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Illness as Metaphor, Native American Identity, and the Hidden Self

The history of Native Americans in the United States is filled with oppression by and struggle against the dominant culture. While native peoples across the country have made strides towards full civil and human rights, they continue to face the need to wage life and death battles—whether to combat extreme poverty and neglect or to prevent further destruction of the environment and of people, such as the ongoing struggle of the residents of Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In the first part of this podcast, longtime Herstory Writers Workshop participant Pat Gorman, of Lakota descent, reads from the beginning of her completed book-length memoir Red Medicine, sharing a scene that takes place soon after she has discovered she has a rare illness that affects only certain Native American tribes and that is almost always fatal. Because eastern and western medicine have little knowledge about this illness, she is preparing to leave for the high desert of Mexico, where she will be treated by a traditional shaman. Pat’s writing and the discussion in this first half of the podcast focus on voice and identity, the rampant prejudice she grew up with in her predominantly Italian and Irish neighborhood, and her illness as a metaphor for the history of Native Americans in the United States.

Native American Worldview and the Power of Words

Pat’s story continues with the last conversation she has with a western doctor, her anger increasing at the disregard for indigenous peoples exhibited by the US medical establishment’s lack of attention to a rare, usually fatal Native American illness. This disregard is just one example of the widespread neglect that Native Americans, especially on reservations, are forced to experience. Pat explores questions related to Native Americans’ universal worldview, the power of words to divide us, and finally, the power of words to create understanding and healing, as Pat herself experienced in the process of writing her memoir with Herstory Writers Workshop.

The program’s host is Sandra Dunn, longtime facilitator of Herstory’s East End Spanish-language workshop for Latinas and a program director at the Hagedorn Foundation, where she manages the local immigration and civic engagement grantmaking.

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