Belinda Eriacho is a Native American healer and wisdom carrier that was born in Fort Defiance and was raised in the capital of the Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Arizona. Although she grew up being exposed to the traditions and culture of her ancestors, Belinda’s journey started at the age of 12 and the journey of the wounded healer began when she was diagnosed with systemic lupus and healing from a severe flare. In addition, the healer re-emerged when her brother fell ill with pancreatic cancer and she began using the sacred plant medicine to help him.
Returning to her ancestral roots, Belinda dug deep within herself and her childhood traumas in an intensive healing process that included Native American traditional ceremonies and rituals, such as taking lightning medicine, sweat lodges, and sacred plants.
Amplify #11 is WOOP’s first interview amplifying indigenous voices on the field of psychedelics. Here we invite you to learn more about decolonization, intergenerational trauma, and plant medicine through Belinda’s native American perspective.
This interview has been conducted by Jessika Lagarde and edited and condensed for clarity.
Belinda: Before I get started, one of the things that I'd like to do is a land acknowledgment, which is essentially honoring the original people of this land that I live in which in my case are the O’odham people, which also known as the Pima or river people. And the Piipaash people, that lived in this Valley for a long time.
I think that's one of the things in order for us to really think about decolonization in a different way is through land acknowledgments. It is always a good way to start, for people to really understand who were the original people of that particular land base in which they live. And, out of respect for the original people and to honor them, I encourage everyone to perform land acknowledgments.
The other thing I wanted to clarify is as we go through this conversation today there are terms that I will use like Native American, American Indian and Alaska Natives, and indigenous. To me, they all are the same thing. We are the original people of North America. And so I'll use these terms in different contexts as we go through our conversation today.
The last thing is when I have these types of conversations with people sometimes it stirs up different types of emotions in them. These emotions may be present because either they come from a colonial background or they are have been colonized. So I ask people to just sit with those emotions and really understand where they are coming from because that's really what we are all called to do. This is the inner healing for ourselves and also for the legacy and the generations that we will leave, for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.
WOOP: What is decolonization and how can we practice it?
Belinda: I think the conversation needs to begin with, “what is colonization?” because we can't have that conversation until we truly understand the context of colonization. And we will do that from a Native American's perspective, what we see and how colonization has affected us and continues to affect us.
Colonialism is a series of formal or informal methods such as behaviors, ideologies, institutions, policies, economies that are forced upon indigenous people. In this case, Native American people. Colonialism was/is at the expense of the native indigenous people.
Not only has this resulted in the loss of major rights such as land, resources, lives, and self-determination. It does not allow us to really govern ourselves. The federal government has oversight over the things that we are allowed to do and not do. With the arrival of Europeans in America, they brought diseases, including smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, cholera, and many others. There are actual historical records that documented smallpox-laced blankets being passed out to Native American people.
So when you look at the demographics of the population in the United States there is a deep decline in the population of Native American people in this country due to these diseases. To me, there was intent and what was trying to be achieved. If you look at colonialism from where we come from, it's very different and it's not what you read in the history books. Our history books only tell the story from the conquer side and not necessarily the indigenous people’s story.
One of the biggest travesties that have happened here in North America with regard to US federal government policy and that has impacted every single tribe in the United States is the creation of boarding schools. Boarding schools were created to essentially assimilate native children into mainstream society.
Native children have essentially pulled away from their families, as young as three years old. And, they were not allowed to be with their family. They actually lived in these boarding schools. That was a demonstration of cultural domination. At these schools, children were physically, sexually, emotionally abused, starved, and neglected. Some became very sick and many of them died. These children are now grandparents and parents with wounds unimaginable and that still impact native people’s lives today.
The process of colonization created serious spiritual, emotional, and intellectual challenges for the survivors and their descendants. These children never had the care and the love that we would have from a parent or from extended family members.
As Native American people, we still experience colonization and continue to have to work on this every single day of our lives because those systems we have to function in have not changed. Those policies are still in place. The bureaucratic systems that exist are still in place. Even though the times have changed we still have to work within that framework.
I would encourage everyone reading this interview to help to change this narrative for all of us. Really ask yourself when you're feeling those emotions: Why do you believe in that particular way that you believe? Especially when you're thinking about your reactions towards or against people of color. Because there are some really deep-rooted emotions that really need to come to the surface and be dealt with. This is part of the history that we all have inherited as human beings. And we have to change that for the generations to come.
Now, talking about decolonization, there are so many complexities that go along with that. And it's not just a process that you change. It's not so easy when you're dealing with something that's been in place for over 200 years.
