Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”
Heather Bruegl is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and first-line descendent Stockbridge Munsee. She is a graduate of Madonna University in Michigan and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in U.S. History. Her research comprises numerous topics related to American history, legacies of colonization, and Indigeneity, including the Dakota War of 1812, the history of American Boarding Schools, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW). Heather has presented her work at academic institutions including the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the College of the Menominee Nation, as well as at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh for Indigenous Peoples Day 2017.
Heather consults for a variety of museums and universities and is a frequent lecturer at conferences on topics ranging from intergenerational racism and trauma to the fight for clean water in the Native community. She has been invited to share her research on Native American history, including policy and activism, equity in museums, and land back initiatives for such institutions as the Tate and the Brooklyn Public Library. Heather opened and spoke at the Women’s March Anniversary in Lansing, Michigan, in January 2018, and at the first ever Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC, in January 2019. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, Heather spoke at the Crazy Horse Memorial and Museum in Custer, South Dakota, for its Talking Circle Series.
Heather is the former Director of Education of Forge Project, a decolonial art and education initiative on the unceded homelands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok in Upstate New York, where she organized public programming and events and led the Forge Project Fellowship program. Now, Heather is a public historian, activist, and independent consultant who works with institutions and organizations for Indigenous sovereignty and collective liberation.
Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish America, The Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
KLM: So today I’m speaking with Heather Bruegl. And we’re going to be talking about the aims of this series as far as traumawork, how we deal with doing difficult work.
As we’ll discuss later, I’ve been speaking to people from all sorts of communities: scholarly, professional, Holocaust scholars, Rwandan genocide scholars, people who focus on genetics.
But I’m very interested in your perspective on intergenerational trauma because while I’ve talked to geneticists and psychologists about it, today we’re going to talk about it from the perspective of culture and community.
And specifically, you’re the first person I get to speak to who has an Indigenous background or a First Nations background. And so that’s really the thrust of it today.
But then too, from an intersectional perspective– specifically women’s issues and Indigenous issues, and feminism– there’s a lot of heavy topics that you must deal with. And so we’re going to talk about what those are, and how you like to work your way through them. And is it empowering? Is it sometimes difficult? That’s kind of where we’re going to go.
So. To start on that point, if you could just give a little bit of your bio, and what is your current profession? Where do you live? Who is your community that you identify with? What is your role? How did you get into it? That sort of thing.
HB: My name is Heather Bruegl. I am an enrolled citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, and I’m a first-line descendant Stockbridge-Munsee.
[The Stockbridge-Munsee Community is one of eleven federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin, US, and is a part of the Mohican Nation. Oneida Nation of Wisconsin is also a federally recognized tribe.]
I currently work as a public and Indigenous historian and a decolonial education consultant. My work focuses on several different areas including working with organizations and institutions that are wanting to decolonize their facilities, to also giving lectures on Indigenous histories, speaking on Indigenous issues, and offering DEI trainings and support.
My history and political science degrees really help with that. I hold a bachelor’s and master’s in history and political science from Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.
I research and lecture around on Indigenous history, focusing primarily on federal Indian policy. And on bringing awareness to treaty rights, land sovereignty, food sovereignty, and things like this.
KLM: As both a historian, and also as a member of a community that has been completely, my God… wronged, misused, any word you can think of, in American history. “American history”, I should say. There must be a tension there always.
Occasionally there are good news stories, right? Tribes get lands back, Deb Haaland is the new Secretary of the Interior in the US, the first Indigenous person– let alone a woman– in that role. But when we’re doing the negative history, you know that expression– that “history hurts”. It’s a totally different kind of work. That’s one of the things that I’m speaking about with people in this project.
And so, let me just jump back to that a step. When you did your master’s in history, and undergraduate as well. Were you able to focus on Indigenous history or did you… was that part of your impetus into becoming more of an activist and historian? That you felt the history you were being given was sort of a whitewashed history in some ways?
HB: Well, I knew the history that I was being taught– not so much in undergrad, but in secondary education, high school– I knew it was a load of BS. Because you know, being an Indigenous person, you kind of know your history. But in graduate school, I was very lucky to have professors who welcomed those tough conversations, and wanted to know more and learn more.
Surprisingly, I did not focus on Indigenous history when I was in college. I actually focused on early colonial history. And I wrote my thesis on the relationship and correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson being an extremely problematic figure.
