This Is What I Was Taught – Breaking Free from Lateral Violence

One of the most empowering things I was taught about when I was on my healing journey was something that professionals call Lateral Violence. This is a chronic set of learned behaviors that people fall into when they feel stuck in an oppressive situation where they feel like they don’t have a voice. Not surprisingly it is part of the emotional leftovers of colonialism that spiritually lingers over reservations across North America.

Just like physical illness, lateral violence is a spiritual/emotional illness that presents evidence or symptoms. Things like name calling, chronically blaming others, belittling people’s opinions, making up dramatic situations about another person or yourself, gossiping and spreading rumors, talking badly about other people, blocking other people from success or achievements, and ganging up on people are just some of the vicious symptoms that are present when individuals are “infected” by lateral violence.

The behaviors of lateral violence can be contagious if people feel that they have no authority to fight a common enemy or oppressor. Instead of unifying to fight the oppressive powers that be, people engage in fighting one another hence the term ‘lateral’. It can be considered an STD – or spiritually transmitted disease – where newcomers, people with talent, people who are getting attention, or people who are well liked are the most vulnerable to this specialized form of bullying.

Experts also say that lateral violence is inflamed by suppressing feelings of anger and shame – which turn into a kind of poison inside the spirit of a person, eventually coming out contorted in the form of chronic jealousy, blame and bitterness.

Living under the dark cloud of lateral violence can seriously affect an individual’s health; causing them to suffer from anxiety, depression, weight issues, low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness and even suppressed immune function. For years after I was free from the extreme bullying I experienced as a child I battled an internal war. At first it festered as self-loathing and eventually that morphed into shame coming out as these ugly behaviors; gossiping, ganging up on people, spreading rumors. I was right caught up and was not using a good mind at all.

One day well after high school was over I ran into a group of girls I went to school with. I was genuinely happy to see them and went over to talk. Now for the life of me I can’t remember this one particular girl’s name but I will never forget what she said. “Wow I haven’t seen you in forever! How’s it going?” I asked her casually.

“Don’t even talk to me. You ruined my life. You were the biggest bully to me in high school. You literally ruined my whole year” she shouted.

Up to this point I don’t think I recognized that I had a problem. I always felt like I was the targeted victim of bullying. But here I was, standing in a circle of people I thought were my friends – shocked to realize that I had become someone’s bully! I’d internalized my own pain so much that without realizing what was going on, I had become what I loathed.

I tried to somehow apologize to her in that moment but I’m not sure it was received – and I get it. Honestly, I’m grateful ‘the girl I forget’ remembered me and that she was brave enough to rip a strip off of me in public. Had it not been for that humiliation I might not have ever learned any better.

The thing about lateral violence is that because it’s systemic – it’s not necessarily someone’s fault. They become the learned knee jerk emotional responses to feeling powerless and trapped in the survival mode, battling over limited resources.

We as Haudenosaune of Grand River have found ourselves in unspeakable trouble – but we have survived. We’ve endured through attempted genocide, displacement, war, famine, poverty, slander, sterilization and more. However despite centuries of attempts to destroy us – we are alive. Now I can’t speak for all, but I was taught that is probably a sign that the Creator put us here for a purpose and that His intentions are that we remain.

Perhaps now that we have survived through our collective oppression it is time to drop the fear based survival mentality we were taught, stop fighting one another once and for all and again pick up the victory-based traditional mentality of well-being.

Perhaps we can move above our oppression and collectively trust the Creator loves us and will provide whatever we need. He’s looking out for us continually for a reason.

Now I have learned a new behavior and this is what I was taught: Use a Good Mind, Love One Another, Be Thankful and Maintain the Peace with all Haudenosaunee people – even if they act all sorts of wrong.

This is not a new message, but an old one! The Creator sent the Peacemaker to the Haudenosaune people with a clear message: Stop Fighting! He uprooted the Tree of Peace and our grandparents cast down the weapons of war against one another for all time. These are our collective roots. This is the foundation of our Confederacy. This is a traditional value. This is our beginning and our future.

I was taught about something called sga’t nigoha – coming together with one mind and that is the mind of peace. If we can come to one mind centered on peace and the collective well-being of all people – perhaps we can transform the rez, overcome ourhistory, share this peace with all who want to share it with us and take hold of our future to become who the Creator intended for us to become.

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