One of the things, when I think about decolonization as a Native American person and to some extent for a nonnative American person, is that it's really about changing our mindsets and the way that we look at things. Once you recognize what those injustices were, you can begin to look for solutions or challenge those institutions or those processes. This is where I think that non-indigenous people can be allies for indigenous people.
Educate yourself about who you are, educate yourself about the indigenous communities that are in your area, and be the voice for them. Sometimes people don't understand that and I tell them that their voice is more valued than my voice, even though I live in that experience. Dominant society may have the knowledge of this process in their mind. But I would also challenge them that it's much deeper than that. And to really be able to look through a Native American's individual’s lens to understand that.
WOOP: What is intergenerational trauma? How has the intergenerational trauma inflicted on Native Americans affected you personally?
Belinda: Intergenerational trauma is also known as historical trauma and it's cumulative.
When I say cumulative, I think about all of the things that have happened historically in my culture. My ancestors were removed from their indigenous or their ancestral lands and many of these relocations were forced. As indigenous people, when we live on a certain piece of land, it becomes our connection to the Earth. It becomes a connection to the plants that exist around it. We know where to get our medicines from. It's a place where we honor and we pray to the Holy people.
There's a native American researcher named Braveheart, and she talks about three different ways that Intergenerational emotions express themselves. One of them is called historical, unresolved grief, which is historical trauma that has been sufficiently acknowledged and expressed, and otherwise addressed.
So there's really no acknowledgment that many of these events have happened here in America. We have not gotten that acknowledgment as Native American people. For me, in order for healing to happen, that's one of the most important things that needs to happen.
One aspect of this type of grief, which is often referred to as disenfranchised grief, is that the person does not have the opportunity to mourn that loss. So, all the events that I shared with you such as being relocated, going through wars, being put in boarding schools, we never had the time to stop or take the time to heal ourselves.
The third thing she talks about is internalized oppression, which essentially means that those in a Native American community that has been oppressed, become the oppressors. So they start oppressing people within their own communities. And we see that all over in indigenous cultures.
For me personally in my own life intergenerational trauma has touched me in many ways. Number one, my mom was actually put in one of these boarding schools and she was not allowed to speak her language. So, when I came along and my siblings came along, she never wanted to teach us the language because she was afraid that something would happen to us.
In addition, there's also been a lot of alcoholism and substance abuse in my family. This has been going on for three generations, which is a long time. And so that's another thing and the way that I've come to understand it, it's really a way to numb the pain instead of dealing with the emotions.
My great-grandmother was put in one of these concentration camps. And when she was two years old, she and her family were finally allowed to return back to their homelands. And so they walked 400 miles away, which the story goes that it took them two years to walk back to their original homelands. So as a young child, I can't even imagine my great-grandmother witnessing people starving, people freezing. Those kinds of things leave an imprint on you.
If we bring the topic epigenetics, when you look at some of the research that has been done with regards to Holocaust victims, you have a person who was sent to one of these concentration camps. When they finally got freed and became an elder, one of the things that they’ve noticed is that sometimes it'll skip a generation, but the grandchildren of this person that was in the concentration camp will experience similar types of emotions that she has had.
So when we think of epigenetics, I think it's also an opportunity for geneticists to really understand resilience and indigenous people.
WOOP: How have you dealt with trauma on your own personal healing journey, and how did it bring you on to the path of healing others as well?
Belinda: I think at the time I didn't realize that I had trauma. It was not until I was much older and I had gone to college, and being away from the reservation. When I started learning about all the aspects of health - because that was what my undergraduate degree was in - I started realizing there were things in myself that I needed to heal. The anger towards white people from a childhood experience. In order to heal I took some inner healing courses, counseling and then there was also the use of these sacred plant medicines.
People refer to a lot of these plant medicines as drugs, which they are not. They refer to them as entheogens or psychedelics, but to me, they're sacred plant medicines that have been placed on the earth to heal each and every one of us, to heal humanity.
In South America or in the Andes, there's a word, “Ayni” that means sacred reciprocity, meaning today for me tomorrow for you. And this is the way that the natural law and order of things, that we are taught at a very young age as indigenous people. You can't just go there and pull the plant. There's a certain way t to show reverence for that plant because they're essentially giving their life for whoever's going to partake of that particular medicine.
The other part of the story for me is early in my life, I got really sick. I became very ill with Systemic Lupus, to a point where I had to be hospitalized and my body was shutting down. This was part of my healing journey and becoming a healer, I really had to go through that experience in order to understand what it feels like physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually, because I cannot help someone if I don't know what that experience is like.
