Karla Abbott, Augustana University – Talking Circles

Talking circles can promote listening at a time when it is most needed.

Karla Abbott, associate professor of nursing at Augustana University, discusses using this method to combat trauma.

Karla Abbott teaches “Behavioral Health Nursing”, “Nursing Leadership” and “Interdisciplinary Palliative Care” at the senior level.  An enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Karla is involved in research that preserves the health of Native Americans and increases Native American participation in the STEM fields.  Karla is faculty advisor to the Augustana Nursing Student Association (ANSA).  She received her B.S.N. from Michigan State University, her master’s in nursing from Augustana, and her DNP from Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Talking Circles

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Imagine being in a circle with a group of people from your community. Some are long-time friends, some are family, some are strangers, but all of them are listening to you speak—and none of them are interrupting you. Instead, each one listens to hear and to learn. Once they receive the talking stick, they will have their chance to speak. This is how a Lakota Talking Circle works. A traditional practice in American Indian communities, the talking circle has long been used as a way to make community decisions, work through community and personal struggles, and overcome historical trauma. Talking circles have more recently been used to combat and provide education about smoking and substance abuse.

Our research team is using talking circles to examine the stressors surrounding pregnancy, delivery, and parenting on Great Plains reservations, where the preterm birth rate is significantly higher than in other segments of the US population. The field of epigenetics has taught us that the trauma a mother experiences is transmitted to her unborn child who then passes it to her unborn child, who carries it into her pregnancy—for several generations. The traumas of losing one’s land to federal reservations and losing one’s culture in boarding schools, along with the daily traumas of substance and domestic abuse that American Indians face are undoubtedly passed on to their children through epigenetic markers on fetal DNA.

In addition, the stress that a pregnant woman endures in these situations causes high levels of the hormone cortisol, which can increase the likelihood of preterm birth. By listening to the narratives of American Indian women living on reservations, we hope to find ways to reduce stress and provide the support pregnant women need—and, ultimately, to break the cycle. We hope that these women’s stories of struggle and resilience will speak across generations as a way to remember the past and to write a stronger beginning for their babies’ stories.

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