” she said.

Jennifer Nanez, a senior program therapist at the University of New Mexico’s Native American Behavioral Health Program, said overt racism continues to play an important role in kids’ lives. “A lot of times the mainstream perspective is that Natives can’t seem to get out of this rut—and that it’s just a characteristic of an American Indian when it’s not,” Nanez said, before echoing the first lady’s sentiments. “[This] is the result of hundreds of years of oppression, and our kids are dealing with it.”

As proof, Nanez pointed to an instance from January when a group of Native American children attending a minor-league hockey game in South Dakota were accosted by a group of white men in a skybox above their seats. The men allegedly dumped beer and yelled racial slurs at the kids, and the story eventually made headlines. “They were getting drunk, and around the third quarter they were talking crap to our kids and throwing beer down on some of them, including our staff and students…telling our students to go back to the rez,” one chaperone wrote on Facebook.

New Mexico is one of a handful of states that have tried to address the problem through legislation. In 2011, the state legislature passed a bill that, in part, created the Native American Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse, which does outreach and consultation for various tribal communities.

Even Native Americans who don’t live in tribal communities feel the impact of the problem. Christian Redbird, 22, was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has struggled with mental illness while attending community college. Members of her family suffered from undiagnosed mental illness. No one in her family had ever gone to therapy, and instead self-medicated with alcohol, she said. Redbird, the first person in her family to go to college, realized she didn’t have the familial and social networks to help her thrive.

“I work as a server in a restaurant and make more money than anyone in my family does,” she said. “It’s hard for me to know what steps to take when I don’t know what they are.”

Wilma Mankiller added to final ballot to place woman on $20 bill

The late Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected to the position of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Photo from All Things Cherokee

The late Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected to the position of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Photo from All Things Cherokee



A group called Women on 20s has added the late Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected to lead the Cherokee Nation, to its final ballot.

The group hopes to convince President Barack Obama to put a woman on the $20 bill. But of the 15 candidates that were named as a replacement for president Andrew Jackson, none represented Indian Country up until now.

“Because of strong public sentiment that people should have the choice of a Native American to replace Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, was added to the final ballot,” the group wrote on its website.

Ginnie Graham, a columnist for The Tulsa World, brought up Mankiller last month and called her the most suitable person for the bill. “A best statement would be to honor a Native American in place of the president who was called ‘Indian Killer,'” she wrote on March 18.

Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, added her voice in a short piece for The New York Times on March 20. “A descendant of the survivors of that cruel march where some 4,000 peaceful people died, Wilma Mankiller led her people with forceful calm,” the award-winning author stated.

Mankiller now joins Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt‎ and Rosa Parks‎ as the four finalists. Voting is open on the group’s website.

Cladoosby’s State of Indian Nations: ‘We Must Tear Down Barriers’

Vincent SchillingNational Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby held up an Iroquois Wampum belt as a gesture of mutual respect between all Indian Nations during his State of Indian Nations address last week.

Vincent Schilling
National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby held up an Iroquois Wampum belt as a gesture of mutual respect between all Indian Nations during his State of Indian Nations address last week.

Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today


The National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby (chairman of the Swinomish Nation) delivered the State of Indian Nations Address Thursday in Washington, D.C. at the Newseum Knights television studios to a full house of members of Congress, senior Administration officials, and leaders of tribal nations.

The event, which was livestreamed on the NCAI channel, was viewed all over Indian country with a reported 50 or more ‘viewing parties’ all over the country.

In addition to Cladoosby’s call on Congress and the Obama Administration to act to improve tribal economies, invest in education, and support innovation, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) the new chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, delivered the Congressional response.

In his opening, President Cladoosby optimistically remarked on the growth of Indian country but mentioned that in order to foster continued growth we would need to tear down further barriers. “Indian country is leading. Indian country is innovating.  Indian country is growing. And the state of Indian nations grows stronger by the day.”

“Today, I bring a simple message from the tribes of the 21st Century: We must tear down barriers to growth, simplify regulations that are limiting opportunities, and acknowledge that tribes have the capability as governments to oversee our own affairs,” said Cladoosby.

“Congress and the Administration need to find ways to help bring federal agencies out of the 19th Century and into the 21st Century. We need them to be partners for growth and not barriers to growth.”

When Cladoosby remarked on the historic visit by President Obama to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation last year, he mirrored the words of President Obama by extending a personal invitation to Speaker Boehner (R-OH), Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – as well as every Member of Congress to visit Indian country in 2015.

“Make it a goal to come to Indian country this year,” said Cladoosby.

Before outlining the plan and discussing the top level priorities of the NCAI Cladoosby personally remarked about the appreciation he had for his own father and for the contributions of the recently passed activist and leader Billy Frank Jr.

“As Billy put it, he wasn’t a policy guy, he was a getting arrested guy,” to which Cladoosby made the light hearted comment that though Billy was arrested more than 50 times for exercising treaty rights, Cladoosby would not be able to match the arrest record.

Cladoosby stated the priorities for the NCAI in 2015 to include their recent 130 page report The FY 2016 Indian Country Budget Request; Promoting Self-Determination, Modernizing the Trust Relationship, outlining a plan for funding the federal government’s trust responsibility through the budget process.

He also remarked on Congress to advance tribal tax reform to enable tribes to raise tax revenue free from overlapping state taxation, and to create incentives for business and jobs.

Other topics of importance introduced by Cladoosby were asking the federal government to partner with the private sector to increase broad band in Indian country, extending access to capital by recognizing the equal status of tribal governments to access tax exempt bonds and ensuring tribal inclusion in the New Markets Tax Credit Program, energy reform and the passage of Indian energy legislation.

Cladoosby also called on Congress and the Obama Administration to ensure that tribal nations should “have a seat at the policymaking table” by consulting with tribes on all policy issues such as the Keystone Pipeline, renewable energy, health care, and education.

Cladoosby emphasized the importance of Education in Indian country and asked Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and should enact legislation that supports Native language programs.

