Chapter 5: Mental Health Impacts of Denied Access to Management and Culture

For American Indians, land, plants, and animal are considered sacred relatives, far beyond a concept of property. Their loss becomes a source of grief” (Brave Heart and DeBruyn 1998, 62).

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Just as physical health is embedded in both ecosystem health and cultural activities, so too is mental health. Important components to mental health and psychological well-being include positive sense of self worth and self-efficacy, coherent meaning systems, contact with an intact natural environment and sense of personal and cultural identity (Mirowsky and Ross 1989, Thoits 2010, Downey and Van Willigan 2005). Social scientists describe other requirements for psychological well-being including control, commitment, support, meaning and normality (Mirowsky and Ross 1989, 13). Mental health is negatively affected by physical health challenges, as well as social sources of stress caused by the absence of any of the above.

This chapter will describe the multiple important ways that current ecological conditions and the reduced ability of Karuk people to participate in traditional management negatively affects both the mental health of individuals and generate a level of chronic community stress. Knowledge sovereignty and returned access to participation in traditional management have profound importance for renewing tribal mental health.

Social Causes of Psychological Stress

While there is a widespread assumption in popular culture that stress and its manifestations are a matter of personal fault such as insufficient individual coping skills, sociological literature makes clear that mental health stress has structural origins (Thoits 2010, Mirowosky 1989). This is true because social context profoundly affects psychological well-being. Classic work by Pearlin and Skaff 1996, Pearlin 1999 develop the notion of “ambient strains” as forms of stress that arise out of person-environment interactions. Furthermore, ambient stresses are chronic, that is they are stresses from enduring problems in daily life including conflicts, threats, poverty, stigmatization, and many more (Pearlin 1989). Not only do chronic ambient stresses have both negative physical and mental health impacts, they have greater negative impacts on psychological well being than difficult “life events” such as divorce or family death (Avison and Turner 1988). In a recent comprehensive review of forty years of literature on social stress and mental health, sociologist Peggy Thoits concludes that:

“when stressors (negative events, chronic strains, and traumas) are measured comprehensively, their damaging impacts on physical and mental health are substantial. Second, differential exposure to stressful experiences is a primary way that gender, racial-ethnic, marital status, and social class inequalities in physical and mental health are produced. Third, minority group members are additionally harmed by discrimination stress. Fourth, stressors proliferate over the life course and across generations, widening health gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged group members.”

If requirements for psychological well-being include control, commitment, support, meaning and normality, one can understand how experiences described by Karuk people in the context of the inability to carry out cultural activities their ancestral lands including hunger, poverty, environmental decline, threats to identity, role stress, and sense of self-efficacy, loss of meaning systems and an underlying and ongoing sense of genocide add up to very significant negative mental health consequences.

Environmental Decline and Mental Health

Both access to an intact natural environment and participation in one’s culture are widely recognized as vital for psychological well being. People gave vivid descriptions of a sense of oneness with the universe and joy while being on the river and in the forest.

I come out here…come out to these places, you know, and get that connection back. You know, just that silence and the liveliness of everything surrounding us, you know… everything is alive when you’re out here and you can feel it and it’s a bliss that you can feel—it’s indescribable…

You know, my first time I went down to the falls, it was like…like…almost like being in heaven…cause it’s like Shooooo, you know what I mean, that’s our ceremonial fishing grounds and it’s right at the base of our mountain….Sugar Loaf that we pray to…and it’s medicine…and to be at both those places, you know, to be there and have Paa-oo-wich and the falls right there is just magical and to hear the raw power [of the river]…is just…it’s like you’re on earth but you are in a different place at the same time…                                                                                                                          

— Rabbit

In contrast, both the presence of negative environmental characteristics (e.g. awareness of environmental degradation or contamination), and the absence of positive environmental characterises (i.e. not having enough contact with intact ecosystems) are detrimental to human health and have been understood as issues of environmental justice (Downey and Van Willigen 2005).

