Posted by on Mar 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Vantage Point on Victimhood and Historical Trauma – At Least for Today

By: Dani Daugherty

Full disclosure here: Charles “Chuck” Trimble is my grandfather. His older sister, Bessie, is my mother’s mother and she was one of the good people in my life that played a key role in literally saving my life, but I digress. My grandfather, Chuck, writes a column you see regularly in the media and he certainly has detractors and advocates. One area he gives a lot of column space to is rallying against victimhood– or the tendency by some Indians to examine their actual or perceived personal and generational trauma, or historical grief, to the point where it inhibits forward progress. I know my grandfather would be very happy to know I don’t always agree with everything he writes. I don’t always read every column of his, but I try to when I see them. I hadn’t seen one of his articles, but did see the rebuttal article my friend, Chase Iron Eyes, posted on his Facebook Monday night. The rebuttal article was written by a woman named Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan. The basis of the debate between Gabrielle and Chuck is that Gabrielle relates her mother’s account of her terrible boarding school experience, which has become part of a book, entitled “Beloved Child,” but that this account is directly opposed by Gabrielle’s aunt, who accompanied Gabrielle’s mother to that same boarding school. Chuck related the aunt’s email version of this boarding school experience in an article where he speculates, via an imaginary conversation, that the reason a question and answer session was cancelled at one of the book readings for “Beloved Child” was because one of the presenters, Gabrielle, saw that her aunt was in the crowd waiting to confront her with her version of the truth. Chuck’s imaginary conversation journalism method would not have been the way I would have attempted to convey his message- that he believes the aunt more than he believes the niece. The reason I wouldn’t have used this method is because it only considers the aunt’s view of the world as the correct view.

Being a modern Indian, I occasionally watch movies on DVD and happened to watch a movie entitled “Vantage Point.” The basic premise of the movie is an assassination attempt viewed vastly differently from people with eight different perspectives. Vantage points on “victimhood, historical grief, anti-victimhood, thriving v. surviving,” are exactly the same- your view depends literally on your vantage point; and your attitude, and your life experiences, and where you are on your personal journey as an Indian person. Do some people lie/exaggerate/possess false memories? Absolutely, but I tend to believe the significant majority of trauma stories are either the absolute truth, or at a minimum, the truth to the narrator from their vantage point.

Some people don’t believe in historical or generational trauma; I’d have to say I disagree with those people. We certainly cannot deny how it accumulates, generation after generation, from the loss of our traditional life as reservation life became our reality, to generations of boarding school attendees (including both my parents), to alcoholism, to sexual abuse, to domestic violence, which translates into the dysfunctional parenting, families, and relationships we personally experience and see around us.

An accidental family tree research discovery led to a personal epiphany regarding historical trauma when I was in my early 20s. My lovely grandmother Bessie was still alive and I went to visit her with some family tree research questions. I was reviewing a series of old Indian census records and noticed that shortly after her mother’s mother passed away, the records showed that her mother went to live with her grandmother while her father remarried and had other children. When her mother became a teenager, she moved back in with her father and stepmother, even though her grandmother was still living. I asked her if she knew why her mother did not live with her own father for a few years. My grandmother told me that she had been told that the father’s new wife did not want a reminder of the first wife and so that “reminder” was sent away until she was old enough to help care for her stepsiblings.

As I went home, I started to feel terrible thinking how all of these families were first affected by this timeframe in history itself, where the buffalo were gone and dependence was setting in. Then, in the midst of this terrible time, my poor great-grandmother had her family and parenting disrupted by death, ultimately sent her children to boarding school, including Chuck and Bessie, followed by Bessie sending her children to boarding school, including my mother. Generations of Indian parenting and families, interrupted and distorted. I now have to think, given the debate that started this train of thought- how far off from outright kidnapping was many of our ancestors’ actual or perceived complacency with the boarding school process of training children? I suppose it depends on your vantage point.

I must admit my next view on this family history was to conclude that each generation could blame its failings on the generation before and throw colonial oppressors into the mix as well. It was suddenly crystal clear to me how I grew up in an environment of alcohol and sexual abuse. This was why my drinking had so often been out of control, or how I could willingly choose an abuser as a life partner. Yet the longer I thought about it, the more generational blaming seemed like nonsense, nonsense which would have no real impact on making my life and the life of my oldest daughter better.