He also expressed thanks to President Obama for introducing that the first two years of Community College should be free.

“I applaud President Obama’s proposal to make the first two years of tribal and community college free. It will finally make k-14 education a reality,” he said.

During the address Cladoosby also called on the Washington Redskins to change their name stating the #Redskin name to be is “the most offensive name to an American Indian. He also later held up an Iroquois Wampum belt as a gesture of mutual respect between all Indian Nations.

After Cladoosby’s address, Senator Barrasso delivered a congressional response to which he outlined his visions on energy and natural resource development, healthcare, juvenile justice, and tribal self-governance.

“The relationship between the United States and Indian tribes has not always been positive – and has not always served the people of Indian country well… As President Cladoosby stated, ‘we are not where we used to be.’

“My main priority is to help the people of Indian country live better lives. There are two tribes in my home state of Wyoming: the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe. The tribal leaders of these two tribes have stated to me over the years how important good jobs, health care and public safety are to their communities,” Barrasso said.

“Addressing these fundamental needs can contribute significantly to improving the lives of Indian people. As Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, my top priorities are jobs, energy and natural resource development, healthcare, juvenile justice, and tribal self-governance,” he remarked.

“The more progress we can make on these issues, the more progress we can make in helping families.”



How is the National School Lunch Program Working in Indian Country?

Dianne Amiotte-SeidelToas-Pueblo-InterTribal-Buffalo-Council-School-Lunches: This little guy at Taos Pueblo really enjoyed his buffalo dish and ate most of his salad, too. Taos is one of the schools included in the ANA grant awarded to the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

Dianne Amiotte-Seidel
Toas-Pueblo-InterTribal-Buffalo-Council-School-Lunches: This little guy at Taos Pueblo really enjoyed his buffalo dish and ate most of his salad, too. Taos is one of the schools included in the ANA grant awarded to the InterTribal Buffalo Council.


Tanya H. Lee, Indian Country Today Media Network


New guidelines for the National School Lunch Program are aimed at providing the nation’s children with healthy, age-appropriate meals in an effort to reduce childhood obesity and improve the overall well-being of kids, especially poor kids, across the country.

A Matter of National Security

The federal government established the school lunch program in the early 1930s to try to prevent widespread childhood malnutrition during the Depression and to support struggling farmers by having the federal government buy up surplus commodity foods. By 1942, 454 million pounds of surplus food was distributed to 93,000 schools for lunch programs that benefited 6 million children.

But when the U.S. joined World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces needed all of the surplus food U.S. farmers were producing. By April 1944, only 34,064 schools were participating in the school lunch program and the number of children being served had dropped to 5 million.

In the spring of 1945, Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, a former school principal, told the House Agriculture Committee that as many as 40 percent of rejected draftees had been turned away owing to poor diets. “Whether we are going to have war or not, I do think that we have got to have health if we are going to survive,” he testified. Within a year, Congress passed legislation to appropriate money to support the program on a year-by-year basis and by April 1946, the program had expanded to include 45,119 schools and 6.7 million children.

In 1946, Congress established a permanent National School Lunch Program (NSLP). In the legislation, adequate child nutrition was explicitly recognized as a national security priority. The program was administered by the states, which were required to match federal dollars. Nutritional standards were set by the federal government, and states were required to provide free and reduced priced lunches to children who could not pay.


Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis serves 55 American Indian high school students. (Nawayee Center School)
Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis serves 55 American Indian high school students. (Nawayee Center School)


Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Fast-forward half a century. By 2009, the Department of Defense reported that more recruits were being rejected for obesity than for any other medical reason. This was around the same time that First Lady Michelle Obama was taking on childhood obesity as a national health crisis.

Childhood obesity, reports the Centers for Disease Control, has more than doubled in children (to 18 percent) and quadrupled in adolescents (to 21 percent) in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than 30 percent of American children and adolescents were overweight or obese. These children are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem, according to the CDC. By 2030, 50 percent of Americans are predicted to be obese, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the American Indian community, the rate of obesity is even higher. In 2010, the Indian Health Servicereported that 80 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native adults and about 50 percent of AI/AN children were overweight or obese.


Nawayee Center School garden and raised bed. Students built the fence around the garden in the second year. Since then they have built flower boxes, started doing seed saving and added recycling and composting. (Nawayee Center School)
Nawayee Center School garden and raised bed. Students built the fence around the garden in the second year. Since then they have built flower boxes, started doing seed saving and added recycling and composting. (Nawayee Center School)


Obese and overweight children have access to too many cheap calories with too little nutritional value, leading to the paradox of malnourished overweight children. Poor nutrition, often in the form of too much sugar and other simple carbohydrates, can lead to diabetes, which is rife in AI/AN communities.

Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Michelle Obama’s child health initiative included her “Let’s Move!” exercise campaign, the first-ever task force on child obesity and her backing for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which passed Congress with bipartisan support in 2010.

The act set new standards, which went into effect in early 2012, for school lunches. These include reduced calories, reduced sugar and reduced sodium combined with increased fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. In some cases, schools’ inability to prepare nutritionally adequate, attractive, kid-friendly meals under the new guidelines has led them to drop out of the NSLP altogether. Despite the fact that as of September 2013, only 524 out of 100,000 schools participating in the NSLP, or one half of one percent had dropped out, news coverage has been extensive, complete with photos of unappetizing meals, accounts of student protests and a good deal of criticism of Michelle Obama, who as the point person for the healthy school lunch initiative, is an obvious target.