We are all able to heal ourselves. We just don't really know how to do it. Sometimes all you need is a person to guide you through that.
WOOP: What are some of the biggest impacts and ongoing consequences of colonization and intergenerational trauma on native or indigenous communities?
Belinda: I believe that the relocation of native people and the forced removal of native children into boarding schools has to be the biggest travesties that we have had to experience. In the future, I think one of the biggest issues as Native American people in the US that we will have to deal with is an issue called “blood quantum”.
So what happens is there was a way in the federal system that was created to recognize each individual as a Native American person. We didn't become US citizens until 1924. We were not allowed to vote in some states until 1968. That's not too long ago and we are the original people of this land.
So as an example, my parents come from different lineages. So, what they do is they divide you. I cannot be full-blooded Navajo, I'm one half and one half. And so let's say that I have a child and that child will then become one quarter, one quarter. So if you think about that and you play that scenario out into the future, what happens is that Native American quantum starts to dwindle down to nothing.
And then what happens is when you cannot prove that you are Native American, you are not entitled to any health care. You're not entitled to an education. You are not entitled to any of these benefits that were original agreements that were made with our ancestors. So, I think that's one of the biggest challenges that have yet to be that will be coming up in the future for Native American people in this country.
When I look at the experience of the children that were placed in boarding schools, they had a loss of their identity. So you were not allowed to be Native American. You had to be a white person. There were even instances where little children would wash themselves with bleach because they were too brown or because they wanted to be white.
These children were away from their families. So they essentially felt abandoned and like no one cared about them. Then they grew up and didn't want to make any attachments to another person because they felt that they were going to be abandoned.
There are all those types of internal psychological issues as well. When you look at it from a tribal or community level there's a loss of sense of community. We no longer want to help each other the way that our ancestors helped each other. There's also a loss of the language because we were told not to speak our language. There's a loss of tradition in ceremonies for many native American people. The churches started coming in and they started doing away with a lot of our traditional healing practices.
So a lot of the young people are killing themselves. Because they have lost a sense of identity of who they are. And because of all of these implications, they may live with a grandparent that was in the boarding school system and they didn't feel loved. They don't have any self-worth.
There are high rates of child neglect and domestic violence. There's PTSD. I thought I'd just give you some statistics to help you understand those. Suicide is the leading cause of death for our youth, between the ages of 15 and 24, it's 2.5 times the national average in the US.
Another statistic that stands out is more than four in five American Indian women will experience violence in their lifetime. And the thing I want to point out is that is not the culture that our ancestors live with. To our ancestors, the women are the ones that hold the wisdom and the knowledge of the medicine teachings and the way that families should be structured.
And now it's completely flip-flopped. Some of our native men don't know what their role is in a family anymore. Domestic violence, physical and sexual assault are three and a half times higher than the national average in Native American communities. We have a lot of chronic health conditions and the mortality rate for diabetes between 2009 and 2011 was 66%. In comparison to the US for all races at 20.8%. So it's almost three times as high.
Those are some really scary numbers. I don't think many people are even aware of that. I always tell people we are the marginalized of the marginalized in the United States even though we might be only be 2% of the entire population.
WOOP: What needs to be done so that healing can be provided to communities that have suffered generations of oppression and trauma?
Belinda: We need Native American people to actually be a part of the conversation to what are the solutions rather than the federal government and non-native people deciding what's right for us.
Another is to promote tribal sovereignty, meaning that we have the right to govern ourselves and to have our tribal governments speak on our behalf. The other thing is the need to decolonize US laws and policies that have been created that no longer work and to change the systems and the processes that go along with that.
The other piece that is really important and a lot of our native American communities in the US are doing is restoring our traditional languages. There are some communities where there might only be two traditional speakers left. Tribes are cataloging their conversations so that they can teach younger generations. This is so important because our traditional languages are what connect us to the earth. They connect us to our prayers, our chants and our songs that help people to heal.
Finally, the restoration of our diets. For a long period of time, the government would give us junk commodity foods that were high in starches. As a result, our bodies have changed from what our ancestors used to be, the strong powerful people to bodies that are falling apart. This is why we end up with a lot of the chronic conditions that we have today.
WOOP: Indigenous people have a long history of using plant medicines which have been appropriated for healing white communities and are even being studied in scientific research. How do indigenous communities feel about this, and what can be done to promote fairer practices?
Belinda: Wow, this is a loaded question. This is being received with mixed feelings. I'm in a community where there are some things that have been kind of surfacing. I think what folks need to understand is that at the end of the day, the mindset in Western culture is really to make money.
