Unbreakable Strength: Healing from Intergenerational Trauma as an Indigenous Woman

This story contains descriptions of violence that may be triggering for some readers.


Feeling sudden and complete panic, I am jolted awake. I sit up and quickly look around my dark bedroom, scanning the room for whatever it is that has caused me to panic. My heart is pounding so hard my chest hurts. I am struggling to breathe at this point. It’s the middle of the night, and I was sound asleep just a second ago. I went to bed feeling fine–happy even. I realize it is my anxiety paying me a visit, which seems to come more often than ever before.

When anxiety hits, it usually decides to pop-up in the middle of the night.

I realize everything around me is okay. I lay down, I close my eyes and try to go back to sleep. I feel safe, I know I am safe, but my heart won’t stop. It’s racing, and it makes me feel like maybe I forgot something important or perhaps I’m sensing that something terrible is about to happen. I close my eyes, and I take deep breaths while reciting these words over and over: “You are safe, you have a good life, nothing is going to happen, your children are safe, you’re ok, everyone is going to be ok.” I have to work hard to calm myself consciously. It feels as if my body is reacting to something my mind isn’t aware of. My body is experiencing all the reactions associated with fight or flight only nothing is happening. The house is calm, everyone in the house is sound asleep, comfortably. All the panic, worry, and fear lie within my body.

Laying down with my eyes closed, I scarcely remember being a small child curled into my mother’s lap. Concentrating on her voice through her chest and listening to her heartbeat brought feelings of safety, love, and comfort. I cherish that memory as I don’t have many like that to grasp. Or I can’t seem to hold on to good memories as much as I do the bad ones.

As a child, I realized that being First Nations wasn’t ideal. Like many Indigenous people, having to navigate through life carrying the weight of my experiences with racism, poverty, violence, abuse, abandonment, and witnessing addictions felt impossible and unfair. I became a young adult uneducated on how to work through anxiety and PTSD, and I didn’t know how to recognize what I am going through in these terms or how to make the connection between my parent’s experiences and mine.

The violence I witnessed as a child was horrific, and it has left a deep wound that is taking all I have as a woman to mend. Affirmations, prayers, tears, and looking at my children help me to push through on the days that are hard. I continue to push so that I can come out on the other side of this and help other indigenous people heal.

My mother has always protected me and the violence never touched me, so I struggle to understand why I am still so shaken and haunted by it. It was usually my mother taking the brunt of the physical violence, but I was always by her side watching, screaming, crying, running, and one time I even blacked out. The blackout came after I had witnessed my mom in a fight.  The person she was fighting with threw a small pot of boiling water on her. The last thing I remember was my mom falling to her knees, shrieking and shaking, holding her arms in front of her.

I blacked out and the next thing I remember was sitting in the back of an ambulance with a blanket wrapped around me. I was surrounded by EMT’s asking questions, but I was in such shock that I couldn’t answer them. All that would come out of my mouth was stuttering but no clear words as I trembled.

At this moment right now I am shaking as I write this. I feel nauseous. These painful memories seem to haunt me:

… I am running down a dark back alley with my mom in the middle of the night, barefoot in our nightgowns, because we didn’t have time to get dressed and put our shoes on. We run into a small gas station where I feel humiliation as I realize the gas station clerk is looking at us with disgust and judgment when I expected compassion. We stand in a tiny gas station barefoot in our pajamas. We wait for what feels like hours for the police to show up. Ugly looks can dehumanize a child, and those looks find ways to stain your confidence into adulthood…

… I can hear the commotion and yelling in the living room and once I hear the banging around I jump out of bed in sheer panic. I am standing at the door of my bedroom not knowing what to do, my younger step-sister is begging me to go back to bed and not do anything. I quickly grab a broom and run out to the living room while holding the broom up with a stance that promises to use it at all costs. I yell, “Get the fuck away from my mom!” The man is holding a pillow to my mom’s face. I was able to stop him. I feel relieved, I feel like a hero that night…

… We are blazing down a highway when an argument starts. The man veers off suddenly onto a dirt road that more resembles tire tracks on a field than an actual road. He swears he’s going to beat the shit out of my mom. I believe him, so I scream and scream endlessly demanding attention, and I envision myself running as fast as I can to the nearest highway to jump in front of vehicles for help. My reaction deescalates the situation, and we get back on the highway…

… I am sitting on the kitchen floor watching the Flintstones one afternoon. I tried to ignore his shouting but he got up from the kitchen table and he went into the bedroom where my mom was napping. He dragged her from the bedroom so a point could be made; he could beat her in front of me. I wasn’t prepared to witness my mom be hit in front of me. The Flintstones always takes me back to this painful memory…