Nawayee Center School students working in the garden. (Nawayee Center School)
Nawayee Center School students working in the garden. (Nawayee Center School)


Poor Children Need School Lunches

But the schools dropping out of the program are mostly schools with few students who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches. The federal government mandates that schools participating in the NSLP provide free lunches for children from families whose incomes are 130 percent of the poverty level or less. That is, if the poverty level for a family of four is $24,000 per year, then children from families of four whose income is under about $31,200 per year are eligible for free lunches. Reduced-price lunches must be provided for children from families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level. So if the poverty level is $24,000 for a family of four, children from families of four earning between $31,200 and $44,400 are eligible for reduced priced lunches. Reduced price lunches may cost no more than $0.40.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 68 percent of AI/AN students are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, compared with only 28 percent of white students. USDA dataindicate that 70 percent of children receiving free lunches through the NSLP are children of color, as are 50 percent of students receiving reduced-price lunches.

The very public criticism of the new guidelines poses a threat to AI/AN and other children of color, as well as poor children in general. If the loudest voices cause the federal government to back down on the nutrition standards, the children who will be most affected are those who rely on school breakfasts, lunches, snacks and summer food programs for a significant portion of their nutrition—that is, poor children, the ones receiving free and reduced-price lunches, as do more than two-thirds of AI/AN children in public and non-profit private schools.


Students at the Nawayee Center School designed and built the garden, and they do all of the planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. The lush garden supplies food for the school lunch program. Students have learned to preserve fruits and vegetables for the winter. (Nawayee Center School)
Students at the Nawayee Center School designed and built the garden, and they do all of the planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. The lush garden supplies food for the school lunch program. Students have learned to preserve fruits and vegetables for the winter. (Nawayee Center School)


Successful School Lunch Programs in Indian Country

Not everyone is having trouble meeting the new guidelines.

Joe Rice (Choctaw), executive director of the Nawayee Center Schoolin Minneapolis, says his school started serving healthier meals to its 55 American Indian high schoolers long before the new guidelines went into effect. “We’re sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Education so we have a licensed food and nutrition service that allows us instead of buying food from the local district to buy through a caterer who serves healthier food in line with our diabetes initiative. The fresh food from our garden and the healthier food from the caterer mean that we’re addressing one of the two modifiable risk factors for diabetes, which is diet. We’re getting away from sugar and saturated fat and more into healthy whole foods.”

And that’s having an impact. The school screens the kids every year and those who have been with the program for a while “typically have better blood glucose levels, and they report exercising and eating more healthy foods throughout the week. We also see healthier BMIs for the kids who have been in the program longer. Overall, we get good health results.”

The garden is a kid-centered endeavor. The students designed and built the garden and decide what crops to grow. The garden, says Rice, is “reconnecting kids to the earth. I remember the first time we had some stuff from the garden, the kids refused to eat it because it came out of the ground.” It also serves as a means of teaching biology, botany, math and language. “We found that gardening could be the starting point for a very rich curriculum and for cultural preservation and revitalization.”

The STAR Schooljust outside Flagstaff, Arizona, serves about 120 Navajo students in grades pre-K through 8. There, too, gardening is a key component of the nutrition program, although until the school can get its gardens and food safety practices certified by the government, garden produce is used only for cooking classes and community events.


Seventh and eighth graders at the STAR School shucking Navajo white corn in the early fall of 2014. The corn was then shaved and stored in the freezer to be used later. (STAR School)
Seventh and eighth graders at the STAR School shucking Navajo white corn in the early fall of 2014. The corn was then shaved and stored in the freezer to be used later. (STAR School)


Louva Montour (Diné) is food services manager. She says the school has had no trouble meeting the new guidelines. STAR School has its own garden and greenhouses, and students also work on a Navajo farm about 20 miles from the school, where they help with planting, watering, weeding and harvesting. “It really helps that they get hands-on experience working with food, from planting, even preparing the soil, composting (Our kids know a lot about composting!), the whole cycle,” says Montour.

Montour gives an example of the value of having kids grow the food they are going to eat: “We’re on our third year now using our salad bar. When we started putting out different types of vegetables, like beets, the students didn’t really know what beets were and they weren’t really trying it. But then they grew some in our greenhouse. Once they harvested them—those things are really big, about half a pound!—kids were saying ‘What is it?’ and ‘I want to eat it.’ They cleaned it and then we just cut it up right there because they wanted to eat it right there. And we let them because that’s the time for them to try it, when they’re willing.”

Beets have become a salad bar favorite, she says, as have other unlikely vegetables such as kale. Even though the school cannot yet use produce from its own gardens or those of local Navajo farmers, they are able to get local and organic produce through their regular food distributor who works with local producers.

Special Circumstances in Indian Country

Dianne Amiotte-Seidel, Oglala Sioux, project director/marketing coordinator for an ANA grant awarded to the InterTribal Buffalo Councilin South Dakota, which is a coalition of 56 tribes committed to reestablishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development.

Amiotte-Seidel has already more than met the grant’s requirement that she introduce bison meat, which is much healthier for kids than beef, into eight school lunch programs, but it hasn’t been easy. “You can’t just put buffalo meat in the schools. You have a lot of different steps to take and each state is different,” she says.


A child at Taos Pueblo school finished her buffalo entree first! This is one of the schools included in the ANA grant awarded to the InterTribal Buffalo Council. (Dianne Amiotte-Seidel)
A child at Taos Pueblo school finished her buffalo entree first! This is one of the schools included in the ANA grant awarded to the InterTribal Buffalo Council. (Dianne Amiotte-Seidel)


In order for a school to serve bison, “a tribe has to have enough buffalo to supply the school for one meal a week or a month, or whatever, and then they have to have a USDA plant nearby. They have to be willing to sell the buffalo meat to the school for the price of beef and they have to be able to have a supplier from a USDA plant take the meat to the school. The meat needs to bear a child nutrition label. The school has to be able to have a supply area big enough store the bison meat they need for the year, since tribes usually only do their harvest once a year.”

Amiotte-Seidel adds, “The biggest obstacle is the requirement to have USDA-certified slaughtering plants, because on the reservations that I’m dealing with, let’s use Lower Brule, for example. Lower Brule is four or five hours away from a certified USDA plant. They have to haul buffalo four to five hours to have USDA certify the meat for the school.”

