In an Upper West Side apartment, surrounded by books, Native American art and old family photos, Zuben Ornelas, 65, describes the role of shame in his life.

“What happened to me, part of my story, is that I grew up being ashamed of being native,” said Ornelas.

Since the summer, the rights, sovereignty and well being of Native Americans have continued to capture the country’s attention as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota protests the construction of a new pipeline. Locals, advocates and protesters say the construction of the pipeline began without adequate consultation, poses a threat to the tribe’s sole source of water, and has and will destroy sacred ground.

The standoff in North Dakota has not only raised questions around sovereignty and land, but has also resulted in what many at the rally said is an unprecedented showing of solidarity among American Indian tribes and other indigenous communities.

For Ornelas, seeing Native Americans come together on this scale is “a true miracle.” He says the history of Native Americans is one that has been shaped generations of division caused by colonization.

Native Americans were forced to give up their belief systems, cultures, languages and heritage in order to survive after European colonizers arrived.

“It’s called divide and conquer,” Ornelas says. By enacting forced-assimilation, Native Americans lost their traditions, creating deep divisions within and between tribes.zuben-four

Being ashamed of being Native American is a common experience, he says, and has been exacerbated by severe geographical and cultural isolation, which is most evident in crisis-level suicide rates among Native youth.

Native Americans across the U.S. have experienced what Ornelas describes as historical trauma — trauma that he says is being healed by the solidarity shown around Standing Rock.

The impact of trauma is something he’s become familiar with as both a substance abuse counselor in New York City, and as a Native American.

While hundreds gathered to show support, Ornelas sat off to the side. Most comfortable as an observer, Ornelas watched as hundreds of Native Americans and indigenous people from North and South America gathered together waving signs of support and watching and listening to speakers and performers. Sitting on a cement block with his walker next to him, a half dozen people came up to Ornelas to say hello, ask to take a photo—which he repeatedly declined—or tell him about another upcoming rally to be held in solidarity with the Standing Rock people.

Traumas inflicted on groups of people because of their race, creed, and ethnicity can be passed on to descendants, according to the University of Minnesota’s Historical Trauma and Cultural Healing program. The program found that many people in impacted communities experience higher rates of mental and physical illness, substance abuse, and erosion in families and community structures. “The persistent cycle of trauma destroys family and communities and threatens the vibrancy of entire cultures,” according to its website.

Whether part of the legacy of historical trauma or not, Native American living standards are vastly lower than non-Native Americans: a third of American Indian and Alaska Natives live in poverty, and they are less likely to own their own homes than the overall population, have a lower median household income than the average American household, and are twice as likely as the national average to lack health insurance.

There are also high rates of mental health disorders, alcohol and substance abuse and suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Minority Health.

A few weeks after the rally in Washington Square Park, Ornelas sits in his apartment next to a window overlooking a tree-lined street to talk about his own experience.

Sitting in front of a large window on a Sunday afternoon, to his right is a hip-height rolling case filled with beads and wires and other tools that he uses to make jewelry. The case is filled with yellow, red, white and black beads, the colors Ornelas predominantly uses for his necklaces, and that he says carry special significance for some Native American communities.


Ornelas lives with his wife and their two small Pomeranians, Bodie and Bobba. Ornelas recounts his own experiences living with and treating trauma.

For Ornelas it began with his parents’ divorce when he was eight years old, which is also when he started drinking. Ornelas says he began drinking as a way to cope with the loss of his mother, who moved out of the family home while Ornelas stayed behind with his father, who was often at work.

“That tripped me off to trauma, that was a huge force for me,” he says. “I didn’t believe people could fall in love or say in love and it affected me. I learned something that wasn’t true and I believed that people don’t stay in love and that’s not real and that was false learning and I hung onto that for a while,” he explained.

Orneleas as also experienced division in his family beyond his parents divorce. With a mother who is from the Tigua Pueblo tribe and a father who is Lipan Apache he said divisions between the tribes dating back to the 17th century have carried through to his own life. In the past, the Apaches would raid the Pueblo, making them enemies’ explained Ornelas. The result of this clash was silence about his family’s past.

“I don’t have any trail of my family and one of the hardest things for any native person is to not have a trail of their family,” he said.

Sober now for 20 years, Ornelas became a substance abuse counselor 16 years ago. Before that he had spent 20 years as a stagehand for the New York City Ballet.

Ornelas says he was Initially reluctant to go into social work because he was worried karma would get him back for being a self professed “pain in the ass” when he was younger. But, he said people kept encouraging him, and so he went back to school to become certified as a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC).

Today, Ornelas leads a weekly Wellbriety circle with a half a dozen people at the American Indian Community House in lower Manhattan. Wellbriety is a movement that supports sobriety using culturally based healing for Indigenous People.

He says the circle is a formation that’s been used by his people for thousands of years, and is important because it helps those in the circle feel respected and to build trust in each other. “The way the circle’s created is that no one is higher than the other person,” he said.

Recently Ornelas found himself on bus ride down to the American Indian Community House, where he was filming a video segment on his approach to treatment and experience with alcohol abuse. Ornelas said he ended up discussing Standing Rock with a stranger, something he finds himself doing often.

“I was sitting there and this woman was sitting next to me and she had a dog and this was on the East Side,” he said. “Here we are on the East Side and this woman is very nicely dressed and coiffed and we started talking about our dog and somehow very quickly she got into Standing Rock.”

While once ashamed to be Native, Ornelas now welcomes any opportunity to talk about himself, his people and Standing Rock.

“I’ve been praying for the Standing Rock situation, and for the idea of Natives be a part of our society, to find our place in society,” he said.

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