… Laying under the blankets one morning during the beginning of what sounded like a fight, I plug my fingers in my ears and hum so I wouldn’t have to hear the violence. To no avail, I feel the house shake, and then there is complete silence. I pull my fingers out of my ears and listen to the front door close, and a car drives away. I jump up and catch a glimpse of my mom’s legs on the floor. I run to the hallway where she lays on the floor, and I see a massive hole in the wall where her head had just been thrown into. The hole was right next to a two by four and could have done worse damage than the concussion my mother suffered that day…

I could easily compose a much longer list of traumatic childhood memories, but I have made my point and my story has a deeper meaning. Witnessing violence can have severe adverse effects on children, even if it wasn’t afflicted on them directly. And these memories partially explain why I have anxiety and possibly PTSD of some sort. Genocide and assimilation have left similar wounds in my communities.

The racism Indigenous people experience is far too often ignored and/or shrugged off. As an Indigenous woman, I have been told so many times to “get over it” whenever I would respond to racism with knowledge about the history of what my people have endured. This statement used to bother me, and I would often think to myself that maybe I do need to get over it, it is in the past, isn’t it? And yet our history and our contemporary struggles are so blatantly clear in my eyes.

“American Indians stand in the way of the country’s progress” – Andrew Jackson

The governments created reservations as a means to remove Indigenous People from the land and its resources. It was assimilation by isolation. Removing us from our lands ensured a state of poverty and all the accompanying social problems. Our communities are still ravaged by these policies. Suicide, addictions, and violence plague us. Then we get blamed for it. In the United States, Native Americans have the highest rate of poverty among any other race and yet only make-up about two percent of the population. No one chooses to be poor. Indigenous people both in the US and Canada have always valued the land and its resources, it has always been our way of life.

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian” – the asshole who said this

The government created special “schools” as a way to further assimilate Indigenous people into White society. We stood in the way of their greed and they wanted to eradicate us. Indian Boarding schools in the United States and Indian Residential schools in Canada were opened in the 1870s and were not closed until the 1990s. Countless children were ripped away from their families and homes to be raised in these institutions, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away. Children endured countless abuses while attending these “schools” and many didn’t survive.

I used to wonder how my mother was so strong: mentally and emotionally. I’d wonder how she was so good at moving forward when things were terrible. At a young age I had found out that my mom was adopted, but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I understood what my mother endured in her childhood.

My mom and some of her siblings were taken from their home at a young age. They were a part of Canada’s shameful “60’s scoop.” The 60’s scoop is described as another episode of the cultural genocide Indigenous Peoples faced; it merely replaced the residential schools. Indigenous children were removed from their homes and communities by the thousands and placed in white families, losing all connection to their identities. Many would suffer horrible abuse and racism in these homes.

Mom was four years old and she only spoke Cree when they went into the foster care system. In the system, they would bounce from house to house until they were finally adopted. My mom’s older sister used to take her younger siblings and leave the house in the middle of the night to go knocking on doors looking for their mother. They would eventually be separated because of this. My mom remembers the day they were separated; they were sitting on an old couch in the backyard holding each other and crying. They promised to find each other when they got older. My mom’s brave older sister would be murdered later in life and become one of four thousand on Canada’s list of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited.* She was a warrior and a hero at a young age, and she deserves to always be remembered as one. As do all of our beautiful Indigenous relatives who have gone missing or have been murdered.

Mom was about ten years old when the Woodwards adopted her and her younger sister. The Woodwards were cruel, racist, and abusive. They changed my mom’s and aunt’s first, middle, and last names. They did not give the love, stability, and comfort that every child deserves. My mom has shared some of her horrific stories with me that I will never forget. She said that she never felt that she belonged, she felt different and as a child, she had no clue on how to express that or understand it. My heart broke when my mother told me that as a child, she remembers sitting on a couch wondering if there was anyone in this world that loved her, truly loved her. I can’t imagine feeling so much hate and anger daily that you would question if you’re even loved.

My mom left the Woodward household as soon as she could at age 16. I’m proud of her and the incredible strength, resilience, and perseverance she has shown me. I am so grateful for the life she gave me. Through all of my trauma, I had my mother to hold me, love me, comfort me and guide me.

Mom at one time believed she was all the racial obscenities she was called in her foster and adopted homes. She thought she wasn’t smart or worthy and she never felt accepted. Until mom enrolled in University and made the dean’s list after her first semester did she feel empowered and liberated. After many years of believing University was only for smart people, she quickly realized she was intelligent and capable. She told me that once someone learns, they can’t unlearn what they know.

