When Doug Good Feather arrived in Iraq, the villages reminded him of home. The mud huts and wood stoves were cozy like the tipis back on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, and the people rattled their tongues, just as his aunties did. Iraqi kids ran alongside their army vehicles, waving and lunging at the candy they tossed out the window. The humility of the villagers was akin to the Lakota’s, the people always trying to feed them, pushing food into their arms.
It was 2003 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had just begun, but the honeymoon period quickly came to a close. “The more we were there, the more they hated us,” Good Feather says. He had no trouble understanding why the kids quit waving and began throwing rocks.
“The reservation is like a concentration camp, and we tried to do that to them too,” he says. But empathy also has its limits. “When they started to try to kill us, I started to hate them.”
Good Feather joined the military in 2000, when he was 32 years old. He went to war thinking he was defending America against the 9/11 terrorists. Soon, he began to sense that they were in Iraq for different reasons—hardly a benevolent force, it felt like the U.S. military was displacing local families for no good reason and roughing up detainees.
But he also found himself under attack: One after another, his friends were killed, and the entire right side of his body was injured in an IED explosion. By the time he finished his second tour in 2004, he was a different person. Still, he tried (and failed) to go back—“The adrenaline was so addicting.” His wife filed for divorce. For several years, he tried therapy with some success, but discovered his spiritual wounds were only fully healed through traditional Lakota practices.
In 2008, Good Feather founded the Lakota Way Healing Center to combat PTSD, addiction, and depression through Lakota methods. Informed by traditional medicine’s more holistic view of body and mind, it incorporates drumming, singing, storytelling, dancing, and ritual in sacred spaces into its treatment.
And it is sorely needed: American Indian and Alaska Native people serve in the military at higher rates than other groups, with roughly 140,000 veterans and some 22,000 active-duty members making up 8% of the adult native population.
Yet a far higher percentage of native veterans suffer from disabilities, lack health insurance, and are unemployed than veterans in other racial categories. Of those who fought in Vietnam, 22-25% of native veterans experienced PTSD (compared with 14% of their white counterparts). The number rose to an astounding 60% for Lakota veterans.
In part, this is because many native soldiers are combat veterans who have seen moderate or heavy fighting in the field. “How did we move from being the target of the U.S. military to being the U.S. military itself?” asks the longtime Native American activist Winona LaDuke in her 2012 book The Militarization of Indian Country. “That question has to do with the larger forces of American society.”
The Lakota Way Healing Center is in Denver, Colorado. From a rented space inside the Four Winds Indian American Council church, Good Feather hosts weekly talking circles and art therapy sessions. But much of the healing occurs at the powwows and ceremonies held throughout the plains in the summer months.
“He’s got a special power,” says Alex Walker Jr., a Vietnam War combat veteran who first met Good Feather at a sun dance last summer. Walker grew up on the Meskwaki reserve in Iowa, home to many of the famed native code-talkers of WWII. (The code-talkers conveyed sensitive information on the battlefield and helped the Allies win the war; the code was never broken).
Ten years after he left Vietnam, Walker was still plagued by nightmares of his squad leader being killed. Had he not hesitated under fire, he thought he might have saved him. He still remembers the medics telling him to say goodbye.
Studying to be a social worker, he found himself plagued by flashbacks. Sitting in a classroom at the University of Iowa, the sound of a helicopter in the distance suddenly transported him back to Vietnam, his legs swinging over the “slick” (Vietnam-era slang for helicopters that carried troops), the fields of the A Shau Valley stretching out beneath them.
Once, as he was walking on campus, a heavy book bag over his shoulder, he heard sniper fire and instantly threw himself to the ground. His fellow students gawked, both flabbergasted and terrified. It had only been a truck, kicking out compressed air. His Vietnam-era muscle memory was stalking him through the years.
By talking to a Veterans Administration therapist, Walker learned to stop blaming himself for his squad leader’s death, and even began to see it in religious, philosophical terms. “We only have a finite time on earth we were given by the creator,” he says. He now understood how the mind holds onto trauma, tethering him to the past. This finally put an end to the nightmares.
But Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder never goes away, he says. It sticks with you, although “with time, it’s not as stressful, it’s not like you’re paranoid all the time.” So Walker continues his healing by participating in sun dances alongside other war veterans—some who served in Vietnam, others in Iraq and Afghanistan—offering a deeper kind of healing than conventional therapy can provide.
The sun dance is one of the most important ceremonies for the Lakota people, and unlike therapy, it is not about understanding the mechanics of the mind. It is about praying for the healing of the psyche and the world, says Walker, who compares the power of the experience to the Islamic Hajj: “A lot of the Native American veterans have told me the only way they could deal with PTSD is to sun dance.”
