MISSOULA – When asked about historic trauma among members of her Oklahoma tribe, University of Montana employee Kimee Wind-Hummingbird recalls an opportunity she had last summer to attend the first stop of the national Road to Healing tour.
Sponsored by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to collect stories from survivors of the federal boarding school system, these tour stops would be steeped in emotion, Wind-Hummingbird said, and deeply impactful – never more so than for Native Americans of Oklahoma, which had more boarding schools than any other state in the nation.
“I asked my father if he wanted to go,” said Wind-Hummingbird, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, “and he said ‘no.’ I didn’t ask why. I felt it. I knew.
“Some of our ancestors never made it home from the boarding schools, and those that did were forever changed,” she added. “They were no longer the same children they were when they left that community.”
Today, as a training and technical assistance specialist for the UM’s National Native Children’s Trauma Center, Wind-Hummingbird helps tribal community leaders, educators and others identify and respond to trauma both historical and contemporary among the nation’s Native children.
“We have issues with housing, health care, getting to health care, some communities don’t have great roads … challenges that mainstream America doesn’t even know about,” Wind-Hummingbird said. “In our work at the center, we look at our practices, our way of life, our way of being that can help us feel whole.”
The center, housed in UM’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, is affiliated with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Children’s Health Act to raise awareness and services for children and families experiencing trauma.
NNCTC Executive Director Maegan Rides At The Door said the center at UM is one of only a few focused on Native children on a national level. Since its founding in 2007, staff has developed a catalog of trauma-focused interventions and trainings for tribes as far afield as Florida and Alaska.
Funding for much of the center’s work comes from federal grants, so the staff’s level of involvement with a tribe can vary, said Rides At the Door, an enrolled member of the Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation. While they don’t actively promote one-time trainings – “Trauma 101” as they call it – these initial introductions often lead to longer-term collaborations with the focus being on tribal members who know the community’s children best.
“We actually don’t train a lot of mental health professionals because there are typically only one to five clinicians working in most rural areas,” Rides At The Door said. “One to five can’t heal an entire community of traumatic experiences, so that has led us to expand support and trainings to other community-wide efforts while building systems of care that aren’t just focused specifically on mental health.”
This team approach comes to the fore in school systems where everyone from the principal to the bus driver is trained to view students with a “trauma lens,” said Amy Foster Wolferman, the center’s director of school-based training and technical assistance.
“We work with these teams to develop systemwide policies and procedures that focus on nonreactive discipline and creating safe spaces for students,” she said. “By understanding how trauma can trigger behavioral reactions, we can help students develop social skills for success at school and in society.”
Having a trauma lens applies, as well, when working with parents of school children, said Bettina Sandoval, director of the Taos Pueblo Education & Training Division in New Mexico.
“Parents often have trouble advocating for their children because they had bad experiences in school themselves,” said Sandoval, an award-winning educator who grew up on the Taos Pueblo. “If a principal only calls when there is a problem, a parent is less likely to show up. These are a traumatic response not because the parent doesn’t care. They care.”
The Taos Pueblo first worked with NNCTC during the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in significantly more deaths among Natives than other racial and ethnic groups.
“We wanted training to help us recognize and respond to pandemic deaths and its impact on children and their families,” Sandoval said. “Staff who took the course actually recognized trauma in themselves.”
Sandoval said the community now holds biweekly meeting with NNCTC, and trainings have extended to law enforcement as well as others in the community. As a professional, she said, the trainings have given her the tools and resources to be more effective in helping her tribe.
“We’re talking layer upon layer of trauma,” Sandoval said. “Not just historical, also present day. Death. Drugs. We’re opening a box that people have kept shut.”
Because of the diversity of their clientele, Rides At The Door said, their work with Taos Pueblo and other tribal groups is very much a partnership – one that recognizes traditional healing methods along with modern.
“We look at how the community defines trauma, including words in their Native language that define traumatic experiences in their tribal context,” she said. “We ask questions like what were and are the types of traumatic experiences that are different from other communities? How are these systems expressed given the cultural norms of these communities? How best to heal and what healing means?”
The center, she said, is helping tribes and groups who work with Native Americans in urban areas establish Child Advocacy Centers that will provide a hub of specialists for children facing abuse.
“So often these children fall through the cracks or they have to tell their story over and over again,” Rides At The Door said. “CACs allow professionals to coordinate care and better serve as advocates for victims of abuse.”
Although their work can be emotionally challenging, Wind-Hummingbird and others at the center see positive changes taking place in caring for Native children. Personally, she takes great pride in the fact her three children are learning Creek, their native language, and that young adults on her reservation are now talking about their tribal past and current-day challenges.
“They understand the role historical trauma has had in their lives and how we need to work together and come together and shakes some trees,” she said. “I am in awe of our team. Not just the work we are doing in Indian Country, but across the nation.”
Contact: Maegan Rides At The Door, executive director, UM National Native Children’s Trauma Center, 406-243-2644, firstname.lastname@example.org.