Charmaine White Face: Trauma impacts survival of our language

Charmaine White Face. Photo by Susan Roberts

Trauma Imprint and the Lakota Language
By Charmaine White Face
Lakota Country Times Columnist

First I want to thank Denver American Horse and Delphine Red Shirt for their individual efforts to save our language by putting it in a nice safe place like an editorial in the Lakota Country Times. It helps some of us more than you know.

But there is something more that needs to be looked at as to why our language is diminishing. It is a biological process called ‘trauma imprint.’

A short, true story will explain what this means. A nest of robins lived in one of the large cherry trees in my yard for years. Each spring I would wait for them to arrive and begin gathering twigs and string to reinforce their nest, their morning song often waking me up.

A few years ago, one of my sons was staying with me and brought his large dog. One day, I let the dog out on her leach. Suddenly I heard a clamor of birds and looked out to see that she had caught a young robin and had it pinned to the ground. The birds were diving at her, truly distressed. I grabbed her and quickly brought her in the house, then I went back out to notice the young robin was badly hurt and would die.

The older birds quit their noise and quietly watched as I placed the young robin, which was still alive but soon to die, under some other smaller cherry trees. To this day, the robins no longer nest in the big cherry tree. This is called ’trauma imprint’ and not only was it imprinted on the adults but also, and more importantly, on the other young robins. It affected their genes, their DNA. It imprinted that living in this one particular group of cherry trees was too dangerous for their survival. Now, generations of robins later, none nest in those trees.

Biologists and geneticists have long known about ‘trauma imprint’ but it is only in the last thirty decades that they have sought to find if ‘trauma imprint’ is embedded in the DNA, and the answer is “yes.” It is not a change to the DNA but is like a spider web around the DNA which is called “methylating.”

Discover magazine’s May 2014 Issue has an article called “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on your Genes.” In that article it explains how abuse in childhood can affect your life and change your genes in this process called “Methylating.”

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How does this relate to the loss of our Lakota, or Nakota, or Dakota languages? Remember the abuse and trauma that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents went through in the boarding schools when the U.S. government and the missionaries were taking “the Indian” out of them. I have heard first-person stories of children who were beaten to death for speaking one Lakota word, beaten to death in front of the other children. Is this any different than the young robin killed in front of its siblings and parents?

However, scientists are also realizing that there might be medicines to reverse the methylating along with behavioral changes. We need to start asking our own medicine people, not doctors or western medicine, if there is a traditional medicine we can take so we can stop this methylating of our genes and be able to relearn our own languages. The reason I say this is because we had ceremonies and medicines for our own people when they came back from war. Western society has only in the past few decades learned about Post Trauma Stress Disorder, and they still don’t know how to adequately treat it.

Our civilization was tens of thousands of years old. Our people were so spiritually attuned that they could ask the invisible ones to help in all areas of our lives. In order to save ourselves as the Oceti Sakowin nation that we are, we need to begin to reverse this colonization that has so devastated our people. This means finding ways to take off these spider webs called methylates that surround our genes and is affecting our being who the Creator made us to be. We also need to consider this in not just the language aspect but in the possibility that this is also causing the number of suicides affecting us. Remember, we had no suicides before the colonization.

(Charmaine White Face, or Zumila Wobaga, is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who serves as the coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills. She is an organizer, writer and former teacher.)

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