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Colloquy Podcast: “We Have Our Medicine”

 Trauma and resilience in indigenous communities

In the November 2021 episode of the Colloquy podcast, the sociologist Blythe George, PhD '20, discusses the vibrance of rural indigenous communities amid the trauma that is the legacy of settler colonialism. A member of the Yurok tribe of northwestern California and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced, George maps the deep connections indigenous people have to the sacred—and to each other—and says they have within their culture all they need to heal themselves. They just need the rest of us to get out of their way.

Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Colloquy: So before we get into your research, I'd love it if you could just talk a little bit about your own experience growing up in the Yurok community in Northwestern California. What were the challenges that you experienced and you saw? Where did you draw strength and inspiration? And how does that experience shape your work as a sociologist?

Professor Blythe George: People who know me know that many of the questions I consider as a sociologist are questions that I thought about well before I gained that credential. Coming from a small town called McKinleyville, California, born and raised, Humboldt County, I always knew I was Yurok. I came from a family where that was palpable. It didn't need to be said, we knew.

We were indigenous. We lived off-reservation, which is actually not uncommon. 70 percent of indigenous peoples actually live off-reservation. And for my tribe, many of us live closer to Eureka or to the cities where many amenities are. My dad was a logger, my mother a homemaker for much of my life.

The resilience of the indigenous family unit is something that cannot be understated, both for my participants and the work we talk about today, but in my own life as well. My mother and father were both very supportive of all my aspirations. And even though we dealt with things like domestic violence and substance use disorder in the home life, we still overcame.

We are an incredibly tight family unit, my parents my two younger brothers. And we've leaned into our resilience and our grit. But we've also had to overcome things that those who know my work know that I've been wrestling with these questions. And then I have an intimate vantage point on them, above and beyond the doctor or the PhD that goes after my name.

Colloquy: Give us the 30,000-foot perspective, if you will. Try and speak in a kind of broad-ranging way about the challenges faced by rural indigenous communities in the United States.

George: So even as I am going to share some statistics to kind of help paint the picture, so to speak, I really want to provide that caveat that I try to operate within a strengths-based model. So as much as we talk about poverty or negative health outcomes, we also need to recognize that these are impositions of a very specific kind. The impacts of settler-colonialism are an undergirding force to all of the outcomes we see in present-day, both positive and negative.

Blythe George in PhD Regalia
Sociologist Blythe George, PhD '20

Now, any consideration of tribal peoples or of reservations, in particular, has to reckon with some really harsh realities. Economically speaking, if you're living on a reservation, you're three to four times more likely to live in poverty. Some reservations are impacted by unemployment rates of 80 percent or more. With seasonal work, this can be almost 100 percent in the winter months, for example.

Now, as a sociologist, we spend a lot of time thinking about those outcomes. But increasingly, we have a larger kind of purview, so to speak, looking at the social determinants of health or health outcomes and public health outcomes. Now, chronic and accidental death for American Indians is high across the board. You name it, whether it's heart disease, diabetes, accidental death, violent death. Generally speaking, American Indians are at the top of the list when it comes to highest rates.

And what's even worse is we often have to provide an asterisk that all of these are underestimates because we know that the data quality for indigenous data is such that we can have a count, but we know that underreporting, racial misclassification, a plethora of data challenges mean that even these dire numbers are only capturing a glimpse of what's actually taking place.

Now, suicide risk across the life course outpaces that of any other group. We'll actually come back to this later. Additionally, when you think of the opioid epidemic, which is ongoing in many communities across the nation, American Indians are four times as likely to die from opioid overdose. And in the Humboldt Donner area in my case study specifically, at the peak of the opioid epidemic, we were seven times more likely to die of an overdose than the average American.

Now, when it comes to incarceration, similar line of inquiry. We have almost an order of magnitude greater when it comes to the likelihood that we will end up in jail in the average year, with the average Yurok 11 times more likely than the average Californian to wind up in jail.

We also know in recent news—I hope people are following the MMIW crisis when it comes to missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, two-spirits, missing indigenous peoples more generally. We know that they are disproportionately victims of violence, that indigenous women in particular, one out of two, experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Four out of five experience some kind of violence, particularly intimate partner violence, and that homicide is the third leading cause of death for indigenous women.