Now, with almost 23 years of sobriety under my belt and a much more stable personal and professional life, I occasionally take the time to listen much more objectively to the whole historical trauma conversation and often learn new things. Historical trauma is as much a part of me as my blood and soul. I can even review my direct and actual trauma and see and hear and smell triggers without being devastated any longer. I’m usually in a pretty good place. The view is pretty good here. I’m not here for any reason other than dumb luck in securing a brilliant woman named Elsie Meeks as a mentor who simultaneously made it possible for me to learn invaluable life lessons as part of in-patient codependency treatment a few years after I had stopped drinking, in having my recently sober parents help me with my oldest daughter and my livelihood in general as I started my career and finished my degree at our tribal college, and in being lucky enough to have a grandmother , who I mentioned previously, helped save my life by making me read early and read often.

My beautiful sister, Leslie, 49, died this past fall having spent a good portion of her adult life drunk because she struggled differently than I did with the combination of our shared historical and actual traumas. Leslie, however, experienced a trauma that I did not. As she began to act out her childhood trauma as a teenager, my parents did what my mother’s ancestors had done for generations– they sent Leslie to boarding school. Following her death, I read some of her writings about this time in her life. Ever full of surprises, she wrote permissions only to me on the inside cover of a number of her journals. Like Gabrielle, I am here to tell her story– my sister was harmed by boarding school.

Leslie would slip into victimhood frequently and she would be the first to admit that to you. She had plenty of good reasons to wallow in victimhood, but she also knew it was very unproductive. That is the real point here. Some people are in a good place to have historical trauma conversations and some people wallow in them- using trauma as a subconscious or actual crutch. We all know people like this. My usual personal theory? I tend not to find a lot of value in dwelling on trauma very long. One of my favorite quotes in this regard is, “The very remembrance of my former misfortune proves a new one to me.” My sister took this quote to her AA group shortly before she died and was finding great joy in learning not to wallow. At some point, I am certain she would have been able to tolerate a closer look at all of her trauma without excruciating emotional pain; but she wasn’t quite to that vantage point yet.

My sister’s recent death brought me face-to-face with trauma once again, and not just the trauma of losing a sibling unexpectedly. As I wrote this article, I went back and looked at a letter I wrote in the days following her death, thanking her AA family in Minneapolis for giving Leslie what I viewed to be some of the happiest couple of years of her adult life, despite having to deal with some of the ongoing fallout from her previous challenges with alcoholism. In the letter, I described my sister who, for a time, until her own trauma spun her out of my world, was “my shelter from the storm of alcoholism that tore at our hearts and childhood.” I found myself lamenting time lost to her alcoholism, time lost to the possessive isolation of our various abusive life partners, and time lost because of our dysfunctional childhood. For a number of months, my ship was foundering back in that storm of trauma, letting it tear at me again.

One of my grandmother’s favorite poems is fairly similar to the general theme of Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust survival writings mentioned in some of my grandfather’s recent articles on the topic of victimhood. The poem “Invictus,” much more well-known now because of the recent movie of the same name, talks similarly about perseverance through trauma. Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for almost three decades for his opposition to racial segregation and oppression in Africa, used this poem to motivate himself and his fellow prisoners to endure despite the seeming hopelessness of their situation. Ironically, invictus, is a Latin word, Latin being the epitome of the Indian Catholic boarding school experience, meaning “unconquered.” The poem, by William Ernest Henley, is as follows:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

This favorite poem of my grandmother’s, and my sister Leslie’s favorite poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou, both speak of never letting anything bow your head. I love the future and opportunity just waiting for the best efforts of a trauma-strengthened, unbowed, and unconquered people. I believe our best time and energy is spent looking at the view from this vantage point versus repeated scrutiny of trauma. I might have written a drastically different article from my vantage point three months ago, but I am no longer foundering; no longer creating new trauma from the “remembrance of my former misfortune.” This is my view once again as the master of my fate and captain of my soul. I can only hope to live my life in a way that gives others the opportunity to see the lovely view from this vantage point.