Sick In the Head: When Settler Mental Illness Affects Native Physical Health

Published on: April 15, 2015

Filled Under: Right To Progression

Views: 5985

It’s strange sometimes, when you start getting into activism; when you start unlearning the lies of a country founded on genocide and thievery. It suddenly turns the concept of activism into something very real, something that must be done not for special privileges but out of necessity, sometimes even survival. As Winona LaDuke argues, “Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist.”  Learning about environmental issues that impact Indian reservations has made me even more wary of Indigenous/Settler relations than ever before, solidifying my stance against exploitative Settlers. It’s like that saying “Ignorance is Bliss”; once your eyes have been opened and you learn the truth, a sense of panic sets in and sometimes you wish you didn’t. There are countless incidents where corporations have set up their toxic workshops on Native land, usually without the consent of the tribe. These corporations promise the tribes jobs, while stripping the resources from the earth to gain profit. In doing so, they physically harm Indigenous people and wildlife living in the vicinity of these extraction sites, and sometimes sacred sites themselves. As artist Erin Marie Konsmo wisely said, “Healing is an important process for us as Indigenous communities. The violence that is happening on the land is directly connected to the violence happening on our bodies.” And they’re right.

To understand the complexity of the situation, we need to look at the relationship between colonialism development and Indigenous underdevelopment. Colonial and Indigenous ways of economic and land subsistence could not be more different. Indigenous ways of subsistence are mellow on the land; we would never over harvest, and we only hunt what we need. Balance, because we know that tipping the scales of already delicate eco-systems can have grave consequences. Now in the colonial mindset, the land is seen as good for one thing: agricultural and economic growth, to the point of resource exploitation. The “environmentally destructive development programs,” (LaDuke) practiced by colonials end up poisoning the earth with all of its toxins, and these toxins inevitably poison Indigenous people living on reservations.

In this case, biology and chemistry intersect each other; the chemical toxic particles of say, copper mines, infiltrate the air and water systems on the rez, and those living in the area breathe the air and drink the water. The end result? Humans, animals, and entire ecosystems on the reservation develop irreversible biological consequences; disease and defects, infertility and population decline, and in many instances death.

Native Hawaiians defending Mauna Kea.

Case Study: In Canada, tribes downstream from Serpent River face serious long term impacts from a Uranium mine at Elliot Lake. A study shows that “twice as many young adults (people under the ages of thirty-six) reported chronic disease at Serpent River than at two adjacent reserves,”(LaDuke). Pregnancies of those who lived at Serpent River, as well as children of male workers who worked at the mine, reported a high number of fetal death and birth defects. It is estimated that eighty times more radiation is in Native people living near the Uranium mine than those living in the south. We cannot acknowledge this as a mere anecdote in the frame of colonialism; we must see it for what it really is, which is the health deteriorating of Native communities due to settler practices.

It doesn’t end there. Coal strip mining has been an issue for tribes, most notably the Northern Cheyenne. Since there is little rainfall to begin with, the strip mining process exacerbates the problem, disrupting “groundwater systems, and contaminat[ing] a good portion of the groundwater,”(LaDuke). ). In Grassy Narrows, Canada, there is Mercury contamination due to a paper factory that used mercury and then “released it into the river to form toxic methyl mercury,”(LaDuke). As a result, over 20,000 pounds of this harmful waste have been dumped into the river, and experts say it can take close to one hundred years for the ecosystem to correct itself. At the Nett Lake reservation in Minnesota, the Potlatch Timber Corporation releases pounds of unsafe formaldehyde into the atmosphere. These emissions pollute the environment as well as people that live near it with cancers and ocular damage. But wait, there’s more. James Bay, once a rich ecosystem, is now being disrupted by Hydro-Electric exploration with “four major rivers destroyed and five 735 KV power lines cut[ting] a swatch through the wilderness,”(LaDuke). The amount of mercury in the reservoirs is also at an all-time high, and is contaminating human and animal life alike. As you can imagine, hunting and trapping areas have been desecrated, leaving Natives to abandon traditional subsistence ways.


