What We Inherit On this episode, the story of one family's struggle to end a toxic cycle of inter-generational trauma from forced assimilation. Getting back to their Native Alaskan cultural traditions is key.
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What We Inherit

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What We Inherit

What We Inherit

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I'm Gene Demby. Shereen, neither of us are parents just yet.

MERAJI: Not yet.

DEMBY: But I feel like we've been talking a lot about parenthood lately on the podcast.

MERAJI: We have.

DEMBY: This episode this week gets at one of those deep, like, parental anxieties that a lot of people who are parents wrestle with all the time. How do I make sure I don't pass my baggage and my bs on to my kids?

MERAJI: Right. And some of that baggage could be due to real trauma, trauma that's been passed down to us from our parents or our grandparents or our great-great-grandparents, you know. You know what I'm getting at here. How do we make sure we stop this cycle, stop the madness before it affects another generation? And today's episode is the story of one family trying to do just that, trying to fix the toxic aftermath of forced assimilation on their community, a tiny Alaskan village in the Bering Strait. And we're tagging an NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher to tell their story.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: When Rene Schimmel was 24 years old, she had a son, an energetic, curious little boy named Sam. In home videos, he's always screaming and laughing.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SAM SCHIMMEL: (Laughing).

RENE SCHIMMEL: Busy, busy, busy - he was super active. He started walking when he was 9 months old.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

R. SCHIMMEL: Holy cow, Sam. Hold onto it (laughter).

HERSHER: Rene is from Alaska. Sam's dad, Jeremy, is a wilderness guide.

JEREMY SCHIMMEL: Well, he grew up outside. He never was inside. He hunted and fished. He was catching fish when he was 2 off the dock.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

S. SCHIMMEL: That's a sockeye.

J. SCHIMMEL: It's a silver, silly. OK, reel him in.

You know, yeah, he was a pain in the [expletive] because he exhausted you.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

S. SCHIMMEL: Good morning, Da-da (ph).

R. SCHIMMEL: No, good night, Sam.

S. SCHIMMEL: Good morning...

HERSHER: They spent a lot of time with Rene's family. Rene was born in the native Alaskan village of Gambell on an island in the Bering Sea. Siberian Yupik ways of subsistence hunting and old songs and stories have been passed down in her family for a long time. But from the moment Sam was born, Rene worried that other things in her family's history might hurt her child. When Rene's mother was a little girl, she was one of tens of thousands of native kids taken by the federal government and sent to boarding school hundreds of miles away.

R. SCHIMMEL: They told her how to dress, how to speak, how to hold herself. So there was a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of physical abuse. You know, if you got up late or you didn't clean how you were supposed to clean, you were beaten.

HERSHER: What was your mother's conception of her own identity?

R. SCHIMMEL: I don't know. It was muddled.

HERSHER: Muddled because, on one hand, her mother did really well academically.

R. SCHIMMEL: She was really smart. She was very curious and learned things quickly.

HERSHER: But she was also taught to hate a lot of who she was - the language she grew up speaking, the way her family in Gambell dressed and what they ate - walrus, seal, whale and fish. It was all enormously damaging.

R. SCHIMMEL: She would cry to be home. But then when she was home, she was miserable, like, when she'd go back to the village.

HERSHER: This is the root of what sociologists call intergenerational trauma. A family goes through something cataclysmic - in this case, a war on their culture. The family survives, but the effects of the trauma are passed down to the next generation. Rene's mother could be harsh to her daughter. She drank a lot. In many ways, it was a difficult childhood.

R. SCHIMMEL: My mother was very brutal. She didn't know how to give praise, didn't know how to say good job or your effort's going, you know, like a teacher would. Right? And I think it came from being in boarding schools. So I don't think she really ever had love. Like, she loved. But it was - it was shown, like, with taking care of you - right? - giving you good food and making sure you had clothes and that they are clean. But it wasn't the verbal love. So for me, it was - I don't have that in my - I knew I just didn't want Sam to have that.

HERSHER: Rene and Jeremy vowed to give their son verbal love and protect him from that pain and to give him what had been stolen from Rene's mother, a clear cultural identity. That's key. People who study intergenerational trauma have found that grounding young people in their culture is the best way to protect them. Sam, who's 18 now, remembers how he loved hearing stories from his grandmother and his great-grandmother and hunting with his uncles.