This is one area where perhaps guidelines should be modified to better fit the unique circumstances in Indian Country and other areas where they present a burden so severe that the NSLP fails to meet its original goal—feeding poor children—as well as it could.



Indian Country Gearing Up for 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference


This coming Wednesday December 3, President Barack Obama will be hosting the sixth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington D.C. In addition to leaders and representatives of the 566 federally recognized tribes who will be attending, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn will join President Obama and other cabinet secretaries during the conference.

According to a U.S. Department of the Interior release, “Secretary Jewell will deliver remarks during the opening ceremony of the 6th annual conference and will join panel discussions on Indian education reform and climate change, along with other stakeholder meetings and briefings.”

Additionally, Connor will participate in discussions on protecting natural and cultural resources and Washburn will join sessions on government-to-government relations, economic development and upholding federal trust and treaty responsibilities.

Each year, the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference has provided tribal leaders the opportunity to interact with President Obama as well as with Secretary Jewell and members of the White House Council on Native American Affairs.

In an Executive Order establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs in June 2013, President Barack Obama made the following assertions:

As we work together to forge a brighter future for all Americans, we cannot ignore a history of mistreatment and destructive policies that have hurt tribal communities. The United States seeks to continue restoring and healing relations with Native Americans and to strengthen its partnership with tribal governments; for our more recent history demonstrates that tribal self-determination – the ability of tribal governments to determine how to build and sustain their own communities – is necessary for successful and prospering communities. We further recognize that restoring tribal lands through appropriate means helps foster tribal self-determination.

This order establishes a national policy to ensure that the Federal Government engages in a true and lasting government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes in a more coordinated and effective manner, including by better carrying out its trust responsibilities. This policy is established as a means of promoting and sustaining prosperous and resilient tribal communities. Greater engagement and meaningful consultation with tribes is of paramount importance in developing any policies affecting tribal nations.

According to the Executive Order, the mission of the White House Council on Native American Affairs is to honor treaties, recognize tribal sovereignty and right to self-government in relation to such matters as promoting sustainable economic development, promoting greater control over health and health disparities, improved access to education and supporting tribal justice systems.

The Council which is chaired by Secretary Jewell has convened four times since 2013 and Secretary Jewell has visited over 20 Native communities. The Obama’s have also made efforts to reach out to Native communities including their historic visit to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation earlier this year.

RELATED: Obama Reaffirms Commitment to Indian Country in Historic Visit

On Wednesday Secretary Jewell will offer her opening remarks at approximately 8:30 a.m. EST with additional panels on Energy and Climate Change at 2 p.m. EST and supporting Native Youth at 2:45 p.m. EST. President Obama is expected to offer closing remarks at the end of the day Wednesday.

This event will be livestreamed at



Largest Settlement a Turning Point in US-Navajo Nation Relations

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (L) puts a blanket on the shoulders of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after a ceremonial signing of a record multi-million-dollar settlement, in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (L) puts a blanket on the shoulders of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after a ceremonial signing of a record multi-million-dollar settlement, in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

By Isabela Cocoli, Voice of America News
WASHINGTON—A record multi-million-dollar settlement between the United States government and the Navajo Nation has been seen as a turning point in relations between the Federal government and the entire Indian nation. It is the largest sum ever paid by the U.S. government to a single Indian tribe.Within the territory of the United States are 562 nations — ethnically-, culturally- and linguistically-diverse Native American tribes recognized by the United States as sovereign governments. The largest is the Navajo Nation, whose territory stretches more than 70,000 square kilometers across three western states.While the tribal governments enforce laws on their territory and license and regulate activities, the federal government holds the vast majority of Indian lands, money and resources in trust for the tribes, and is required to manage them in a way that benefits the tribes and individual Native Americans.

The Navajo Nation sued the federal government in 2006 and sought $900 million in damages for mismanagement of resources and trust accounts since at least 1946.

Significant investment needed

The claims in the case involved essentially three things: one, the Federal government as trustee was responsible for negotiating a contract for the extraction of natural resources for the Navajo Nation’s property; two, the government was responsible for monitoring the performance under the contract to make sure that the Navajo Nation was paid the royalties due; and three, as trustee the United States was obligated to invest the proceeds in a commercially appropriate way.

Andrew Sandler, who represented the Navajo Nation in the suit, said the settlement for $554 million is an equitable deal for both parties. It comes at a time when the Navajo Nation needs significant investment in several areas — from education to housing — and he said it will go a long way toward addressing those needs.

“The Navajo Nation is plagued by an unemployment rate as high as 50 percent. It is in desperate need for educational resources, for infrastructure resources, for roads, for water, and many other things,” said Sandler. “This $500-plus million will go a long, long way to improving the quality of life for the Navajo people.”

The signing ceremony took place late last month in Window Rock, Arizona, which serves as the capital of the Navajo Nation. Navajo official Rick Abasta told VOA that there were compromises on both sides.

“There was a little bit of compromise on the Nation’s part in accepting this $554 million settlement. But I think the bigger picture was to end the litigation against the federal government, because of course that has a cost as well, and move forward with improving the Nation and utilizing these funds,” he said.

Aiding tribal communities

In various public statements, U.S. officials had acknowledged that the Federal government had failed in its obligation as trustee. However, the deal reflects Washington’s commitment to upholding its trust responsibility to Indian Country and to building strong, prosperous and resilient tribal communities.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said the agreement was symbolic of the evolving relationship between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government.

“The $554 million represented in this settlement is more than just the end of a legal battle. It is not just fulfilling the trust responsibility of our trustee, nor is it full compensation for the loss of revenue and the harm caused by the federal government’s actions over decades,” he said. “This settlement marks a turning point in our relationship with the federal government, and I’m hoping to see that before Obama leaves.”

U.S. tribes have filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government. Since early 2012, the government has resolved about 80 of them, amounting to $2.5 billion.

Feds wind up major prosecution of American Indian gang

Federal and tribal officials hail effort to dismantle violent, crime-ridden gang as its 26th and 27th members are sentenced.