And so I focused in on that. Later in doing my work in Indigenous history– you look at the Founding Fathers through different lenses.
And so Jefferson was already a… beautifully complicated figure. Then focusing on Indigenous history and his policies towards Indigenous people– first and foremost, referring to us as “merciless Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence. And how then with the Louisiana Purchase, it opens the door to Andrew Jackson to have the policy of removal in the 1830s.
So his, Jefferson’s, policies were extremely harmful. His policies opened up that door. For removal. Treaty violations. It was kind of like the ball was already rolling and he pushed it down the hill.
KLM: An aside, but we could do a whole separate interview about your thoughts on Hamilton, I suppose!
HB: Oh my God, we could! We really could. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda. I love Broadway musicals. And it’s a great musical. But at parts it makes me want to go… no! You guys are not getting the story.
KLM: There’s a lot of things that could have been… different.
KLM: So back to what you were just saying there. I saw one of your, I think, a print interview, and in there you billed yourself as an “accidental activist”. Can you say something about how you moved from a kind of Eurocentric master’s degree, to the work you’re doing now? To an actual activist consciousness, for your own community.
HB: Yeah. So I think 2016 was a wake up call for all of us. And so 2017, I marched in my first protest, which was the Women’s March. There were satellite marches all across the country. So I took part in the one that was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I marched in that one.
And then, following that, I participated in a couple local protests about Standing Rock, and the things that were going on there. And then realized that as I was getting asked more and more to participate in events, it was really speaking to the importance of Indigenous issues. In 2018, the anniversary march of the Women’s March, I opened up that march in Lansing, Michigan.
And I spoke about the importance of water. Because being from Michigan, you know, we’ve got the issues with Flint and Detroit too. But then there were also some issues happening in the UP around clean water. And Standing Rock was still happening, very much so.
And so it was kind of in those moments that I realized that I could take that historian hat that I had, that researcher hat that I had. And while I might not always be able to be “boots on the ground”, I can take that historical perspective and add that contemporary history to it and tell you why this is happening. Why it’s important, and why you should know about it.
So indigenous people particularly with water, for example. It’s always been an issue. Navajo Nation hasn’t had clean water in decades. Why is that? Because of the uranium mining. Well, how did that happen? Companies came in and they started saying: hey, we’ll pay you to be able to use this land. Were payments made? Yes. Was it the correct amount? No! What happened after the mining happened? The water was contaminated, and they just left!
And so it’s kind of been a thing, with Indigenous communities, the whole time. And so being able to add that historical perspective to it, to show how an issue that’s relevant today was always relevant, is kind of how I use that. So I guess it’s more like academic activism.
KLM: Yes! Academic activism. That very much speaks to me and my PhD work. I can share a little about how I got into this project. I was finishing my thesis and it was kind of a MeToo approach to women and studio Hollywood and Hollywood history. And the last two chapters were very grim. They’re all about rape and sexual assault and people who got away with everything.
So it ended being about trauma theory. And that’s how this this interview series has gone– kind of the meta questions, you know? First you do the research, then you think about: well, why do we do this research? Why, when it sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s uncomfortable, it’s upsetting, it’s re-triggering of your own issues. As a woman or a person of color or whatever it may be.
And in the epilogue of my thesis, I had the famous quote from Faulkner, which is exactly what you’re speaking to. Where he says: the past isn’t really the past. You know the one I mean. The past isn’t even past. How am I flubbing one of my all-time favorite quotes?
Like the past and the present are very fluid and we’re always living in the past, and with these decisions, constantly. And I think that’s exactly the way I would think of it, too: history as academic activism.
Could you say a little bit about your public speaking role, in terms of intergenerational racism and trauma? So, who do you speak to? And what is your view on that? How do you characterize that, or how do you see that and its role in your community?
HB: I think what it does is it allow me to speak for our community. I think that that has been misrepresented, throughout history. We tend to get a whitewashed history, a version of history told to us, not by us.
I do not speak on behalf of all Indigenous nations like I do overall as a historian. If you want specified history, I always suggest you go to that particular tribe. And that’s what I tell people at the beginning of every lecture.
But I think what it does is it allows me to give you a broad view, especially focusing in on federal Indian policy and treaty rights. That right there can tell you a lot.
And from those policies, from treaties, from the reservation system, stems trauma. Being able to once freely roam the continent, to now being confined to however much acreage of land. You know, going from millions of acres to just now a few hundred. There’s trauma that comes in that.
