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Intergenerational trauma: 5 Questions for Indigenous advocate Susan Beaulieu
Beaulieu discusses some of the root causes of trauma in Indigenous communities and what she sees as potential paths toward healing.
About eight years ago, Susan Beaulieu, Anishinaabe from the Red Lake Nation, went to an ayahuasca retreat in Ecuador with her husband to help him seek help with opioid addiction. Although Beaulieu originally went on the trip to support her husband, she also participated and was surprised by how powerful she found the ceremony, and how much healing work there was to do in herself too. Afterwards, Beaulieu began incorporating psychedelics and plant medicines into her life as she worked to understand and heal from intergenerational trauma.
Today, Beaulieu, who is based in central Minnesota, is the Healing Justice Director at the NDN Collective, an Indigenous advocacy organization. Within the Collective and her broader work with tribal nations and Indigenous people, Beaulieu does presentations and training on intergenerational trauma and its impacts on Indigenous communities. She also offers mind-body sessions and meditations practices. The Microdose spoke with Beaulieu about her work and her belief that psychedelics and plant medicines, including sage and sweetgrass, offer an opportunity for Indigenous people to find healing outside of a traditional western mental health model.
Can you explain some of the ways that intergenerational trauma has affected Indigenous communities?
One example that I think more people are starting to learn about and understand is boarding schools, especially with the uncovering of the gravesites at the schools both in Canada and the United States. You had Indigenous children, some as young as 2½ years old, being taken from their communities and put into boarding schools where they were often subject to physical, mental, and emotional abuse. Some of them were gone for a decade or more and they were punished for speaking their Indigenous languages or for doing anything that was related to their culture. The goal of boarding schools was assimilation, you know, the famous line, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Several generations of our ancestors went through boarding schools where they experienced all sorts of abuses, neglect, and traumas, then they came out and didn’t have the tools to cope. And so I think it's really important to think about the shifts that boarding school trauma had in our family systems and how children were reared from really healthy environments to now really highly traumatized environments. That is in large part why, in many of our Indigenous communities, the cycles of adverse childhood experiences are significantly higher than in other groups.
When you can begin to understand some of those traumas, whether it be removal and relocation, boarding schools, broken treaties, and so on, it's really eye opening to see the really intentional policies to break down Indigenous communities at all levels. We have not had the opportunity as Indigenous people to heal that yet. And I think until we understand that larger context, releasing some of the guilt and shame that we have about things that we've done, or the ways that our families are, or the things that our communities are experiencing, we won’t be able to fully heal.
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Once there is that understanding of intergenerational traumas, what can Indigenous communities do to begin the healing process?
So much of healing is about reclaiming and stepping back into our power, which only can happen in the present moment. We can't go back and change anything. We can't jump forward into the future. And so if we stay in the past, we tend to get depressed. If we stay in the future, we tend to get anxious. And so coming back to the present moment and learning how to do that over and over again, to be able to then move from a place of power, because this moment is where I can make change.
There's no one template for what healing looks like. Healing for each person is so unique because our own experience is the lens through which we see and experience the world. So what resonates with us for healing is different. And so I really encourage people to find what really resonates with you, what makes you feel a sense of aliveness in you.
A lot of the practices that I teach are mind body practices to help people reconnect to their body. A lot of times with trauma, people will dissociate and disconnect from their physical body, disconnect from their emotions, because what's happening to their bodies or emotions is too overwhelming. So I use practices like body scans, mindful eating activities, reading mindfully, even just sitting outside, but really anything that brings you back into your body.
Based on your experience, and in your opinion, is there a potential role for psychedelics in Indigenous healing and working through intergenerational trauma?
I think it's an opportunity for us. As I've been doing this work around healing in our Indigenous communities, one of the challenges is that some of this trauma energy that we carry cannot be accessed with the thinking mind. We cannot go to therapy and address it that way. And so from my experience, what psychedelics open up is the potential to work with ancestral energy, spiritual energy, repressed emotional energy, and unconscious thought patterns.
I feel so hopeful about bringing more opportunities for Indigenous peoples to work with psychedelics because psychedelics help us to access and address all of those parts of ourselves and to access energy that is at levels that we cannot access in a conscious way.
Indigenous people know that we’re all related and everything is connected, but sometimes there's a disconnect between what we know in our head and what we embody and do. And so my experience has been that psychedelics can provide a really powerful way to integrate that information in a deeper way so that it becomes wisdom. It's not just knowledge we carry in our head and we can recite, but it becomes wisdom that we can actually move in a new way in this world with.
What are some of the challenges facing Indigenous people interested in accessing psychedelics today?
I think one of the challenges that I see right now in how the psychedelic field is unfolding is that it very much is from a medical Western model. I'm not a trained therapist, for example. I don't fall into a lot of those categories that would allow me to be able to get trained to be able to do psychedelic work with folks.
We as Indigenous people should be able to say this is how we want to use psychedelics in our communities for healing. These are the protocols that we need. That shouldn't be determined outside of our communities. We really need to be driving that for our own people. Another challenge is getting access to the plant medicines. Indigenous people, not big companies, need to be in charge of that.
I also think there's this romanticization or distorted view of Indigenous peoples and shamanism that is amplified because of people’s interest in psychedelics and ceremonies. I think the reason why people copy and paste, drag and drop with Indigenous traditions and ceremonies is because that's an easier thing to do than having to actually understand what's happening and then how you take inspiration from that. They’re just looking at the surface of what's being done, but not at the why. There's a real responsibility that goes with being a healer or someone entrusted with plant medicines and that should not ever be taken lightly.
What can non Indigenous people do to help support Indigenous people who want to heal on their own terms?
The more people can educate themselves and understand the history of this country and what happened to Indigenous peoples, the better. That also means understanding the role that we all continue playing in perpetuating these systems and cycles in our society. I think that's a really important place to start.
It's going to take a little bit at a time for us as Indigenous people to figure out what this pathway can look like for our relatives to sit with plant medicines and psychedelics for healing. And so non-Indigenous people can give us some time and space to do that. And when we are ready, they need to be ready to partner with and help us. And that must be in a way where they don't feel like they need to have their hands on how it happens, but they just truly want to support the work that we want to move forward in the way we want to move it forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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