Braving the Past

Shaman wisdom, psychology treat post-traumatic stress disorder

by ALEX deMARBAN
Anchorage Daily News | September 17, 2007

After a lifetime of losing friends and family members, including two cousins who killed themselves in a 12-month period, Roy Hancock went on a three-week drunk last year.

As he paced the floor of an abandoned house in Chistochina, he thought about grabbing a pistol and shooting himself. That’s when a friend showed up and invited him to an unusual therapy program in Anchorage.

Hancock, 45, agreed to go.

“It was that, or put a bullet in my head,” he said.

The program, called White Raven Center, treats clients who suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe and stubborn reaction to trauma that includes symptoms such as nightmares, emotional detachment or severe depression.

The disorder is often associated with returning combat soldiers or firefighters who searched the New York City rubble after Sept. 11, 2001.

But it’s common in rural Alaska too, where cultural upheaval mixed with alcoholism has pushed rates of suicide and family violence among the nation’s highest, psychologists say.

The White Raven Center, run by Floyd Guthrie, a Tlingit shaman, and his wife, Marianne Rolland, practices a cathartic therapy that allows clients to revisit memories and unleash feelings in a group setting, often with powerful results.

During one of the center’s monthly three-day sessions in August, 10 clients took turns lying blindfolded on the floor. After breathing for several seconds, they shouted rage or wailed tearfully.

Some cursed parents.

Others stood, slamming a plastic bat against a padded karate shield.

When it was his turn, Hancock lay under a white blanket, clenching and opening tight fists.

“I’m just seeing all these young lives wasted and gone,” the former fisherman said heavily.

Guthrie kneeled beside Hancock, urging him to stay with the memory.

“You carry a lot of hurt in this body,” Guthrie said. “It’s confusing to you as a warrior because you feel like you have to do something.”

Rolland, who calls herself a facilitator because she helps clients heal spiritually and mentally, touched Hancock’s heart with one hand. The other stretched in the air, quivering with his escaping energy, she said.

Generations of Trauma

Rolland and Guthrie, who founded the center out of their East Anchorage home 10 years ago, say they blend Native traditions with contemporary psychology methods like group therapy.

They started practicing after learning the “rapid transformation therapy” treatment from a California shaman, they said.

Clients include Natives and non-Natives, including some from urban areas. Most haven’t been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but many have the symptoms, Guthrie said.

That’s not unusual in rural Alaska, said Bob Chaney, a psychologist with Southcentral Foundation, an Anchorage Native health care organization not affiliated with the center. The disorder is common in the Bush, but how common is unknown, he said.

When psychologists do see rural residents, it’s often the diagnosis, he said.

“It’s an epidemic,” said Chaney, who’s counseled villagers after tragedies for more than a decade.

Some villagers suffer trauma directly, such as through child abuse or the suicide of a loved one. Many suffer a generational post-traumautic disorder that’s caused by cultural change, he said.

For decades, even centuries, villages have been under siege as language and traditions eroded. Many things contributed, such as diseases that killed more than half of Natives in the early 1900s, and shifting from communities of hunter-gatherers into a world that stresses jobs and cash.

Many drank away the stress or used drugs. Some hurt family members or themselves, at times affecting entire villages. Children learned to repeat the behavior.

That cycle is largely why studies over the last two decades continue to show Alaska Natives suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide, alcohol-related deaths, family violence and sexual abuse, Chaney said.

The problems are widespread. Alaska Natives killed themselves at four times the national rate in 2005.

Between 2000 and 2003, Natives made up 36 percent of all domestic-violence victims in Alaska, though they were only 19 percent of the population, according to the Alaska Native Policy Center. Forty-four percent of all sexual assault victims were Native females.

Chaney had never heard of the White Raven Center. But the therapy practiced there sounds similar to therapies offering an alternative to couch-side explorations of emotions over longer periods.

Such therapies encourage victims to recall painful memories, such as through hypnosis or re-enactments, he said.

Some experts criticize the cathartic outbursts such as those at White Raven as re-traumatizing rather than helpful. But it can help if done properly and safely, Chaney said. For example, victims who unleash emotions in group settings may learn they’re not alone.

Burdens Lifted

White Raven clients swear by the sessions.

“I wish everyone could try this,” said Glenn Peters, a 48-year-old Tlingit raised in Juneau.

He learned to ignore sadness growing up, though it filled his life. Drunk parents and family fought openly. He spent years in jail, including for assault and robbery. Police arrested him again last fall after he violated probation by snorting cocaine.

Several years of talking with psychologists did nothing, he said. But his outlook improved after his first weekend at White Raven in June, where he finally felt comfortable enough to express his emotions.

“First time I cried in years,” he said.

Guthrie and Rolland aren’t licensed psychologists, though another White Raven facilitator is. The couple says they learned some techniques from Native and American Indian healers.

For example, clients sing songs to honor ancestors or fan themselves with smoke in smudging rituals.

The therapy works because people can tap into feelings they’ve ignored, shedding bad emotions and focusing on positive ones, Guthrie said. Talking about what they experienced puts their trauma into perspective.

Done Drinking

Clients are treated individually, or in group workshops. Sessions often end well after midnight.

During his session, Hancock cried out for the cousins who killed themselves in 1991 in Chistochina, about 240 road miles northeast of Anchorage. Terry Pence was like a younger brother, Hancock said. Pence was in his early 20s when he shot himself with a rifle in 1991.

“There wasn’t much left of his head,” Hancock said.

The other, a teenage cousin named Frank Charlie who had been abused as a child, then adopted by Hancock’s family, shot himself five months later, affecting everyone in the village of 100.

Hancock, attending his fourth monthly seminar at White Raven in late August, said he still thinks about the two cousins. Memories of them and of other family members who have died in car crashes and other accidents gnawed at him, and he started drinking heavily last winter.

During his first session last year, he screamed and cried for a long time, he said, feelings he usually only expressed while drunk. He can’t express himself well with words, so releasing his emotions is his way of talking through the pain, he said.

Watching others deal with their trauma made his problems seem small, he said.

He still drinks today, but nothing like before, and he credits Guthrie and Rolland. He’s happy most days, and the suicidal thoughts are gone.

“It was kind of like a miracle,” he said.

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