The impacts of environmental decline are particularly significant for Native people for a multitude of reasons. As Brave Heart and DeBruyn note, “For American Indians, land, plants, and animal are considered sacred relatives, far beyond a concept of property. Their loss becomes a source of grief” (1998, 62). Recent work on the impacts on climate change for an Inuit community in Labrador, Canada emphasizes emotional dimension of impacts as an important component of health: “it is evident that the emotional consequences of climate change are extremely important to Northern residents. Participants shared that these changes in land, snow, ice and weather elicit feelings of anxiety, sadness, depression, fear and anger and impact culture and a sense of self-worth and health” (Willox et al 2013,14). The authors further write that “changes in the land and climate directly impact emotional health and well-being” (14) and coin the term “ecological affect” to describe “the affects that emerge directly from shifts, alterations and fluctuations in climactic or environmental conditions” (17).

Not only are ties to the natural world particularly strong for many Native people, but there are extensive disruptions of social, cultural and spiritual systems from both ecological change and denied access to management described throughout this report. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill researchers Duane Gill and Steven Picou described how Alaska Native communities were devastated by the combined ecological, cultural, subsistence and spiritual impacts of the oil spill (Gill and Picou 1998). Gill and Picou described the situation as one of “chronic community stress.” 1998 Indeed grief from the loss of species, and stress from the inability for Karuk people to manage the ecosystem in accordance with their cultural practices and spiritual responsibilities is expressed vividly in people’s own words in terms of emotions of grief, shame, stress and powerlessness as will be described below. The impact of each of these categories of experiences is underscored by their invisibility and the corresponding lack of legitimacy or recognition within the dominant culture – what Ken Doka calls “disenfranchised grief” (1989). Braveheart and DeBruyn also discuss the concept of disenfranchised grief and its application to Native American people. Braveheart and DeBruyn use this term to label the grief accompanied by loss of culture and forced assimilation.

Individual Mental Health: Self-Efficacy, Power and Identity

There are multiple important ways that present social and ecological conditions, including the inability for Karuk people to participate in traditional management and knowledge acquisition negatively affects the mental health of individuals. Participation in fishing, burning, gathering and other aspects of traditional management holds immense personal and spiritual significance and are central to Karuk identity. Ron Reed describes how participation in these management activities at the heart of “being Indian:”

You can give me all the acorns in the world, you can get me all the fish in the world, you can get me everything for me to be an Indian, but it will not be the same unless I’m going out and processing, going out and harvesting, gathering myself. I think that really needs to be put out in mainstream society, that it’s not just a matter of what you eat. It’s about the intricate values that are involved in harvesting these resources, how we manage for these resources and when.

When people are unable to carry out these practices it creates powerful threats to one’s sense of self. Also relevant for the experience is the sociological concept of alienation. Alienation can be defined as a sense of disconnection between an individual and society. Powerlessness, self-estrangement, isolation, meaningless and normlessness are five basic types of subjective alienation with serious negative mental health consequences (Seeman 1959, 1983). Mirowsky and Ross describe how “People need to feel that they are effective forces in control of their own lives. The sense of control bolsters the will to think about problems and do something about the problem” (1989, 13). Here alienation can operate in several ways. On the one hand, people express challenges in being unable to fulfill traditional roles. On the other hand, their inability to do so situates them in an unwelcome place vis a vi the dominant non-Native society. Karuk people vividly described feelings of powerlessness in the face of institutional forces that are working against ecological health while simultaneously eroding people’s control of their immediate social environment. Leaf Hillman puts it this way:

Do I really think there is justice in the world? No. That’s an easy one. Do I ever think that they’ll be justice? No. Do I think there is any hope? I don’t know. People say, “How can you be even the slightest bit optimistic?” It’s not easy to be optimistic about any of these things that I’m talking about. The easy, and I think the natural thing, is to feel hopeless. Because there is not much to be optimistic about.

