Seeking Healing at The River of Belonging

“Every week on one of our reservations and in some Indian community, the media uncovers indirect and direct evidence of loss to families living without the ways of knowing afforded by the river. I believe the river provided the basis for healthy and whole families, and without it, all manner of assault has been made against those families to hamper their survival in all the ways that truly matter. Government remedies are powerless to replace the gifts of wholeness provided by river wisdom that upheld ethnic identity and cultural learning, all very much a valid part of our human experience. Instead of stories celebrating and honoring human life, I hear and read of child abuse and neglect.”

Lanniko L. Lee (Cheyenne River Sioux), From, “Ways of River Wisdaom“, in Marken and Woodard, Shaping Survival, The Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Lanniko Lee was raised beside a free flowing Missouri River. Her people, the Cheyenne River Sioux, lived by the river for generations before being displaced by the rising waters that resulted from the damming of the river. With the dams, came the end of  a traditional lifeway, and a generalized loss of meaning and individual, and collective, self. The result has been generations of loss and continuing trauma.

Of course, the Cheyenne River Sioux are not alone. The Tennessee Valley Authority, trough it’s damming of the mighty Eastern Rivers, destroyed the ancestral lands of many Eastern tribal peoples and the homes of a great many families. The dislodged and forgotten were disproportionately poor and of color. This past spring, the intentional breaching of the levies in the lower Mississippi river basin repeated this ancient story.

But most of us no longer live with and on the land. Perhaps that is why so many of us imagine that Wilderness might be a great teacher. It has always been a magnificent teacher. Yet, for First Nations people, the Wilderness is a vast world shaped by culture and meaning. The Wilderness taught largely through the elders, who understood and translated its visionary language. The River and the Wilderness were storied realms, narrating the lives of the humans who lived beside and within them. They spoke a language of inclusion, of belonging.

No wonder we urbanized people turn to Wilderness to find ourselves. Yet the collective Wilderness is a different Wilderness from that of First Nations people. The wilderness of the urban world is set aside in islands of wildness. It is atomized and manicured. Often it lacks language and culture, and most importantly, elders. In short, it reflects our lives as urban, post modern people.

The dominant culture’s insatiable desire for control and profit produces many conflicts. For instance, when the Ohio River was dammed in Madison, Indiana, many families were driven from their homes in the bottom lands. My father, who grew up in the hills overlooking the Ohio, found himself awed by the immense dam, pleased by the electricity generated by the dam, and saddened at the loss of soil and lifeways in the flooded land. He returned again and again to that conflict as he aged, the river bottom changing to cornfields paved over to make shopping malls.

Our psychotherapies too often reflect the rootlessness and immediacy of our urban, technology driven world. Cognitive Behavioral Therapies focus on immediate, short-term gains and control over one’s environment. While highly effective for some situations, we clinicians are urged, and often told, to use them for all situations. Their efficacy is, after all, easily verifiable via research and testing. They also verify the short-term, gain oriented worldview of the culture at large.

For those of us “raised by the River”, CBT is inadequate in that it utterly fails to acknowledge the Great Mystery that we approach through life with the Land and the River. Additionally, CBT is the Colonizer’s language, incapable of addressing the Dreaming, or our values of sharing, cooperation, protection, and joy. Michael White, and colleagues, versions of Narrative Therapy comes much closer to a First nations vision of the world, and offer language for addressing the ongoing strategies and effects of colonialism. Yet they too often seem to marginalize the sacred, the Land, and the Rivers.

First Nations and Mixed Heritage worlds are storied and alive with the powers at play in the land, waters, and universe. Any therapy that will ultimately be effective in our lives must surely address our stories and those powers. It must also address the ongoing challenges and harms of colonialism. I imagine such a therapy will also have efficacy for many non-tribal people who feel an innate connection to Land, River, and/or Wilderness. I invite your thoughts as to how such a deeply therapeutic practice might look, sound, and feel. I shall continue to dream and think on it as well.

4 thoughts on “Seeking Healing at The River of Belonging

  1. “But most of us no longer live with and on the land. Perhaps that is why so many of us imagine that Wilderness might be a great teacher.”

    So true.

    Ours is a world of barriers. Ethnic barriers. Gender barriers. Economic barriers. The glass, brick and steel barriers we build around ourselves in the name of prestiege and safety. Even the plastic and styrofoam barriers we wrap around the food we eat which not only keep it from spoiling, but cut it – and us – out of the circle of life in such a way that if you ask a child where hamburger comes from, chances are he or she will answer “the store.”

    But, by keeping out the “wild”, have we alsosurgically removed it from ourselves?

    Or have we have instead simply buried it beneath almost impenetrible layers oc concrete and etiquette?

    A debate, prpobably, for someone more trained than I.

    And yet, like grass springing up from the cracks in the sidewalk, it so often rears its head in the guise of “tribal” markings, events like Burning Man and “neo shamanism”.

    Perhaps, rather than addressing the wild as something that’s been lost, one might look to it perhaps as something that is dormant, but waiting for the proper cue to reawaken. . .

    1. My gratitude to you for this thoughtful comment. It probably makes little difference whether one thinks of the Wild as lost or just covered over. I favor the latter. I hope there are many of us who, like the grass, stand up between the cracks in the logic and practices of the dominant culture. I think there is much to be said for such small acts of resistance to totalizing structures, which of course, impact everyone.

      I like to imagine that many land based people, from around the world, draw wisdom from the land and rivers of the world. I know you ar deeply imbedded in such relationship, and look forward to those moments when you share the wisdom you hav gained through that connection.


  2. Well said. I’ve found CBT to be good to learn coping mechanisms for having no choice but to exist in a disharmonious world. I feel that there is no single appropriate therapy. All of us need to change the world in which we live, because I feel that right now it is not a world suited to human health and well being.

    1. Nadeanna, I agree the world is a very hard place for people and most other beings. Changing our collective behavior towards the Earth does seem critically important now. As much as I find CBT useful, I cannot get over the sense that it, when used alone, actually makes things worse. Perhaps that is something we might speak about as a profession. Then again, I’m not convinced the mental health community acknowledges the degree to which colonialism and its allies are at work in the world.

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.