With the recent news about Native American deaths and burials at former Indian schools (read Dr. Cam Shriver’s blog post about Boarding Schools here), this is an appropriate time for a discussion of the impacts of Historical Trauma (HT) on Native communities. First and foremost, from the perspective of the Nipwaayoni Acquisition and Assessment Team (NAAT), we tend to work from a strengths-based approach that identifies and fosters the strengths of our community. However, innate to this conversation about historical trauma is a deficit-based approach that focuses on the problems within a community and how to overcome them. I will further elaborate on the difference between these two approaches in a future blog post, but our work thus far has suggested that identifying and promoting the resilience and the numerous strengths of our community is most effective for promoting health. As a result, we can use HT to help us understand particular components of our collective experience, but it does not stand alone in how we address living well for Myaamiaki. At the same time, it is important to not overlook the significant impact that these types of trauma can have on tribal communities.
What is Historical Trauma?
Within both the scholarly community and broader society, the concept of HT is not well-defined partially due to the sheer number of terms that have been used to describe the general concept, including but not limited to “Historical Trauma,” “Intergenerational Trauma,” “Transgenerational Trauma,” “Collective Trauma,” “Intergenerational Post Traumatic Stress,” and “Multigenerational Trauma”. Because every scholar seems to call it something different, there are also varying definitions of what it means, methods of measuring it, and conclusions about how it impacts Native communities. As a result, the ability to make conclusions about the impacts of historical trauma on Indigenous communities is largely based on lived (individual- and community-level) experiences rather than empirical conclusions. However, those lived experiences are incredibly powerful and important and provide us with a baseline understanding of this experience.
Historical trauma can generally be thought of as “the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma”. This theory generally makes four assumptions:
- The mass trauma is deliberate in nature.
- The trauma is ongoing, not an isolated event.
- The traumatic event(s) impact the whole community.
- The expanse of the trauma(s) disrupt the community across generations.
Inherent within this deliberate mass trauma is the idea that the trauma (oppression or conquering of the targeted group) is directly tied to their shared (ethnic) identity. Native people, including Myaamiaki, have faced such trauma on a community level including forced removal, boarding schools attendance, and environmental destruction.
Historical Trauma Response
Psychologists have noticed that traumas experienced collectively by large groups have intergenerational effects and tend to result in similar reactions or “symptoms”. I want to be clear here that, in general, these reactions are not all necessarily negative or abnormal, rather they can be normal reactions to significant extended oppression and trauma. Yet, they can impact our daily lives in a variety of ways.
Different people and communities have varying reactions to these historical traumas, differential access to resources, varying levels of ongoing traumas/discrimination/oppression, different ways of making meaning out of the traumatic experiences, and many protective factors that promote resilience in the face of said traumas. However, here I intend to share what some of the most commonly identified responses to HT are. It is unlikely that a single person would feel or experience all of these, but rather the following describes the wide array of cognitive, psychological, and behavioral responses that could result from HT.
Individuals tell themselves stories about their own life and their experiences, attempting to make meaning out of the various elements of their life. Individuals who are descendants of those who have experienced significant traumas do the same, attempting to make meaning out of something that impacts them but did not directly happen to them, which can lead to common cognitive patterns or ways of thinking. For example, many Native people feel a sense of survival guilt in which they feel guilty or ashamed that they survived when their ancestors and/or community members did not. This is often accompanied with questions of “why me?” and contemplation of existential concerns. Additionally, some people just want the guilt or shame or whatever they are feeling to go away or they ignore it. This is most likely the brain/body’s way of separating the self from the heavy emotional burden that accompanies traumatic experiences.
Trauma also tends to have a direct impact on an individual’s identity and sense of self. Because it is common to become fixated and/or preoccupied with the traumatic experiences, descendants of ancestors who experienced significant traumas reconsider what that means about themselves. Consequently, some people feel a loyalty to their ancestral suffering in which they become highly attached to and have difficulty separating themself from that suffering. They begin to define themselves by this traumatic experience (victim identity), which can complicate the coping process. Their entire being becomes defined by their victim or survivor status. At times, this even progresses to feeling like they cannot thrive or do well because their ancestors were denied that opportunity. This tends to keep people in a negative emotional state that can be resistant to support or receiving help.
