Weber State University hosts Native American health psychologist

Thursday , November 10, 2016 - 2:21 PM

ANNA BURLESON, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Darryl Tonemah had everyone in the Weber State University Wildcat Theater make a fist and squeeze it hard for about five seconds Thursday morning.

As the audience cringed in pain, he explained that doing something like that for a long period of time would eventually cause a person’s bones and tendons to break down.

“The trauma, the stress applied would have eventually shown up in my hand,” Tonemah said. “Now imagine this being a person who watched Dad abuse Mom when they were five or six, and now they’re 40.”

Tonemah, an American Indian health psychologist, singer and writer, was the keynote speaker for the 11th Annual Native Symposium held in conjunction with Native Heritage Month. The talk was the culmination of several events throughout the week including the showing of "Unspoken: America's Native American Boarding Schools," a discussion about persecution in the Native American community and a sunrise ceremony.

At a talk attended by about 25 people, Tonemah spoke at length about the historical and generational trauma the Native American community experiences, which he has seen manifest in what he called a “sense of overwhelm.”

This overwhelming feeling happens for Native American people, he said, because of a “charge” inside them passed down from generation to generation because of trauma and oppression.

Tonemah said while college students might find ways of coping, that’s not the case for everyone, and the freedom that comes with attending a university can be challenging for Native Americans who are used to living on reservations.

“We have all these healthy things to mediate that sense of overwhelm but imagine growing up in a toxic environment where you don’t have a way to mediate that overwhelm,” he said.

Tonemah said it’s up to young Native Americans to disperse that “charge” instead of trying to numb it with alcohol and drugs. Having lived for a time on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, Tonemah said he’s proud to see the tribal community using their energy to protest the installation of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“If it ends the way we want it to end, that in more than theory changes the course of historical generational trauma for this generation into the next because this generation had the charge and got rid of it,” he said. “It isn’t passed on. That’s huge.”

Tashina Barber, a Native American advisor at Weber State’s Center for Multicultural Excellence; Lacey Harris, of the Northern Ute Tribe; and Tonemah participated in a panel discussion about Native American issues in urban settings as opposed to on reservations.

Barber said in her time teaching Navajo language classes for the Davis School District she has talked to students from both on and off the reservation and both face unique challenges. Barber herself grew up on a reservation. 

“I think moving off of the reservation gave me that perspective of engaging with a different community and being a minority,” she said. “That experience shook me in a way but really instilled my Native values as I matured.”

Harris said life for Native Americans changed drastically when the generation that was educated in public and boarding schools matured.

As a former counselor at Salt Lake City Urban Indian Center for seven years, Harris said he talked to clients who grew up on reservations and then moved to the city and experienced culture shock. He said he would try to remind people of who they are and where they come from.

“We give up who we are and the next thing you know it’s alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, things we learned in boarding schools,” Harris said. “All these things come up because we’ve lost ourselves in this urban setting. We don’t have spiritual leaders to keep us on the straight and narrow.”

The group also discussed the tradition of Native American storytelling, something Harris said is a huge strength.

“I don’t have to be as afraid or intimidated in a situation because I have the strength of all that information that has been passed down to me,” he said.

Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at aburleson@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports.

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