By Randy Furst, Star Tribune

Two members of the Native Mob crime gang — one of them its “undisputed leader” — were sentenced to lengthy prison terms Tuesday, as federal authorities wrapped up their crackdown on the American Indian gang that prosecutors said had terrorized reservations and urban communities in Minnesota and other states.

“It’s a lot safer in Indian Country than it was two years ago, now that all the arrests and convictions have been made,” said Gary Frazer, executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe at Cass Lake, on Tuesday. “There seems to be less crime than there was before. It seems like they [the Native Mob] are still around but not as active as they once were.”

The two Native Mob members sentenced on Tuesday by U.S. District Judge John Tunheim were gang leader Wakinyan Wakun McArthur, 36, who received 43 years, and Anthony Cree, 26, called “a soldier” in the gang, who was sentenced to 24 years. Both men are from Cass Lake, Minn.

It brought the number of gang members sent to prison to 27, according to federal officials, and the 28th will be sentenced on Friday in U.S. District Court.

“It was a concerted effort by law enforcement statewide to do whatever is possible to dismantle the gang,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter, who prosecuted the gang with Steven Schleicher. “We recognize that is a near impossible feat, but the aim was to really curtail this gang’s activity and break the gang as much possible.”

Charging the gang members with racketeering, conspiracy, murder, attempted murder, distribution of drugs and other crimes, prosecutors went on a frontal assault unprecedented in tackling crime in Indian Country. “I would characterize it as very successful,” said Winter.

Security was tight Tuesday, with extra security guards and deputy marshals in the courtroom and courthouse lobby.

Prosecutors called McArthur the “undisputed leader of the Native Mob … wielding extraordinary authority and control over Native Mob members.”

They said he ran gang council meetings where crimes were planned and sought to resolve disputes within his own gang, so as to concentrate on “rival gang members, rival drug dealers, informants, police officers and cooperating witnesses.”

In a 2006 letter, he encouraged other gang members to “whack” a rival gang member. Prosecutors said he meant to kill him, while McArthur testified he only intended to assault him.At his trial, Prosecutors were seeking a life term, plus 30 years, but under the 43-year sentence, he could be free after 36 ½ years.

“You have what anyone would agree was a horrible childhood,” Tunheim said. “No one should have had a childhood like that.”

But, Tunheim said, from age 12 on, McArthur was engaged in crime. “I understand you were trying to bring some control over this gang,” Tunheim said, “but as it spiraled out of control you became as culpable as all the rest.”

When invited to speak, McArthur wept as he told Tunheim he wanted a future “however I can get it … There was no excuse,” for what he had done, McArthur said. In the gallery sat members of his family, including his mother, girlfriend and a small child.

His attorney, Fred Goetz, said, “He’ll get out someday and I hope he’ll follow the judge’s words, do his time and get out.”

Also sentenced Tuesday was Anthony Francis Cree, 27, who received 24 years, convicted by a jury for attempted murder and related gun charges in support of racketeering. Prosecutors asked for a life term, citing his role in the 2010 shooting of a suspected snitch, who was shot three times while walking with his daughter. The child “narrowly escaped being struck by the bullets as demonstrated by a .40 caliber bullet hole in the shoulder-strap of her backpack,” prosecutor Winter wrote in his brief. Cree claimed he was unaware that the shooting was going to take place.

His attorney, John Brink, sought an eight-year sentence and Cree pleaded with Tunheim for lenience. “I didn’t hurt nobody, I didn’t shoot nobody, I didn’t kill nobody,” he said. His mother, Donna Bunker, cried as the sentence was announced.

William Earl Morris, 37, another Native Mob member, was scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday, but the sentencing hearings ran so long, it was reset for Friday.Tom Heffelfinger, U.S. attorney under President George W. Bush, hailed the prosecutions. “It is precedent-setting by the Department of Justice,” he said Monday.

Investigations of gang problems began under Bush and continued under Obama, he said. “It is really a fulfillment of a commitment made by both administrations and carried out by the Obama administration.”

Clyde Bellecourt, a founder and national director of the American Indian Movement, said Monday he believed that the prosecutions will have only a “slight” effect in reducing violence, but were welcomed by the families “who have lost loved ones” in gang-related deaths.

He said the Indian community continues to face very high rates of unemployment and severe poverty and homelessness that collectively foster conditions that lead youth to join gangs. Until those problems are solved he said, “the gang situation is going to continue.”

Senate Passes Sens. Moran and Heitkamp Bill to End IRS’ Unfair Treatment of Indian Tribes

Sep 24,2014 – Senate Passes Sens. Moran and Heitkamp Bill to End IRS’ Unfair Treatment of Indian Tribes

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate has unanimously passed legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, to end the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) practice of taxing crucial programs and services that aim to support the health and safety of Native families. The Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week and next heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

“Tribes are sovereign governments that often provide services to their citizens,” Sen. Moran said. “I am pleased Congress has come together to make certain tribal citizens are not unfairly taxed while respecting tribal sovereignty. By clarifying the definition of general welfare programs, this legislation will enhance economic development and the quality of life in Indian Country.”

“As a former attorney general and as a lawyer, I view these Native American treaty rights and trust responsibilities as a contract between the U.S. and our American Indian tribes. Yet for far too long, that contract has been broken. Our legislation takes an important step to repair it,” said Sen. Heitkamp. “This week, the Senate and House took a huge step forward and came together to pass our bipartisan bill which levels the playing field for Native families. It will enable tribal governments to decide which programs best help their communities thrive, just as local and state governments do. For too long, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve heard stories of the IRS questioning a tribal government’s ability to provide school supplies to elementary school children, or levying a tax on a ramp erected for a tribal elder to access her home. This law shows that we respect tribal sovereignty by making sure tribal citizens get the rights they deserve.”

The Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act will fully recognize that Indian tribes – as sovereign nations – are responsible for making certain their government programs and services best fit the needs of their citizens, just as other local governments across the country do. For years, Indian tribes have been taxed for providing health care, education, housing, or legal aid to those in need. Local and state governments throughout the United States frequently offer such services to those who need assistance, but the people receiving help are not taxed by the IRS.

Once signed into law, the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act will:

• Mandate tribal government programs, services and benefits authorized or administered by tribes for tribal citizens, spouses and dependents are excluded from income as a “general welfare exclusion”;
• Clarify that items of cultural significance (e.g., paying someone to lead sacred Indian ceremonies) or cash honoraria provided by tribal governments shall not represent compensation for services and shall be excluded from taxable income;
• Direct the Secretary of Treasury to require education and training of IRS field agents on federal Indian law

Partnerships helping rebuild Spirit Lake child protection programs

By Patrick Springer, The Jamestown Sun

FARGO — Partnerships involving the Spirit Lake Tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs and others are credited with helping to rebuild child protection programs on the reservation.Wednesday will mark the two-year anniversary of the handover of child protection and foster care services from the Spirit Lake Tribe to the BIA.The switch, made at the prodding of the North Dakota congressional delegation, came in the midst of major gaps in the safety net for children on the reservation.Among other problems, Spirit Lake children were being placed in unsafe foster homes, and suspected abuse and neglect cases were not always investigated and followed up.The BIA continues to operate the child protection programs while the tribe delivers most other social services, although the tribe hopes someday to resume full responsibility for social services.“They’re making progress,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who noted staff vacancies still pose challenges. “Getting the right people and getting them trained is the priority.”The BIA has filled a supervisory social worker position but continues to bring in staff from other reservations to run programs. It is contracting with a firm to help maintain services until positions are permanently filled.“The contract will provide some stability there,” said Lawrence Roberts, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior for Indian Affairs, who visited Spirit Lake for 2½ days last week.“These social workers will be starting in a matter of weeks,” he said, referring to the contract workers, who first must clear a background check.Social workers are in demand throughout North Dakota, complicating the search, Roberts said.Meanwhile, the Spirit Lake tribe also is filling social services positions. It recently hired a case manager and is working to fill another case manager position, said Melissa Merrick-Brady.Candidates have been interviewed, and the position should be filled soon, and the tribe’s social services will be fully staffed, she said.“When I came, we had no case managers; we were struggling,” said Merrick-Brady, who became the tribe’s social services director in July after being appointed interim director in March. “The staff was overwhelmed, overworked.”The Department of Interior is providing a grant of almost $800,000 to bolster Spirit Lake’s tribal court and guardianship programs.The grant will pay for two guardians to represent vulnerable children, and a child service and Indian child welfare presenter to appear in court, Roberts said.The training and grants will help social services better coordinate with tribal court and guardians, and help lift some of the burden on social workers, Merrick-Brady said.The collaborative approach was highlighted last week with a symposium at Candeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, when officials laid out plans for improving services at Spirit Lake.“The discussion was extremely productive,” Roberts said. “You had all the relevant players in the room,” including the tribe, BIA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and state and local officials.“We have a lot of work to do, but I think the foundation was laid,” Roberts said.The North Dakota congressional delegation also is pursuing legislative remedies, including more stringent background checks of foster households for American Indian children.Legislation in the House and Senate would apply the same foster care standards in Indian Country that now are required elsewhere. The legislation has passed a House committee, and Hoeven expects Senate approval later this year or early next year.Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has introduced legislation to create a Commission on Native Children. If passed, she said, the bill “would help us tackle many of the challenges we’ve seen on Spirit Lake and go a long way in improving the lives of Native children.”The bill also would provide for a study into issues facing Native children, including high rates of poverty – such as unemployment, child abuse, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse and few economic opportunities – and make recommendations on how to make sure Native children are better taken care of and given the opportunities to thrive.Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., agreed that coordination among service providers at Spirit Lake has improved.“We have seen an improvement in terms of communication,” he said.

Reducing ACEs in Indian Country by Addressing Historic Trauma and Building Capacity

(Part Two of a Four-Part ACEs Series)


Pam James.Photo/Shannon Kissinger

Pam James, co-founder of Native Strategies
Photo/Shannon Kissinger


By Kyle Taylor Lucas, Tulalip News

This is the second story in a series on the intersection of chronic health and addiction issues and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs among American Indians. The series focuses upon contributing factors of high ACE numbers and substance abuse and behavioral and health disparities in American Indians.

The ACEs Study became a reality due to a breakthrough from an unexpected source—an obesity clinic led in 1985 by Dr. Vincent Felitti, chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine, San Diego. Dr. Felitti was shocked when more than fifty percent of his patients dropped out of the study despite their desperate desire to lose weight. His refusal to give up on them led to individual interviews where he learned that a majority had experienced childhood sexual trauma. That led to a 25-year research project by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. The landmark study linked childhood adversity to major chronic illness, social problems, and early death.

According to the CDC, “the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.” The study included more than 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members who in routine physicals provided detailed information about childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction. The ACEs Study links childhood trauma to social and emotional problems as well as chronic adult diseases such as disease, diabetes, depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

Since the ACEs Study, hundreds of published scientific articles, workshops, and conferences have helped practitioners better understand the importance of reducing childhood adversity to overcome myriad social and health issues facing American society. See the ACEs questionnaire, here: Learn more about the ACEs Study here:

The ACEs research is of significant relevance to American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) communities beset with behavioral and physical health issues—disproportionately high as compared to the general population.

Unquestionably, any discussion of social and health disparities in Indian Country must include historic trauma, and the political and economic realities affecting American Indians and tribes. Research into epigenetics subsequent to the original ACEs Study indicates that historic trauma is likely one of the primary contributors to disparate behavioral and physical health issues affecting AIANs. Subsequent stories will more fully explore the physiological brain changes that result from childhood adversity.