Psychologically, historical trauma operates much like other traumatic events, but can be less overt yet persistent. Historical Trauma can be very difficult to identify because the symptoms can look very different for different people and there is a lot of overlap between multiple types of issues or problems. Mental Health professionals who do not have an understanding of Native history will often overlook, misunderstand, or hyperfocus on characteristics of folks experiencing outcomes of HT.
First, some people experience similar symptoms as those who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This can consist of experiences of nightmares, emotional distress, hypervigilance, avoidance of thoughts of the trauma, self-blame, isolation, apathy, and much more. Additionally, some people experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. There is also some research suggesting that descendents of individuals who have experienced significant trauma are more vulnerable to life stressors. Essentially, when they experience an acute stressor or trauma themselves, they are more likely than the general population to develop a mental health condition, like PTSD, as a result.
Individuals who have experienced HT might exhibit certain behavioral responses both as a means of coping with the traumas as well as through learned and perpetuated behaviors. Many of these behaviors are self-destructive in nature including substance abuse, physical abuse, and suicide. Importantly, when children are torn from their homes (such as with boarding schools) and not given the opportunity to experience the full range of intended parenting and caregiving behaviors of their community, they use the experiences they did have when they become parents as a model. This at best leads to parenting behaviors inconsistent with those of their tribal community and at worst perpetuates abuse and other negative behaviors they themselves faced.
Physically, it is common for people with HT to experience physical symptoms including headaches or stomach aches as the mind and the body are highly connected. In fact, the belief of mind-body separation that is common within America isn’t shared across cultures. Furthermore, HT and chronic stress are related to a compromised immune system, biochemical abnormalities, and nutritional stress which can lead to other health concerns (malnutrition, heart disease, diabetes).
Intergenerational Transmission of HT
One of the primary distinctions between Historical Trauma and other traumatic experiences that an individual might have is the intergenerational transmission within families and communities. But how does HT get passed on from one generation to the next? Research addressing this question has been fascinating. The transmission occurs via multiple interconnected pathways including biological, psychological, and social means.
The first route for intergenerational transmission of trauma is biological in nature. One route is the epigenetic impact; epigenetics is the study of how one’s environment impacts their genetic expression. These genetic changes do not alter an individual’s actual DNA, but rather the way the body reads that DNA sequence. For example, the level or quality of attachment a child has with their parent(s) when they are young (environmental impact) essentially can alter the development of individual differences in stress responses in the brain (genetic expression). It is then possible to transmit this epigenetic effect to future generations, particularly if the change occurs within the sperm or eggs. While the exact epigenetic mechanisms of the impact of trauma for American Indian people (or other experiences of mass trauma) are not fully clear yet, it is clear that epigenetics plays a primary role in the intergenerational transmission of trauma.
Second, it is clear that trauma in general is related to higher rates of disease and mental health concerns. When an individual experiences a trauma, their body’s stress response goes into overdrive, which impacts multiple functions within the body. Once those diseases and/or mental health “disorders” develop, we know that some of those conditions can leave their children with a predisposition that means they have a higher chance of also developing that disorder. As a result, parents who have experienced significant traumas often develop and pass down mental health and other chronic illnesses to children and this leads to greater vulnerability of these same diseases across generations.
Psychologically, as previously stated, survivors of trauma experience symptoms of many mental health conditions including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and many others. These can be inherited in subsequent generations. In addition to the genetic contributions, these symptoms are then understood within the context of the traumatic experiences and parents/grandparents tell these stories to future generations. While it is critical to carry on these narratives to future generations, it can also inadvertently lead to secondary psychological suffering from the vicarious experiencing of the trauma through these stories. The narrative of trauma and suffering can become rooted within individual- and community-level self understanding.
Additionally, the ways in which people speak with children about the world can significantly impact their psyche and their meaning-making process. When children learn that suffering due to ancestral pain is inevitable and something that cannot be avoided, this may perpetuate identity and emotional concerns across generations.
Finally, for many reasons, Native people were not able to properly grieve the many losses they experienced as a result of these numerous traumas (loss of life, land, culture, language, etc.). This inability to process the grief often leads to an intensification of the emotional reactions of the grief process (anger, guilt, sadness, helplessness, etc.). As a result, subsequent generations experience historical unresolved grief, characterized by collective, generalized pain and intense emotions.