So when Western people look at the life cycle, they think about the cradle to grave. In indigenous cultures and Native American cultures, we think about things from birth. So it's that whole full cycle of life, cradle to cradle. I know that with regards to some of the sacred plant medicines, for instance, like peyote, there's concern about the sustainability of the plant, because it's not something that grows over a few days. It takes years for that to actually mature. And there are only certain geographical locations where it has the right kind of soil in order to grow.
The bottom line is there are concerns about cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is taking a symbol or cultural practice out of its original context and using that out of the original context of the way that it was supposed to be and using it for your benefit.
An example would be, somebody going down to Peru and wanting to be a shaman. They go there for months then come back and they think they know everything about being a shaman. This is cultural appropriation because that's taking an indigenous culture that was intended for healing and using it out of original context.
Sometimes these healers have spent a lifetime learning the songs, learning the medicines, learning everything that is to learn about these medicines. It is not just a matter of going out there or attending a three-day seminar to do that and then consider yourself a shaman.
The other thing I want people to understand is you need to realize that Native American people have gone through a lot. Our lands have been taken, our sacred medicines no longer exist. Our culture has been diminished. Now you are asking us for something that keeps us whole and strong, our spirituality. You're asking us to give that up! So I hope you can understand that there's resistance to that.
I think people need to look at it from a different standpoint. I know that there are different debates that are going on out there that these medicines are not owned by anybody. You're absolutely right. They're not owned by anybody, but indigenous people were placed here as the stewards and the caretakers of Earth and everything that exists on her. That is our sacred responsibility as indigenous people.
I also wanted to say is that to us, these plants are sacred beings. People have parties or have these big events where everybody goes there and all they're looking forward to taking all of these medicines with the wrong intent and it's for recreational purposes. This is not the original intent of these plants. They have to be reverend and to be looked at as a way to heal.
From the time that they are harvested and picked in nature, there are songs that are sung to them. There are offerings that are made to them. There's a permission that is asked for, in order to provide that healing for that individual who is going to partake of them. There is reverence during the ceremony when the person is in that setting.
WOOP: How can Psychedelic Science be more inclusive and work alongside indigenous practices and knowledge? And is there a way that a ceremonial setting can still don't imply cultural appropriation?
Belinda: First, include indigenous voices in psychedelic science. I think that there are ways of incorporating our traditions as long as we're the ones that are doing the ceremonies.
And so one of the things for me that's really important is having culturally-based programs or therapies for individuals. So if indigenous people want to come and they want to be a part of a healing journey using the sacred plant medicines, there's the ability to bring in some of their traditional songs that are to protect them when they're in that sacred space.
And I've done this for myself when I've used some of these sacred plant medicines for my own healing. I made sure that there was a medicine person there. He was singing and setting the stage and the sacred container so that it was safe for me to go within and to the deepest places that I needed to go.
WOOP: For those seeking plant medicines and indigenous wisdom, what is the best way to work with and support those communities?
Belinda: First of all, people need to educate themselves. And I think even before that, they need to understand themselves. What I find often is that people are searching for a place to belong. Sometimes because either they don't have the richness or they don't have the understanding of their own family origins, they want to go and adopt somebody else's culture. So I think that is so important because it helps you know where your place is in your world.
The other thing they need to understand is that sometimes there are special initiations that you have to go through and perform ceremonies. You just can't show up at a three-day seminar and expect that you're going to be a shaman. There are initiations and certain things that have to happen before you're allowed to do that.
With that said, I think there are healers - traditional indigenous healers - that are willing to train you. And you need to be mindful that in our culture when we have elders that want to teach us, we can't be raising our hand and asking questions every time because you'll get scolded and disrespectful. You are there to learn and you should be listening to the elder.
I think that's one of the things that I find people always want to keep asking questions about why this, why that, and sometimes we don't need to know the answers to all the questions. Some of those questions are supposed to be left on known and a part of the mystical experience that we need to have as human beings.
We don't need to understand and analyze things because when we do that, we want to control it. So when we are more open to those things, I think that's the best way to deal with that.
WOOP: What is “re-indigenization” and how can people get involved? Are there any sources you would recommend for those seeking more information?
Belinda: When I think of indigenous degeneration, it's really the act of making something more native and for Native American people. We know who, what our culture is, and what the experiences are. We continue to carry our cultures, our traditions and our tribal community.
The only re-indigenization that is occurring right now is to revive our languages. Revive and share our teachings with the younger people so that they can be carried on. I would encourage others to do that for their own lineages and cultures, wherever they may come from. Whether it&