To Heal Is to Own One’s Own Identity

“Definitions of who we are affect not only First Nations peoples of North America but Indigenous peoples around the world who have been subjected to the “White Man’s burden” of authority and control through the domination and assimilationist tactics of colonizing governments. “Who we are” has been constructed and defined by Others to the extent that at times we too no longer know who we are. The resulting confusion, uncertainty, low self-esteem and/or need to assert control over identity are just some of the damaging affects of colonization.”

Kateri Damm (Chippewa), from “Says Who”, in Looking at the Words of Our People, Jeannette Armstrong editor,Theytus Books, 1993.

A recent interview with Kateri may be read at Open Book Toronto.

Kateri Damm notes that colonizers define Indigenous identities, often with an eye to ethnic cleansing through assimilation. Colonizers continually seek to thwart the efforts of Indigenous people to define their own identities. Indigenous people may thus be denied the basic right of choosing who they will include in their definition of collective self. Outright genocide, blood quantum, colonially administered tribal roles, and rules against intermarriage are some of the tools used to control Native identities.

Many of the authors in Looking at the Words of Our People are of Mixed Blood. Certainly issues of identity are made more complex for persons of mixed ethnicity. In the United States, there is no formal Federal category for Native Americans of mixed Native and Other heritage. Thus, although all of the writers identify as Native, those who are not on tribal roles may be consigned to a sort of cultural limbo. (It is easy for Non-Natives from our highly Individualistic dominant culture to vastly underestimate the importance of community and belonging to the Indigenous sense of self.)

Such acts of erasure are not confined to Native people. Persons of color, persons with disabilities, and those of lower socioeconomic status may find themselves facing one form or another of social erasure. So may many victims of violence.

Inevitably, attacks on self, whether self as individual or group, serve to undermine the status and well being of those attacked. Whether said insults come from caregivers, hate groups,  or governmental agencies, their primary function is to undermine the autonomy and well being of those at whom the violence is directed. Only in the most blatant attacks will the wielders of violence directly assert their intent. Usually, attacks against self are carefully camouflaged in language that justifies assaultive behavior as necessary for the good of those attacked.

Healing in such cases, whether psychotherapy or more traditional ritual, ceremony, or energy work, seeks to expose acts of violence, clarify the effects of those acts, and provide healing to self. These pathways to healing are, at their best, acts that contest the definitions and deletions of self imposed from without, and support the development of a more home grown, autonomous sense of group and individual self.

4 thoughts on “To Heal Is to Own One’s Own Identity

  1. Good description of the problem. I still think Alice Miller was right. We have to treat children respectfully and not violently, so that they don’t have to repress the rage toward authority (caregivers) and then take it out on their children or on scapegoats when they get big enough. This is a problem which is universal. All religions tolerate child abuse, spanking, emotional humiliation, “for your own good”. We used to have a concept of “sacred space” here on Turtle Island, that even children could expect to grow up unmolested, that adults would honor our right to human dignity, that we didn’t have to earn it. Some of us raised our children differently and hopefully our grandchildren will do the same. Maybe in seven generations’ time child abuse will be a painful memory of how it used to be. I think we could pray with tobacco and thank Creator for making this prayer a reality, couldn’t we?

  2. HI Michael

    Your post discusses much of what I am reflecting on at the moment.

    My great grandmother was Aboriginal. However, she grew up in the dominant white culture. My family has not had the benefit of being exposed to Aboriginal culture for four generations.

    But as a young child I knew I was Aboriginal long before I was told about my heritage. Other kids would ask me why I went so brown in the summer. “I am Aboriginal” I would reply.

    I don’t identify as an Aboriginal person, because the culture is no longer accessible to me. But I can’t deny that there is some 50,000+ years of that culture behind me. Indigenous people get annoyed with white fellas claiming Indigenous heritage ( I can claim my Irish heritage without any opposition, but I have no right (?) to claim my Indigenous heritage. I definitely feel that I am in limbo.

    Acceptance is required on many fronts.

    1. Narelle, I suspect there is no “works for everybody” way to navigate the world between cultures. In North America many Indigenous people are welcoming of lost relations. The welcome may follow much testing though. I had coffee this morning with a friend who was “adopted out” and found his way back to his people. He was surely tested. I think it took him a long while before he relaxed into their acceptance. For those of us with generations of absence, the way forward is not so clear. All that said, I am sad to hear of your status in limbo. I know there are many Mixedblood people around the world who are seeking their place of belonging. It is a challenging road.

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