Analyzing Community Trauma Through Junior’s Eyes

Introduction


Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shares the often overlooked or untold experience of indigenous populations in the United States of America.  Hundreds of years of systemic oppression have resulted in generations of native people trapped in cycles of poverty, violence, health disparities, and more.  Burnette and Figley (2016) report that there are around a thousand native community cultures that are largely ignored by the rest of the country.  As such, the gap between the dominant culture and the indigenous populations grows wider by the day with no clear signal that change is coming.  Alexie’s text  provides insight into the historical trauma indigenous communities have endured, the manifestations of that trauma, and the mechanisms that hold it in place.  


Historical trauma perpetuated against Junior’s community


To begin, a working definition of historical trauma is useful. Historical trauma is a heaping of traumatic events over a significant span of time that take on the form of chronic disease whose symptoms include maladaptive social and behavioral patterns created almost as a coping mechanism and errantly normalized with each subsequent generation (Burnette and Figley, 2016; Sotero, 2006). Embedded within are lifetimes stacked upon lifetimes of shame, guilt, and distrust that have seeped into the collective mindset of the people, creating intergenerational harm from the moment of birth through the eventuality of death.  Burnette and Figley (2016) report, “As a result of historical traumas, indigenous peoples have experienced historical losses, which included the loss of land, traditional and spiritual ways, self-respect from poor treatment from government officials, language, family ties, trust from broken treaties, culture, and people” (p. 38).  A few standardized assumptions accompany such circumstance, including a deliberate and systematic infliction of mass-trauma through the subjugation of a selected population by dominant culture over an extensive period of time, creating a universal experience that jettisons the targeted population from their natural progression into a forced legacy determined by intentionally destructive measures put in place by the dominant culture (Sotero, 2006). 


Certainly, historical trauma is evidenced in Alexie’s novel.  Namely, there’s the sense of confinement to the reservation -- or “the rez” as Junior calls it.  None of the characters seem to have a strong affinity for their home but more of a resolve that this is where they are supposed to be.  Junior says, “I wish I were magical but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 7).  Throughout the narrative, aspirations beyond what “the rez” has to offer fizzle out almost as quickly as they start to bubble up.  Junior’s mom dreamed of going to college but never went; his father's musical talent went to waste; his sister’s whispered confession that she’d like to be a romance novelist remained unrealized.  Instead of pursuing goals that the average American might achieve with barely a second thought, those in Junior’s family represent what is seen throughout their community: a sense of impossibility with daring to want more than what the reservation had to offer.   Erikson (1998) writes, “People invest so much of themselves in that kind of social arrangement that they become absorbed by it, almost captive to it, and the larger collectivity around you becomes an extension of your own personality, an extension of your own flesh” (p. 156).  Likewise, Rowland-Klein and Dunlop (1998) note the transmission of such a legacy from parent to child draws a straight line down through the generations with no mechanism in place to halt the cycle.  Instead, the community continues to mirror itself, perpetuating the wheel of subjugation to turn evermore.  


For a character like Junior who has the audacity to break out and opt for education off the reservation, he feels the struggle of his choice quite deeply as his community shuns and condemns him for his choice. Junior says, “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 132).  The reason behind the backlash is a simple one:  he is prioritizing himself over the collective.  Erikson (1998) writes, “A community...derives from and depends on an almost perfect democracy of the spirit, where people are not only assumed to be equal in status but virtually identical in temperament and outlook” (p. 156).  That said, Junior’s decision not to attend school on the reservation is prompted by his teacher, Mr. P., who says, “We were supposed to make you give up being Indian.  Your songs and stories and language and dancing.  Everything.  We weren’t trying to kill Indian people.  We were trying to kill Indian culture” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 35) adding, “The only thing you kids are being taught is how to give up” (p. 42).  This stark confession shows Junior that there was no advantage to staying with his own people for his education.  It wasn’t quality by any measurement and didn’t even allow for the preservation of his heritage, two elements that seemed to escape the notice of the community that ostracizes him for striking out on his own.  Erikson (1998) teaches that “it is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides a context for intimacy, the community that represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions” (p. 157).  What’s normalized on the Spokane Indian Reservation, however, is a “sedentarization...which continues to exert profound effects on community identity and dynamics” ( Kirmayer et al, 2009, p. 65).


The compounding nature of trauma persists, as Junior is simultaneously shunned for opting to go to the white school while also being treated as a sort of oddity by his new classmates.  While this attempt to assimilate with the dominant culture creates tension at home, it also exposes Junior to the bizarre ignorance that dominant culture possesses about his culture.  For instance, his classmate Penelope dresses up like a homeless person for Halloween as a sort of suburban protest against poverty without really understanding the implications of poverty, something Junior and his community live as their everyday experience.  The divide and lack of understanding that exists between the white population and the indigenouos one perpetuates the trauma cycle as both sides hold onto myths and half-truths about the other.  Burnette and Figley (2016) highlight the deep sadness, bouts of depression, anger, intrusive thoughts, shame, fear, and distrust around white people as a maladaptive coping mechanism against the losses associated with the dominant group.  When one of his white teachers passive-aggressively discredits something Junior says in class, Alexie’s narrative offers, “I shrank back in my chair and remembered when I used to be a human being” (p. 86).  Whether Junior or anyone else from his community attempts to assimilate or stays segregated into the marginalized world set aside for them, the reminder of historical trauma that teaches them they are less than persists. 


