OGDEN, Utah — Darryl Tonemah had everyone in the Weber State University Wildcat Theater make a fist and squeeze it hard for about five seconds Thursday morning.
As the audience cringed in pain, he explained that doing something like that for a long period of time would eventually cause a person’s bones and tendons to break down.
“The trauma, the stress applied would have eventually shown up in my hand,” Tonemah said. “Now imagine this being a person who watched Dad abuse Mom when they were five or six, and now they’re 40.”
Tonemah, an American Indian health psychologist, singer and writer, was the keynote speaker for the 11th Annual Native Symposium held in conjunction with Native Heritage Month. The talk was the culmination of several events throughout the week including the showing of “Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools,” a discussion about persecution in the Native American community and a sunrise ceremony.
At a talk attended by about 25 people, Tonemah spoke at length about the historical and generational trauma the Native American community experiences, which he has seen manifest in what he called a “sense of overwhelm.”
This overwhelming feeling happens for Native American people, he said, because of a “charge” inside them passed down from generation to generation because of trauma and oppression.
Tonemah said while college students might find ways of coping, that’s not the case for everyone, and the freedom that comes with attending a university can be challenging for Native Americans who are used to living on reservations.
“We have all these healthy things to mediate that sense of overwhelm but imagine growing up in a toxic environment where you don’t have a way to mediate that overwhelm,” he said.