Q&A: A Bagful of Rocks Helps Native Youth Deal With the Weight of History

A bag of rocks.

‘A’gin’ is the Tewa word for respect and the central concept in a sex education program for teens from six Tewa-speaking communities in Northern New Mexico. Run by Tewa Women United and funded by FYSB’s Tribal Personal Responsibility Education Program, the A’Gin Healthy Sexuality and Body Sovereignty Project teaches young people respect for their bodies, for others, for Mother Earth, for women, for children, and so on, says Nathana Bird, the women's leadership and economic freedom program manager.

The A’gin project is based on the Discovery Dating healthy relationships curriculum designed by Wise Women Gathering Place in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Tewa Women United adapted the curriculum, adding lessons and activities concerning Tewa cultural values and historical trauma, and sex education.

One activity in the A’gin curriculum is an exercise that helps Tewa young people feel and process the weighty historical trauma their Tribe has been through. We talked to Bird about how and why Tewa Women United uses the exercise.

NCFY: Tell me about the “trauma rock” activity that you use in your sexual health curriculum. How does it work?

Bird: We pick seven volunteers, and they have to sit in these chairs that are facing forward and they're right behind each other. The seven chairs represent seven generations.

We go through each generation. And how they used to be able to be free and be in their place and wear their traditional wear and grow their own food and there were no railroads, or there were no roads, there were no cars, nothing. We go through the traumas that as indigenous people we faced here in America. The coming of colonization, the coming of the railroad, the coming of conquest and discovery, the coming of clothing. All the way to the Self-Determination Act [of 1975].

As the young people go through each process, they have a bag of rocks to represent the guilt, the anger, and the shame that we take on as we go through these events. The guilt, the anger and the shame are three rocks in the first generation bag. And as they go through each generation, if you don't release the guilt, the anger, and the shame, it's an exponential growth. From the first generation those three [rocks] pass on to the second generation, so that's nine, and as you go through each generation, [the youth] get to see how heavy that bag is with those rocks. Does each generation begin to heal or does it begin to unleash all that guilt, anger, and shame?

NCFY: How does the activity help Tewa youth explore the experience and effects of historical trauma?

Bird: The activity really allows these young people to process “How can I heal from this? And how can I heal from the sexual assault that came to my community through my grandparents' experience?” Or “How can I heal from the alcoholism of my father, and how can I begin to heal and look at the different actions that I've taken on within my life, that have been affected by the past?”

“How can I take off those rocks?” Because those rocks are heavy, and you can see after we do the activity the destruction of the bag that happens, when those rocks get carried for so long. Sometimes the bag will start to tear. Sometimes they can't even hold no more rocks, since all the rocks are falling out, and so it's like, trying to begin to build your new bag, or, “How do I clean out my bag?”

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