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Trainee Spotlight: Rachel Wilbur


May 3, 2020

Rachel Wilbur is a fourth year doctoral candidate in Human Biology and Predoctoral Trainee in the Biosocial Program at CPC. She is interested in the impact of historical trauma and social determinants on the health of contemporary Native American and Alaska Native peoples. Her dissertation research seeks to elucidate and document the pathways through which a family history of Federal Indian Boarding School attendance may continue to impact the physical health and wellbeing of future generations. This interview was conducted by CPC intern Ryan Holmes in the Spring of 2020.

Q:  Tell me about yourself—how did you land at CPC?

A:  As an undergraduate, I attended the University of Washington for anthropology and public health. After graduation … [I] was limited by my level of education in the types of research I could do … [so I] came to UNC for my Master of Public Health. [Again after I graduated] I found that I still couldn’t do the research that I wanted to do … without  more education. I came back to UNC for my Ph.D. in human biology, and I’m in my fourth year of that.

As for how I got to CPC, my preceptor was here and suggested that I apply, so I did. I liked the diversity of the disciplines offered. It’s good to interact with sociologists and epidemiologists who I wouldn’t normally be interacting with otherwise.

Q:  What got you interested in this topic?

A:  My mother is Tolowa, so I was always surrounded by it growing up, but it was never a primary research interest of mine. It wasn’t until I started working with Native Americans between getting my masters and Ph.D. that I became interested in studying [Native American and Native Alaskan populations].

Q:  When you refer to intergenerational trauma suffered by Native American and Native Alaskan populations, how far back in time are you talking about? Are there specific events your research is concerned with?

A:  A lot of my research looks at the impact of the boarding school era from the 1870s to the 1970s. It’s recent enough that it’s easier to track the effects.

Q:  You mentioned that you’re now studying physiological responses to community efforts to heal from historical trauma events. What do these efforts look like? Can you say anything about initial observations?

A:  Efforts to heal from intergenerational trauma tend to focus more broadly on experience than specific events. A lot of the communities I’m looking at are making cultural and linguistic revitalization efforts. Some communities see place-based language learning as reclaiming their ancestral connection to that place.

Q:  What are some of the challenges these communities face with linguistic revitalization?

A:  The difficulties depend on the tribe. Some still have native speakers and more frequent exposure to the language. Others don’t—the last native speaker from my tribe died in the ‘70s, for example—and they have to work from audio recordings or written sources. Many tribes try to be active in elementary schools to get the children invovled. I’m currently working with a group of smaller tribes that share a language group and are collaborating to revive their individual languages.

Q:  What kinds of physiological responses are you looking at?

A:  As a human biologist, I measure the body’s response to stress, which means I look at biomarkers like blood pressure, stress hormones, and immune response. With my current study, I’m observing biomarker changes within people undergoing community healing efforts both during and after those experiences. Older studies on this kind of thing used subjective measures of well-being, whereas I’m using empirical measures.

Q:  How much does the nature of intergenerational trauma and its far-reaching effects vary between tribes?

A:  Well, there are 574 federally-recognized tribes and a lot more that are state-recognized or unrecognized, and each one is unique. Each of them has unique experiences with colonialism. Legislation tended to be broad, for example, but may have only affected federally-recognized tribes… and obviously there are some historical events like Relocation that were very specific to one tribe. People will often use a broad brush to paint the impacts, but that’s not helpful. It can be helpful to look at documented work with other tribes, but it’s not possible or practical to consider one event as impacting multiple groups in the same way.

Q:  Are there any parallels between these groups and other minority groups in the United States?

A:  Research on historical trauma originated with survivors of the Holocaust, and there have been studies on survivors of war. In the United States it’s mostly focused on Native Americans, although there has been some work done with African Americans on the impacts of things like racism.