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Sharing stories helps heal historic trauma

By Mary Stamp


Robbie Paul
Robbie Paul adapts stories to the world today

Robbie Paul, director of Native American Health Sciences at Washington State University, knows health and healing involve more than today’s medical care and prescriptions.

She believes Native Americans entering health care careers need to understand their culture, lives and stories, and particularly the effects of historical trauma.

“I teach from my strength, which is Native American culture,” said Robbie.  “That means I tell stories and adapt them to the world today.”

She teaches a class at the WSU College of Nursing titled, “Plateau Tribes Culture and Health.” In the health class, Robbie has students do a three-generation genealogy of health history, education and hometowns to help students understand who they are.  She knows that understanding her family history has been important to her own healing.

Part of her role is to recruit and retain Native Americans into the health science programs at WSU to help address the health care shortage and low numbers of Native Americans in the health care professions.

As one way to expand the number of students, she helped in 2007 to set up the Na-ha-shnee Health Science Institute, which offers a two-week camp in June at the Washington State University Pullman campus for Native American high school youth interested in health care careers. 

Na-ha-shee Science Institute
Native American high school students at Na-ha-shee Health Science Institute

The Na-ha-shee Health Science Institute’s purpose is to encourage native youth to explore health sciences.  The camp counselors are current Native American health care students from WSU.  Some of the workshops at the camp are presented by native health care professionals, such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists, an exercise physiologist, speech and hearing therapists, and others.  The counselors and professionals are role models for the high school students.

This institute for Native American high school students is a collaborative effort of several organizations and grants.

A grant called “Growing Our Own Native American Students and Faculty” is in partnership with Northwest Indian College, the lead institution, with WSU, the University of Washington and the Yakima Farm Workers Clinic of Yakima as subcontractors.

That camp is jointly held with another camp, called “Creating a Nursing Path,” sponsored by a U.S. Health Resources Service Administration Diversity Nursing Workforce grant.

Robbie—Tow-le-kit-we-son-my—also does much public speaking and education related to her doctoral dissertation, on “Historical Trauma and its Effects on a Ni mii puu Family” in which she learned her family story, and worked to heal historical wounds and unresolved grief that can lead to acute grief, depression, substance abuse, somatization disorder or post traumatic stress disorder.  She earned her doctoral degree in 2007 at Gonzaga University. 

Growing up in Craigmont, Idaho, on the Nez Perce reservation, the daughter of a white mother from Kansas and full Nez Perce father, and during high school in Lewiston, she faced slurs from peers about being “a dirty, lying Indian.” A teacher said her “race would die out,” and a Sunday school teacher asked, “Aren’t you glad you aren’t heathen?” 

Robbie earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics in 1972 at the University of Idaho.  When she wanted to provide day care at Whitworth Presbyterian Church, she earned a degree in early childhood education at Spokane Falls Community College in 1984.

Her divorce in 1990 meant she needed to support herself and her two children, so she began studies for a master’s degree in psychology at Eastern Washington University, completing it in 1994. 

In January 1995, she became coordinator for recruitment and retention for WSU’s College of Nursing.  In July 2007, she became director of Native American Health Sciences at WSU’s Spokane campus.  In that role, she helps recruit and retain Native American students for health sciences such as nursing, pharmacy, speech and hearing, exercise physiology and medicine.

Robbie has begun to track Native American students in those programs.  There are 15 nursing students, two students in pharmacy and one in speech and hearing.

“This year, we graduated our 51st Native American nurse,” she said.

To give insight into some needs of Native American students, Robbie described her work healing historical trauma. She said her doctoral dissertation research led her to discover family stories over five generations and to learn how knowing about the wounds, suffering and injustices experienced by previous generations could begin healing in her life.

“Pain from my divorce led me to feel.  I realized there were times of the year when I experienced depression,” she said.  “As I began to learn my family stories, I realized those times were tied to the times of the Nez Perce War.”

Reading about that time, she realized people in the story were her relatives, witnesses to the battle.

“My grandfather, Jessie Paul, then seven, awoke to a surprise cavalry attack Aug. 9, 1877, at Big Hole, Mont.,” she said.  “The cavalry was ordered to take no prisoners.  He saw five brothers and sisters murdered.”

About 90 of 700 Nez Perce were killed that day.  More than 250 were killed in the entire Nez Perce war.  Robbie’s great grandfather, Seven Days Whipping, was with Chief Joseph when he surrendered in October 1877, ending the Indian wars in the West.  She realized she needed to visit that site and others to heal.

That began a healing model for her family.  In 1991, she invited her father, Titus Paul, to join her.  He said no at first, but then decided to go.  They were among 12 who went that year. 