And there’s also not just trauma in the mental sense, but also physical trauma to your bodies. Your way of life is changing. You’re moving into a more sedentary lifestyle. You’re moving into foods that your body was not created to process.
And those issues stem historically from the reservation system, but are very much alive and well in communities today. Health disparities. You know, Indigenous people face higher risks of diabetes and heart disease. That can all be attributed to the reservation system. Which was created out of treaties. So being able to know that, and to be able to bring awareness to that, I think is super important.
I just really quickly looked up that Faulkner quote. “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
KLM: Thank you!
HB: You’re welcome!
HB: I always quote John Adams with “facts are stubborn things”. And that’s true.
KLM: It is I think that Faulkner quote says a lot about some of us, and our approach to history. Both those quotes do, really.
Like I tutor as one of my side jobs. I tutor students all over the world on Zoom. And you know, a lot of them– preteens, teens, all the way down to little kids– they say history is their least favorite subject. “It’s so boring”. And I’m always telling them: that’s because they’re teaching it to you in such a boring way! History is not just about wars and dates… it’s about how people live and how they are! And how in the world can you understand anything if you don’t understand history?
A lot of people just don’t think in historical terms, because they were turned off by it when they were young. And so it’s unfortunate. Because– needless to say– if people paid more attention to history and understood history, you wouldn’t have so many of the social problems that you have. Racism, ignorance, et cetera. I mean, that’s a soapbox I can always jump on.
HB: Right there with you. I feel like we need to have like a separate conversation just for this!
KLM: Yeah, exactly.
I was going to ask you– for the readership. For an audience that is mostly non-Indigenous, probably, reading this all over the world.
Let me step back. I’ve interviewed geneticists on these questions of trauma. I’m talking to people who study the science of intergenerational trauma. And so then how do we match up our ideas… ancient cultures had ideas of “the sins of the father”, the Bible. Every culture has these ideas that we pay for things that have happened to people in our past.
And then now they find that that is not just poetry and it’s not just myth. They can genetically find it in the body. So I’m interviewing a psychologist in Israel who studies the cortisol levels of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
KLM: So we’re finding that all these things that people always instinctively sort of knew are genetically proven, and they are true. So the science and almost the spiritual or the philosophical, they meet.
And so I was wondering: in Indigenous traditions, spiritual traditions or thought, are there concepts of intergenerational trauma, in that same line? In the sense that these ideas have already existed long before western science.
HB: Right. I think we in the indigenous community have known about it.
There have also been studies done on the descendants of boarding school survivors. Or those who were part of very traumatic events like the massacre at Wounded Knee, or things like that. There have been studies done on those. And I believe it’s the same concept of the cortisol levels. They’re different, and that is trauma that has been passed down.
There’s also the idea of not just intergenerational trauma, but also historical trauma. That you feel like you might be exempt from. I felt that way for a very long time, that I was exempt from it, because I had an understanding of our history. But it can hit you right out of the blue.
I can share an example. My husband and I were watching a movie. It’s called American Son, starring Kerry Washington. The whole premise of the movie is her son is missing. And he’s a young Black teenager. So obviously there is that fear behind there.
So she’s at the police station, and the police are not really helping her. She’s kind of acting very frantic because if your child is missing, I think any mother would be acting that way. Well, in the movie, her husband– her estranged husband– is an FBI agent, but he’s white. So, he shows up to the police station and this one rookie cop, he’s not aware that’s her husband. So the husband mentions something about being in the FBI, he wants to get an update on this case. And the younger cop says: thanks so much for being here. I’ve had a hard time “keeping the natives at bay”.
And it was that line that was spoken. And I don’t know if it was the premise of the movie or what was going on, but when he uttered that line, I literally had a very physical and emotional reaction to it. Where my husband had to pause the movie.
I started crying. I am seeing scenes in my head from historical acts. Like I am seeing the atrocities that were committed against Native people. It was very weird and very odd, and it’s the only time that that’s ever happened to me.
But you never quite know when that historical trauma is going to rear its head. There’s been a lot happening with the residential schools and boarding schools right now, right? You know, with all of these bodies being found. And that’s been quite emotional.
My grandparents are boarding school survivors. And so… some sort of that emotional trauma that has been around. I can definitely say I’ve been in a funk lately. And wasn’t quite able to pinpoint it until I was doing some updated research on boarding schools. And I went: oh, duh, this is it. But you never quite know when those reactions are going to happen.
