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"Historical Trauma"

This devotion was given by NLC soprano, Sara Langworthy, prior to rehearsal on February 10, 2015. The choir has been preparing music for its Arizona Tour and upcoming concerts in Minnesota, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

Many of you know that my day job involves working for the University of Minnesota to translate what science tells us about kids and families into usable information for people who work in fields of practice and policy. Recently, I’ve been working on a project creating three short videos on a concept researchers call “historical trauma.”

Historical trauma is the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding that is carried across generations as a result of massive, group traumas experienced by entire communities.

Genocide. Slavery. Forced Relocation. Oppression.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m studying these topics the same time we’re singing about them.

As I’ve been studying historical trauma, and as we delve into this music, oddly, it’s not the stories of the reality of oppression that get to me.

What gets to me is the fact that the effects of oppression linger.

One of our presenters for this video series, a Native American woman, talks about her father growing up watching John Wayne movies and playing cowboys and Indians with his siblings. Like all kids, they’d always fight about who would be the Indians and who would be the cowboys. But here’s the ironic part: none of these American Indian children wanted to play the Indian. Because they knew that the Indian always dies.

The effects of the traumas faced by groups of people decades or even centuries ago because of their race, creed and ethnicity linger on the souls of their descendants, even in seemingly innocent childhood games. As a result, many people in these same communities experience higher rates of mental and physical illness, substance abuse, and erosion in families and community structures.

It’s become a persistent cycle, destroying families and communities, erasing the vibrancy of entire cultures. You see, historical trauma isn’t all about what happened in the past. It’s about what’s still happening.

As one of our presenters, Jessica Gorneau, put it: “The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away his hands, stand back, and say ‘look at what they’re doing to themselves.’”

But, when you talk to people who do historical trauma work, their goals are not to foster guilt and shame in the people who are descended from their oppressors. They want recognition of a shared history, acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their experiences, and cooperation on the journey of healing.

The music on this program rises out of deep longing and struggle for connection to others, to cultural identity, and to God. An acknowledgement of shared pain and loss, and the hope for a better future, these pieces speak to deep, shared human experiences, that bind us all together.

Where cultures were decimated and replaced, these pieces of music rose up and were preserved IN SPITE OF oppression, like a steady heartbeat connecting people across generations.

These pieces speak to a longing for connection, but they are also in and of themselves a connection, to a shared past that is not always acknowledged as a legitimate historical narrative.

In this program, we are here to acknowledge this shared past that still affects us all.

This isn’t easy. But it is necessary.

By connecting ourselves and our audiences to an uncomfortable and complex history, we take a step in the process of learning about each other, where we come from, and how we can heal.

One of our other presenters for this video project, Elder Atum Azzahir, described the process of cultural healing as a way to reconnect people to their heritage to heal the wounds of historical trauma.

She said, “A lot of what we do is conversation. Contact. Connecting….Whatever is said, we go deeper. Whatever is said we know is only part of what is meant…it goes deeper behind the pain…what is it that you cannot say? Can you reach and connect with what I cannot say, what I do not have words for? What I only have songs for, what I only have stories for, what I only have poetry for. Can you reach that?”

We, as NLC, can reach that. Conveying deep connection and shared emotion through music is what we do best.

While wrestling with my own inner tensions about singing this music, I’ve come to think about this program not as being about oppression. Not really.

It’s about acknowledgement of the past.

It’s about connection across the traditional lines of culture to something deeply and indescribably human.

But really, it’s about healing.

Thanks be to God.