In their landmark text Social Causes of Psychological Distress authors Mirowsky and Ross (1989) highlight control as one of five necessary conditions for positive mental health: “feelings of personal powerlessness are an important predictor of psychological distress (Seeman 1959, 1983, Mirowsky and Ross 1986, 1989). Others described the experience of environmental decline as “enduring an assault on one’s relations” and yet being powerless to fully stop it:

You know, that spiritual tie, kind of more like kinship or family type of relationship. You know, that’s where I think the grief comes in, It’s like, a sense of power – powerlessness. You know, and yet what can you do? It’s like all you can do is, you know . . . You basically see this assault or this attack on your family, either directly as humans, but also the extension of your family relationship and the tribal perspective of seeing that with salmon, you see this attack. You see this, you know, and there is this constant, I guess the only word I can think of is assault on them. And there are certain things you can do within your capacity, and then there’s some things that are so broad outside of the influence, that it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on.

— Frank Lake, Karuk descendant

 The loss of control in relation to cultural activities has a clear association with genocide as described here: “Our way of lives has been taken away from us. We can no longer gather the food that we gathered. We have pretty much lost the ability to gather those foods and to manage the land the way our ancestors managed the land.” Such experiences are not unlike what Downey and Van Willigen 2005 found in their work on how proximity to environmental contamination has negative mental health effects including personal powerlessness.

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Role Strain and Role Stress

Another important component to mental health is a sense of “normalcy.” Mirowsky and Ross write that normality “is one of the experiences critical to positive psychology” (1989, 15). In contrast they describe “structural inconsistence, role stress, and a disordered life-cycle make it difficult or impossible to meet normal expectations.” Although Karuk people likely experience multiple of the above conditions, accounts of role stress and role strain in the context of denied access to carry out aspects of traditional management and Karuk culture are particularly vivid. Mirowsky and Ross define “role stress is a disjunction or inconsistency in the system of roles, so that normal obligations cannot be met. . . Role stress produces role strain, which is the frustrating sense of not being able to understand or meet the normal expectations of one’s roles.” In addition to the more individualized threats to identify and sense of control mentioned above, Karuk people describe role strain due to the inability to fulfill responsibilities to the creator, to particular species in the ecosystem and to the human community.

While literature on role strain engages the importance of being able to fulfill expected roles, here the situation is even more troubling. People describe how their moral responsibilities are being blocked and their obligations rendered impossible to fulfill. People described how the situation represents an extreme harms to traditional conceptions of moral life itself, literally denial of someone’s being able to do what is right to them. The overall position of being unable to carry out culture practices and responsibilities is understood in the context of genocide, contributing to yet another level of emotional harm.

The Creator has given me a responsibility. He instructed us how we were to do this from the beginning, and that we were given the promise that the Karuk people would endure forever if you did your part, and if you continue to do what you are instructed to do. Now we are being stripped of a lot of our duties as a Karuk person, as a traditional male, and that’s just because of regulations…the new regulations they have, rules and regulations, keep us actually from living our traditional way of life…our ceremony have been, you know, stripping down because of regulations…now we’re only allowed to do certain things in our ceremonies, not allowed to do our traditional burns or nothing no more…                                                                    

–Kenneth Brink

Traditional management refers to care for the environment, but managers have specific social and cultural responsibilities to their families, to elders and the Karuk community as well. Role strain also comes from the inability to fulfill obligations to the human community such as the ability to provide deer, acorns or other traditional foods. In this man’s descriptions the angst in relation to not being able to carry out responsibilities is tied in with the sense of oppression from the outside non-Indian agencies:

A Karuk male if he was a traditional male, he’d be feeling like he was stripped of his tradition, you know, stripped of his way of life because he is no longer allowed to go out and get a deer to provide for his family or to go out and get more than two fish or something to provide for his family, or any of that picture there you know. And if you don’t burn, if you don’t get Morrel mushrooms…and in that sense, we are being stripped of a lot of our duties as a Karuk person, and as a traditional male.  — Kenneth Brink

This role strain has negative consequences for identity, personal pride and general mental well being, as Ron Reed describes here:

When you’re not able to go upslope and go manage, you’re not able to go up and reap the harvest of that management and when you’re not able to go produce for your children and give things for each other for the well-being of life, then all of a sudden, that puts you in this little down feeling. You’re down casting yourself. I think that’s where a lot of the people in Karuk tribe are because of our inability to get to these resources that have been given to us by the creator. We understand very much that we’re a proud people. We’re here for a reason, but a lot of us struggle with modern society, trying to figure out how do we integrate into modern society?