Walker has participated in 20 sun dances to date, and describes them as lasting four days and nights: four days with no food or water; four days of dancing; four days of praying for healing, mother nature, and peace of mind. Always, the dancing occurs around a center pole made from a cottonwood tree—considered sacred in Lakota culture—and after nightfall, the dancers gather in a sweat lodge for a purification ceremony.
On a few occasions, Walker has pierced the skin of his chest with pins made from the leg bones of the buffalo, through which he is tethered to the center pole. The skin stretches, breaks. “Anyone that wants communication with the power and forces has to be humble,” he says. By sacrificing himself, like he sacrifices tobacco to the animals, he gives himself over to something much larger. It is another way of remembering that his squad leader’s death was part of the creator’s plan. “The suffering is what humbles you.”
But not everyone participates in the piercing, and for Doug Good Feather, the power of the ceremony is simpler: “Just through dancing, you can help people feel good. And when you help them feel good, you help them heal,” he says. He was half referring to himself—dancing, drumming, and singing have been central to his own healing, and to his understanding of the warrior culture. And that warrior culture has been part of his family for generations.
From the time he was young, Good Feather’s grandparents taught him that a warrior was first a spiritual, compassionate, and loving person and in times of war a defender of the weak, hungry, poor, and sick. These men and women had proven they were up to the responsibility of protecting the land and community, and were revered as mentors and leaders, particularly in the northern plains (where many warrior societies exist).
Good Feather joined the military partly to fulfill his warrior rite of passage, only to discover that he was upending the lives of Iraqis much like him. “I wanted to serve my people and I wanted to serve my country, whatever happened with our people in the beginning, through colonization,” he says.
His grandmother had once explained to him that they lived in two worlds—Lakota and white—and that they had to master both. “We have nowhere else to go,” she told him.
Quiet, burly, and with his hair always fashioned in two thin braids, Good Feather comes from a long line of warriors: His great-grandfather fought in WWII and Korea, his father fought in Vietnam, and all of them descended from the Hunkpapa Lakota spiritual leader Sitting Bull, who led a confederation of tribes to defeat federal troops in the Battle of the Little Bighorn of 1876.
But Good Feather’s father never healed from his own experiences at war, and Good Feather recalls him being so riddled with guilt and PTSD for his entire life that he couldn’t stay sober, much less function like a normal human being. “A lot of Vietnam warriors come back like that,” he says, remarking that many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were poor, native, Puerto Rican and black. Was this also a war on them?
“That’s why the war was never over there, it was always over here,” he says. He had also once been drunk, homeless, and hopeless after leaving the reservation at 17 (before he got sober and enlisted in the military). He has also seen how PTSD can affect people who have never gone to war: According to a 2014 Department of Justice report, 22% of Native youth experience PTSD, which is three times the national average and roughly the same rate as combat veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last fall, Good Feather returned to Standing Rock to join the encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and it was obvious from the checkpoints, armored vehicles, attack dogs, and blast grenades that the war on natives was ongoing. Many water protectors now talk of suffering PTSD from those experiences. In a way, the scenes also reminded Good Feather of Iraq. “It was about oil, money, greed, and control.”
Ironically, serving in the military did turn out to be the rite of passage that made him a warrior, but not because of his fighting. It was because, unexpectedly, his own healing set him on the path of healing others. That is what being a warrior and serving his people was really about, he says. “It takes a warrior to cry, because when people see you cry, they know you have compassion,” he says. “When you have compassion, you’re willing to sacrifice for your people, and they know that’s true courage.”
Today, Good Feather sees himself as a mentor, fellow healer, and friend to many, including some who have fought overseas, and others who simply battle spiritual sickness. “I’ve learned that being a warrior never ends. Once you’re a warrior, you’re always a warrior,” he said. “You continue that service with the way you help the people.” He still goes through his “PTSD dramas,” and his knee still hurts from the IUD explosion, but this doesn’t prevent him from executing the frenetic footwork of fancy dancing (originally a war dance, but usually performed today in colorful, elaborate costume at powwows). He’s gotten pretty good at it now, he says, although the knee injury will always hold him back a little.
And still a new generation of young natives continues to enlist. It includes the 17-year-old grandson of Good Feather’s close friend and collaborator in the work of the Healing Center, Grant Davis, an Alaskan Native who landed in Denver after being drafted during the Vietnam War.
Davis describes his grandson as an A student who always impressed his teachers and wants to join the Navy, captain a ship, and use it to become a mechanical and electrical engineer. But Davis doesn’t seem especially worried about the spiritual sickness that war has brought on others. “He had his heart set on it, and it was his dream,” he says.