A pattern I noticed is that this is happening mainly in Indian Country. To me, this is not an accident. I see it as a modern day tactic to eradicate Native people, albeit in a surreptitious, sinister way. Why don’t large mining corporations start their sites in non-Native land? Is it because they know there are too many people living there that would disapprove, and many of them non-Native? Why is it that Natives’ concerns are illegitimate compared to that of non-Native citizens?


Settler ethnocentrism and racism allows settlers to see Indigenous people as less than, much of it having to do with the genocidal circumstances of our past. Natural resource corporations are essentially taking back the land that was “given” to Natives (which was taken in the first place) in an act of cultural, physical and clandestine genocide. A recent example would be the United States House passing the legislature that gave an international copper mining company sacred Apache land, Oak Flat. In my mind, I believe the U.S. government and certain corporations are cohorts, scratching the backs of each other with the same agenda: make money and eradicate the expendables by any means necessary. Guess who we are?

I know I probably sound like a crazy woman, even to the most fair-minded individuals, talking about present day genocide in the United States. But you have to really examine certain aspects of contemporary society in the U.S. to get a grasp of how ingrained this is. For instance, the code name that the Navy SEAL team used for Osama bin Laden was Geronimo. Natives know Geronimo as a key force of resistance from genocidal settlers and a protector of his ancestral lands. For the U.S. military to use Geronimo’s name for the “enemy”, a target they would literally kill, shows absolute disrespect to Geronimo himself, our ancestors, and our struggle to remain sovereign as Indigenous people. Names and what they stand for hold much power; why is it that the U.S. used Geronimo’s name, who was merely defending his people and home, for a terrorist that kills innocent people, alá Osama? And if we want to talk about terrorists, then why not talk of the terrorism inflicted on Indigenous people upon American settler arrival in 1492?

Another example of a military term that holds Settler values; the use of “Indian Country” to denote “behind enemy lines.” The term “Indian Country” is so legitimate, that it is included in military training manuals, among the likes of “collateral damage” or “ballistics”. This phrase once again exemplifies the power of words, “as well as the nature of US political and social history as a colonialist power,”(Dunbar-Ortiz,57).

Sick in the head can be explained in both literal and metaphorical interpretations, depending on who we are talking about. We have the real physical sickness of Indigenous peoples’ bodies, brought on from exposure to deadly chemicals released from land exploitation. They manifest themselves in very real hospital bills, prescription medication, depression, funerary ceremonies. Then we have the sickness of the people who are in charge of these sinister operations; the corporations and nations in charge of planting these mines and pipelines in the living rooms of Native people. Their sickness is that of greed, wealth, control, power, which no amount of pills can rid. Psychologists relate greed to narcissism, both which “have their roots in profound self doubt,”(Michaelson). Narcissism is a disorder where people have such a high sense of self-importance, that they have a constant need for admiration and attention from others. They often lack empathy for other people, since they believe they are the only ones deserving of anything in the first place. Greed is not too far away from narcissism. Instead of demanding more attention, greed demands more material. Narcissism “involves cockiness, manipulativeness, selfishness, and power motives,”(Pyschology Today) which are all aspects fundamental to greed, most notably selfishness. Now let me posit this: if one is selfish, they lack consideration of others’ feelings, which is another way of saying they lack empathy. Therefore, if Narcissism is a mental health disorder, Greed is its equally problematic twin, making it a legitimate disorder as well. Greed as a mental sickness is what drives power-hungry corporations and nations to disregard not only the sacredness of Native land, but the invaluable health of Native lives.


