History Informs What Happens Today
To understand how advocates applied a trauma-based approach to an entire tribe, one must consider and understand the history of the Menominee Nation. At least 12,000 years old, the tribe once occupied all of what is now Wisconsin and some parts of Michigan and Illinois. Various treaties with the U.S. government carved into its territory, leaving the tribe with less than 400 acres in northeastern Wisconsin.
Then the painful time known as “the boarding school era” began in 1860. Children younger than 15 were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to government schools to assimilate to the dominant culture. Cut off from their families, they were not allowed to speak their own language or practice tribal customs.
In the wake of the searing indignities that spanned generations, the federal government added one more in the 1950s and 1960s: It revoked the tribe’s federal recognition by passing the Menominee Termination Act of 1954, which marked the beginning of economic and socioeconomic decline for the tribe and the deterioration of its rich culture, traditions and language.
The loss of federal recognition brought with it poverty as well as a host of health problems. Traditional tribal businesses, such as logging, suffered as outsiders moved in. The reservation’s one hospital closed, further limiting access to health care. Wendell Waukau remembers standing in lines more than 30 people deep to have a dentist, who only came on Saturdays, check his teeth.
The federal government renewed Menominee’s status as a sovereign nation when it passed the Menominee Restoration Act of 1973, but the damage had already been done. The effects linger, even today.
The stresses of the tribe’s past traumatic experiences manifest themselves in many ways. One way the tribe measures the stress is to look at members’ “ACE” scores. Adverse Childhood Experiences include such things as physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect, family substance use or abuse, domestic violence in the family, or mental illness in the family. Scored on a scale of one to 10—with one point for each “yes”—the higher the score, the higher the risk of health and social problems. Any score greater than four is considered a risk.
“Most people I see are four and above, some are even eight, nine or 10,” says Barr, the psychotherapist. “Horrible things have happened to them in life. ... We’re really about helping people get healthier so they are better able to deal with their human experiences.”
Kim Hill, a maternal and child health nurse at the Tribal Clinic, says she was unfamiliar with trauma-informed care, but it makes sense to her now. Raised by her grandmother on the reservation, Hill remembers the Tribal Clinic opening in 1977 and how she clung to a pole outside to avoid being taken in for immunizations. Her grandmother was the clinic’s head housekeeper, and Hill used to visit her at work.
Though she acknowledges her own high ACE score, Hill credits her grandmother and her teachers for where she is today.
“Coming from the community, I know a lot about what people have gone through. One reason I came back to work here was to be a role model. I want people to think, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’”