“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 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.