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More Than Half is a podcast that uncovers serious challenges facing Utah women and why it takes all of us, regardless of gender, to overcome them.

She's Still Here

From the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women movement to high COVID cases, historical trauma continues to affect native people in Utah today. But along with the pain, a certain kind of strength has been handed down from generation to generation. This legacy of resiliency is especially present in native women as they help their community heal.

In this episode, we hear from Dena Ned, a Chickasaw social worker and professor, about some of her own experiences with historical trauma and the community she’s found in Utah. And we speak with Kristina Groves, a Ute and Hopi social worker at the Urban Indian Center about ways women are leading the movement towards healing.

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Episode Transcript


ANDREA SMARDON: Welcome to More than Half I’m Andrea Smardon.

Today, Utah is home to nearly 60,000 indigenous people. It is the ancestral home of the Ute, Dine, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone tribes.

Discussions around native people often center on higher rates of substance abuse, violence, and health issues. But social scientists have been exploring where these higher rates are coming from. They’ve started to see these issues as symptoms of the  traumatic experiences native people have endured for hundreds of years. 

Today on the program, we learn more about this historic trauma and the women that are leading the path towards healing. 


ANDREA:It's 1955, and you've been told by the government that it's probably best for you to leave your tribe and go to the city. There will be jobs and education, they say, so you hop on a bus to Seattle. But once you get there, you realize things are very different in this place. So what do you do?

DENA NED: There are just these beautiful stories from the termination and relocation federal policies of the fifties and sixties, where grandmothers were going down to the bus stations like in Seattle, Washington, because they knew, you know, like every Friday there would be buses of Indian people from the reservation gain dropped off and the grandmothers were going down to those bus stations and welcoming because it was an extension of family, right. And they fed them and they introduced them to other people. And that created this network and it still exists in urban areas.

ANDREA:Dena Ned is a professor at University of Utah and director of the American Indian Social Work Program. She's lived in Utah for over half her life.  Here in Salt Lake, she’s seen women step up just like those grandmothers decades ago. 


DENA:That's always happened, right? It's always been that sharing of what do we do? What did we do and how do we move forward?

ANDREA:But prior to becoming a part of this community, Dena had a different experience.


DENA: I'm actually a citizen of the Chickasaw nation of Oklahoma. And when I was in first grade, we moved around quite a bit. We ended up on the East coast. It was November and November, as we know, has become known as you know, like American Indian history month. And let's celebrate Thanksgiving and let's dress you up as Indians and pilgrims. The teacher said, and I still remember this. So clearly bring a toilet paper, roll a bar of ivory soap. And we're going to make a totem pole out of the toilet paper roll. We're going to carve a canoe out of the ivory soap. And then we're going to make teepees out of like pipe cleaners or toothpicks. And then of course there were stories that went along with them. Like these are Indians and this is what they, you know, what they live in. And this is what they build. And I remember raising my hand going well, I'm Indian and I never had a canoe and we didn't do totem poles. And you know, and I didn't live in the teepee. And they're like, you're not Indian. And from that point until I was 18 or 19, I never told anyone again that I was American Indian.


ANDREA:Hiding her native identity through childhood allowed Dena time to observe how others treated indigenous people. She came to understand that her personal experience was part of a much bigger wound carried across generations. The attempt to erase her people. She learned about the concept of historical trauma.


ANDREA:According to Lakota social worker, Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. It is the collective emotional injuries that come from a group traumatic experience because its effects are felt over generations. It's also called intergenerational or multi-generational trauma.

DENA:I see the legacy of numerous traumatic events that the community experiences over generations. So it's layer upon layer.

ANDREA:Intergenerational trauma was first defined through the lens of the Holocaust. It wasn't until the work of Dr. Brave Heart in the 1980s, that it began to address the native experience. Brave Heart wanted to explore why so many native people were unable to fulfill the so-called American dream. But as she’s continued her research, a trend emerged, not only did women have unique challenges stemming from historical trauma, but they were also the ones leading the chain. She laid out four steps to heal historical trauma. Step one is confronting the trauma.

DENA:My family historic trauma was the trail of tears. As a member of the Chickasaw nation. We were forcibly removed to what is now Southeast Oklahoma. So that experience, that historic loss that occurred to my great-grandparents. They experienced it different than say their children, my parents, me or my child,

ANDREA:Native people in the U S there have been multiple traumatic experiences, disease and violence from first contact cost the lives of 95% of native people. Part of confronting historical trauma means recognizing these events for what they were a genocide. Dr. Brave Heart says this validation is needed for healing.