She became the first Indigenous person to be elected as president of a student union, and she beat out five white males for that position. Throughout her adulthood and despite the hardships, she would always be a fierce voice for Indigenous people, choosing to confront racism and be a voice for all those behind her who couldn’t speak for themselves. My mother’s father taught her that “those who have more must give more.” This doesn’t mean material things; it means knowledge, understanding, and strength too. It means being the first line of defense and being on the front lines. She has passed this teaching onto me and my siblings.

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My mom at age 21, carrying my older brother in a cradle board she and my father made.

Now when I reflect on my life, I feel so much guilt for the times I was cruel towards my mother. I blamed her for a lot and was often angry with her. I carry guilt for not understanding my mother for most of my life. I carry guilt for not giving her the understanding and compassion she deserved, because she was alone through so many of her own experiences. I was caught up in my experiences with panic attacks and sleepless nights. I now know she has endured pain and trauma far worse than I. I am sure my mother has also struggled to cope at some point in her life.

I was 19 when I got my first prescription for an antidepressant, I was very embarrassed about this, and I could barely tell my mother. When I did, she offered me comfort by letting me know that she was on the same antidepressant. I was stunned; my mom was on the same medication as me? But she was always so strong, all these years she seemed so unaffected, she always seemed to bounce back from the hard times, I never saw a pang of sadness in my mom. I never saw her pain.

As a child, I often had to stand my ground and speak up about certain things that happened to me. My mother said in those times my nobility shook her. When I was 11 years old, I wished bad things upon the people who harmed us. She says in that moment, she decided that she didn’t want that for me. I remember her telling me “I believe in god and all that is good in the world, I believe in the sun, and its warmth and I will never allow anyone to take that from me.” She taught me that standing for love, not hate, was the point. My mom says the times that I showed adversity in the face of virulent opposition as a child taught her that the only choice to make was to stand by me fiercely. She did just that my whole life.

Through the pain and trauma, I am proud to say that I have the same strength that I have always seen in my mother. She was born in Livelong Saskatchewan at Thunderchild First Nations first powwow. She was born with the name Darlene Livelong Marie Ewenin. Then as a young adopted child, the Woodward’s renamed her Jean Danielle Woodward. My mother has reclaimed her last name and is now  Danielle Ewenin. This is the last name she was rightfully born with. She has reclaimed her identity and strength. Through her resilience and determination, she has broken a cycle of violence and dysfunction.

I am grateful to my mother for all she has taught me for I am a part of a new cycle. A cycle of stability, love and comfort. A cycle of healing.

Agnes Woodward and mom
My mom and I.

When I was fourteen, my mother married and moved to South Dakota. She started a youth group out of her home, and I got to know some of the Indigenous youth she worked with. They were all such amazing kids with so much potential, but many of them were hurting and dealing with such massive issues at home. I completely understood their pain and confusion. I could relate to them on that level.

Hearing some of their stories helped me realize that the problems Indigenous people are affected by are the same, it makes no difference which side of these borders (US and Canada) we are on. All borders aside, Indigenous Nations have suffered as a result of colonialism and systemic racism. Genocide and assimilation have left the same wounds in our communities. We may differ when it comes to languages, dances, regalia, and ceremonies, but our common ground has always been our core values, our resilience, and our harrowing history.

Although I have pain from my childhood memories, my understanding has grown through my healing. I recognize my family’s history, my people’s history, and how it impacts my story.

My father was forced to attend a residential school. The wounds left by these institutions trickled into my life and left ravaging scars. I am not alone, the trauma has been passed to so many of my people. There are thousands of haunting stories from living survivors. No matter how much I learn, I will never understand why this happened to my people.

Growing up, my father was in and out of my life, more often out than in. One of my most vivid memories is being on the phone with him and feeling so nervous to merely say “I love you.” When we were getting off the phone, I said it: “I love you, dad…” I heard silence and then a click; he had hung up. I don’t know if my father heard me, but I always believed he did. I immediately felt rejection and anger. Anger has always been a more easy feeling than pain.

Throughout my childhood, my dad would randomly call from wherever he was on the continent. Often he was at a protest or standoff, my father (like my mother) was an activist who never backed down. They were activists before being an activist was cool, before people got awards for activism. I love and appreciate my parents for that.

As an adult, I have worked hard to understand my father and to forgive his absence. I have had the opportunity to ask him questions that were very difficult, but questions that I knew were necessary for my own understanding. I now have stories about my father’s mom, my kohkom Agnes whom I was named after. I know how she tried to protect her children from being taken from her. I heard my father recall the day he was taken, the day he found his sister in a separate convent, the days he ran away and got caught, and the days he witnessed horrific abuse at the hands of priests and nuns.

When my father speaks of these times, I see anger and disgust on his face. I know it’s not easy for him to share and maybe it’s unfair of me to ask that of him. Hearing these stories has helped me to find the courage to release feelings of anger and resentment, and to instead, open my heart to accept my parents with the light of love and compassion.

