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Giving thanks to American Indians

November 25, 2013
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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On the Sunday before this Thanksgiving, my wife and I attended a yearly Present Music concert in Milwaukee dedicated to the holiday. It is held in a large Church. It always begins and ends with a local American Indian drum circle.

This time, as the drums pounded, the singing voices seemed especially high and piercing, almost shrieking to me. I could only imagine what they meant and what the singers were thinking. For me, it again elicited the one reservation I have had about this day when most of us are so grateful for this holiday and living in America.

The reservation, so to speak, is what happened to the American Indians to lead to the Thanksgiving holiday. Despite often helping the early settlers, there came years and decades of being conquered, forced to leave their homelands on "trails of tears," and so many tribes were decimated and/or put on a reservation.

As a cultural psychiatrist, I've known the tragic remnants of that history. The American Psychiatric Association's Fact Sheet from 2010 sums it up:

-twice the rate of poverty than in the general USA population, which was even much worse before the emergence of Indian owned casinos;
-six years lower life expectancy;
-twice the rate of violent victimization than even African-Americans;
-PTSD at twice the rate as the general population;
-serious psychological distress at 1.5 times more than the general population; and
-very high rates of alcoholism.

Nowadays, only a third live on a reservation. There they tend to use the Indian Health Service and traditional healers.

The majority, therefore, live in our communities. This is one opportunity where we in mental healthcare can thank them and try to make amends. We can:

-recognize that mental distress is often experienced in physical symptoms in this culture, so integrated medicine is helpful for access and recognition;
-respect their cultural heritage and values;
-offer a holistic approach to healing;
-watch for triggering of trauma related to governmental services in the public sector;
-address the anticipated mistrust;
-add their culture if your institution does a holiday party celebrating different cultures;
-look to the publications of the psychiatrist Carl Hammerschlag, who so successfully bridged the potential cultural divides.

For Jewish people, this Thanksgiving also falls on the first day of Hanukah. This confluence is so rare that it is now called Thanksgivukkah. Both holidays celebrate obtaining freedom from spiritual oppression. The Jewish people had already lost tribes in times past, too. Unfortunately, obtaining spiritual and political freedom is still very much a work-in-progress for many American Indian tribes. In fact, we notice from our travels in South American, Mexico, and Canada, where Native Americans were also conquered, their integration into society and mental health seems much further along than in the USA.

After the beginning drum circle, we heard some most moving music, with unusual harmony sung by singers of all ages and different faiths, written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Carolyn Shaw. This felt to me like another example of how music can be a "healing force of the universe," as jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler once proclaimed.

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...