In 1873, the U.S. executed four Modoc leaders at Fort Klamath, unfairly trying them as war criminals following the Modoc War. As the trap doors of the gallows crashed down with a thud and the warriors’ bodies swung, hundreds of tribal members who had been forced to watch the hanging let out a collective wail of grief. Some collapsed to the ground, overcome by the pain of losing their people. Decades of federal policy that devastated their community followed, and the trauma compounded. Many more people were lost.
No ethnic or racial group is naturally more likely than another to experience problems like substance abuse or depression. But recent studies have shown that centuries of societal oppression can weave trauma into a person’s DNA through epigenetics, making them more likely to struggle with behavioral health. These impacts can be passed down through generations if that oppression continues, causing people to harbor trauma surrounding events they never personally experienced. But they can also be healed within a single lifetime.
Monica YellowOwl has dedicated her life to that healing; that unraveling of historical trauma. As the behavioral health manager for Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services’ Youth and Family Guidance Center, she oversees programs that draw on the Klamath Tribes’ traditional knowledge, culture and spirituality to directly counteract generations of violence.
“Tribes across the nation are all carrying the weight of impact from historical trauma, and it’s never a simple solution of ‘Just get over it,’” she said. “The impact lives at the genetic level.”
An enrolled member of the Pit River Tribe (Hammawi Band) and a descendant of the Klamath Tribes, YellowOwl has been working in the behavioral health realm for 16 years. She started in college as an aide at the Tribes’ youth residential treatment program, which treated young people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues by incorporating cultural activities. While she was originally studying to be an elementary school teacher, YellowOwl saw herself in those kids and recognized the potential to do good in her community through another kind of teaching.
“I felt like I could work in (the behavioral health) field for the rest of my life and be able to make lasting change,” she said.
The Klamath Tribes began bolstering its behavioral health program less than 20 years ago, when there were only a couple people working cases and organizing programming. Now, the Youth and Family Guidance Center has nearly 20 employees. Six years ago, they began an initiative called “Restoration of the Spirit,” which aims to reduce mental health stigma among tribal members by thinking about it and addressing it the way their ancestors did. The project imbues cultural teachings into treatment, focusing on connection to the land, spirituality and traditional tribal values.
YellowOwl says reframing behavioral health through an Indigenous lens has led to the center’s huge growth in recent years. But it has been a challenge. While the Western approach to health has its merits, she said it can get shrouded by an inequitable healthcare system that focuses on healing individuals rather than communities. Through “Restoration of the Spirit,” YellowOwl is making that system work for the basin’s Native people.
“We have to build extremely meaningful experiences that really shake our people to the core,” she said.
From traditional parenting classes to gender-based group talking circles, the Youth and Family Guidance Center serves tribal members from all walks of life and helps them develop meaningful relationships with their Indigenous identities. And by helping those individuals, YellowOwl said the community benefits, too.
“Healed people heal people. Hurt people hurt people,” she said. “We want healed people that can help heal communities.”
More than 1,000 people have walked through the doors of the center during the past 3 years, most of them self-referrals. But YellowOwl hasn’t stopped there: In early 2018, she developed a cultural awareness training specific to the Klamath Tribes to educate the broader community in Klamath County about how the Tribes’ history informs their present. It’s a crash course in historical trauma, and YellowOwl said she’s received countless comments from participants to the tune of “I’ve lived here my whole life and never learned about this.”
YellowOwl has also hosted short but powerful trainings for county and state agencies, school boards, community organizations and more. It’s helped build allyship for Indigenous peoples locally, giving them the access and agency to affect change. And it’s created a greater respect for the Tribes’ story in their ancestral homeland.
“Klamath County was not developed on fun facts,” YellowOwl said. “The history of this county is extremely dark, and I look forward to the day that we can open that up and begin to repair it.”
For YellowOwl, this is more than a job. It’s how she sees her place in the community — as a healer.
“I’m going to work to make sure my ancestors’ pain will never be in vain,” she said.
Of course, it isn’t always smooth sailing. Being part of the community she serves means YellowOwl has experienced the devastating effects of historical trauma firsthand.
When things get tough, she remembers something an elder said to her when she worked at the youth treatment program all those years ago. He had been dedicated to healing his community for more than 30 years, back when the Klamath Tribes had still been terminated, and he continued his work up until his death.
In his final moments, he called YellowOwl to his bedside and said, “Never, ever, ever, ever give up on your people.”