To Heal Generational Native Trauma, Start By Listening

To Heal Generational Native Trauma, Start By Listening

Tribal Nations existed long before the United States, and throughout this country’s formation, our ancestors have persevered through inconceivable violence and oppression designed to eradicate us. The Native peoples alive today are here because our grandparents survived. Their strength and resilience have been passed down in our DNA, generation after generation, but like a double-edged sword, so too has their pain and trauma.

One of the first things I was taught when I was pregnant with my daughter is that I’m already carrying my grandchildren. It’s an incredibly beautiful and stressful realization—the way our lives, the good and the bad, live on through generations.

In my journey of understanding and unpacking my own generational trauma, I often think about my grandfather and the struggle he endured in his life. My grandfather was born in 1917 during a critical time for Pawnee Nation and Native peoples—according to historians, early in the 18th century, more than 60,000 Pawnees inhabited our traditional homelands in Nebraska and Kansas. In 1875, our people were removed from Nebraska and sent to Oklahoma. By 1900, disease, war, genocidal policies and the trauma of removal left only hundreds of our Pawnee to carry on our language, culture, and history. The trauma of that alone is unimaginable, but then as part of federal policy, hundreds of thousands of Native children, including my grandfather, were taken away from their homes, families, and communities to be “culturally assimilated” at over 400 boarding schools operated by the United States government and Christian churches. At these schools, Native children were forbidden from speaking their own language, and their identities and beliefs were suppressed. They experienced physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and inhumane conditions, and many of them never came home.


Like so many survivors of Native boarding schools, my grandfather didn’t talk much about it.

Hearing the powerful testimonies from the survivors of Native boarding schools at Secretary Deb Haaland’s Road to Healing listening tour is shedding a light on one of the darkest histories of this country and in doing so, has also created space for healing. For many of these elders, this is the first time they’re talking about their experiences. I had the privilege of speaking with some of these survivors for IllumiNative’s new podcast, American Genocide: The Crimes of Native American Boarding Schools, and their courage in sharing their stories is bringing mainstream attention to this issue for the first time. They’re also helping generations of Native people heal from the hurt and violence of these boarding schools and from having family members who refused to speak about it, like my grandfather. This is unmetabolized trauma that, for many, is now being processed for the first time.

Generational trauma is complex and deeply personal, often manifesting as depression or anxiety. It’s the daily microaggressions and racism towards Native people in contemporary society. It’s the constant fighting that we have to do to make sure that our rights are protected and our culture can flourish. It’s the way the government and judicial system continue to come after our people and our land. This month, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act and protect Tribal sovereignty with their decision in Haaland v. Brackeen. ICWA provides Native children a connection to the people and places they come from while protecting their identity, familial network, and sense of belonging. While this is a major victory for Tribal nations, for many of us this case felt like déjà vu. First, they forced our children into boarding schools in an attempt to eradicate our culture, and now, once again, they tried to take our children out of our communities.

For me, healing is teaching my daughter to be a warrior woman. To organize and fight for systemic change, to be bold and unapologetic.”

These injustices fuel and inspire our work at IllumiNative. The practice of activism is both a labor of love for our people and a necessity to create the change we want to see for current and future generations of Native peoples. It can be hard, grueling, and incredibly rewarding work. Growing up, I learned from my family, Elders, and leaders all around me that work is medicine, just like family, humor, and culture. We use these medicines to heal, because at the end of the day, all we have is connection.

I’ll never forget the moment when Deb Haaland was confirmed as secretary of the Interior in 2021. The moment that 51st vote came in, it felt like our world opened up with potential. It’s because of Secretary Haaland that I can tell my daughter to dream bigger, to not hold herself back from possibilities or be afraid to be the first Native person to do something. Healing looks different for everyone. For me, healing is teaching my daughter to be a warrior woman. To organize and fight for systemic change, to be bold and unapologetic.

For the first time in history, we have a Native woman in the Cabinet, the highest number of Native peoples elected to office, the most Native representation in TV and film. We are still fighting every day, but these are all healing moments that allow Native peoples to reclaim and repurpose the space where trauma lives and fill it with joy.

You can listen to the full podcast here.

Headshot of Crystal Echo Hawk

Founder and Executive Director of IllumiNative

Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) is the founder and executive director of IllumiNative, the first and only national Native-led social and racial justice organization dedicated to building power for Native peoples to advance justice, equity, and self-determination. Under Crystal’s leadership, IllumiNative has been instrumental in changing the narrative of—and advancing equity, dignity and justice for—Native communities, working in partnership with Native leaders and allies to create new possibilities for Native representation, building power, and creating radical opportunities for change. Crystal was honored alongside 16 women activists for their work and contributions by Lizzo at the People’s Choice Awards in December 2022, featured in Variety’s 2022 Inclusion Impact Report, and was named one of People’s Women Changing the World in 2021.

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