Mending Broken Hearts — The Trauma Stops Here


By Li Boyd Mille Lacs Band Member

When it comes down to it, says Briana Michels of the University of Minnesota Extension, American Indian people have a lot of mending to do. That's what the Mending Broken Hearts program hopes to address as it, and Briana, visits communities throughout the region. The program's subtitle is "Healing from Unresolved Grief and Intergenerational Trauma." The content is generated by The Wellbriety Training Institute which operates under White Bison, Inc., a 501(c)3 American-Indian-operated non-profit organization that "offers sobriety, recovery, addictions prevention, and wellness/Wellbriety learning resources to the Native American/Alaska Native community nationwide."

Mending Broken Hearts in particular examines how historical persecution of American Indian people has had a ripple effect on later generations. Indian Boarding Schools in particular have created deeply traumatic impacts that are so long-lasting that they are still felt in American Indian communities today. Mending Broken Hearts uses discussion, sharing, and video presentations to help identify where past traumas have led to present difficulties.

The training utilizes the film "The Wellbriety Journey to Forgiveness," a White Bison production that the organization considers a "giveaway." The video can be found on YouTube by searching for the title and begins with permission for it to be "copied, borrowed, loaned, distributed, Given Away," so long as there is no attempt at sale or other similar personal gain from the sharing of the video. This is a gentle indication of the trust inherent in Wellbriety's programming and also Mending Broken Hearts.

Before participants in the training even get as far as viewing "Journey to Forgiveness," they must collaborate to come up with a Group Agreement that lays out the ground rules for commitment to the workshop and creating a safe and confidential space for everyone involved. Parts of the Group Agreement can contain things like "Be nonjudgmental" or "It's okay to cry." Mending is about healing, and healing involves a lot of sharing.

"Journey to Forgiveness" sets the precedent for this sharing, as the first half of the video contains statements from Elders and their relatives about what was experienced at Indian Boarding Schools and what later generations — those who had never been to a boarding school and some who never even knew their Elders had suffered this trauma — experienced in the aftermath. Some of the stories told had never been shared before the filming of Journey, and the film moves back and forth between the often-difficult testimonials and commentary on how these traumas rapidly spread and manifested in additional ways.

This identification of the roles the United States Government and Christian churches played in historical trauma is important because it points out the specific strategies that were used to undermine native communities, family structure, and culture and how that altered everything from the way parents and children communicated with one another to the accessibility of traditional medicine and ceremony for spiritual healing.

The second half of the film focuses on the work that’s central to what Mending Broken Hearts is all about. While the first step is to acknowledge trauma, Mending’s goal is to let the trauma and grief go to be left behind. The next step is validation or acceptance, which is where sharing comes in. Whether it's one other person or a group, talking about a traumatic experience, while exhausting, is where the weight of that experience begins to lighten. It's an opportunity to no longer go on carrying that trauma alone. According to Ben Nighthorse Campbell, member of the Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe and former U.S. Senator, "Truth is a precondition for justice." Victims of trauma deserve to know that they have been heard, believed, and understood — that their trauma has been recognized and acknowledged.

It can also be said that truth is a precondition for perhaps the hardest but most important part of Mending Broken Hearts: Forgiveness. The Wellbriety Movement emphasizes four types of forgiveness. There is basic forgiveness, which must be practiced daily on all the small things, such as forgiving someone for forgetting to turn off a light. Then there is forgiveness of others even for hurtful things. Harder still is forgiveness of self. Most people find that they are their own worst critics, and in order to promote healing, one must get out of the practice of self-blame.

The greatest challenge, and also the greatest freedom, comes with learning to Forgive the Unforgiveable. Don Coyhis, a member of the Mohican Nation and White Bison, Inc. founder and president, says the following in the training: "The Elders have told us that in order to heal, we must forgive. They said that we are carrying around the trauma handed down to us from the generations before, from one generation to the next, and we don't know it. Forgiveness is the pathway to getting rid of this trauma and hate."

Early on the first day, Briana will point out to participants that, "Hurt people hurt people." Forgiveness often means forgiving the perpetrator of trauma within the context of their own trauma. This is different than excusing them. Forgiving the unforgiveable must not be mistaken for removing a person or institution's accountability for what they have done. However, as a victim looking to heal and break the trauma cycle, forgiveness becomes the act by which the connection to that perpetrator, and therefore to the trauma itself, is severed.

This step is the hardest and the most important, for every individual, their family, and future generations. Mending Broken Hearts, at the core of its teaching, is about not just identifying intergenerational trauma or healing oneself from unresolved grief. It's ultimately about bringing about the end of intergenerational trauma. It gives individuals a safe place to begin their healing journey and skills they will use to declare that the cycle ends with them. With Mending Broken Hearts, the trauma stops here.