DENA:Why historic trauma is so insidious is because to put into context, the trauma and move past. It is not something that many of our communities have had the time or the energy, because they've been focusing on survival.

ANDREA:Fully understanding historical trauma means looking at how these events affect native people today, examining where the issues STEM from helps to move the process from confrontation to the second step. Understanding the trauma.

DENA:It was once explained to me as when we look at like the epidemiology of disease.

ANDREA:Dena gives the example of diabetes, something that affects native people in Utah at twice the rates of other communities.

DENA:Okay. So I'm diabetic because of poor diet, no exercise, but maybe there's a level of poverty involved.

ANDREA:She points out that poverty affects access to food and makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

DENA:Okay. Well, how did it get to that level? Well, I go one more deeper level, which has to look at the history of my community, the history of my family, the history of the relationship between in my situation, my tribe and where we live and being taken away from where we had medicines and foods and ways in which we raised our children.


ANDREA:She says, by going deeper, the layers emerge.

DENA:So understanding historical trauma, you really have to go back to, well, when did this all start to be able to address what's happening on the surface and where did they STEM from?


ANDREA:Kristina Groves is a social worker at the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City.

KRISTINA GROVES:I'm an enrolled member of the Ute tribe. And I'm also part Hopi, which is in Arizona.

ANDREA:She helps run the Red Mesa Behavioral Health center, where they provide a wide range of counseling services.

KRISTINA:We were always taught growing up that, you know, we give back to our community. We give back to our tribal people. And since I grew up in the city, the urban center was really where I wanted to be.

ANDREA:Kristina says the legacy of historical trauma is the reason for many of the difficulties within native communities, such as substance abuse, violence, health disparities, and a loss of traditional native values.


ANDREA:Dr. Brave Heart’s work has found that some of these issues affect native women differently. For example, American indigenous women experienced the highest rates of violence of any racial or ethnic group, but it hasn't always been this way.

KRISTINA:For traditional native Americans. You know, the woman and the mother is a really important part of the community. And it was only with colonization that changed the way that indigenous communities looked at women.

ANDREA:Kristina points out that while domestic violence against native women is high, it was never a part of native culture before,

KRISTINA:You know, assaults against women and men, but women in particular is a colonizer tool. And so it's used around the globe to control people and dehumanize people. And so I think that that has gotten carried down and in the boarding school tradition, there was a lot of physical and sexual abuse that happens. And so that shame gets, and then it gets handed down.


ANDREA:Within our lifetimes, Indian boarding schools, forced relocation, and systematic denial of native rights have amounted to a loss of people, land and culture. But Dena says, historical trauma affects individuals, even if they haven't had any of these direct experiences.

DENA:I did not grow up on territorial lands of the Chickasaw nation, but we always lived in cities.

ANDREA:As a young person, Dena's grandfather was given a land allotment at the time. He was part of an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma. A man adopted him taking his land in the process.

DENA:And then when that guy died, my grandfather was moved off of his land with $15 in his pocket.

ANDREA:In the 1950s, the U S government started the urban Indian relocation program. Dena said the government stopped fulfilling treaties that promised benefits to native communities.

DENA:They started to withhold access to food and education and housing and transportation. So we got moved to the city.

ANDREA:In 1940, 8% of indigenous people in the U S lived in cities and suburbs. Today it's over 70% as native people were forced from reservations into cities. The legacy of historical trauma and assimilation, means many were unable to connect to their roots in the same way.

DENA:So that pull of that being torn between family history, that place that you call home, where you get your security, your safety, your comfort foods, right, where you get the words in the language that remind you of love.

ANDREA:Despite the attempts to suppress native culture, Dena says indigenous people find each other. She's moved around in her life and found there to be commonalities in each place.


DENA:What I discovered is in every metropolitan or urban area, there is always a hub for American Indians, Alaska natives, indigenous peoples to come together. They create community. They create a sense of family, but we just do it with a lot more diversity than if I was back home,  you know, in Oklahoma.  Here in Salt Lake, well we're Chickasaw, we're Choctaw or Diné. We're Goshute, we're Paiute, we’re you know Lakota, we're Washoe, we're a lot of things, Cheyenne, Cherokee. We're still connected somewhere because we're not home.

.ANDREA:That connection to others that have experienced historical trauma is an important piece of working towards step three of healing, releasing the pain. One way the Urban Indian Center is looking to help the community begin releasing the pain of historical trauma is by providing opportunities for women to come together in discussion.


