Victoria Marie was 17 years old when she found yoga and meditation. But she wasn’t in a studio, surrounded by yoga mats. She was at the library.
Growing up in Little Earth, an American Indian Section 8 rental assistance community, she faced tough challenges at a young age. By 16, she was a runaway who ended up pregnant. She dropped out of school at 17. Life seemed hopeless.
“I didn’t have control of my life,” she said. “I had this toddler, this baby, and I was like, ‘What can I do so that I don’t lose my mind?’ ”
The answer appeared to her on a bookshelf at a library on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. There, she came across books on yoga and meditation, which she’d never heard of. She began practicing meditation with her son as he grew up, and she saw how it helped him become more relaxed and go to sleep more easily.
Today Marie, Wachinhin Maza Winyan (Iron Plume Woman), who is Dakota and an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, is founder of Native-owned Indigenous Lotus. The company offers yoga classes at venues such as the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis and sells Native-designed yoga clothing .
A certified instructor of buti yoga, an intensive workout style that combines jump training, tribal dancing and dynamic yoga asanas, she specializes in trauma and PTSD in Native communities, and strives to encourage indigenous people to live healthier lives and learn to selfheal through the mind-body connection. Much of her professional work is focused on Native homeless and county-placed youth, ages 5-17, as well as sexually exploited youth. She’s worked at Little Earth and Ain Dah Yung Center in St. Paul.
“There is a lot of trauma that has happened with our people and our communities,” said Marie. “We have this disconnect from ourselves, our culture, our people, and even our own communities, and there is a lot of mistrust outside of the community toward people who are not Native.”
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (Hunkpapa, Oglala Lakota) has studied the issue extensively. A research associate professor at the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry, she developed the theory of historical unresolved grief. Also known as historical trauma, it is defined by the nonprofit Native Hope as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over one’s lifetime and from generation to generation following loss of lives, land and vital aspects of culture.”
“It is a multigenerational wounding of our souls,” said Suzanne Koepplinger, director of the Catalyst Initiative at the Minneapolis Foundation, who also worked for 10 years at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.
“There was intentional genocide against Indian people. And these stories are not often told in our education system. But Indian people live it. It is in the blood, memory, dreams.”
Healing from such historical traumas, from genocide to forced assimilation through boarding schools, does not happen overnight. For Native people, this healing must take place on a generational basis, and include elders, parents and children, whereas the Western-based model tends to focus on the individual (getting them into therapy, interventions and medications), Koepplinger said.
“For Native people, there’s a different approach required, one that is grounded in the culture, that is taught by the elders or by knowledgeable Native people or people who are strong allies who deeply understand Indian people,” said Koepplinger.
The mind-body approach can shift the historical trauma that people carry and bring them back into the present and their bodies.
In September, Marie organized the first Indigenous-led yoga retreat at Mystic Lake. Open to non-Native people as well, the retreat sought to open up opportunities for healing, including yoga, hooping and learning about wild edibles and medicinals from Linda Black Elk. The next retreat is scheduled for March 2020.
Micco Sampson (Seneca and Muscogee), who teaches hooping at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, sees the potential for hooping as a healing force.
“You’re never alone when you are dancing,” he said. “You carry your ancestors and those who have passed away. Anyone in your life — you are dancing for and with them.”
Slowing down the movements brings the hooping connection into yoga.
“The practice of doing this — whether it is language camp, mind-body meditation, or yoga — gives us the evidence of what we need to continue to invest in these programs,” said Koepplinger. “Because of generational trauma, we have to invest in generational healing over the long haul.”