S. SCHIMMEL: I remember my uncles saying, here, take this .22. Until you can shoot a ground squirrel through the eye, you can't hunt with us. And just...

HERSHER: How long did it take?

S. SCHIMMEL: That took about a couple weeks - all day long, every day.

HERSHER: How old were you?

S. SCHIMMEL: I was probably 5, 6.

HERSHER: Around that time, Rene's life was going really well, too. They moved to Seattle. She got a job at one of the best public schools in the city. In kindergarten, Sam started at the same school. But things went south pretty quickly. There were a lot of rules. He was getting in trouble for lots of little things, like not following directions.

J. SCHIMMEL: It was like - this is, like, the danger box. And it's, like, I can probably just open up any...

HERSHER: Sam's father, Jeremy, still has a box of printed out emails and progress reports from the time.

J. SCHIMMEL: You know, you can just look at this. You know - (reading) he would not settle down, kept walking around and interrupting me. So...

HERSHER: By fourth grade, it felt like everything was falling apart.

S. SCHIMMEL: I hated going to school. In fourth grade, I remember I'd fight every day about having to go to school and say, I don't want to go to school. The teacher's mean.

HERSHER: One night, Sam was so upset, he yelled at his parents, I'll kill myself if you make me go to school. Jeremy and Rene started meeting with administrators. But the more they got involved, the more they say they heard this.

J. SCHIMMEL: You need to go back to Alaska. Go back to the village, you know. It was terrible.

HERSHER: To Sam or to Rene or to both?

J. SCHIMMEL: Both, both. Both of them were told that they needed to leave, this wasn't where they needed to be. Sam, you're not going to go to college. You should go back to the village.

HERSHER: It felt to the family like the school didn't respect them. Rene says her interactions with administrators about her time teaching brought back childhood trauma.

R. SCHIMMEL: And it went right to how my mother would treat me, that I was left with nothing. And I couldn't stop it. And I couldn't mentally say, I'm not that.

HERSHER: The Seattle school district says the administrators involved no longer work there and that Rene resigned in 2011. It was here that Rene's path diverged from her son's in an unexpected way. In sixth grade, Sam switched to a private school. It wasn't perfect. Jeremy says they were still told Sam wasn't college material. But some things were better. For one, there were fewer unbendable rules at the new school, more freedom. Alana Bell was his adviser when he arrived.

ALANA BELL: When you find out that a kid is getting up with his dog and going hunting by himself, it's like, oh.

HERSHER: His behavior still caused some friction. For example, one time Sam caught a pigeon and let it loose in the teacher's lounge.

S. SCHIMMEL: Oh, the pigeon story - it is an outlier.

HERSHER: An outlier that made an impression on the teachers. But he didn't get in big trouble. And Jeremy noticed a new skill developing as his son matured.

J. SCHIMMEL: He was terrible at handwriting. But he's now able to get his thoughts. He verbalizes. That's what he does now, you know? But he's a beautiful writer. Like, his writing is very direct, raw and alive. It's like, hmm.

HERSHER: By high school, Sam was using his writing and debating skills to do things he really cared about. He got named to an Alaskan commission on Native children and a working group on climate change. At school, he banded together with other students and pushed the administration to update its suicide prevention program. Alana Bell is overwhelmed with what Sam has accomplished.

BELL: Oh, God, proud isn't even the word. Just so - feel really honored and blessed to have been able to see a kid evolve in the way that he has.

HERSHER: This spring, he interned in Congress. Next year, Sam is going to college. He has turned into exactly the kind of person his parents hoped they would raise. But at the same time, Rene's life has been hard. When she left her teaching job, she fell apart.

R. SCHIMMEL: I didn't get out of bed for days on end. I didn't shower. I didn't eat. I thought about suicide a lot, like every day.

HERSHER: Rock bottom was last year. Sam had won an award for being a Native Youth leader, and he was supposed to travel to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony. The night before, Rene nearly killed herself. Sam was in the back of the family car doing chest compressions on his mom as they drove her to the hospital. Neither of them wants to talk about the details. It's private and painful, and they're still figuring out what their relationship can be going forward.

Rene says she's more stable now. She has a job she really likes teaching again. Sam lives with his dad. But he does think about his mom and her life and his family history.