KRISTINA:Lots of communities. It's really difficult to just start the conversation. And oftentimes it doesn't really happen unless we create relationships. We, you know, with both individuals in our community as a whole

ANDREA:Prior to COVID the Urban Indian Center held a series of sewing groups.

KRISTINA:So we try to create an activity that we think would engage people and to kind of break down that stigma of talking about the things that happened to us, that cause problems in our lives.

ANDREA:Participants came to workshops to learn skills and create items such as beaded bags or ribbon skirts. Kristina says it was an opportunity to spend time together, build relationships and talk.


KRISTINA:So people that were here and really kind of try to help figure out how do we empower our community to acknowledge and then address some of these issues so that it's just not outsiders trying to help us. And that's one reason why, you know, I really love working here is because even though we're at an urban organization and a lot of us grew up or lived a lot of our lives in the city, our cultures are still really important to us.

ANDREA:Dr. Brave Heart found in her work that for native people, healing means connecting to their spirituality. It's part of the final step of healing, transcending  historical trauma.

KRISTINA:This mind body connection that's become really popular in the last couple of decades has always been instilled in, in our traditional ways of being and knowing that we know that our wellness is interconnected and you know, that we have to take care of our mental health and our emotional health and our physical health and our spiritual health that for native American spirituality is ingrained in the ways that we live our lives and the ways that we learn about things in the ways that we, that we heal from things to us. And that's the piece that makes our organization really different than anywhere else that you would go for counseling or for treatment or for health care. We really try to have a traditional connection in the work that we do.


ANDREA:Kristina believes that along with the issues that historical trauma has caused something else has been carried through generations as well.

KRISTINA:I mean, trauma changes us. It changes our DNA changes the way we think can, does our bodies and our reactions, but that resilience also gets handed down. And I think that's one thing that, you know, maybe in the last 10 years or so has become more, you know, people are talking about that a little bit more, you know, we are still here.


ANDREA:Kristina points to a number of campaigns from indigenous people that reference native resilience. 

KRISTINA:And that kind of tagline that we are still here is, is big because we are, you know, since the time that others aim to this continent, there have been different kinds of attempts in order to outright, you know, extinguish our populations and then change us and try to assimilate us. But we're still here and we're still holding onto our culture and our traditional ways, because those are the ways that we know how to be and how to heal and how to, you know, keep moving forward.

ANDREA:Dr. Brave Heart’s work highlights that women are often leading this healing movement for native communities, something Kristina has seen firsthand. 

KRISTINA:I mean, I think it's very evident in the women that are talking about these issues, their strength and their resilience. It just comes out when you hear them, when you hear about them. And I've been very fortunate, you know, to be able to be friends with a lot of these women. And I really respect the work that they do and the way that they live their lives and their commitment to these issues.

And I think that doesn't happen out of nowhere that we understand these issues as women, we understand how it affects our families. And so I think that that is the reason why we see this resilience and this passion among native women. When they're talking about how do we move forward? How do we heal? Not only our families, our individuals, but how do we heal our communities?

ANDREA:Kristina says community is vital for this step.

KRISTINA: We can't heal this trauma as an individual. We're not going to heal individually unless our communities heal as well


DENA: My experience has been with the native women in this community is, and you can always call upon them. And I say these words, and it's interesting because I'm like, well, I'm not, I don't think I'm really capturing what's happening the essence, but I feel it so deeply because I've experienced it. We get around other native women and we laugh. We share a meal, we share stories like, okay, I got this for another week or I've got this for another day. That's that resiliency, right? It's that, that acknowledgement of there's some crappy stuff that happened, but it's about how do you deal with it?

I mean, The roles of leadership of native women in this community have been in the social services, have been in education, have been in counseling and clinical work. They've been executive directors. They are tribal leaders in the state,

ANDREA:As she reflects on her experiences. She's reminded that the past, present, and future are interconnected. For Dena, the healing happens by experiencing the connections across generations.

DENA: For all of the years, all of the centuries that, you know, the indigenous people of North American spoke up, but were annihilated. It's just, it's, it's amazing where we are today. And what I never take for granted that I always think of is that I'm here because someone else survived. So I feel like I'm, I'm an extension of the legacy of the native women. I've had the honor of working with their learning from here in Salt Lake in the past 30 years.

ANDREA:To learn more about Dena and Kristina’s work, visit

This is a PBS Utah production. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please rate and review. Research interviews and production conducted by Alicia Rice and Ashley Swansong. Audio mixing by Will Montoya  I'm Andrea Smardon and I hope you'll join us next time on More Than Half.