Now, it's hard not to sit with these numbers and the enormity of this and feel just despair. And I think in a way, we have to leave room for that, for a level of grief and corresponding despair. But at the same time, I'm still here. I'm an indigenous sociologist telling you these numbers. I am proof of our resilience and our survival and our resistance to the forces that have made this so.

And so for my work, that it's where I dig into it because we don't have a choice. These are our people and our health. And restoring our community and our individual well-being is vital to ourselves and to our future as indigenous peoples.

Colloquy: I want to ask you now about this term you've coined: the reservation effect. It refers to the way that trauma sits side-by-side with the sacred in indigenous communities. First of all, can you describe that dynamic? Just kind of unpack it for us a little bit.

George: It's essentially a juxtaposition that I pose between the extreme outcomes, the inequality that I just described, that lives side-by-side with some of the most sacred places. For my people at least, our reservation—we have a real privilege, in that unlike some other tribes or reservations elsewhere, our reservation does include some of our most sacred landscapes.

And that means then that, in present-day, if you want to access those places for ceremony, if you want to participate in our dances, all of those kinds of activities, you have to navigate these very real present-day outcomes, whether it's violence, crime, poverty, substance use disorder, trauma. On the reservation, the sacred and the profane sit side-by-side.

And it's really important to me to bring attention to that tension and that juxtaposition because I don't want anyone to, A, just paint reservations as a bad place because that's not it. No one in my research ever described the reservation as a negative place. In fact, it was a place spoken of with great reverence and pride to be coming from that place.

Restoring our community and our individual well-being is vital to ourselves and to our future as indigenous peoples.

Additionally, though, it's been a place that has been almost a collection point for each wave of marginalization, whether it was the genocide that came with contact, whether it was the slavery and the boarding schools that followed, or even in present-day, where mass incarceration and substance use disorder, epidemics, poly-substance use epidemics are taking our people away from us in real-time. The reservation is where these experiences accumulate.

Now, going further, it's not only a characteristic of the space. But it's how the social resources are impacted. Now, in sociology and in stratification studies or urban inequality in particular, ironically, my expertise is in urban inequality, even as my study areas are rural because by and large, the great majority of theories that we as sociologists use to grapple with inequality have been drawn from urban cases.

And what I'm presenting is actually a fundamentally different space with similar mechanisms taking place. And in particular, I focus on the social organization and the implications for social networks and the ties between individuals that result from these conditions or are impacted by these conditions but have their basis in something much greater, in our identity and our landscape as world renewal peoples.

Colloquy: I just want to follow up on what you were saying that so much of sociology revolves around the urban environment. You're observing some of the same problematic dynamics roll out in rural communities. What are the differences in how you approach the rural environment?

George: In rural areas, we're strapped for resources of all kinds, whether it's mental health, physical health more generally, all of these resources are drastically reduced, because at present, a majority of our funding schemes are based on population or population density. And so a rural place, by definition, is a place that has got more trees than people. That's what I always say about where I'm from. There's more trees than people.

And that means then that the resources are there, whether it's education, health, our counties at large, are just working with less across a drastically dispersed space. That means that any one person means so many things to their other network partners. They play a variety of roles in that, functionally speaking, there's no one else who can. It's only so many people. And certain tasks still have to be carried out, whatever that looks like.

Colloquy: As you talk about the resilience of these communities and the way that the sacred is deeply intertwined with everything that goes on there, can the communities hold the trauma and the sacred at the same time? And how do they do it?

George: I don't think I would be here if we hadn't been holding it for generations at this point. We as scientists in modern era are only now starting to catch up to the healing capacities of our ceremonies as indigenous peoples. For my tribe, we have certain practices, certain dances that we do, and even down to the level of the rhythm in which we dance, the songs. We're showing that those actions are restorative on the level of DNA, are restorative to the structure of telomeres, the little tails on the end of our DNA that, if that goes away, we're all done, right?

We know also that trauma damages telomeres. And so in many ways, there is an experience of trauma in my community. This is all hot off the presses. But I almost think of it as a trauma cubed because I have individual traumas in the life course of any one person. I have intergenerational traumas, the trauma between a parent and a child, a grandparent, and a child.