S. SCHIMMEL: Like, her parents' generation were all sent off to boarding schools. And nothing was put in the place of where culture was. So they had this huge gaping hole in their identity. And so I think some of that trauma was then passed on to my mother. I'm not as deeply affected as she was, of course. But I am affected by it because she wasn't able to be a mother for a portion of my childhood because she had to take care of herself.

HERSHER: And yet, Sam has something from his childhood to fall back on when things get hard, all that time hunting and fishing with family.

S. SCHIMMEL: When was this written? This might be old.

HERSHER: On a spring day a few weeks before his high school graduation, Sam stands in his living room in Seattle - baseball cap, plaid shirt and wingtips - flipping through a book called "Watching Ice Our Way," written by his great uncle.

S. SCHIMMEL: He wrote this, yes, "Watching Ice." He was the traditional weatherman of the village.

HERSHER: The book has pages and pages of drawings of ice - when it freezes and thaws and how it moves in wind and waves. It's like a handbook for the Gambell way of life, a way of life Sam understands because it's a part of him.

S. SCHIMMEL: You're with your family. You're sitting in a seal blind. You're talking to your uncles. You're telling stories. You're disseminating culture is what's going on. It's not only hunting. It's also passing down traditions, stories and ways of life that would otherwise not have a chance to be passed down.

HERSHER: This, he says, is where his power and resilience come from. His culture will be his protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: After listening to Becky's story, we wanted to know more about this toxic cycle sociologists call intergenerational trauma. Is it rare? Is it common?

HERSHER: Intergenerational trauma - and actually, rising to meet it also, like being resilient - that's just an extremely American story.

DEMBY: Becky helps answer some of our questions after the break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: In the studio with me in D.C. is Becky Hersher.

Hey, Becky.

HERSHER: Hey.

MERAJI: So I'm over here in LA, and I'm actually going to start us off because I was listening to this, Becky, and of course I was wondering - is there intergenerational trauma in my own family?

HERSHER: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And I'm sure so many other people listening had a similar thought.

DEMBY: Yep.

MERAJI: You know, whether it's trauma that comes from having to leave your country of origin against your will or intergenerational trauma that stems from slavery or the Holocaust, it just seems like something a lot of people can relate to. Is it?

HERSHER: Absolutely, yeah. I think intergenerational trauma - and actually rising to meet it also, like, being resilient - that's just an extremely American story. So you mentioned slavery - I think Jim Crow also applies here. You're talking about generations of people who witnessed violence and were affected by it and then pass that down. We're also talking about immigrants, people who were displaced by war or disaster. You know, anyone who fled a genocide - the Holocaust is included in that. Sam's other side of his family, actually, is Jewish...

DEMBY: Wow.

HERSHER: ...And coped with that. Basically, the litmus test here is if your family traditions were interrupted by something violent and traumatic, your family is at risk for intergenerational trauma. And that can also happen on a smaller scale - think addiction in a community, think violent crime in a community. It doesn't have to be a war. So if it feels familiar to people, that's probably because it is.

MERAJI: Do you have to be physically or emotionally abusing the next generation in order for it to be considered intergenerational trauma?

HERSHER: No. You just have to be at risk for it. It's twofold. One is the behaviors that are elicited by the trauma in the first place. So the mother is sent to boarding school, the daughter is spoken to harshly by that mother, that daughter has trouble expressing her love or being resilient in the face of difficulty, right? The, like, corollary to that is even if the daughter expresses her love to her son, the son is still interacting with the grandmother, right? The son is still hearing...

DEMBY: Right.

HERSHER: ...The story of the subjugation and oppression of the people who he's supposed to be part of. So you're still at risk for the passing on of a trauma that didn't occur to the latest generation.

MERAJI: And you said in your piece that sociologists found that a good way to overcome intergenerational trauma, in the case of Sam, was to reconnect with culture. Is that for all of these various types? You know, could I reconnect with my Iranian culture and that would help stem some intergenerational trauma or stop me from passing it down to my kids?

HERSHER: Right. And what if you can't physically move back with people who are practicing the culture that you're cut off from? And that's a really big question. So in Sam's case, he could get some of these concrete skills. He could go to Gambell, he could learn to do subsistence hunting, he could hear these stories. But one way around it, if you can't go back, if you can't be around people who are practicing the traditions that you could have grown up with if not for the trauma, is to build new traditions, right?