So it is something that is extremely real in the Indigenous community, and you can see remnants of it today. Just in living standards on the reservation, or the way people embrace things. The high rates of alcoholism, the high rates of drug use. That’s how it manifests.
And, honestly– at some point, you can’t blame people. They’re going to deal with their trauma how they’re going to deal with it. We’ve got to get to the point to where we are addressing it and making it better.
KLM: Yes. Later I had some questions, about this summer and the boarding schools and I probably will follow up on that a bit. I mean, we can’t help but talk about it, obviously.
[This interview was conducted in summer 2021.]
So going back a step. First of all, would you consider the work that you do to be working in trauma, or traumatic histories? I mean, do you think by nature of the historical realities that it is traumawork, in a sense?
HB: It very much can be. Especially in the work that I have done in the past with historic preservation, and repatriation of remains, of human remains.
Because at the end of the day, a museum looks at it– bones. Those are just bones. But to us, those are ancestors.
And so when you are in the room, with those remains? That room, that air is very heavy. It’s very, very heavy.
It can be very, very emotional. Because those aren’t just bones. Those are people. Those are our ancestors. Those could have been my direct ancestors, who knows? And to see them just in boxes is very traumatic at times. So yeah, this– it’s definitely traumawork that you deal with.
KLM: Right. And then as far as people who are not historians but are just members of the community. You can speak to those you know personally or just in general. Would it be a common experience for Indigenous people to share and pass down stories that are difficult? Or do you think that it’s the tendency to maybe bury it a bit, and not speak about things that are so painful?
Like different cultures handle that in different ways. That has come up in the interviews I’ve done here.
Do you feel like there’s a lot of sharing of horrible stories? Or a lot of people trying to either repress or move on?
HB: I think it depends on the person, and I think it depends on the situation. I think when it comes to the idea of boarding school survivors, you’re going to see a lot not passed down. You’re going to see a lot not shared. Because they don’t want to pass that along. But you’ll see it manifest in different ways.
I think in our community in general, because we do have that migration story of being moved from out east to Wisconsin– that is talked about, that is passed on, because it’s important to know how we ended up there.
KLM: Yes, I see.
And then– these could be two separate interviews, of course, but– from an intersectional perspective. What about then the next layer of being a woman and dealing with Indigenous women’s issues?
So violence against women, Missing and Murdered Women, very heavy histories of rape and sexual assault. That’s an entirely different category of deep pain. And it’s not exactly resolved, in society, at all. So how do you situate yourself to that sort of work or that identity? Being a woman yourself.
HB: Yes, right. So Pocahontas was probably the first recorded victim of sex trafficking [in colonial US history], right? I think I think it’s very fair to say that.
When I tell people that their eyes get super big. And I say: no, think about it. Think about this.
She was ten. Number one. She was ten years old. And then their eyes get even bigger. I say: yeah. She was kidnapped, she was forced on a ship. There are rumors and suspicions of sexual assault. She was a victim! And so I think it’s important to put that historical story in place and give it perspective.
I think being an Indigenous woman can be very difficult, and can be downright scary at times. When I was living in Michigan, obviously I understood the concept, the epidemic of MMIW– Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. But because I wasn’t surrounded by a large Indigenous community, that was something that happened elsewhere. It happened out there.
When I was living in Wisconsin and working for an Indigenous nation, and living in a border town. I didn’t live on the reservation, I lived off-reservation. Where, the tribe right next door to us, there was a history of Indigenous peoples and of women going missing. There are people that they’re still looking for that have gone missing in the seventies and eighties.
And then just last summer, having a young girl go missing. And that being right there in my face.
[Katelyn Kelley, a 22 year-old young woman, was a Menominee Tribal Member and mother who went missing in Wisconsin in June 2020. Her body was found buried on the Menominee Reservation in March 2021. There have been no arrests.]
I was very, for the first time in my life, actually very terrified to be an Indigenous woman. Not that I ever really felt like I personally was at risk, but now it was right there in my face.
It was something I was aware of. I already, by my own choice, text my husband my whereabouts. Like: “on my way to work”, or “on my way home”. But when this young girl, Katelyn Kelley– because I feel like it’s important to name her– when Katelyn went missing, I was even more diligent about it.
