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While DNA carries traumas, traditions give resilience

Martina Whelshula

Offering perspectives on the health legacies people carry in their DNA from trauma and toxins that impact their lives today, Martina Whelshula, a member of the Arrow Lakes Nation of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a descendent of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, and Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan, a member of the Spokane Tribe, spoke in a panel on "Rivers through our Memory" during the Sept. 27 One River, Ethics Matter Conference.

Martina, CEO and partner in Swan Innovations LP with her daughter Cree Whelshula, is an educator, trainer and consultant in intergenerational trauma impacting indigenous communities.

After earning a doctoral degree in 1999 at California Institute of Integral Studies, she taught tribal language and was the Spokane Tribal College president. With Empire Health Foundation, she has co-developed an integrative cultural healing model to address trauma, mental health and substance use disorders for tribes.

For seven years as director of a Native American inpatient treatment for drug and alcohol addicted youth, she developed a "revolutionary" approach to behavioral health care.

Martina sees both trauma and resilience.

"There were massacres, hangings, violence, abuse and murders. Boarding schools killed thousands of children to assimilate them to settlers' language and ways," she said.

Fed a minimum amount of food, boarding school children were starving. The death rate among the Sanpoil was 90 percent, she said.

The diet and deaths started "epigenetic intergenerational trauma, changing chemical signatures that determine what genes are expressed," said Martina. "We are what our grandmothers ate. We know our mothers,' grandmothers' and great-grandmothers' trauma.

"While some think we start clean at conception, epigenetic markers are persistent," she explained. "Traumas create genetic markers that tell genes what to do—turning them on or off, just as a smoker sends markers to genes that determine a predisposition for cancer."

Parental care is critical in utero and during early years for those who inherit psychological, emotional and environmental tendencies, she said.

Part of the genocide at boarding schools was cutting children from their parents and traditions that would have calmed their stress, Martina said.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) of neglect and abuse, witnessing violence, experiencing racism and historical loss all have impact, she said, adding that the average ACES score of Native Americans is 50 percent higher than whites.

"As epigenetics turn DNA on or off, we see health disparities, psychological disorders, PTSD and lower life expectancies," she said. "Children's genes were affected by abuse at residential schools. As adults they have had the same rate of PTSD as soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Trauma responses include fight, flight, freezing or fawning. For some children, bullying, narcissism and anger explosions are responses to the genetic trauma," Martina said, urging teachers to know punishment does not help.

"Along with trauma, we have intergenerational cultural resilience that suppresses boarding school trauma. That resilience is fostered by bonding and feeling loved, safe and supported," she said, adding that cultural traditions build spiritual strength, self-sufficiency and adaptive skills. Other factors fostering resilience are connection with the natural world, caring for creation and awareness that all of creation is equal. 

The idea that "I am the river, and the river is me" is empowering, Martina said. "Water is a sacred gift."

Science affirms the healing benefits of living beside water, she said, a biological connection that "generates a neurochemical producing wellness and serenity. We need to increase access to rivers for youth.

"We also need to preserve our language to regain some of our traditional knowledge, so we can teach children ways that lead them to feel pride. Children need to spend time with elders to gain knowledge and learn the nuances of river life," she added.

Martina concluded that neurobiology science validates the value of cultural practices and traditions.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November 2022