Thus, in the absence of being able to fulfill role obligations and achieve a positive sense of one is as a Karuk person, another key element of mental health is impacted and that is the ability to have meaning. Mirowsky and Ross 1989) list “meaning” and its absence : Disorganization is a condition in which there are no guidelines, or a welter of inconsistent guidelines, for action and evaluation. Meaninglessness is the corresponding sense that the world is unintelligible, that life is without purpose, and that action is inherently discordant” (1989, 14). The authors go on to note that “A sense of meaningful existence seems important to well-being for two reasons. A world that cannot be understood cannot be controlled. In a chaotic world, all outcomes are chance. Beyond the issue of control, people may require a sense of purpose, significance, and value in their lives.“

Finally, there is a level of collective “community stress” which results from a general awareness that Karuk people are denied access to conduct appropriate cultural activities. This too is described as a deeply painful experience for the surrounding community. On the one hand, when such stressors are occurring to individuals widespread throughout the community there is an added level of collective trauma. But even beyond this, the harms are not just experienced by individuals in an additive fashion. The sense of meaning, significance, threat and violence are impacts to the community structure themselves. These emotional impacts of the impaired social and ecological activities that ripple through the community, are thus examples of stressors that proliferate over the life course and across generations (Thoits 2010, S42).

Mental Health Stressors are Both Individual and Community Wide

At the individual level, Karuk people are observed to experience chronic stressors from threats to meaning systems, identity, role strain and powerlessness in the face of denied access to traditional management. At the collective level racism, the struggle to maintain culture in the face of adversity, and an ongoing sense of genocide are chronic stressors on the community. In contrast, there is widespread acknowledgement in the literature of negative mental health consequences for experiences described by Karuk people including hunger, poverty, environmental decline, threats to identity, role stress, and sense of self-efficacy, loss of meaning systems and an underlying and ongoing sense of genocide. Examples of these psychological experiences are prevalent. As the third key finding of her review Thoits notes that minority groups are additionally burdened by discrimination stress, which damages physical and mental health: “Discriminatory experiences are significantly associated with self-rated poor health, chronic health conditions, disabilities, high blood pressure, psychological distress, anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder, among other conditions, even when other life stressors are controlled” (Thoits 2010, S 45).

In this case the notion that American Indian people would inevitably disappear that implicit in the discourse of manifest destiny that legitimated genocide during the 1800s actively perpetuates racism today. The narrative that Native people are gone remains a pervasive and insidious force legitimating natural resource policies that profoundly damage Karuk life ways. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast, as they have recovered significant political and economic standing, Native American tribes across the United States including the Karuk have become increasingly involved in natural resource management. Tribes remain disadvantaged in these settings however due to insufficient understanding of their unique political status and cultural perspectives, the lack of acknowledgment of the violent history perpetuated against them through both genocide and forced assimilation, and a profound misunderstanding of how present day natural resource policies and multiple forms of denied access to traditional management continue the processes of genocide and forced assimilation today.

Association of Environmental Degradation and Denied Access to Management With Genocide.

Witnessing the denial of Karuk efforts to maintain cultural activities in the landscape is associated with genocide in several ways. On the one hand, denied access to management makes impossible the social and cultural practices described above, such actions are quite literally the present face of cultural genocide and forced assimilation as when activities to renew cultural knowledge cannot take place and important cultural practices cannot occur. On the other hand, experiences of fisheries, forest and fire policy that are set according to non-Native values and philosophy are more generally associated with a long felt awareness of Karuk culture and life under attack. Researchers note:

American Indian people are faced with daily reminders of loss: reservation living, encroachment of Europeans on even their reservation lands, loss of language, loss and confusion regarding traditional religious practices, loss of traditional family systems, and loss of traditional healing practices. We believe that these daily reminders of ethnic cleansing coupled with persistent discrimination are the keys to understanding historical trauma among American Indian people (Whitbeck, Adams, Hoyt and Xiaojin 2004).

