Yesterday in the ongoing demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, over 80 people were arrested for “rioting.” This is just the most recent in a long series of intimidation tactics designed to wear down the resolve of the water protectors, and brings the number of arrests made into the hundreds. The intimidation against the unarmed demonstrators to date includes the use of attack dogs, pepper spray, militarized police, the arresting of journalists, and routine strip searching. The use of the term “riot” is a false construct whose purpose it to justify the state’s violent crackdown on a peaceful but tenacious protest.
In the wake of the arrests and up-to-the-minute updates–thanks to facebook live posting and other social media–a Native American facebook friend of mine posted that she was reduced to tears and feeling “triggered”. This was history repeating itself, she said, watching our Native brothers and sisters defending their lands and resources from government aggression. Instead of fighting the calvary as they clear lands for a transcontinental railroad–the iron horse– they are fighting the intrusions of another state-backed transcontinental project, this time an oil pipeline–the black snake. Same shit, different century.
Historic, or intergenerational trauma is now a recognized condition in the world of psychology. It’s a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome that gets passed from generation to generation (many believe genetically inherited) in groups of people who were subject to intense oppression. Even though an event that caused PTSD may be in the past, the symptoms of PTSD can return through triggering events. They can be internal triggers, like memories or thoughts. Or they can be external triggers, like stressful situations or environments.
Symptoms include a re-experiencing or reliving of a traumatic event, like a flashback, nightmares, or actual physical reactions such as increased heart rate or other physical symptoms; avoidance (thoughts, feelings, people); hyperarousal (edginess, sleep difficulty, irritability, a sense of danger); and negative thoughts and beliefs (distance from others, difficulty feeling positive feelings, feeling that your life may be cut short).
My own responses to the Standing Rock standoff range from tears to a certain level of dissociation (avoidance). Always there is a sense of not being able to escape persecution, or not having the option to stop fighting. It’s more than exhausting to live with the feeling for your entire life that you must keep fighting.
The problem is that these triggers are more than simply having flashbacks or memories of an event in a long ago past. The events at Standing Rock are a reminder of the system we have inherited that reenacts the original wounding over and over and over again.
This is why Native people cannot simply just “get over” the past, as we are often told we should. For us, the past never ended.