I never needed a book or education to explain to me how my parent’s childhood experiences affected some of their parenting, because it’s obvious. My father gave me what he could, he gave me what little he had, and I accept it. I am proud to say I now have a strong, healthy relationship with my father. Although he may not always say it, he loves me and his grandchildren. We make time to see him as often as we can.

I will make time to travel across the world for my parents until the day I die.

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My father holding me as a baby on his hip. My older brother is in front of him and another on the bike.

When I was 23, I married my best friend. At the beginning of our relationship when we were talking on the phone, I was over the moon falling for him, and that scared me. I wanted to stop talking to him because I didn’t believe there were any good men in this world. Childhood experiences have blurred my reality in negative ways.

Despite my hesitations, I allowed this man into my world, and he changed it in such a beautiful way. Before I let him in I had so many doubts about men. I had doubts about healthy relationships, I doubted marriage, and I doubted love. But doubt can only create an unhealthy space in which our true capacity cannot grow.

My husband’s love has strengthened my spirit, and I now believe in love. I believe in marriage. I believe in healthy relationships. Through his love and support, my open wounds have become scars that remind me how beautiful life truly is.

My children, like many of their cousins now, are the first generation to grow up at home with both their parents in a trauma-free environment. My husband and children have contributed to my healing immensely. When I love and feel loved, I heal. Today I reclaim my identity and sense of pride in who I am through things such as making and wearing ribbon skirts for myself and other Indigenous women.

When I sew, I heal.

I express and release painful memories through my writing and storytelling with the purpose of helping others who don’t have their voice yet.

When I write, I heal.

I teach my children the importance of giving what we can to the less fortunate but it is also important to give to those we want to show appreciation for.

When I give, I heal.

I take the time to allow this pain to surface when it feels necessary, I cry, I acknowledge it, and I let it go as I can.

When I cry, I heal.

Healing from trauma is not easy but it has been imperative for me as a mother, wife, daughter and sister. My mother often says that she looks to my emotional intelligence for sound advice because I had security and love in my childhood where she did not. I will continue to work on my healing so that my children and grandchildren won’t have to.

After all that I have experienced, I choose to wake up every day with a loving, compassionate heart and I try to do what is right and I try to teach my children the same. This is moral courage. My mother had this; my Kohkom’s had this and every generation before them had this in the face of abject poverty, racism, and adversity. I have moral courage because it has been passed on and now my daughter who I call my little activist has just that. This is the power of our women, the power of my family, and the power of Indigenous people.

I was raised by amazing parents, and it’s difficult to really articulate the power their stories have had on me and my healing journey. My parents are survivors and that statement “survivor” is incredibly powerful and heartbreaking all at once. There is a strength in who I am, not because of what I have endured but because of how I survived. I have survived through the love of my parents and the prayers of my ancestors. If you ask me, that’s an unbreakable strength.

Ava Love,

Agnes Woodward

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My husband, children, and I at a march to celebrate the recognition of Indigenous Peoples day in Bloomington, Indiana.

I would like to dedicate this to my mother Livelong Ewenin, who is my hero.

Written by Agnes Woodward

Agnes Woodward (Cree) is from Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. Agnes is the secretary and blog contributor to the Arikara Community Action Group, a nonprofit that was founded in 2015 with a focus on community building through youth engagement, empowerment, and leadership. Agnes has an Etsy shop and Facebook page called ReeCreeations where she and her husband create custom ribbon skirts and artwork. Being raised by parents who were both activists, Agnes has always been extremely passionate about human rights issues with a focus on Indigenous rights. She plans to pursue a degree in Native American studies focused on Indigenous community building, while she continues to use her voice to raise awareness on issues that are prevalent in Indigenous communities such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited. Through writing and sharing her personal stories and experiences, she hopes to contribute to the healing of Indigenous communities while helping to shine a light on the injustices they face.

8 comments

  1. Wow. Powerful. Thank you for your moral courage and for sharing. It was raw, visceral, and full of strength. Blessings to you.

  2. I am very honored to have read your truth. As an indigenous woman, I raise my hands to your mother. I have the utmost respect for her and many woman who have been through the same experience. May our Creator bless her with more gifts, her truth is for ever carried forward. Thank you, Agnes for sharing your inter-generational trauma effects.

  3. thank you for sharing your story, courage, and resilience. there is indeed healing in every word…

  4. Thank you Agnes for sharing your experience. You have shown great courage. I resided in a residential school in Canada for 12 years.

  5. Yaw^ko for your strength, resilience and beauty. Very inspiring and uplifting as we grow into the Elders of the 8th Generation. Blessings and prayers sent to your family and your Auntie’s Spirit #MMIW #CulturalResiience #MotherNation

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