"Unity is the enemy of the oppressor."- Dustin Barca

“Unity is the enemy of the oppressor.”- Dustin Barca

One of the hardest parts of talking about Indigenous environmental problems is finding solutions to them. Given the hostile history between Natives and settlers, it can seem daunting to say the least. But maybe we are over-complicating the solution. What about viewing the resolution process in the same framework our ancestors have been doing for centuries? That is, going back to the community for answers. The community itself, in fact, is key to defeating settler imperialism and corporate greed. When I say community, I mean Indigenous people and their allies from all areas physically coming together to occupy land of proposed mines, factories, and otherwise toxic compounds, in order to show how many of us oppose unscrupulous corporations. Furthermore, we must maintain warrior practices that have been integral to many of our communities, but adjust their roles to fit the issues we face today. Warriors in our community come in many different forms; the legal practitioners who have studied laws implemented for US tribes, and who write the new doctrines that assert our sovereignty; the grassroots movements which start small in communities, eventually growing, whom protest and protect ancestral land for hours and sometimes days; and the artists and activists of social media, arguably one of the fastest-growing components of Warrior culture, who are able to spread the word of Indigenous people online through art, petitions and projects, and other forms of media. Mostly, it is strength in numbers. Indigenous people and their allies need to oppose corporate establishments on Indigenous land in droves, be it through physical means or abstract, in order to send the message that we are still here, and we are still fighting for the rights to our sacred land, and the right to live healthy lives on it.




  1. Winona LaDuke, “Indigenous Environmental Perspectives: A North American Primer,” Akwe:kon Journal, 9, no.2 (Summer 1992). Copyright 1992 by Akwe:kon Press. Reprinted with permission. Portions of the original have been omitted.


  1. Michaelson, Peter. “Greed As A Mental Health Disorder.” Truth-Out. 15 October 2014.


4.Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014. Print.

2 Responses to Sick In the Head: When Settler Mental Illness Affects Native Physical Health

  1. Avery says:

    This article is so well composed. You make so many good references. Thank you for taking the time to write it. One thing I would caution you about in the future is conflating mental illness with violence. You mentioned depression as something that affects many indigenous people. Your point about naming greed (perhaps being a Keshagesh is another way to put it, as Buffy Sainte Marie sings about) as being being a defect is really a good one. I think the people who are truly messed up in the head are the ones in power, acting with violence. To many people who experience things like depression, autism, or schizophrenia, these things are not sicknesses, but rather alternative ways of knowing, or very appropriate and adaptive responses to a disrupted environment.

    Using the angle of pathology to attack the twisted world view of colonists is not the way to go, however. The idea of pathologizing certain states of perception and thinking is one that is used to dominate. The field of mental health is a colonial institution, that works closely alongside the pharmaceutical industry and the prison-industrial complex to pathologize diversity, dissent, non-adherence to the colonial gender binary, and many forms of spirituality.

    Neurodiversity is what the radical mental health movement calls it, not mental illness. Talking to spirits and ancestors, having visions, believing that all of the world is animate and composes ones familial relations, and being profoundly disturbed at colonial society’s suicidal and genocidal nature, are all shamed and pathologized within the traditional framework of mental illness. Attempting to use this framework to shame and pathologize colonists, while tempting, simply furthers an institution and world view that is an active agent in colonization.

    Greed, egotism and selfishness are evil. While they may meet the definition of mental illness as set by an oppressive institution, attempting to call them that does a great disservice to many indigenous people and comrades who are patholigized by the concept of mental illness. Call the colonial mentality evil. Call it narcissistic, unhuman, sinister and demonic. But don’t try and call it something that, by using it in this way, normalized the dehumanization of your neurodiverse comrades. Unity can only be achieved through solidarity. Solidarity takes work and learning, and I think this could be an opportunity for many to learn about the intersectional struggle against the pathologization of neurodiversity, of indigenous ways of knowing, and of dissent against colonial systems.

    Some reading on the subject:

  2. Avery,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and reply. I suppose I wanted to juxtapose the two positions (native and settler) so that it would be clearer to people to understand how fundamentally different we are, and almost instantly intuition guided me towards mental and physical illness to show that. Not sure if it was the best decision, but when I write I usually start on my whim!Without a doubt, I believe most settler mindsets to be evil. I will say that I wasn’t intending to normalize or justify these acts of greed/narcissism of settlers, and I apologize for making it sound like I do.

    I realize I am using settler ideas/classifications on mental illness, and I feel like I did that because I wanted a way for any non-Native readers to better understand the concept of settler imperialism.

    To sum it up: Thank you very much for the kind feedback and insight regarding this. I appreciate you taking the time to read this piece and having this discussion!

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