Traumatic Monologues: The Therapeutic Turn in Indigenous Politics

tags: racism, Native American history, social services

Melanie K. Yazzie (Diné) is an assistant professor in the Departments of Native American Studies and American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She also organizes with The Red Nation, a grassroots, Native-run organization committed to the liberation of Indigenous people from colonialism and capitalism. She is lead editor of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, an international journal committed to public intellectualism and social justice.

IN 2016, OVER TWO HUNDRED ORGANIZATIONS signed on in support of a congressional resolution to establish May 5 as National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls (MMIWG). Long ignored—the need for an acronym itself is telling—the issue has belatedly risen to prominence in the United States and Canada this past decade, thanks largely to the efforts of grassroots Native women organizers. On May 4 of this year, as if notified just in time, President Joe Biden officially declared the next day Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Awareness Day.

The proclamation came less than five weeks after Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a new Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. It was widely heralded as a positive development in U.S.–Native relations, a good omen for the years ahead. But Biden has a mixed track record when it comes to Native people. He backs the Line 3 pipeline that passes through Minnesota, despite widespread Indigenous opposition. Over the last decade, the fervor about MMIWG has been matched only by the intensity of Indigenous organizing to protect water and land from extractive industries. Why would Biden support one but not the other?

The answer lies in the language of the MMIP proclamation. Biden calls MMIP a “tragedy” that stems “from a long history of broken promises, oppression, and trauma.” Lamenting that “for too long, there has been too much sorrow and worry” for the families of victims, he pledges to unite various tribal, federal, and law enforcement agencies to promote “healthy, safe communities” once and for all. This language mimics that of Executive Order 13898, which former President Donald Trump issued in November 2019 to establish Operation Lady Justice (OLJ), a Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. Trump stated that the task force should develop “a public-awareness campaign to educate both rural and urban communities about the needs of affected families.” It prescribed “maximally cooperative, trauma-informed responses to cases involving missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

Neither Biden’s nor Trump’s statement mentions what might be causing the mass murder of Indigenous people, namely ongoing colonization. By invoking the language of injury—tragedy, trauma, sorrow—the state can acknowledge the high rates of violence against Native people without addressing its underlying structural causes.

The two proclamations are symptomatic of what scholars describe as the therapeutic turn in neoliberal state power. As Athabascan feminist Dian Million and others have shown, in the aftermath of World War II, techniques of governance and domination in North America were redirected toward individual self-management. Where intervention was once done in the name of security and development, the state now spoke of the need of reforming subjects, who were suffering from various “failures of will” and in need of self-care. In Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights, Million charts how this development in turn gave rise to a trauma-informed Indigenous politics, in which the alchemy of self-help became a pre-requisite for demands for decolonization and self-determination.

The rise of trauma as a discourse in Indigenous politics can be traced back to the late 1960s, when projects deploying “human potential techniques” first arrived in Indian Country. By the 1980s, they had also proliferated across Canada under the guise of “community development.” These projects are predicated on the idea there are cultural or psychological causes that keep certain communities mired in poverty. They might involve, say, counselors and other development gurus, who are sent to reservations to help Indigenous people work through unresolved trauma. In effect, therapeutic theories of individualism provided a cunning mechanism to offload state responsibility for care onto individuals themselves, even as neoliberal austerity measures created staggering economic and social inequalities and brought despair to millions.

These community development initiatives had roots in state-run programs from earlier decades, when, after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, Native people were recruited to live in planned communities to save them from poverty. In the Navajo Nation, for example, a federally sponsored “experimental agricultural community” called the Fruitland Irrigation Project (FIP) was established in Fruitland, New Mexico, in 1937. The still-existing project was set up in the wake of a “failure” to increase Navajo standards of living according to criteria set forth by Congress in previous decades. Such projects tested and perfected strategies to Americanize Native people by using the language of human potential to promote development.

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