Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart

braveheart_2 Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Hunkpapa, Oglala Lakota, PhD, is currently Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University School of Social Work. Dr. Brave Heart is a licensed social worker with advanced training in psychotherapy. In addition to private practice experience, she has extensive experience in community mental health on reservations and in urban areas.

Brave Heart is internationally recognized for developing historical trauma and historical unresolved grief theory and interventions among American Indians. In 1992 she founded the Takini Network, a Native non-profit organization devoted to community healing from intergenerational massive group trauma among Native Peoples.

The following article is about both the Takini Network and Dr. Brave Heart. When the article was originally published Brave Heart was a tenured faculty member at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work
. An update follows.

Healing from Historical Trauma and Grief

“Takini” is a Lakota word meaning “survivor or one who has been brought back to life”. The Takini Network is a collective of Lakota (Teton Sioux) and other Native natural, grassroots helpers and human service professionals. The mission of the network, which is located in Rapid City, South Dakota, is to improve the quality of life for Native people by helping them transcend and heal from historical trauma.

In the late 1970s Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart became aware that she was carrying “grief that was bigger than herself”. Overtime she became increasingly aware of the powerful impact that historical trauma, such as the boarding school experience and federal assimilation policies have had, not only on the direct victims of these traumas but also on the children and grandchildren of these Native people. Further, she says, "With the 1881 federal ban on traditional burials, spirit keeping, and the wiping of the tears ceremonies, Lakota grief was inhibited and compounded.”

Brave Heart gave talks about historical legacy at various mental health and social service conferences and in various tribal communities. She also became interested in the growing literature on the Jewish Holocaust, which documented not only the trauma and grief of the Holocaust survivors, but the trauma and grief that was passed on to the children and grandchildren of the survivors. Brave Heart suspected that, like the children of Jewish Holocaust survivors, generations of Americans Indians have suffered from what happened to their ancestors and also from the traumatic losses that continue today through alcohol-related accidents, homicide, and suicide.

In 1990 after years of doing front-line social worker, Brave Heart went back to school and in 1995 earned her doctorate in clinical social work from Smith College School for Social Work. Her dissertation was entitled, “The Return to the Sacred Path: Healing from Historical Trauma and Historical Unresolved Grief Among the Lakota.” According to social worker Josie Chase, this dissertation provided the framework for the Takini Network.

To address the unresolved grief and trauma of the Lakota people, Brave Heart created a psychoeducational curriculum for use in intensive, four-day workshops. In 1992, with the help of Jewish Holocaust therapist, Eva Fogelman, Brave Heart and her colleagues (including Josie Chase, Myra DeBruyn, Birgil Kills Straight, Bennet “Tuffy” Sierra, Lona Knight Fast Horse, Lester Obago) used the curriculum themselves. They did this as a way of preparing themselves to facilitate the same workshop for 46 people, most of whom were Lakota service professionals and natural healers. Chase explains, “We walked through the workshop to deal with our own issues and to experience it as the people in the workshop would.”

At the beginning of the workshop, which was held in the Sacred Black Hills, Brave Heart and the others viewed videotapes depicting Lakota traumas, such as the Wounded Knee Massacre and boarding schools. These videotapes plus discussions and exercises helped them get in touch with strong emotions and grief. They then shared their stories and reflected on the dynamics of unresolved grief and trauma, including how these dynamics were being played out in their own journeys and spiritual paths. The workshop closed with Lakota purification and wiping of the tears ceremonies.

A few days later, Brave Heart and the other facilitators held the first official workshop, which proved to be a powerful and helpful experience. Then, convinced that many other Indian people would probably welcome this kind of healing experience, Brave Heart, Chase, Kills Straight, Sierra, and Obago formed the Takini Network. They were joined later by Susan Yellow Horse. Together they have been offering workshops and other healing interventions.

The members of the Takini Network work at helping American Indian and Native Alaskan people recognize that the signs of historical trauma can include alcoholism, suicidal behavior, anxiety, depression and health problems. Some of these behaviors can be from anger that is turned inward. Homicide and abuse of others can also be linked to historical trauma.

Brave Heart says, “We talk about Paulo Freire’s concept of ‘internalized oppression’ and how people start identifying with the oppressor, which results in self-hatred and hatred of others like oneself. In our communities we have a lot of lateral oppression, lateral violence—people hurting other community members and placing aggression on to one another. Freire’s theory is that it’s dangerous to direct aggression at the oppressor. Since the aggression has to go somewhere, it goes out toward others like you. Once you recognize where these emotions come from, then you can find a healthy way to deal with them. We believe that that our traditional cultural and spiritual ways have natural ways to help people do that. They were very wise in that way.”

Since 1992 the Takini Network has conducted more than 50 workshops not only among Lakota people but also for Native people throughout the United States, including southwestern tribes and Alaska Native people. When working in other communities Brave Heart says, “We like to begin the work with the community leaders and natural helpers. People need to have some sobriety and strength because the work is difficult. We try not to impose our values or our beliefs or our culture on the group that we work with. We try to respect their tradition and culture. But we share what we know in order to help them.

“The community is responsible for the coordinating and the follow-up. People who go through training or workshops should have opportunities for follow-up on what they’ve begun to discover about themselves and the trauma, so we encourage people to form support groups and make use of the existing support services in the community such as mental health and substance abuse services. They might also want to form some specialized groups, such as talking circles.

“The evaluations of the work have been overwhelmingly positive. I think what helps people is that they don’t feel crazy any more.”

Chase says, “Our group relies on prayer and spirituality as our foundation. We believe that this work that we do is scared.” The members of the Network intend to reach out even more in the coming years. They have developed a parenting curriculum, which includes trauma work and draws on ancient wisdom. Brave Heart says the curriculum is “designed to prevent youth substance abuse and help our parents heal from the legacy of boarding school trauma.” Members of the Network also intend to create a healing center for all Native people.
sp00cvr Parts of the article above originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Winds of Change. The cover artist is Helen Hardin, Santa Clara Pueblo.)

Update 2007

Dr. Brave Heart's Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief Intervention has received grant awards, including grants that incorporate components of the intervention in reservation-based parenting work. From 2001-2004 Brave Heart directed an international conference that brought together indigenous survivors of massive trauma and their descendants. The conferences focused on mutual support and the sharing of models for healing.

Brave Heart has been a repeat conference presenter for the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. She has served on the Board of Directors for the Council on Social Work Education and as a consultant to the National Indian Country Child Trauma Center.

For more about Brave Heart, see her biography on the
Columbia University website.