Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

My grandparents all experienced abuse growing up in residential boarding schools in Washington, Idaho, and South Dakota. They were taken from their parents as early as the age of four. As native people, we know of their experience and trauma. We grieve for their childhood, and for those children who did not make it past childhood. We are also handed down those experiences through epigenetics and brain re-wiring.

Severe child neglect and/or abuse often result in what is called reactive attachment disorder (RAD). “When people experience traumatic events, the stress hormone cortisol gets released in the brain. This biochemical reaction to chronic and extreme stress changes the formation of the brain” (Noonan). So, what does this mean for the generations who follow the boarding schools generations: the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren?

  • Toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment. And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation. (Noonan)

My grandparents grew up with that violence and neglect. This resulted in my parents never being told as children they were loved, their own emotional needs being neglected, physical punishment, and continuing the trauma onto the next generation. Thankfully, by the time I was born my family started to break the cycle. This is not just one family’s story. This is a narrative that exists across indigenous nations all across North America. The neglect and violence leads to symptoms and manifestations of RAD being normalized and, in some cases, interwoven into cultural beliefs and practice. The normalization of violence is reflected in sayings you might hear on the reservation such as, “Indian loving” which refers to domestic violence. As well as in adults joking, “you know you’re native if you know what these are…” and depicted below are images of household items that were used for physical punishment on children such as a belt, spoon, and/or willow stick.

What does RAD have to do with teaching indigenous languages? The urgency of needing our languages passed on often puts language teachers into the classroom with very little training in how to work with children. Native American adults have more than likely experienced neglect and abuse as children and never received therapy or interventions. Therefore, most Native American teachers need to be trained in child development, psychology, and classroom management, and also need support in working through their own traumas while learning how to work with children. Often times, the abuse and neglect is so ingrained within communities, that the teachers or teacher trainees are unaware that their experiences constitute abuse. This can be a scary situation in that teachers are at risk for inadvertently traumatizing another generation of indigenous children.

So how did our ancestors parent? There is no one answer for all tribes, but I can share what knowledge I have about my own. One is to instill a sense of pride in children. An Elder’s job within the community would be to encourage children by giving them excessive praise when doing the right thing or taking care of Elders. For example, if a child brought an Elder a cup of water, it was the Elder’s job to drink it and comment on how it was the sweetest and best cup of water they ever tasted. This would encourage the child to continue to be respectful and do things for others. A child was taught generosity by being shown. The Okanogan language does not have a word for please. Elders explain that please is a form of begging. When a child wants something adults usually make them say “please,” but in traditional ways we would give children what they needed or wanted (within reason) freely. The belief is, a child who experiences generosity will be generous. There are also legends with morals that demonstrate what is or is not a good person. Discipline was handled more as teaching children how to behave, instead of punishing them when they don’t. There was an understanding that children were special because they just came from the spirit world and were to be treated in high regard. There were also documents from early explorers noting that we did not hit our children, in which they also noted that as evidence towards our “incivility.”

How did I implement some of these practices into my class? First I changed my class into a child-initiated classroom. I had created learning centers for areas that I wanted them to learn and I also tried to incorporate as much of their interests as I could. As indigenous people we knew everyone was born with inclinations of skills, abilities, and interests. Elders and other adults from a young age would foster these interests. The learning centers almost eliminated classroom behavior as it empowered children to make decisions (within limits and structure). Some examples of the activities were having specimen sets in the science center with magnifying glass. They could explore moss, pinecones, feathers, etc. Animal matching game cards were also available and when they would play we would talk about life cycles, food chains, species, and categorize them by being four-legged, flight, underwater, etc. In the literacy center, I had printed several copies of the orthography in yellow ink and laminated them and placed them with dry erase markers. They could trace over the letters and erase it to use it multiple times. Another fascinating result of this is that even when children got complete freedom during “free time,” they continued to choose learning activities. I practiced specific positive praise. I gave children roles that would empower them to feel important and valued. The items I provided in this paragraph are only a few things I did to build a child-initiated classroom.

This information applies to adults as well as for children. I have witnessed shaming of adult learners for the way they pronounce things or how they talk. We must keep in mind that most important thing to remember is that language revitalization is a ceremony of healing. Our languages were taken from us in a very violent way, and our reclamation of that needs to be positive and healing. The first step is acknowledging the healing that needs to occur within ourselves as a result of colonization and boarding schools.

Resources Cited:

Noonan, Nichole. “Why Kids Don’t ‘Outgrow’ Developmental Trauma Disorder (and What Happens When They Grow up without Help).” Institute for Attachment and Child Development, 8 Feb. 2017,