Now Nez Perce gather there each year to remember with a pipe ceremony and traditional dancing.  She has taken her children and grandchildren—the seventh generation—to that site to tell them the stories.

“I walk the ground quietly and can feel the energy of my ancestors’ spirits,” she said.  “The murder of women and children was an outrage. 

“As Nez Perce became Christian and assimilated, we thought we did not need to know our history or tell our stories,” Robbie said, “but our history is part of our genetic makeup and memory.

“People who are depressed may need to learn their family history.  Even third-generation Holocaust survivors experience trauma.  The way to stop the trauma is to find and tell the story,” Robbie said. “Effects are experienced by those who suffered the trauma, as well as the perpetrators.

“Some don’t want to tell their stories, seeking to protect their children from the horrors,” Robbie said, “but children still pick up on it.  The feelings are still there.  Historical trauma passes on as part of our psyche.”

Robbie learned about the Seven-Drum, Longhouse and Christian religions.  She learned about battles, slaughters, treaties made and broken, boarding schools and indignities previous generations suffered.  Those are part of the stories she passes on to her children and their children.

Robbie traces back five generations to her great-great-grandfather, Chief Ut-sin-malkin, who at age 12 in September 1805 was in a meadow in the Weippe Valley gathering camas when he met explorers Meriweather Lewis and William Clark.

“The 200 years since were life changing for Nez Perce, creating unresolved grief about changes forced on us through war, assimilation—loss of language and culture—and treaties,” she said.  “We were to be ‘Christianized, civilized and citizenized.’  I grew up hearing we didn’t need to learn our language.” 

The Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 affected all U.S. tribes.  It divided tribal reservations into 160 acre lots for each male and female, in an effort to make Indians farmers to help them be more civilized, she said.  If they improved the land, they would become citizens and land owners.  The act brought about the system of proving one’s “blood degree.”

Those facilitating surveys under the act did genealogies of everyone, their parents and grandparents to determine if they were full blood and were part of the tribe by blood heritage.

“This system also was the basis of tribal enrollments based on blood quantum,” she said. “Tribes determine what blood quantum one must be to be enrolled in the tribe.  When the facilitators surveyed the land, they broke it into allotments and what was left over was opened for homesteading.

“This is how some reservations became like a checker board.  The Nez Perce Reservation is a checkerboard mixture of tribally owned and private land,” she explained.

Missionaries, such as Henry Spalding, came to Christianize the Nez Perce, so Robbie and her family were Presbyterian.

Her father and grandfather were among those traumatized as they were “civilized” at boarding schools.

Giving lectures and telling stories to her children and grandchildren helps her work through the historic trauma and find ways to help people make amends.

While many talk about letting bygones be bygones, Robbie knows reconciliation takes work.  In 2006, she joined Rwandans, Czechs, Irish, Israelis, Palestinians, Germans and others at a conference on “No Future without Forgiveness,” held on the 10th anniversary of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at the event at the University of Capetown.

The commission has gathered people to share their memories as narratives, recognizing the ongoing need for forgiveness because people continue to live together in community.

Being with others around the world who share similar experiences gave her impetus to finish her dissertation.  

During a 10-minute private audience with Tutu, Robbie said, “He was moved to tears about how my people withstood what they did and that humanity is capable of such atrocities.  He also said we each have the choice to do good or bad, to heal or not to heal.

“To tell our story helps validate what happened,” she said.  “I hear similar experiences as I share stories across the country,

She hopes that as she hears and acknowledges people’s pain, it will stop the tendency for those hurt to pass on the hurt.

“As a psychologist, I hear many stories,” she said.  “I have prayed, sweat in sweat lodges, laid on the ground and let the stories go, to be able to hear stories and honor each person,” she said. “We need to listen to learn, and learn to listen—being connected to all things mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically.”

Robbie now lives in Deer Park with her second husband, Paul Wise, and attends the Open Door United Church of Christ.  Recently, she gave the Sunday message, sharing under the title “Baskets and Discipleship” a theme common in her faith and teaching.

“Sometimes we are the teachers and sometimes we are the students,” she said.  “Sometimes we feel we can’t do anything like weave a basket, but can be taught to do something great if we listen to the Creator and give thanks for the gifts we are given.

“In my relationship with the Creator, I am not just to pray up but also to pray all around,” she said. “We’re put on this earth to give back and help make the world a better place.”

As she speaks about the need for Native American health care workers or about historical trauma, she is cautious not to let statistics about native health issues or stories about the painful history perpetuate stereotypes.

“We are all human beings with common stories and issues,” she said.

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