Native Strategies – Addressing Historic Trauma in Native Communities

Tribal experts in the area of historic trauma emphasize that while the ACEs Study is important, it is also important to ensure concurrent address of historical trauma on AIANs and tribal communities.

One of those experts is Pam James who is co-founder of Native Strategies, a non-profit organization established with her husband and partner, Gordon James, in 2009. Pam is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and Gordon is a Skokomish Tribal member. The two have been consulting on historic trauma and Native wellness in tribal communities for the past thirty years. Pam earned a B.A. Degree in Psychology and Native American Studies from The Evergreen State College and a BHA in community health from the University of Washington.

“Until we established our non-profit, we did freelance consulting. We worked with the Native Wellness organization, sought grant funding, and wrote a wellness book. Then we used our book to write a curriculum that we’ve applied in our work,” said James.

The non-profit allows better access to funding and resources to further their work empowering tribal people and communities. “We are able to provide training and technical assistance absent tribal politics,” said James who noted they are also free to be creative in designing a broad array of programs, training, services, and technical assistance. “We’ve helped several organizations start their own non-profits. We do a lot of grant writing. We do workshops around historical trauma, parenting, healthy relationships, and government-to-government training. We also do planning and program evaluations and help organizations get into compliance.”

James said one of the most sensitive and impactful of their workshops is healthy workplace training. “We look at it holistically, at interpersonal relationships, family relationships, and relationships to all things–earth and to all creation.” She asks, “How do you create a healthy workplace? You can’t do that until you begin to address the historic trauma.” In their work, James said they help to rewire the brain for positive impact, noting, “Behavior is just a habit. We have to change the habit. I do it from a cultural perspective and I blend in humor.”

However, James is mindful of her approach. She said, “every workshop, every training I do, people get triggered,” so she is careful with her audience. They try to unlearn negative behaviors. In the communities, she finds, “Though it doesn’t work, people do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.” She said their training “takes people back to that value system that our people always had, treating people with honor and respect. We have a roadmap that asks, “What do you want in your life, spiritually, emotionally, and how do you start creating the life you want?”” She said repetitiveness in practice and training is critical and noted the impossibility of creating change in a workshop or two.

Asked whether training the trainer is part of their work, James replied that it was and that it is essential. “We help train the trainer for tribes so that they can teach it themselves. First, we do community training, then a three-day “train the trainer” workshop, and then we come back in 3-6 months to assist them with their first training. It’s very sensitive. What do you do when someone gets triggered? We help to prepare them.”

About their generational trauma and wellness work, James added, “In our training, we’re opening awareness. The second step is intervention. How do we implement and make change? The third step is continuing education and putting it into practice. It is developing new ways of coping, replacing behaviors, and doing it on a consistent basis. It’s a theory and it’s ongoing.”

However, she said, “Most of our tribal communities are in crisis mode by the time they call. I urge them to call us before that.” She noted three stages—prevention, emergent, and intervention. “I urge them to look at those areas and ask, “How do we get to the place where we’re doing prevention rather than intervention?” Tribes have to start looking at this type of training as ongoing. Just like computer classes. This is not a one-time shot.”

In their training, James said they often support eight-week parenting classes. However, she recommends to clients, “Before we do that, let’s do a healthy relationship class!” Again, she says it is a matter of steps, mentally, emotionally, and educationally. “First of all, we start with the parents to help them learn how to interact with each other. We are in a society that wants a quick fix, but there is no quick fix. It’s about awareness, learning new skills and behaviors, and then we have to practice, practice, practice. It’s not about the end result it’s the journey.”

James said she attended one of Laura Porter’s workshops on ACEs and thought, “Wow, this would have been great to know years ago! Oh my gosh, I wish we had been involved.” To date, only a few tribes have engaged with the state’s research work around the CDC ACEs Study and measurements. James believes “ACEs is one piece of the puzzle, one piece of the process for Native people.” She said her non-profit is looking at funding opportunities to develop a curricula based on their 30 years of work. They plan to work with an advisory team of Native people and the curricula will be designed for implementation by tribal communities, and culturally appropriate to their needs.

Specific to generational historic trauma, James believes “The ACEs information doesn’t go far enough. The State is a very good example of a sense of guilt. They don’t really want to acknowledge it. It’s painful to acknowledge what was done to Native people. There is a lot of effort being made to change it, but it’s still there.”


ACEs and Physiological Rewiring of the Developing Brain

Asked about her knowledge of current scientific research on the relationship of childhood adversity and epigenetics—the study of physiological brain changes and potential application to the study of historic trauma in Native communities, James becomes animated. She noted a weeklong workshop she attended with Dr. Bruce Perry, the author of “The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog” and “Born for Love.” She said, “What an amazing man. His focus has been trauma.” She said he validated the tribal community’s long assertions of unresolved multigenerational trauma, and that the brain is actually hard-wired for empathy, but things happen to the brain when babies and children experience adversity and trauma.

James discussed the work of Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl who of the University of Washington, whose trainings she has attended. She co-authored the book, “The Scientist in the Crib.”

At one workshop, Dr. Kuhl presented studies of two children’s brains from newborn to age three–one child from a happy home and the other from a neglected home. They conducted CAT scans at ages 3, 6, and 9 months. At the beginning, their brains were identical, but by the time they were nine months old, the brain of the neglected child was visibly shrinking. Considered in the context of social and health disparities and life chances for AIANs, this is quite remarkable. The above study demonstrated that disparities begin in the crib, but as the ACEs Study and ensuing research has shown, it is intergenerational, and even in the womb. If the mother and father have high ACE scores based upon their own childhood adversity, the children are also likely to have high ACE scores unless there is intervention.

James is optimistic. She said that although the research shows adversity is generational, “It also validates that we can reverse it. It doesn’t have to be permanent. Some of it might be, but we can reverse much of it. Our ancestors adapted. We learned how to adapt for our environment; it is human nature to survive. Those are the pieces that are not happening in our community.”


