Native Americans are fighting mental illness with indigenous healing

When Brianna Dagostino performs cleansing rituals outside, she knows her neighbors think she’s crazy. 

“Just sitting down on the grass, as simple as it sounds… it’s such a deep spiritual healing,” said Dagostino, an enrolled member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribal nation, one of New Jersey’s three state-recognized tribes. 

The healing she speaks of transcends any discomfort felt by onlookers, who may be unaware of the ancient land that rests beneath them; land that has been utilized by Dagostino’s ancestors for centuries in the practice of indigenous spirituality. 

Every two weeks or so, Dagostino places a variety of herbs in a vase to burn freely in the surrounding environment, where she believes her thoughts are flowing into the wind to the Creator. 

Used in this process is sage- a cleansing herb and cedar for spiritual purification. Tobacco is also used to call upon ancestors for guidance and a deeper understanding of life.

Each herb supplies Dagostino with more energy and a renewed sense of self, something that she believes indigenous healing uniquely provides. 

Within the past two weeks, the tribe participated in what is called ‘big house,’ which consists of twelve days of ceremonies, elder teachings, and prayer. In the days Dagostino attended, she noticed a large turnout of younger tribal members compared to previous years. 

“I think spiritual healing is definitely big in our community,” said Dagostino, who believes that herbs enhance the body’s natural healing abilities,“bigger than secular healing.” 

The embrace of indigenous spirituality for mental health purposes, opposed to Western medicine, has become increasingly desirable amongst Native Americans, who experience startling rates of mental illness. 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native Americans between ages 10-34, with more than 60 percent experiencing depressive symptoms and psychological stress.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder are also two of the most common diagnoses for Native American populations over their lifetimes. Joseph P. Gone, faculty director of Harvard University’s Native American Program and Aaniiih-Gros Ventre tribal member, claims that current statistics are not representative of all northern indigenous people. 

"The problem with American Indian people and research of trying to get a national prevalence rates, is that we're so scattered," said Gone, who teaches anthropology and global health and social medicine. "There is no definitive or authoritative national statistics that would be widely accepted in rigorous epidemiologial scientific terms."

Contrary to popular belief, only 22 percent of Native Americans live on reservations. The remainder resides in urban and rural areas because of a lack of job opportunities on reservation land.

Although urban Indian health programs exist, they are few and-far-between and maintain an extremely small budget, leaving Natives with two choices—return home to receive government-funded health services, or pay for these services through self-funding. 

This exposes another issue, however. The federal government provides healthcare to Native Americans through the federal Indian Health Service (IHS), though only 10 percent of IHS budget covers mental health treatment services. 

"So, you can imagine that to try to statistically sample a representative group of American Indian and Alaska Native people and ask about their mental health issues, is really hard to do," said Gone.

It is these systematic challenges, however, that give rise to a new age of intergenerational healing, marked by sweat lodge ceremonies, drumming circles, and ancestral wisdom, readily available and reflective of the cultural pride that is yearned by so many. 

Dr. John Norwood, a Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribal member and historian, outlines the importance of religious and cultural ceremonies within tribal communities. 

"You're able to celebrate in a way that affirms your ancestry, your culture, and strengthens that outlook of the future," said Norwood, who was a previous leader of the tribe. "And there is an intergenerational affirmation, we would call it strong medicine."

The practice of the moon lodge, for example, is a women’s circle where wisdom is passed down to the younger generation. 

Talking circles, which Norwood calls a modern-day group therapy session, consists of people sitting in a circle around a ceremonial fire if it’s done in the evening. 

A leader then guides the group in prayer, “and then topics are brought up, usually by the elders and are dealt with, sometimes it’s issues of pain, or even stories or testimonies of how you go through something, there is sharing, so that a person is affirmed that they’re not walking alone on that challenge,” Norwood said. 

The root causes of mental illness within indigenous communities cannot be overstated: 

“I think it is the continuing impact of colonization and the colonial mindset being integrated into federal law and policy,” said Norwood. 

Centuries prior, the Lenni-Lenape were forcibly displaced from their native land by European colonists; those who remained are acknowledged as “protectors” by related clans. 

Since then, they have worked tirelessly to prevent the erasure of their culture, a fight that seems never-ending. 

In 1887, it was deemed illegal to speak Native languages in residential schools, where many indigenous children attended. A general expression of one’s culture was forbidden, a culture that is now glorified in stereotypes and stripped of its sacred nature.

“You’re not really human’ is the message that is constantly reemphasized,” said Norwood. “When that is the constant reality, constantly being pounded into our minds, and the outlook and the future hopes of American Indian youth, then you’re going to get substance abuse and alcoholism, suicide rates, chronic depression, and it is actually an intergenerational form of PTSD. It is historic intergenerational trauma.” 

This narrative is changing, however, as Natives across the country, and even here in our very state, are returning to their heritage in powerful, life-changing ways. 

This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.

February 9, 2022

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