Manifestation of trauma in Junior’s community


Historical trauma is not without its consequences. One of the most heart-wrenching examples of this is the community response to death.  Over the course of the novel, Junior reports on the death of his dog, his grandmother, two of his dad’s friends, his grandmother, and his sister.  Junior says, “Each funeral was a funeral for all of us.  We lived and died together” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 166).  Each of these deaths, too, is representative of various forms of community trauma manifestation, ranging from poverty to health disparities to community violence. Each of these lives lost is the helpless result of a failure to bolster and support the residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation.  


Poverty is practically the baseline for those in Junior’s community.  Using his parents as an example, Junior talks about what their dreams and aspirations were before offering almost a shrug when he states, “But we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams.  We don’t get those chances.  Or choices.  We’re just poor.  That’s all we are” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 13).  Poverty, then, is a state of mind as much as it is a consequence-based reality.  Without the upward mobility of economic possibility, the community remains frozen under the lid of a financial barrier they simply lack the means to cross.  To wit, Junior says:

It sucks to be poor and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor.  You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly.  And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian.  And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor.  It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 13).

When something like economic status can spiral into the very spirit and heart of the people, shaping their sense of self-worth by their material wealth, it creates a vicious cycle.  As Junior also says, “Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance.  No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 13).  The result is a population who is deprived of resources and opportunities that seemingly only money can buy.


One such manifestation in Junior’s community is health disparities. Sotero (2006) reports that populations who have long been subjected to chronic trauma circumstances have a much higher likelihood of disease.  Even scaling it back to consider such disparities one body at a time, Harris (2018) cites over twenty years of medical research that shows “childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades” (p. xiv).  Junior, himself, is born with excess spinal fluid and a seizure disorder.  While it’s not explicit in the text if this ailment is the result of lacking prenatal care or a congenital disorder, it creates sustained health issues for Junior and, tangentially, his family, friends, and community who cares for and about him.  

Sotero (2006) argues that Native American communities never recovered from the abuses of colonialism and violent marginalization.  Rates of death of various diseases, as compared to the U.S. average, projects indigenous people are “770% more likely to die from alcoholism, 650% more likely to die from tuberculosis, 420% more likely to die from diabetes, 280% more likely to die from accidents, 190% more likely to commit suicide, and 52% more likely to die from pneumonia or influenza” (Sotero, 2006, p. 101).  The result, too, is the numbness and normalizing of funerals and community loss.  Sotero (2006) refers to this as a “soul wound,” a poignant phrasing of the experience.  The hopelessness is conveyed in Junior’s life when his parents confess they are too poor to take their sick dog to the vet, opting, instead, to euthanize him themselves.  Junior says, “A bullet only costs two cents and anyone can afford that” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 14), a brutal reminder that death can be deemed more cost-effective than treatment.


The impact of alcoholism and other mental health issues, such as depression, contribute to the health disparities but also bleed into the prevalence of community violence. Burnette and Figley (2016) instruct that chronic trauma leads to a sense of resignation and helplessness that results in insecurity and a mistrustful nature as well as an internalization of how dominant culture has dehumanized them.  Our human bodies are primed, after all, for survival, and the maladaptive response to sustained “othering” is a loss of faith (Erikson, 1998).  In Alexie’s text, this is evidenced through the abusive nature of Rowdy’s father as well as the fight between Eugene and Bobby.  Of that, Junior says, “Way drunk, Eugene was shot and killed by one of his good friends, Bobby, who was too drunk to even remember pulling the trigger” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 169).  Junior adds that police determined the murder as a result over who got the last bit of wine -- and that when Bobby realized what he’d done, he hangs himself in jail.  “We didn’t even have enough time to forgive him,” Junior says (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 171).  The constant stream of violence on the reservation, a result both of intentional and unintentional actions, ripples out to encompass everyone -- everyone is impacted by each violent blow, everyone is wanting and needing a chance to heal.  


