An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Kateri Coyhis and Holly Echo-Hawk discuss intergenerational tribal experiences of trauma, recovery, COVID-19, and healing with host Livia Davis.
February 22, 2021
Livia Davis, Host: [00:05] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Livia Davis. Our topic today is resilience, overcoming trauma, and intergenerational healing in tribal communities. My guests are Holly Echo-Hawk, she’s calling in from Washington State, and Kateri Coyhis who is calling in from Colorado. Holly is a former tribal and mainstream behavioral health director with over 30 years of experience in the administration of licensed and accredited mental health and substance use treatment services. Holly, thank you so much for joining us today.
Holly Echo-Hawk, Guest: [00:44] Happy to be with you, Livia.
Livia: [00:45] Kateri is the executive director of White Bison and the Wellbriety Training Institute. Kateri, thank you for joining us today.
Kateri Cohyis, Guest: [00:54] Hello… [self-introduction in Mohican language]. My name is Kateri Coyhis. I’m from the Mohican Nation. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to join you today.
Livia: [1:08] Thank you both. To get us started today, Holly, I wondering if you could help our listeners better understand the impact of COVID-19?
Holly: [1:17] Well, yes, Tribal people have been very heavily impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic and according to the Centers for Disease Control, American Indian and Alaska Native people are five times more likely than White people to be hospitalized due to COVID-19. So they are much more at risk than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. You know, there’s many reasons why Tribal people are particularly susceptible, and that includes health inequities, disproportionate high rates of pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and obesity, and all of that puts Tribal people at more risk of severe illness.
Holly: [2:06] The other factor is they also often live in multi-generational homes, sometimes smaller homes with large families. So social distancing is almost impossible and access to healthcare, quality healthcare, is also an issue. It’s pretty well known that healthcare services for American Indian and Alaska Native people have been chronically underfunded, chronically under-resourced for a very long time. So all of those factors together have resulted in Tribal people being at much more risk of COVID-19 than other populations.
Livia: [2:45] Thank you, Holly. To help our listeners just better understand some of the context and the impact of COVID-19, I just wonder if you, Kateri, can talk a little bit more about grief. I know that you and I had talked in the past about grief being one of the results of COVID-19 as well. And I was hoping you could share that with our listeners.
Kateri: [3:10] I think that when the pandemic first started, what we were looking at is facing what we referred to as anticipatory grief. What that is, is it basically refers to a feeling of grief occurring before an impending loss. It could be an impending loss due to the death of someone close, maybe they have an illness, maybe they have cancer or whatever that may be, but with the pandemic coming down, and I think that there was a realization in our communities that not everybody would make it through. And so we were anticipating that there could be loved ones that we were going to lose. And so we were facing death in our communities, and we were experiencing this anticipatory grief. I think that at the beginning of this and talking to some elders, what they did is they shared that this happened to our ancestors with other historical pandemics like smallpox and even things like dramatic events, like the Trail of Tears, the long walk, or the hunting of our Native people in the state of California.
Kateri: [4:19] And so what happens is that this kind of ties into the intergenerational trauma that we experienced that’s passed down through the DNA. And so in a way, this anticipatory grief, because we carry our ancestors in our DNA and inside of us, it was sort of almost like re-traumatization too. And so it’s like, what do you do if you experience a grief before the grief? Right? And so once it all started to come into our Native communities, and we started to lose loved ones, then that was a different kind of grief. And so we were grieving the loss of them. And what we started noticing is there was a grief of…. kind of normalcy I would call it, and being able to gather for ceremony or have family gatherings, or even for people that were in recovery, an inability to go to their recovery fellowships.
Kateri: [5:22] And so there was grief all over because we had to isolate, and we couldn’t visit with our loved ones as much as we would have liked. So what we started to notice is that there was an increase in things like substance use, suicide, overdoses, family violence. And so these were the things that started to pop up, and normally what we would do is we would gather for ceremony, or we would gather with our loved ones if there was a funeral or things like that and that became something that we could not do without putting others at risk. And so there were definitely layers of grief that have been tied to the pandemic.
Holly: [6:05] Kateri, I’m really glad that you brought up the topic of anticipatory grief, and it also showed the strategic brilliance of tribes. I know that my tribe and many others, knowing that the Coronavirus was likely to impact tribal communities, some tribes prioritized who would receive the vaccine first. And in my tribe and other tribes, they prioritize the traditional healers, the native speakers, the people who hold our ceremonies, our dances. After first responders, the next group was the traditional people in our tribes because we knew that they needed to be protected so that we didn’t lose the culture in ceremonies that we have, that all tribes have in their particular tribes. So I was very happy when I learned that several tribes took that immediate action to protect ourselves and protect those that are most important to our ongoing beliefs in our ongoing culture.
