Naomi McPeters is a Programming and Outreach intern at America Reframed and a recent alumna of the University at Albany, SUNY.
As November wraps up, we’d like to honor it as Native American Heritage Month by exploring the themes of history, memory, and trauma in two recently-broadcast America ReFramed films: Marsh Chamberlain’s We Breathe Again, and Jeremy Williams’ On A Knife Edge. We Breathe Again shows us the attempt of four Alaskan Native individuals to reassemble their personal, familial, and cultural narratives through the lens of a national narrative of displacement and loss, currently manifesting in suicide and alcoholism. On A Knife Edge shows how the traumatic narrative can be overturn by Lakota youth fighting against historical injustice through activism and a cultural connection.
Documentary films such as these can play a powerful role in the construction, or re-construction, of historical events, thus allowing history to be written or spoken in a way that either acknowledges the powerful and further silences the unheard, or gives the marginalized the platform for their story to be told. Too much of history lies in the roar and the silence of traumatic memory. In Native American (which includes Alaska Native) communities, both that roar and that silence are breeding suicide. Why? Because somewhere along the line, their history was rent.
Suicide among Alaska Native youth is an epidemic – 3.5 times higher than the national average – with alcoholism being a contributing factor, and mainland Native Americans, such as the Lakota, feel the impact of this epidemic as well. The effects of colonization have cycled through the generations, leaving youth lost and disconnected from themselves and their culture, and these films reveal the ramifications of intergenerational trauma, lived on both a collective and individual scale.
Traumatic memory lives in both the collective and individual body and Native Americans bear their history within them, sites of memory, as French historian Pierre Nora says in his essay “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” that have been “torn.” In We Breathe Again, this “tearing” is evident in the lives of Alaskan individuals who are disconnected from the past, be it through white-washed history textbooks, or through a much deeper-intergenerational loss – the sense of emptiness where there should be identity – and the knowledge that they are invisible, unwanted, and misrepresented in history and media. “Those who have long been marginalized in traditional history are not the only ones haunted by the need to recover their buried pasts,” notes Nora, yet the marginalized are perhaps most susceptible to a disconnect between memory and history because their collective and individual self is constantly under the threat of destruction by those who are powerful, by those who write the history books.
One character in We Breathe Again, Keggulluk, goes back to visit the Moravians children’s home in the Alaskan village where his mother grew up. The children who lived there were orphaned before being taken in by the Europeans. Keggulluk relates to us that these children were discouraged, sometimes through corporal punishment, from speaking their language, praying, and remaining attached to their culture. Now, he is a youth mentor who and aims to connect Alaskan youths to their culture and heritage, through speaking in classrooms and leading “Youth Culture Camps.”
Keggulluk sees the desperation of Alaskan youth that leads them to suicide, and he seeks to reconnect their own memory and history through the revitalization of their cultural traditions. He states: “The generations that came before us that went through trauma impacted our people so strongly without them even knowing it. But once you talk about that and let that out, it loses its power over you.”
Such generational trauma caused Native Americans to lose the ability to define their own identity, and instead, they had a new identity imposed upon them through colonization. Now, as Keggulluk finds, the only way to address the trauma and redefine themselves is to return to the “lieux de memoire” the places, or sites, of memory, to take hold of the cultural traditions that makes them who they are. As Nora puts it, “the quest for memory is the search for one’s history.”
Yet, this quest has not been linear. The individual and the collective are so deeply intertwined that “the passage of memory to history has required every social group to redefine its identity through the revitalization of its own history.” Sometimes, however, history has been disrupted, and cultural memory never makes its way to the individual. What is left is persistent haunting, a traumatic memory that lives within the collective body and weaves its way into individuals, manifesting itself through alcoholism and suicide, as suggested by the film.
Jody, Paul, and Eddie, the other main characters in We Breathe Again, have all experienced alcoholism and suicide in their own families, and now, as adults, are trying to release the hold the past has on them. Jody lost an uncle to suicide, and her family suffered from alcoholism, particularly her mother, who would disappear for weeks or months at a time. “There was a whole generation that didn’t learn how to be parents,” she tells us. Her mother didn’t know how to deal with her pain, but Jody carries on what her people have done for so long, traveling by dog sled under the Northern Lights. This, she says, brings “me back to my roots.” Because Jody herself is dealing with her pain, she is determined that her own children will never suffer from the loss of identity that has permeated her family history.
Jeremy Williams’ On A Knife Edge brings us into the life of George Dull Knife, a Lakota teenager, as he grows into a young man and social activist. Despite significant trauma in his own life, being abandoned by his alcoholic mother as a child, and later, losing a sister to suicide during the production of the film, we see his resilience driven by cultural practices. Guided by his father, Guy, George, a fifth generation Dull Knife, delves into traditional practices such as the sweat lodge, that helps him discover his identity as a Native American.
Interspersed in the storyline are animated sequences that trace the journey of George’s ancestors back to their homeland after being displaced. Because of his connection to his ancestors and their traditions, George gains knowledge and strength of who he is as a man and warrior that allows him to be a young leader in the American Indian Movement (AIM); he makes lasting change with regard to alcohol policies on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. We leave George on the brink of young adulthood, fighting against the pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
Although Nora claims that the “remnants of experience still lived in the warmth of tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral,” have been “displaced” by history, what We Breathe Again and On A Knife Edge shows us is the opposite. Characters in both films bring custom to life, carrying what was lost to history back to their cultural consciousness. As we see with Keggulluk’s youth camps and George’s connection to the sweat lodge, returning to a site of cultural and personal memory allows for healing where something was lost.
Both of these films show individuals who are reassembling the narrative, making an attempt at the reconstruction and restoration of memory-as-history, however incomplete.
Additionally, these films demonstrate the positive social implications of healing generational trauma by reengaging with cultural traditions in a way that connects the historical and collective to the present and personal in order to create meaning.
Individuals, families, governments, and nations all attempt to create meaning through stories; it is a distinctly human characteristic shared across cultures, and we call it “history.” What we call history is simply a story, pieces of life strung together in a certain way to create a certain narrative, when, in reality, those pieces could be assembled in any form depending on who is doing the telling, and what the storyteller chooses to remember. Most often, the powerful lay claim to history, yet, it belongs to all of us, held within our individual and collective memories. We must ask ourselves, are we, if “we” are among the powerful, willing to listen and feel as history speaks, and memory breathes?
We Breathe Again was recently rebroadcast on World Channel as part of the America ReFramed series, and is currently streaming online free until December 25, 2017. On A Knife Edge is streaming online free through December 7, 2017.
If you are interested in the topic of history, memory, and trauma, also check out the short documentary “Little Dream Catchers” as part of our Class of ’27 broadcast, November 28 8/7c on America ReFramed.