Photo: Robbie Paul explains gifts from her Nez Perce heritage to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom she met when she spoke at a conference on memory, story and fogiveness in Cape Town, South Africa (photo courtesy of the College of Nursing).
How does telling its story help a family — or country — heal the wounds of generations? WSU staff member Roberta “Robbie” Paul, whose doctoral dissertation attempts to answer that question, recently explored the issue alongside someone who would know — South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Paul, Native American recruitment and retention coordinator at the WSU Intercollegiate College of Nursing, was asked to present her dissertation in Cape Town at a conference titled “Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness — Reflecting on 10 Years of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” The conference was in honor of Tutu’s 75th birthday.
“I was feeling, ‘Hmmm, do I even belong here, a little girl from the reservation … and what do I have to say?’ ” Paul recalled. But in retrospect, “It was really helpful to be there and learn from one another and share in the hope.”
She also got to share a few minutes one-on-one with Tutu, a rare honor even at the conference.
“When I explained the gifts I brought him, he was really listening and looking,” Paul said. “I just wanted to honor him and thank him. And I invited him to come to our country, to the Nez Perce.”
A descendent of the Wallowa bands of the Nez Perce, who were led by Chief Joseph, Paul is pursuing her doctorate in educational leadership at Gonzaga and plans to graduate in May. Her thesis tells the story of five generations of her family — the upheaval in their way of life and subsequent trauma and tragedy, as well as her own struggle to find healing through reflection and forgiveness.
Her doctoral dissertation interlinks two conceptual frameworks: the six phases of historical unresolved grief and the process of healing that begins with self and moves outward into family, culture and the world.
Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against South Africa’s apartheid system of segregation and toward his objective of “a democratic and just society without racial divisions.” He is former chairman of his country’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“We are not the only ones who have suffered,” Paul said, reflecting on her family and people and on what she learned at the conference. “This was a process of hearing others’ stories.
“I still believe that as we share our stories across continents, we can heal as a humanity.”