This is also a very American thing. You have a lot of people coming to a place and saying we're from one place and we're in a new place, what will be our family now? So that can be stuff that's based on old traditions. It can be taking elements of the things that your family has done for a long time and doing them in a new context. But the main thing that you want to be doing for your kids, especially when parents think about this, is connecting them to a bigger idea - putting them in the context of the people who came before them - acknowledging that. Because one thing that happens when traditions get broken down is that young people don't know who they are and who they can be, right?

So one thing that anthropologists say is, like, culture is like a scaffold and like a safety net. So it's a scaffolding that you can attach your dreams, your desires, your vision for the future to it. But then it's also there to fall back on when things get hard. And so that doesn't mean that you have to do things exactly the way your ancestors did it, it just means that you have to have something there. And if culture was destroyed, it needs to be built back up.

MERAJI: A lot of what I'm hearing puts the onus on the people who have been traumatized, right? Go. Connect with your culture. Figure out a way to create new traditions. Can other people in, quote, unquote, "dominant society" do something to help fix this?

HERSHER: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, the road is easier when your differences are being celebrated and there is more freedom to be you. So this is - something we saw with Sam for sure is that one of the things that was good about the transition to private school - and, you know, it wasn't all good.

DEMBY: Sure.

HERSHER: There were still a lot of things that were hard and it's definitely still a place that was dominated by a culture that is not his. But one of the things that was good is that the rules bent when he pushed them. You should allow me to learn this way. You should allow me to come to school a week late because that's when the fishing season ends. You should allow me to travel because I'm part of a native youth group. Do the rules bend?

DEMBY: So can we talk a little bit about the schools in the story? Because they function sort of as, like, sites of indoctrination of culture and sort of homogenization. On one hand, we have the American Indian boarding schools which inflict all this sort of calamity and trauma onto all these native communities. Then, a couple of generations later, Sam and his mother are in a public school in Seattle. He's a student there, she is the teacher there, and they're both having a really hard time. Do you think that's for similar reasons - like, if this is the process of indoctrination or assimilation? Did they make that connection when they were telling that story about themselves?

HERSHER: Yeah. Absolutely. It's obvious to them there's a throughline there. And it's in the specifics that things get a little bit messy, right? Obviously, a boarding school in Alaska in the '60s is different from a public school in Seattle in 2005.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

HERSHER: But I think, actually, Sam put it best. So one thing he said is he sees the desire and belief for learning to be standardized in schools as a form of indoctrination. What he would say is, basically, that the norms - the average wins, right? So that means in this Seattle public school, the white, non-native norms - they win. It's not from a place of hatred of the person he is, but it has the same effect, basically, of putting him on the outside of the norms and calling him what he is, which is different...

DEMBY: Right.

HERSHER: ...Which is very isolating. And it becomes a way of telling him that he should be something else. But another thing is that students like Sam, non-white students, are diagnosed with learning disabilities and learning disorders more often.

DEMBY: Right. There's an idea of, like, what - a student's supposed to behave and that is racialized in all these ways.

HERSHER: Exactly. And I think - there have been a number of different studies on why it is that non-white students are diagnosed with learning disorders at higher rates. One thing that's true is that there's not a good reason. But the question of why the diagnoses are happening, I think, is nuanced. And one really interesting thing is that students who do not speak English as a first language are diagnosed at far higher rates with learning disorders. So you're testing a student in a language that is not their first language. Their answers may lead the tester to conclude they had trouble learning, when, in fact, the problem was that they had trouble understanding the questions...

DEMBY: Right. Like, it's like idiomatic stuff. Like...

HERSHER: ...In the first place.

DEMBY: Yeah, exactly.

HERSHER: Exactly.

DEMBY: Yeah.

HERSHER: So that's testing bias, but the testing bias is part of larger institutional bias.

DEMBY: Right.

HERSHER: And one thing, you know, Sam and his parents said is that all of that - having to fight to show that you being different is not you being bad or worse than your fellow students - that's so exhausting.

MERAJI: And you mentioned in the story that some of the teachers were saying, well, maybe you should go back to the village because this isn't working and he's not doing well here and he's not doing well in school in Seattle. Maybe he'll do better if he went back home. And that's not necessarily the case, right?

HERSHER: Right. And I do want to say, you know, there are a lot of good things about Gambell for Sam. This is a place where he's related to basically everyone. Like, living in a small community with your whole family can be really great in a lot of ways...

