National Tribal Health Conference looks at the power of culture as medicine
Indigenous culture and traditions are naturally therapeutic. That’s the message at the National Tribal Health Conference, which has drawn more than a thousand people to Anchorage this week to learn from each other.
“Not one tribe has the answers and the secrets to healing,” Julie Smith-Yliniemi told the crowd that had gathered for her presentation on healing intergenerational trauma by incorporating Indigenous culture into practices.
Smith-Yliniemi teaches at the University of North Dakota’s Indigenous Health Department. She believes sharing traditional knowledge can help bring about collective healing, to address the intergenerational trauma that has affected several generations of Native Americans.
Interest in Smith-Yliniemi’s session was so high, people had to sit on the floor. Other streamed out into the hallway, along with the scent of ceremonial sage.
Raquel Britton from the Round Valley Indian Tribes Youth Council in California came in search of answers to deal with the fall-out from her own family's history with boarding schools and the loss of language and culture. She says it’s not an easy subject to talk about.
“I feel like my family went through historical trauma,” Raquel Britton said, “that we’re finally just breaking the cycle that my mother went through with her mother.”
Britton says her mother has just now started to talk with her children about her family’s history of trauma and wants to know what she can do to heal her own struggles and help others.
Smith-Yliniemi says she turns to trusted elders for advice, a source of wisdom that can be surprisingly close at hand, as it was when she visited an elder battling cancer. She found the woman in her hospital bed, doing beadwork and has never forgotten her words.
“When you’re in pain, or if you’re sick, help create joy in somebody else,” the woman told Smith-Yliniemi. “So she sat and beaded for hours and hours, and hours and hours, and brought me joy,”
Smith-Yliniemi shared what brought her joy at the conference. She passed around an elaborate beaded collar the elder gifted her. She says the woman survived cancer and is still alive today.
Smith-Yliniemi said traditional rituals and practices can also bring peace of mind. She says the sweat lodge, full moon and naming ceremonies, traditional medicines, smudges, dancing, singing and drumming can all help with the process of letting go, an important step in dealing with trauma. The worst thing she says, is, to try and ignore your pain.