Unfortunately, as a result of boarding school, the direct imposition of the state onto some of our most intimate bonds, right? And then we have the multigenerational component, where we know, and my participants knew, that even as they would describe, at times, grievous trauma at the hands of their loved ones that they had experienced, it was rare that they didn't preface it with a consideration for what their loved ones had experienced and the victimization that had been placed on their bloodline as a result of being indigenous peoples.

And so what gives me a lot of hope, even as we sit with the despair and the grief, is that truly, we have our medicine. We just need people to get out of the way and let us start healing ourselves and be partners in that and supportive of that because the time of the great white father fixing things, paternalism, these never worked and in large part might be why we're here now. If we could more readily employ what we know works, we would be holding these things even better.

Colloquy: You talk about thick connections in indigenous communities and expansive social networks on the reservation but also how the settler-colonial project has soured them. And you write that it produces neither strong nor weak ties but rather ties that cut both ways. Talk about the ties that cut both ways. How does that play out?

George: As a sociologist, we have different theories we've used to conceptualize social ties. And the big one that we all come back to is Granovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. And basically, there's this idea that a tie, a social connection is predicated on the inputs, let's say.

A strong tie might be the tie between two best friends from growing up. We've known each other forever. A weak time might be that person I met at orientation last week. And somehow, a couple of months later, they helped me get a job because they were on the committee reviewing it, and they remember how awesome I was. That's a weak tie, right?

The time of the ‘great white father’ fixing things, paternalism, these never worked and in large part might be why we're here now. If [indigenous people] could more readily employ what we know works, we would be holding [the trauma] even better.

And we actually have shown that sometimes those weak ties are a little more efficacious or effective in getting you what you want, whether it's a job. The cliche, it's not what you know, it's who you know, right? And so obviously as a sociologist, I'm steeped in this kind of theoretical tradition.

And I came back to my community with these eyes and mind of what I thought I would see. And instead, I saw what I am calling instead as thick ties. And this is different because what I'm implying by that thickness is that the ties between any two people in a network are dense and overlapping.

That's because there's an acquaintance density in these areas where everyone knows everyone. That's what acquaintance density is the kind of fancy word for. And in these places, everyone knowing everyone means that there's a huge resource in that. But also, as I said earlier, in these small places, there's a multiplicity of ties, it's called, where any one person plays a variety of social roles to their other network partners.

In my community, your boss, your supervisor on the forestry crew might be your cousin on your dad's side who's also your dance leader when you go to ceremony. And once upon a time, maybe you guys also used together because you were young and you were at the same party. That's how it was back then. So these ties between individuals are dense and overlapping. They span time, and they span generations because we know that this might be the way you and I know each other. But I know my mom and his dad, they went to school together. They go way back. There are all these reinforcing and overlapping connections that I often come back to.

I think of us as salmon people. Salmon is one of our main food sources. We use this huge net called a gill net. And it's almost big enough to go across this huge river. And that net brings in all those fish. It's this huge resource.  Just like when you want to get a job. You know, “I ain't got gas money today, but I'm going to ask my buddy.” There's this huge net.

But you can also get stuck in a net. Nets can be sticky. They can be tensile in a way that we know when it comes to recovery, we know that if you're in the process of trying to get clean from whatever substance—we know the books, the 12 steps, they tell you to change your persons, places, things, the nouns in your life.

You've got to change all that up. But what if your using people are your pards, partners? “Pards” is what they call them in the Valley. What if you guys go way back? And like I said, our families have gone back. Our families actually come together in ceremony. And so our connection is so much greater than the connection of using people. But at the same time, people can wear these multiple hats in the lifespan of one another. And we know this has implications for desistance.

Social networks are one of the ways you either do or do not stop committing crime. And the ties that you're connected to others, that also means that the outcomes of others reverberate back. And that's where I come back is the tragedy and the trauma.

For example, a few years back, there was a rash of suicides in the very rural downriver community of Weitchpec. And they had to declare a state of emergency because between those suicides and other deaths in the region, 10 percent of their population died in a matter of months. Can you imagine any other city where 10 percent of people just died in a couple of months?