Societally, cultures that experience mass trauma experience loss of their ways of living and being in many arenas of life. Many Native communities experienced a loss of language and culture as a result of these traumas, creating a ripple effect that spans multiple generations. When communities no longer practice their rites of passage, live out their value system, and/or their ceremonies (among other lifeways), many of the defining characteristics of the community disappear and the people live on the remnants of what once was. This keeps living communities striving for the past or of “better times” and restricts societal evolution and growth. More tangibly, many individuals experienced economic struggles in trying to maintain their family and community, at times leading to high levels of poverty and unemployment. These economic struggles unfortunately have been maintained across multiple generations due to many factors, and largely to the ongoing exploitation, discriminative policies, and oppression of many Native communities.
Uses/Benefits of Understanding Historical Trauma
The theory behind historical trauma benefits Indian Country in many ways, some difficult to put into words. First and foremost, this term puts words to an experience that many Native people live with on a daily basis. When people have a common experience that manifests psychologically, it is common for them to keep that to themselves and it becomes isolating. However, naming the experience brings it into collective consciousness and enables people to connect about their own experiences and narratives, talk about them openly and ideally heal from those traumas. Thankfully, naming HT has also enabled people and communities to realize and release the guilt and self-blame they sometimes feel for the health disparities that their communities face. It contextualizes the many factors that have contributed to these disparities including numerous collective traumas throughout history and ongoing oppression and discrimination.
Additionally, this theory has forced the world of Psychology to take a look at the ways in which Indigenous people are treated for mental health concerns. It compels these professionals to examine attitudes and previously held ideas about Native populations, recognize the importance of history and lived experience, and determine optimal ways of supporting the health and mental health of these communities. From this new lens or way of thinking, mental health and health professionals are reinventing their way of intervening and addressing problems presented to them by oppressed communities and discovering new ways to prevent problems and promote resilience, and strengthen and leverage community assets by using culture as a positive tool in itself. Using culture as an intervention in itself, encouraging Native people to attend tribal events and ceremonies, and involving important tribal leaders and educators in the therapeutic process all stem, at least in part, from this discourse.
Critiques of Historical Trauma
As previously stated, not all scholars view HT is the same way, and there are multiple critiques about its definition and usefulness as a concept. Additional critiques stem from the difficulties in empirically studying historical trauma. Because we cannot necessarily measure the intergenerational transmission of the trauma symptoms, there is no way to single out past traumas as the cause of the experience. Furthermore, because the symptoms span the full range of many mental health disorders, it is not possible to achieve any level of specificity in terms of classifying the experience for treatment. Essentially, even if we acknowledge that HT exists, the complexity of the theory does not add any clarity for clinicians who are trying to treat those with such a wide array of experiences. However, interdisciplinary professionals and academics use this theory for many reasons, many of which do not require such specificity.
Some people believe that HT theory perpetuates a victim identity and suggests that the cycle of passing on symptoms throughout generations cannot or will not end. If this cycle is unable to be treated/stopped, then any interventions that emerge from this theory won’t be helpful for treating symptoms of HT. In the same vein, it has been argued that with HT theory, trauma has transformed from a cause of suffering to a resource for sufferers. Rather than being explanatory in nature, helping individuals to understand larger societal and contextual factors within the community, it has been co-opted as a means to explain their negative life experiences.
Finally, HT theory ignores the vast diversity of trauma experiences that Native communities have experienced and relegates them to one common experience. Because every community had their own nuanced experiences throughout history, this likely leads to different experiences that could be specified if we examine each community individually rather than defining a collective HT experience.
In conclusion, I hope that this article can serve as a starting point for us to consider the potential ways that myaamia experiences of historical trauma may impact the myaamia community. In future posts, I will discuss the strength- and deficit-based approaches to health-based research and intervention and another on coping with the effects of historical trauma.
This blog post is intended to be for informational and educational purposes, primarily for the Myaamia community, and should not be considered or utilized for therapeutic or treatment purposes. I am not able to provide clinical opinions regarding any questions or comments that may arise from this post and engagement with this does not constitute a professional relationship. If you find yourself in need of psychological services, I strongly encourage you to reach out to a clinical provider in your area. Use this Find a Therapist tool by Psychology Today to find practicing clinicians in your local area. If you believe you are in need of immediate assistance, please utilize the resources listed on this website.
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