I didn’t even drive through the rez. I would go a different route. And then, after months go by– you know she’s not coming back alive, at some point. And then just earlier this year, her remains were found, not far from where she was actually taken. And so, it’s just being confronted with that. It can be very, very scary.
And then because it is an issue that I do talk about, that I do lecture on– it’s very important knowing that in the United States there really aren’t any statistics.
Now at the national level an MMIW task force has been launched. But that’s under the leadership of Deb Haaland. I don’t necessarily know what would have happened if an Indigenous woman isn’t leading that department. [for the first time ever]. I feel like it would have just– not been swept under the rug. But put on a to-do list.
KLM: Not a priority. Right.
HB: Exactly. And it’s important that we find out these numbers. I know Canada has done some work with statistics. I know one of the ones that I share a lot, just to give people perspective. In 2014 in Canada, First Nations women only made up 4% of the population. But that year they made up 24% of the homicide rate. Why is that?
And when I talk to people, I tell them that. I have good friends in Michigan who were not familiar with the MMIW. They knew it, very abstractly, but they didn’t know it. And so, they asked questions. They asked: is it okay if we ask you questions? Absolutely, ask me questions. And when I spit out that statistic, their jaws hit the floor. Like: what?
And here’s what’s worse. Is in the United States, we have no idea. We have none. It’s nothing that’s talked about.
And I think there is that historical trauma that leads to that. There’s historical imperialism, because 70% of assailants are non-native, which– then they’re white. There’s that “I’m entitled to” feeling. And how do you combat that? Other than through education?
KLM: In either your historical work or your activist work, or the way they intersect, have you ever been working on something, or gotten close to something that became– it was too much for you? Because it intersected too much with either family history, local history, personal history?
Or do you kind of lean into difficult things? That’s a personality trait of different types of researchers. But is there ever anything you don’t really want to deal with? Or you do want to deal with it, because it’s in some way healing perhaps?
HB: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I lean right into it. I have learned how to take breaks though.
Or my husband will force me to take a break. He’ll say: you have been reading about boarding schools for three hours. You need to stop! And so he, he’s very good at making sure that that self-care comes into play.
But I don’t shy away from the topic. Almost for me, the harder the topic is, the more I want to know about it. And the more I want to educate myself on it. I don’t know what that says about my personality!
But it’s like I want to know, I have to know. So it’s– yeah, nothing really will deter me. But I have learned to take those mental breaks. And stop when I need to.
KLM: Right. Yeah, because that’s such a cornerstone of this whole project for me, me saying: how did I come to work on these very grim topics in which some people might say you’re continually retraumatizing yourself? I’m working on: what is the casting couch? Okay, the casting couch was a system of industrial rape. And that was my 400-page thesis. Meanwhile I’m a survivor of assault. And we’ve all been harassed. We’ve all dealt with– you know. Women are survivors almost across the board of something or other.
And so you’re asking: why do you keep going to the places that hurt?
And so that’s been the impetus for this project, and finding people from all different communities. Like I said, Holocaust scholars, survivors of the Rwandan genocide, who then became interpreters and took testimonies from people who slaughtered their neighbors. Black US scholars who work on murder and legacies of enslavement.
I can’t quite put my finger on it. But the gift of talking with other people who do the same thing and saying: you do that, too. Why do we do this?
I’m hoping by the end of this series, I’ll answer some questions for myself.
One thing kind of feeds right into that. For example. I interviewed this brilliant epigeneticist. And he’s talking about these markers, and finding the things that we’ve always sort of known, being able to find them.
And I said to him: but it seems to me your work would be very pessimistic, in a way. Because we’re saying we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, in a way. You’re born into a family who’s gone through famine or whatever it might be. And so your body has changed. And so, isn’t it depressing to do this work? Don’t you get depressed because we have markers that we’re formed or ruined in some ways before we’re ever born?
And he said: well, it’s really how you look at it, because to me it’s optimistic work. Because by doing it we learn about it. By learning about it, we might be able to change it. I don’t see this as depressing. I see this as uplifting, and hopeful.
So along those lines: what’s the line for you between optimistic and pessimistic in the work that you do? This tension between optimism and pessimism in doing difficult work.
And in other words, is there some sense of: I’m helping to heal my community? Or because it’s important work, it makes me feel better to do it even when it’s difficult?
HB: Yeah, that question is a really good question. And first, I did want to acknowledge and thank you for sharing that you are a survivor of assault. I appreciate you sharing that with me, and I feel honored that you did.