Karuk families have experienced direct genocide within the memory of people alive today. Such trauma is furthermore is an ongoing process through the destruction of the resource base and the loss of culture today. The notion that Karuk life and culture could come to an end is a grim background cadence to people’s everyday sensibility.

You know, the creator made the Salmon, it’s here for a reason and it’s supposed to always be here. The Karuk people actually believe that if the Salmon quit running, the world will quit spinning, you know. Maybe the human race as we know it may be nonexistent and the dinosaurs are going to walk again . . . If the river quits flowing, it’s over. If Salmon quit running, it’s like the sign of the end.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         -Kenneth Brink

It is also worth noting that racism itself has measurable negative health impacts: “Racism in both is institutional and individual forms remains an important determinant” of poor health (Williams 279, 2012).

Awareness of ecosystem decline is a chronic stress for many Karuk people. In this case however, there is an increased stress due to the awareness that the ecosystem is declining because it is being regulated by outside agencies, and because the failure to allow Karuk participation in management is an aspect of cultural genocide. Events connected to the experience of catastrophic wildfire and firefighting activities, racism, the struggle to maintain culture and ecosystem decline are each sources of chronic stress. Mirowsky and Ross describe how “People need to feel that they are effective forces in control of their own lives. The sense of control bolsters the will to think about problems and do something about the problem” (1989, 13). In contrast, Karuk people consulted for this project vividly described feelings of powerlessness in the face of institutional forces that are working against ecological health while simultaneously eroding people’s control of their immediate social environment. Karuk Eco-Cultural Restoration Specialist and traditional practitioner Bill Tripp describes the devastating emotional impacts of trying to communicate Karuk perspective on fire and protect cultural resources in the face of Forest Service presence fighting the large fires of 2008.

In my situation I find myself quite a few times just to the point of asking why am I even here trying to do this? I should just go and be happy somewhere. On these fires, every two weeks you are dealing with new people, and you’re going over the same things, and you are trying to re-justify every decision that was made where you were barely able to hold onto protection of one little piece of something. And then you’re losing a piece of that cause new people came 14 days later. And then you’re losing another piece of that and another. And you spend your whole time going over everything that you just went over again, and again, and again. And losing a little bit every time. And it causes some serious mental anguish. At the end of 2008 I quit the fire probably 3 or 4 weeks before I should have. Because it was like, “I am done, I can’t do it anymore.” I went home and I sat in my chair and I didn’t do much of anything but sit and stare at the wall and eat and sleep for about a month. Before I could even get myself to come back to work.

Finally, there is an added dimension to all of the above because the loss of control in relation to cultural activities has a clear association with genocide for many people. Witnessing the denial of Karuk efforts to enact cultural management, the destruction of catastrophic fire, the actions of non-Native fire crews back burning through stands of acorn trees that have been culturally important for generations, or the disruption of Karuk ceremonies with helicopter noise are associated with genocide in several ways. On the one hand, experiences of fire and timber policy that are set according to non-Native values and philosophy are more generally associated with a long felt awareness of Karuk culture and life under attack.

On the other hand, because denied access to management makes impossible the social and cultural practices described above, such actions are quite literally the present face of cultural genocide and forced assimilation. As Leaf Hillman describes, “Every project plan, every regulation, rule or policy that the United States Forest Service adopts and implements is an overt act of hostility against the Karuk People and represents a continuation of the genocidal practices and policies of the US government directed at the Karuk for the past 150 years. This is because every one of their acts – either by design or otherwise – has the effect of creating barriers between Karuks and their land.”


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