DEMBY: Everybody has your back.

HERSHER: ...Being with people he loves - yeah, everyone's got your back or knows your business.

DEMBY: Right.

HERSHER: But there are a lot of hard things too. Gambell is a very small place, it has a very small school, and kids who want college preparatory classes can't get them at the local school. You have to travel. So that means you're taking a plane to go to school. You might be living part of the year away from home. So Sam is going to Stanford next year.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: Oh, wow.

HERSHER: The idea that he would have gotten there going to school in the village - it's not impossible, but it's really hard. And then there are social things that are really hard. You know, his own cousins have struggled with substance abuse. There's a very high rate of suicide in Gambell. That's not specific to Gambell. That's across Alaska in native communities. That's across the U.S. in native communities. That's, frankly, around the world in native communities - places that have had a lot of cultural destruction. So Sam has been protected from that in a lot of ways. Even if his education in Seattle has been difficult and there's been a lot of fighting to get him what he needs, in the end, he did get what he needed from that and maybe going home he might not have.

MERAJI: Complicated.

(LAUGHTER)

HERSHER: No kidding. Can you imagine? I mean, so many parents have to make these tough calls where you want the child to have one part of a thing but to be protected from the hard part of that same thing. And this is just such a clear example of that, where, like, how do you get him closer to his family without putting him in danger?

DEMBY: All right, Becky. So a shorter version of this story ran on All Things Considered last week. So now that it's aired, how are people in Gambell reacting to this reporting?

HERSHER: You know, there's been mixed reaction in Sam's family to this reporting. In general, in Gambell, his father told me that it was well received and seemed true. But, you know, especially for people who are still struggling with substance abuse in his family, this is a very painful thing to confront.

MERAJI: So for people like Sam who are listening to this and thinking, yes, this is me. I don't quite have a home. I want to be connected to my culture, but not all of it is healthy for me. What can people like that do to be OK?

HERSHER: Yeah. I think it's a really hard question, and I actually think this is where Sam Schimmel is so inspiring, frankly, and his family. They've done a really amazing job creating something that's very hard to create, which is a new tradition. It's a new culture. You know, cultural traditions are living things. His Siberian Yupik culture in Gambell - that's a living thing. It's not a relic. It doesn't belong to his ancestors, it belongs to him and he's very comfortable in that. And so the way he lives his life, where he chooses to live it, how he chooses to be educated, how he chooses to interact with people - those are all - they're part of making a new tradition and they're things that he draws strength from rather than trying to fit himself into, well, if I live in Gambell, then I'm home in Gambell. If I live in Seattle, then I'm home in Seattle. You know, if I marry a certain person or if my parents talk to me in a certain language or if - you know, all these check-the-boxes types of ways of thinking of culture.

MERAJI: Right.

HERSHER: You know, he pushes back really, really hard against any sort of victim narrative, and that's because that's truly how he lives his life. Like, there are hard things in life in general. Things like life is full of pain, and that doesn't have to be a source of weakness. It can be a source of strength. And so, like, I think, for people who are dealing with being - they're dealing with the weight of trauma that goes back farther than their own birth - that sort of model of tradition can be extremely empowering. And I think he's very hopeful that it can also stop the passing down of traumas.

DEMBY: Rebecca Hersher is a science reporter for NPR. Thank you so much, Becky.

HERSHER: Thanks.

MERAJI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Becky's reporting was part of NPR's How To Raise A Human series, which is about the social science of parenting. If you want to learn more, go down the rabbit hole at npr.org/human.

DEMBY: Congrats to Sam Schimmel, by the way. He's graduating from high school this week - probably right now while we're doing this podcast.

MERAJI: So should the music giving us life be "Pomp And Circumstance" (humming "Pomp And Circumstance")?

DEMBY: Is there, like, a trap version of "Pomp And Circumstance?"

MERAJI: I know - I would love that. I bet there is one out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE CLAW PHILHARMONIC'S "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE (TRAP REMIX)")

MERAJI: Excellent.

DEMBY: Turn up. Now the fun part starts, Sam. All right, y'all, that's our show. You should follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. You can email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever you listen to podcasts and sign up for our newsletter.

MERAJI: Please.

DEMBY: That's at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Vikki Valentine, Steve Drummond and Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: And a shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kat Chow, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates and Walter Ray Watson. Our intern is Angelo Bautista. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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