I think going back to what that professor said. When I was diving deeper into our Indigenous history and learning more about myself and my ancestors and what they went through: yes, it is 100% depressing. But it’s also… very beautiful at the same time though too. Because you’re learning about a very unique Indigenous culture.
At the same time. Thinking about how I had been feeling, or those little bouts of depression that I would get into– finally understanding them, and why they would happen, it was very eye-opening. And to me, it made me feel like I wasn’t crazy. Because there was a reason for that happening.
So I guess I kind of feel like I think like that professor thinks. That in a way it is positive and also extremely empowering. Because now you know what the issue is. And you can figure out how to deal with it.
KLM: Right. And it’s sort of like– there’s different types of people in the world. But if you are the kind of person who studies and is a scholar and is a researcher and thinks historically, thinks philosophically, you know, a deeper thinker, in some ways. You can’t unknow what you know. And you wouldn’t want to be anybody but you really, because you can only grow.
So kind of when you think about it that way, it’s like: yeah, things are depressing, but what’s the alternative? We close our ears, we close our eyes, we watch TV and pretend none of this is real? I mean, some people live that way. If you’re not the kind of person who can live that way, you can’t live that way.
KLM: So I guess it’s been something kind of beautiful in me doing these interviews. I was thinking when I started, I think you’re number seven for me. People from all over the world, from all different experiences.
HB: Lucky number seven!
Last week I interviewed someone, a man who used to be a police officer and a hunter. And he had a big awakening and he became a vegan activist and an undercover animal abuse activist. And they go to slaughterhouses and they try to document abuse. And you think: what a beautiful journey. Like: people are so interesting, right?
One of the things that I thought when I started doing this was that it was going to be very depressing. And instead you find people sharing things like: no, I went to those war zones and I interviewed children who were victims of of bombings, amputees. And these children are hopeful and it makes me hopeful. And so it’s like even the darkest stories… there’s hope there. Otherwise people wouldn’t do the work.
And so, it’s actually been a really beautiful experience for me to interview everyone I’ve interviewed, because it makes me realize: we don’t need to be depressed about this work! This is good work we’re doing!
HB: Absolutely. 100%.
KLM: So I think this was the last area I had, but you had already brought it up, about this summer and the residential schools.
As you know and have mentioned, Canada has a different culture around First Nations issues in many ways. They’re a lot more prominent in the academy. People really do try to center, I think, stories more lately, and make an effort. You know, there’s a bigger Indigenous population in Canada by proportion, and these things seem to be just more in the news.
So, I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this, but even though I’m in the US visiting family, I read CBC and I’ve got one foot still in Canada. I did my PhD there. And it feels like the country is having a real reckoning. All the flags are at half-staff, for weeks, months. They’re really shaken by this residential school… it feels like a George Floyd moment last summer in the US is happening in Canada, around the schools and the children, and the settler population being very self-disgusted. There’s a lot of reflection, a lot of editorials in the paper. I’d say I would call it almost a perfect example of history as traumawork, but like with the whole society contending with it now.
So it’s this weird, watershed moment, one of these that we never know when they’re going to happen. I was also thinking it reminds me a bit of MeToo in 2017. It just kind of came out of nowhere, and then all of a sudden it became a thing.
So do you see that? I don’t think it feels the same in the US right now. Do you think we’re living through a moment where the broader population has to contend with what was done, and that this could be some pivot for some sort of change, or some real historical reckoning? In the US.
HB: It’s sad to say, but I don’t think it will.
I think here in the United States, we– you know, at one point there were 367 boarding schools in the United States. That we know of. That were state, federally, and religiously run. We don’t have any numbers, though, on exactly how many children were in those boarding schools. We have an estimate at around 1900 there were about 20,000. And then that number tripled by 1925. That’s what we think. But we don’t know for sure 100%.
I would like to think that this would lead to some sort of reckoning and awakening. But if eight minutes and forty-six seconds [of George Floyd’s murder] didn’t change things, I don’t know what will.
I would like to think that this would because this does involve children. But there’s always been a stigma around Indigenous people in the United States. It took forever for the Washington Football Team to change their mascot, and there were still people who were pissed about it!
I think the problem that we have in the United States is we don’t like to reconcile our past. We don’t like to talk about it, we don’t like to learn from it. I think that’s why people had issues with the 1619 Project. I think that’s why there’s issues around “critical race theory”– when all “critical race theory” is is telling the truth!