Family and Community Roles and Traditions

Lamenting the negative impacts of technology, James said, “Televisions, iPads, Xboxes are the babysitters of today. They are impacting how our children develop, how their brains develop. Technology has disconnected us as people.” She grew up in Inchelium where they did not have a telephone until 1978. “All the grandmothers and everyone would come together, bring old clothes, and make quilts. They lined them with old army blankets. There was a spiritual part of that. Every newborn received a quilt. We’re not doing those kinds of activities that inspire and help our children to learn about community.” James is concerned that technology today limits human contact important to a sense of being part of something greater and of the responsibility accompanying it.

Another significant hurdle is overcoming the lateral violence that is a symptom of ACEs. James said that in her counseling work, she discovered, “We get addicted to pity, to negativity, and we become chaos junkies.” She believes people have forgotten about how just to be. “The Vision Quest taught us how to be alone, to be one with nature, to be alone physically and mentally. It taught us how to control our mind, our spirit, and our bodies.” She thinks some of those teachings can be built into the curricula to teach people how to, again, “sit quietly with themselves, to sit and listen.”


Applying the ACEs Study and Measurements to Native Wellness

James’ family of origin was not unlike many Native homes. She and her eight brothers and sisters grew up with domestic violence, alcoholism, and physical and sexual abuse. She began doing this work in 1986 when the Seattle Indian Health Board received a federal grant to put together a curriculum. She was among 40 chosen from different tribes to participate in a two-week intensive training that was life changing for her. “They stripped us spiritually and emotionally. We had to address our own trauma. We could not help others until we worked on ourselves and healed ourselves. There was no college that could give me what that training did!”

In the training, Jane Middelton-Moz, an internationally known speaker and author with decades of experience in childhood trauma and community intervention took part in the training. She addressed the pain of adult children of alcoholics (ACoA), a topic about which she has written extensively. “It was basically an ACE’s study done with Native people and it was all about the trauma.” James recounted Middleton-Moz’s journey to Germany where she worked with holocaust survivors and her later study of American Indian tribes. She discovered that they had developed the same trauma characteristics. “She was a psychotherapist and I felt blessed to have the opportunity to be mentored by her.” James noted that their work has essentially taken Middleton-Moz’s study of ACoA and applied it to multi-generational trauma among tribal communities.

Asked how the new research on childhood adversity can help Native communities, James said, “The ACEs Study is good in that it gives us the validation and affirms what we’ve known. This is what has been happening in our communities for hundreds of years.” She noted the mental and physical health issues evidenced by high juvenile suicide rates, 638 percent higher incidence of alcoholism than the general population, addiction, and disparate social, and health issues in Indian Country are all traceable to generational trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

However, James believes the survey mechanisms must be appropriate. She said, “The reality is that a lot of times when so-called experts go in and do the surveys, the tribal members don’t tell the whole truth.” Tribal communities are tight-knit and everyone knows everyone and their business. It may be that a special survey mechanism is necessary for tribal communities. James said, “It will be difficult to get reliable data if the members don’t trust enough to give accurate information, to tell the whole truth.”

Those involved in tribal wellness have said for years, and James echoes this, that it is important to put the disparate social and health issues in Indian Country into context. “We have people who have suffered such trauma in their lifetimes, in their parents, and grandparent’s lives!” said James.

People forget that generations of American Indians experienced breaks in the family unit caused by the government’s forcible removal of children placed into Indian boarding schools. Indian children were deprived of parental nurturing; many were physically and sexually abused. They did not learn how to parent and nurture their children, but at adulthood, they were returned to the reservation to start their own families and the same cycle was repeated.

In their workshops, James stresses traditions. “We’ve adopted behaviors that were not ours traditionally. Instead, we go back to the medicine wheel, it teaches you everything—body and mind. When you look at what is happening with our communities, we’ve lost touch with all of the ceremonies, languages, and the practices that kept us resilient. There is a veneer of positivity, but underneath there’s all this pain.”

Clearly passionate about her work, James makes the call, “Someone has to be the voice of our children, someone has to stand up and take the arrows, stand up and say this is not what our ancestors wanted. I really believe this is the core work if we can get it into our communities, we’re going to change, and it has to take place for our survival.”


Integration of ACEs Research in Tribal Family Services and Other Programs

As Sherry Guzman, Mental Health Manager in the Tulalip Family Services Department said, about the ACEs Study, “Most tribes were very leery at first, but I went forward with it because I saw the value of it. It enabled me to see the difference in average of Washington State versus Tulalip Tribes. I like the ACEs model because it gives a base to compare something to.” She, too, felt the ACEs measurements validated what she and others in Indian Country have advocated—that unresolved generational trauma is a significant contributor to social and health disparities among tribes.

Guzman’s department has scheduled an all-staff meeting focused upon the ACEs Study and Tulalip’s work with the statewide network a few years ago. They hope to re-establish a dialogue and consider the future direction the Tribe may take in applying the ACEs Study and measurements in its programs.

In communities utilizing the ACEs measurement across the nation, the subsequent application of community resilience building has consistently demonstrated success in lowering of ACE scores in community members, which in turn helps build stronger and more resilient communities. Imagine the possibilities if communities invested in families on the front end, supporting pre-natal work, pre-school and all day kindergarten, rather than building juvenile detention centers and adult prisons.

At least twenty-one states have communities actively engaged in ACEs work.

Future stories in this series look at that work and new developments in ACEs research, including neurobiology, epigenetics, and the developing brain. Also featured will be tribal organizations applying similar intervention and measurements to address generational trauma. Because ACEs extend beyond the nuclear family to educational and child welfare policies, and to racism in social, police, courts, and other institutions controlling the lives of Indians, those intersections are reviewed along with the economics. Finally, the series will explore the potential of ACEs measurement in prevention and for building resiliency for American Indian people and tribes.

Kyle Taylor Lucas is a freelance journalist and speaker. She is a member of The Tulalip Tribes and can be reached at / Linkedin: / 360.259.0535 cell