Underlying mechanisms facilitating re-traumatization and resilience


In addition to the manifestations of community trauma there are the mechanisms that hold the patterns and consequences in place.  One such mechanism is oppression.  Junior speaks to the deep feelings of helplessness that come as a result of his community’s oppression when he says, “I looked goofy on the outside, but it was the inside stuff that was the worst” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 3). Not only does he deal with the outcomes of a brain disorder that creates some external abnormalities in his appearance and speech, he lives with internal ugliness that he deems even more severe.  In many ways, Junior is a symbol of his community-at-large: they are “othered” because of the color of their skin and their cultural heritage and that “othering” creates a scarcity of resources that the dominant culture has systematically withheld from them.  The result is a diminished sense of social value, a helplessness that renders the community unable to believe they deserve more, preventing them from pushing for change.  Junior, then, also stands as a symbol of possibility and resilience as he confronts his own internalized pain through his drawings, saying he sees them as “tiny little lifeboats” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 6). 


Another mechanism of community trauma on the Spokane Indian Reservation is epigenetics.  According to Harris (2018), this term means “above the genome” and refers to genetic markers that can be passed along from parent to child.  Harris (2018) explains this using sheet music as an example: if the notes are the DNA, then the epigenetic markers are what dictates how loud or soft, fast or slow those notes are to be played.  What’s significant here is the impact of external factors on outcomes.  To put it more simply, it’s the standard “nature versus nurture” debate.  Harris (2018) reports that there is no separating the two aspects, that each plays a significant role.  The stress response proves to be a major factor, especially for coding in regards to something the body may experience again in the future (Harris, 2018).  The impact of epigenetics in a community like Junior’s is a state of hyper-vigilance that keeps the stress response on high alert at all times.  Think of it like holding a clenched fist, assuming someone might start a fight with you at any moment, even if there is no such threat.  Eventually, the body adapts to holding this unnecessary tension, which can lead to other problems as a result. Erikson (1998) writes, “The traumatized person now regards his entire world as an unsafe place” (p. 155).  Living with such heightened fear or worry creates a barrier towards healing and results in a higher likelihood of disease or early death (Harris, 2018).


In many ways, Junior’s best friend Rowdy is the living example of this.  While he has no health issues yet in his young life, he lives in a constant state of threat from his physically abusive father.  Rowdy, too, is known for bouts of violence and gets into fights often.  He is that clenched fist, forever ready to spring into action.  Again, Junior stands as the symbol of promise when he puffs up his chest to fight the white kids at his new school only to have them back off. This reaction is so against Junior’s norm that he barely knows what to do. He says, “I felt like somebody had shoved me into a rocket ship and blasted me to a new planet.  I was a freaky alien and there was absolutely no way to get home” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 66).  This illustrates so keenly how these reactive, violent coping mechanisms are deeply ingrained and normalized through both a nature and nurture lens in Junior’s community.


Even so, the residents of the Spokane Indian Reservation exert resilient energy, too, in their capacity to hold each other, to laugh together, to be over service to each other, especially in the face of loss amongst their group.  Burnette and Figley (2016) describe this with the term “survivance,” referring to the commitment indigenous people have to their homeland and their culture, something so clearly evidenced in Junior’s community.


Conclusion


Alexie’s novel captures both the plight and promise of the indigenous residents of the Spokane Indians Reservation.  Junior’s story is honest and raw while offering a great deal of hope, even though he claims that hope is “like some mythical creature” (Alexie and Forney, 2007, p. 51).  There is no doubt that historical trauma is a significant contributor in the lives of everyone on the reservation and that the manifestations of that trauma along with the mechanisms that hold it in place perpetuate overlapping toxic cycles. Kirmayer et al. (2009) teaches that resilience is not simple or linear, but, rather, a complex concept involving multiple processes.  While Alexie’s novel provides thought-provoking and needed insight into this indigenous community, seeing it all through the eyes of a young character who simply wants more is inspiring.  Even so, the path to true systemic change is long and treacherous -- and requires the buy-in of the oppressed populations being ignored or underserved.  Increasing awareness of the historical trauma of indigenous people and how that trauma is sustained over time is crucial in the quest to break these toxic cycles and create a more democratic and equitable treatment of the people whose way of life was callously upended by colonialism.



References


Alexie, S., & Forney, E. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York, NY: Little Brown Books for Young Readers.


Burnette, C. E., & Figley, C. R. (2016). Historical oppression, resilience, and transcendence: can a holistic framework help explain violence experienced by indigenous people?. Social work, 62(1) 37-44.


Erikson, K. T. (1998). Trauma at Buffalo Creek. Society35(2), 153-161.


Harris, N. B. (2018). Chapter 6: Lick your Pups! In The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Kirmayer, L. J., Sehdev, M., & Isaac, C. (2009). “Community Resilience” in Community resilience: Models, metaphors and measures. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 5(1), pgs. 62-117.


Rowland-Klein, D., & Dunlop, R. (1998). The transmission of trauma across generations: Identification with parental trauma in children of Holocaust survivors. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry32(3), 358-369.


Sotero, M. (2006). A conceptual model of historical trauma: Implications for public health practice and research. Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice, 1(1), 93-108. 




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Written while in pursuit of an MSSA from CWRU.

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