HB: It’s not saying you can’t be proud to be an American. But you should also know how that proud to be an American came about, you know? It started with almost the complete annihilation of one group of people, built on the backs of another enslaved group of people. It’s just talking about that.
And with the whole concept of, you know, in 2016 and in 2020, the “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great Again”, I often ask people: tell me when we were great. Because if you can tell me when we were great and you can back it up, I might concede to you. But until then, it’s 2021. We have the potential to be great, because we have all the tools at our disposal. But we aren’t great yet.
And I think the most patriotic thing somebody can do, is to understand that we are a country with a very flawed past. And we have a reckoning that is coming, and we need to be able to be prepared to deal with that. I’m hoping that with this boarding school initiative put forth by Deb Haaland, that might start. I’m hoping that we can.
I mean, Canada has its issues as well, but they at least apologized. We haven’t even gotten that here in the United States. We can’t even get an apology.
And I think people don’t want to be confronted with the past because it feels like they did something wrong. When I start lectures, I start with saying: I have nothing against you, nor am I saying you did anything wrong. But what you’ve got to understand is you’re sitting here today because you benefited off something that happened in the past. There is that benefit.
Or people talking about: well you got to go to college for free. That’s because of treaty rights. Those are things that happened that were agreements between the United States and my tribe that I belong to, that I was able to get my education. That was something that your government already agreed to, and is actually holding up their end of the bargain. When we know every single land treaty made with a Native nation in the United States has been violated.
I would like to think that perhaps there could be something coming out of this boarding school study that will be done. But if history holds true, which I think it will, the United States is going to prove itself once again to stay ignorant. And going back to the idea, when was America great? We have every possibility to be great. If we could just learn from that past, embrace it and move on, and stop repeating the same damn mistakes over and over and over.
And I think right now what you’re talking about– you know, this whole hysteria around critical race theory, it’s so dangerous. Because in Canada, they’re moving towards reckoning.
And it’s almost like, from my perspective as an American who lived in Canada for eleven years and just came back– I hadn’t been here in five years. I would not set foot here during the Trump years. So this has a been a culture shock for me. And I only lived forty-five minutes from the border in Vermont! Montréal. And so I’m really seeing my homeland with fresh eyes.
And it’s like this whole furor about critical race theory, it seems to me that because there were some baby steps taken towards a reckoning, now the right is saying we’re not just going to stop in the middle and say I don’t care. We’re going to go back. To: now you can’t even say anything about race in school.
I mean, like you said, there’s critical race theory in asking: what is structural racism? What is white privilege? But it seems, now they’re just going to say: you can’t have students read a speech by Malcolm X. You can’t learn this, you can’t mention that.
In other words, they’re going to call everything “critical race theory”, and they’re going to try to re-whitewash history three steps back from where it was even now, which was already not good enough at all.
HB: I know!
KLM: It’s a really dangerous, scary moment. And you see it happening. I go to the gym here, I think it’s the only time I’ve ever in my life really watched Fox News because it’s up in the gym. And you see them just screaming it at these old white people: everything is critical race theory! And so it’s a scary time for what’s happening to history, I think! In the US. At least in Canada, something is happening. So it’s sad for me to see that.
Is there any last thing we didn’t cover? Any last bit you’d want to say? About any of it? Secondary trauma, primary trauma, the work you do, the way it’s impacted your life, what you hope to get out of it, what you hope to do for your community? Anything at all.
HB: I really just hope that learning and bringing awareness to our history helps bring healing, into the community. Being able to get more people to know about who we are, and the traumas that Indigenous people have experienced, I think can lead to healing. I think it can be very good.
And I hope that community members who are survivors of– whether it’s boarding schools or sexual trauma or violent trauma– find space where they can heal. And that it’s not so hush hush, that it’s something that’s not just hidden.
I think there’s a bit of “you have to be a strong warrior” mentality around it. But, I think we also have to understand that even our greatest of warriors were just human. And they understood when Creator was like: you need to take a break. You need to rest and understand that.
I’m just hoping that with continued education and continued awareness, and making it okay to not be okay, that healing can begin.
KLM: Amazing. Okay. Well, thank you so much for talking to me. Really, I think this is going to be one of my favorite interviews, and also just that it would have not been a complete series without it. But I really like the things we touched on. And I’m really grateful to you for sharing it with me.
HB: My pleasure. Thank you.