Sunday, November 09, 2014

From what trauma do I suffer, I wonder

A Mennonite Path through Cree Territory
We were about 20 of us gathered in the Mennonite Central Committee Africa Room. We were focused on inter-generational trauma, specifically as it relates to Mennonite history and to Indigenous Canadians' stories. In short, many of us who were born into Mennonite faith and culture have a history that includes martyrdom in the 16th and 17th centuries and—for some of us—the brutality of the Stalinist purges. The trauma endured by our Indigenous neighbours through their displacement by settlement and the more recent cultural genocide represented by the residential school system was a reality more immediate to most of us who experienced the Truth and Reconciliation process.

Trauma. We didn't used to use that word. Now we hear regularly about the effects of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) in returning soldiers of recent wars and neurological research has begun to unravel why it is that we can't simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps after severe trauma, why we don't “just get over it.” 

That trauma echoes down through generations is a possibility included in our discussions, a possibility that drew some skepticism from participants.This is not surprising; having been schooled in the idea that it's our genes that determine the characteristics with which we begin life, it's hard for us to imagine that sorrow or joy, anger or patience, for instance, could attach to biological, genetic structures. The burgeoning study of “epigenetics” hints at the possibility, though, that attributes (including, possibly, the personality changes brought on by trauma) can be passed down biologically outside the mechanisms of genetics. (Hence epigenetics, outside genetics.)

We know that persons abused by parents are more likely to behave harshly with their kids than persons who were raised with love and patience. Where trauma changes behaviour, in other words, changed behaviour is inevitably modeled for next generations.

We've been told by our Indigenous brothers and sisters that the residential school system and the trauma it induced has had inter-generational consequences. An elder said to me once that the cultural folkways that governed child-rearing were destroyed by the simple fact that children were taken away from home at a young age. Denied the privilege of raising children for long stretches and over generations fundamentally wiped out the ability to parent with conviction and integrity. It's not hard to see, if his assessment is correct, how this phenomenon coupled with the trauma of separation could have monumental, devastating cultural consequences.

But as Harley Eagle said to us in the sessions (if not in these exact words), if we want to be contributors to reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours, we must begin by healing ourselves. So I'm left wondering: how much of my outlook and behaviour was given its direction in the life of my ancestors? Was my father moody and given to occasional fits of anger because his grandfather was frustrated with his lot on a poor farm in Novovitebsk? Would I be more patient if my grandparents hadn't gone through the trauma of relocation to a cold, bare, dry prairie? From what inherited malignancies do you and I need healing? Or is it all balderdash?

What is clear is that the land on which I live—Treaty 6 territory—was once Cree life space, likely assumed by them to be an eternal land legacy. In Treaty 6, the Cree agreed with the Canadian government to share the space and the said Canadian government offered a piece of it to my ancestors, a piece for which we've been grateful ever since—ironically to the Canadian government, not to the Cree. There's a way of our behaving as settlers that emanates from historical roots, that includes the possibilities of civilization vs heathendom, of manifest destiny, of obedience to authority as a way to survive, of emotional and cultural insularity as bulwarks against whatever threats may come, of stubborn silence as a virtue: die Stille im Lande.

There's much in us Mennonites that needs healing. The road to a future of equality and fraternity with out neighbours will be paved by an acknowledgement that it is us, not they, with whose healing we ought logically concern ourselves first.

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