The level and the enormity of the grief and the tragedy there, there are no words, right? And what's even more cruel is that we know that this is not a one-off, that on the reservation, to quote my colleague Dr. Desi Small-Rodriguez, for those that come from a reservation community, it's almost constant. It's almost a constant churn and circle of tragedy and of trauma, such that some families are almost constantly in a state of grieving because of the frequency and the enormity of the loss that is felt in these communities.

Now, sociologists, we're still working through the verbiage, let alone the theories of how to talk about these things. I'm actually trying to make inroads into what I want to call a sociology of trauma. Typically, trauma and the implications are something we've regarded as psychology's bread and butter.

And what we're seeing here is a community trauma response. And we have no concepts of the tools of the medicine that could treat that. When we think of trauma and PTSD as the individual kind of consequence, we have ways to treat an individual's trauma. But how do you treat the trauma of a community?

And it's not just indigenous communities now in present-day who reckon with this question. And so I like to think that means that our answers and our tools will be helpful for not just us as well. But coming back to, like I said, even as these bad things live in these places, the good lives there too. And that's one of the things about our worldview is that life and death, they're side-by-side. It doesn't matter.

There's a constant push and pull. And if anything, we as world renewal, peoples we shepherd this balance. That was what we were put here to do. And right now, we're unwell because our world is out of balance. And it's not just us who's unwell. The whole world, we're all realizing how there are things that are out of balance that we have to attend to because, the sickness and the symptoms, the writing's on the wall.

Colloquy: So what can indigenous communities teach the rest of us about intervening in cycles of adversity, teach the rest of us about resilience in the midst of trauma? Here we are in a pretty traumatic time. The pandemic kind of keeps going, such incredible polarization and contempt for people on various sides of the cultural or political or racial divides. What can we learn from indigenous communities like the one you grew up in and the ones you study?

George: There are certain basic, I think, components that we, just by virtue of the Western paradigm, live under, whether it's the patriarchy, whether it's neoliberalism, capitalism, you name it. All of these structures rest on some really key assumptions. And I think that what we as indigenous people have is the power to point out that paradigm and to push back on it and say that this isn't the way it has to be done. This isn't even the way it was always done.

Something that we do as indigenous peoples that I think is part of this paradigm shift is like a fundamental reconsideration of how we relate to one another. We are kin-based people, K-I-N, kin. We think of one another, whether it's people, whether it's the place, the environment, all of these things are part of an interconnectedness and a balance that we have specific roles to foster.

But I think a lot of times, in Western society, particularly when we think of incarceration, we want to handle things at arm's length. And for us, in my work more generally, I work with our tribal court. And we lean in. We pull someone closer, like they are our family. What would we want done for our brother, for our mother? These are the things that we lean into.

And I think that, as you said, during the COVID epidemic, some of the highest rates of vaccination have been in indigenous communities because when it comes to putting the group first and shepherding that space as a collective, that is what we do well. And I think we're going to see that those lessons are only more and more impactful as climate change looms, whether it's the fires, whether it's the storms, the floods, you name it.

There are certain lessons that we have actually always had. We have been called the canary in the coal mine. And so what is happening to us is an indication of what's in store for the whole world if we don't pull our heads out, if you'll excuse a colloquial turn of phrase. But yes, for me, I think there is also a component of compassion.

During the COVID epidemic, some of the highest rates of vaccination have been in indigenous communities because when it comes to putting the group first and shepherding that space as a collective, that is what we do well.

Something that always really struck me, and not in a good way, was when I read about certain kinds of people in the sociology theories, people who were repeat offenders, people who had been in and out of institutions, people who struggled with substance use disorder. They would talk about them like they didn't know them or they didn't love them. And I think that's because both of those things were true.

I come from a radically different tradition. These are my people. These are my family. These were my loved ones. And you will put respect on their names when you talk about them. And there's a whole need for compassion and for that appreciation for the fact that no one wanted to be on the street corner. No one wants to be at the bottom of the barrel. And the sooner we realize that and we embrace that compassion, the sooner we can walk together in a good way to their health, their well-being, and in turn, our health and our well-being.

Princeton economist Ellora Derenoncourt

The Colloquy podcast is a conversation with scholars and thinkers from Harvard's PhD community on some of the most pressing challenges of our time—from global health to climate change, growth and development, the future of AI, and many others. 

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