Livia: [7:19] Well, thank you both. I think the picture that you paint of the impact of COVID is just such an important thing for people to realize, is an important picture to share in order to also talk about what you’re touching on Holly, which is this incredible need of strength and resilience. And before we move to that in more detail, I’m wondering if there is anything additional you want our listeners to know about the context of trauma or historical trauma experienced by Native people?
Holly: [7:55] I think one part about historical trauma and ongoing trauma, and then you add the Coronavirus pandemic on top of that, is the continuing impact of repeated trauma and stress and anxiety and fear on everyone’s physical and emotional health. And I totally believe that Indigenous people are brilliant, and they have long known how to survive in the worst of times. And that’s what’s happening now. You see them draw on their coping skills, and they recognize that the repeatedness of trauma is happening again. And sometimes when all the different traumas pile up on top of each other, it’s a very heavy weight. And when people experience that much trauma and stress and fear, sometimes those life circumstances exceed their natural capacity to cope. So even the most resilient can feel overwhelmed by certain life circumstances. And that’s where we’re at now, but there’s hope.
Livia: [9:09] Yeah, that is an incredibly important observation. Both of the just sheer overwhelming feeling of Tribal members must feel, and also that there’s hope. Kateri, I’m wondering if you could share with our listeners your thoughts around intergenerational healing and things that tribal members are doing now. They’re actively doing and what you might be able to do in the future.
Kateri: [9:34] You know what we’re doing, I think in many different fields and areas as we’re looking at developing cycle of intergenerational healing instead. So what that means is it’s a combination of immense healing, community training, and a return back to the cultural ways of our people. So we bring back culture, we bring back our language, we bring back people’s health, emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually. We work on rebuilding the family structure. So some of the pathways to healing from intergenerational trauma can be things like working on healing ourselves, reconnecting to our authentic self, learning the truth about the past, addressing issues around shame and stigma, practicing forgiveness, and then creating healing spaces. And so those are some things that people can do. They can look at intergenerational healing through advocacy, through processing of our ancestors memories and experiences, through restoring pride in our cultural heritage and our identity. And so these are some things that we can look at doing for intergenerational healing.
Livia: [10:49] And Holly, you talked about that there’s hope, right? And so I’m hoping that you might be able to share a little bit more around your thoughts on strengths and resilience, or what people can do actively now.
Holly: [11:03] Well, there is a lot of hope and Tribal people are very smart, very resilient, and have never really let go of their history, their traditions, their beliefs, their ceremonies. Now they have to do it in a different way now. Before when people are in a family or in a community, when there’s a major crisis happening, and people are very anxious and concerned and worried, they would often normally turn to their family members perhaps first, or elders, for advice and reassurance, but in a pandemic environment all of that is restricted. You can’t really social gather as we have in the past. The other wonderful healing, which is always intergenerational, is the dances that we have. And of course we can’t do that right now because of the pandemic, but there’s been alternatives to that online, on websites, there’s different resources for listening to tribal songs and watching people do their regalia in their home or outside of their home, they are taping themselves dancing with joy.
Holly: [12:30] And the other thing that people are doing that are adapting to COVID … social distancing, physical distancing I guess is a better term … environment is drive-by ceremonies, having drive-by cedar ceremonies in some communities. So they’re taking different ways of maintaining our strengths and reassurance in our beliefs, but having to adapt them for a social distance environment. So, and that’s happening all over the country and as well as people very much using social media, and really innovative, and energizing, and very reassuring websites that show the joy of and the power of tribal songs, and tribal dancing. It’s really great, it’s very reassuring. And so I think instead of being able to see people in person pre-pandemic, many, many tribal communities have developed alternatives to that which still keeps that strong spirit of reassurance that we are Native people. We’ve been through worse at times historically, and we will get through this as well.
Livia: [13:51] Thank you. Are there anything specific you would love our listeners to know in terms of where they might be able to learn more, or what they may be able to do to get involved?
Kateri: [14:03] Yeah. You know, I’d like to just add a little bit in terms of resiliency. I like this definition of what it means to be resilient. It’s the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. So we’re seeing that in a lot of different aspects, and as far as like our family, relationships, health issues, issues in the workplace, financial stressors, those are all things that we are experiencing trouble with. So if we are adapting to that, there are definitely ways that we are adapting to these issues and these stressors that we’re facing. So even though a lot us are in isolation, as human beings we can still stay connected with people that we love. And that’s greatly due to the technology that we have, so we can still call each other, we can still Skype, we can still stay connected on social media like Holly was saying.
Kateri: [15:09] We still have the ability to see each other, and I think that when we are experiencing, feeling worn down like we are, I think that Native people are really good at knowing how to hook into this different kind of power source. So if we’re looking at doing that through prayer and through ceremony, there has been a coming together of our people in our communities in ways that we haven’t really seen or experienced before. So Holly talks about how there’s a lot of hope, there is. There’s definitely a lot of grief, but there’s a lot of people coming together, they’re bringing groceries to elders, they’re sending people medicine bundles so that they can still continue to have those in prayer. One of the things that we’re doing through White Bison is that we are trying to help some of the folks that are incarcerated because they’re pretty much on lockdown right now, and they can’t have family visitors. They don’t have their support groups going on. They don’t have a lot going on for them, so we’re doing some things to try and send them books or literature that they can do to work their recovery programs, for example.
Kateri: [16:26] And then we’ve been able to move a lot of services across the board to a virtual platform. So for example, there’s Wellbriety meetings every single day. They take place at 12 o’clock Mountain Time, and we’ve been able to also offer some evening meetings for people. And man, recovery meetings have been going all over the place online now. We’re also on InTheRooms.com, which is another virtual video meeting platform, and so we have a Tuesday morning and a Thursday night.
Kateri: [17:04] People are doing some really cool things. There are some great resources out there. For example, Native Dads Network, they’re based out of California. And what they’re doing is they’re having this whole men’s and women’s wellness series online. And so they have speakers come on and some people share their recovery story, or they just talk a little bit about their lived experience, or they come and share some traditional teachings to keep us feeling hopeful. HIR Wellness Center out of Wisconsin, they have people come on, and they do a morning meditation, or a daily meditation. They talk about, I think they call it mindful meditation, but they do breathing exercises. They give teachings that people can utilize on there. So there’s a lot of different, really great resources. White Bison has moved our training onto a virtual platform, and what’s been really cool about that is we didn’t know that it was going to happen, but we’ve been able to actually expand a little bit more on an international level.
Kateri: [18:05] So we have people that are joining our trainings and starting Wellbriety groups in Ireland and New Zealand and Australia and Mexico. So even though these are hard times, I think that the resiliency of our people and our communities is also being reflected in that. We’re still making sure that we are adapting to some of these challenges that our communities are facing.
Holly: [18:32] That’s really great, Kateri. And a couple of other resources that are also online is the Native Wellness Institute has their Power Hour every day at three o’clock Eastern, and the topics change every day. Storytelling, comedy, which is really important. Spirituality… Every day is a different topic, but you can find that online. Native Wellness Power Hour, and then the other one that I really enjoy is Quarantine Dance. And you can also find that online, and that is videos of tribal members from all over the country. And Alaska, Alaska Natives, who are overcoming the pandemics through dance, through their tribal songs, and their tribal dance. So that’s really another resource that really brings a lot of joy to watch that.
Livia: [19:24] I just love how many resources you’ve shared, and we’ll make sure we include some of those in our podcast notes, so people can access them and in that way, some of those links. And to wrap us up, I just wanted to say how impressed and grateful I am to have this conversation with you, for you sharing the impact of COVID-19, but also the incredible resilience. And also the very specific resources. I hope our listeners will get a lot out of this episode and will be able to access some of the resources you shared. And just to wrap us up and before we end, I’m wondering… Kateri, could you just share with us what inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing? Or what inspires you to do what you do in the world?
Kateri: [20:14] Well, I think that the people in our communities are what keeps me going. Every day we’re coming across stories of people that are overcoming their addiction or entering into recovery. They’re turning their lives around, they’re bringing their families back together. There are so many people in this work that paves the way for what we’re doing now. And some people that I encountered that helped me in my personal life and my personal struggles, and I feel like doing this work is a honor to them and what they have contributed. And then most importantly, my children. My children inspire me every day to keep doing what I’m doing because I want them to grow up in a world where it’s a little bit more bright and a little bit more safe and a little bit more free for them.
Livia: [21:12] Thank you, Kateri. Holly, what keeps you going?
Holly: [21:17] I really believe, and am continually impressed, with the brilliance of young Native people. And nothing excites me more. We have this untapped resource of thousands and thousands and thousands of young Native people. In the presidential inauguration, young Amanda Gorman received a lot of well-deserved attention as the Poet Laureate and her reading of her poem. And I was so proud of her, but I also thought there are thousands of young Native people who share that brilliance, who share that deep thinking about life situations, and are able to put it to word or song or music. And I work really hard, as so many others do, to help make a better world. For young people so that they can step up into their place and there’s a next generation, and it’s very exciting to know that wealth of resources there.
Livia: [22:31] Thank you, Holly. Kateri and Holly, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kateri: [22:38] Thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit.
Holly: [22:42] And thanks, Livia. It’s always fun to be with you.
Livia: [22:44] And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer: [22:48] Visit C4Innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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