Native American historical trauma

Native American historical trauma: the silent risk factor

Hello all!

Man was it a busy week! But I have been thinking about what I want to discuss throughout the week and I want to share part of the research I did a few years ago in graduate school. I was at the time researching the concept of historical or intergenerational trauma and traditional ways of healing and the practice of native spirituality. Not going to lie it influenced the creation of my site 🙂 Although not an easy topic to discuss, I want to share some data, research and stats with you. Not to worry it won’t be as boring as it sounds! I also want to share my professional experience with you. So let’s get started.

eagle feather

What is intergenerational or historical trauma?

The concept of historical trauma refers to trauma that has been passed down the generations. In other words, what affected our ancestors is affecting us today. How is that possible you ask? Well let’s look at some factors. Research shows (e.g. Duran et al., 2004) that, in North America at least, Aboriginal people are more subject to what is referred to adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect and substance abuse within the household. Therefore, trauma present is carried forward from parents to children and so on.

Moreover, Native people are also faced with additional adult traumas or stressful experiences spiritualitysuch as poverty, unemployment, violence or witnessing violent or traumatic events. What is experienced in childhood has an effect later on. Now adults, the trauma is witnessed by their children, who now live in a traumatic household. Some of you might say or at least think of the usual stereotypes such as “dirty drunk indians” or “they beat their women”, or “they all end up in jail”. But let’s look at it for a different perspective.

The effects of colonization

So yes the stereotypes are there. But let’s ponder the following for a second shall we? The Native Americans’ present situation is in sharp contrast with their situation before the arrival of Europeans explorers in America. Whereas today they present as a population at risk, in the past, before colonization and attempts at assimilation by Europeans, they presented as mostly independent and self-governing nations with their own beliefs and philosophies in regard to cultural, educational, family or economic questions (Bombay, Matheson & Anisman, 2009).


Furthermore, with the establishment of the Indian Act (1876), the lives of Aboriginal peoples were changed drastically. Indeed, the Act not only dictated who was an Indian but also established policies controlling Aboriginal peoples by, for example, outlawing cultural practices and ceremonies as well as rendering Residential schools mandatory and enforcing a forced adoption program (Bombay, Matheson & Anisman, 2009). Moreover, Aboriginal peoples were refused the right to vote for those policies, leaving them powerless as their land, language and culture and ultimately their identity were taken away. 

Hmmmm, puts things into perspective doesn’t it? But wait! That’s not all.

Residential schools and Sixties Scoop

Not surprisingly, although the nature of historical trauma might have varied across communities and was at times unique to certain tribes (there were community effects), a common theme revolves around the colonization period and later on, around the establishment and attendance of residential schools by Aboriginal children throughout Canada and the USA. This was combined with a phenomenon known as the Sixties Scoop (both efforts at assimilation of Aboriginal children). The Sixties Scoop refers to a period during which children were taken forcibly from their families to be adopted by non-Aboriginal families, living sometimes as far as Europe.

Moreover, Residential schools (RS) and their attendance, which existed from 1863 to 1996 and

Apache students before and after Carlisle Residential school

Apache students before and after Carlisle Residential school

were mandated by the Indian Act, were forced upon Aboriginal children in an attempt to acculturate and assimilate them to not only the dominant culture (English Caucasian) but also to the catholic religion. The goal of RS was then two-fold: to separate the children from their families, culture and communities and to assimilate them to the dominant culture. In addition to the trauma of being separated from their families and culture, Residential schools were a place of neglect and abuse for many children who attended them. Any form of cultural identity was suppressed, oftentimes using physical abuse. As it has been notoriously said, the goal was to “kill the Indian in the child” or to “beat the Indian out of the child” (Indigenous Foundations, 2009). Children were taught the English language and to be ashamed of their culture (Bombay et al., 2009).

So not surprisingly….

Those conditions led to difficulty for survivors of RS to develop socialization skills and parenting skills ingrained in their culture of origin, let alone passing them along to the next generation. Therefore, one can consider that those direct effects of the abuse and trauma (psychological) on survivors of RS were passed down to subsequent generations, i.e. to have an intergenerational effect. Indeed, it has been suggested that numerous survivors of RS returned home lacking appropriate social behaviour, as well as presenting with inadequate parenting skills or behaviors modeled after the behaviors of their caregivers while in RS (Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, 1996). Attendance at RS and abusive experiences encountered while there disrupted the transmission of cultural practices as well as weakened or damaged the parenting skills of survivors, oftentimes resulting in an unhealthy family environment. 

head dress

War Bonnet

So what are we left with?

Well we are left with individuals who are stuck. Stuck in a cycle of abuse, violence and incarceration. In Canada, in British Columbia, where I am, 25-33% of the prison population is Aboriginal, a gross over-representation of the proportion of Aboriginals in the general population (5%). In the Prairies provinces, that number is even more astronomical, up to 75% of the prison population! I mean come on! That does not tell you something? That prison is often used as a method of punishment for Native individuals who are perpetuating a cycle of historical abuse (prison itself perpetuating it). I am not saying that it excuses the individuals’ actions and that jail should never be. jail

But I have worked in jails. If they actually worked as a deterrent, the recidivism rate would not be up to 50%….Without any sort of help with all the issues mentioned above, all the risk factors and the history of abuse, how in the hell is prison going to rehabilitate someone? I am sorry but to break that cycle, to get back to one’s cultural identity, to the ancestral ways of living and healing, it takes a lot of efforts and strength. As it means that one has to let go of what one knows, which has often become comforting, even if maladaptive. It takes courage, a whole redefinition of one’s life and priorities and ways of seeing those around. It means trusting the Elders, letting go of those bringing you down, it means talking about it, sharing one’s story, pain and hurt, to listen to the one of others, it means slowing down, seeing who is there to help and who is not, going back to the traditional values of respect, humility, courage, honesty, generosity, compassion and wisdom. And that is one hell of a hard thing to do…But it can be done. And in a way, it has to be done to work through the effects of colonization.

All my Relations


10 thoughts on “Native American historical trauma

  1. Marc

    Great write up that was very informative. I am from Arizona, more specifically Phoenix Arizona. I was born and raised there and we have a few different Native American nations in the area including, the Pima, Hopie, Navajo, and Apache just to name a few. One more important thing to note is that in the culture it is important only to speak when it is what you really mean to say because words have power. Once you say the word that power can never be taken back. So not answering or speaking unless it is necessary is ingrained in the culture. This can foster the belief that they are not smart. The tribe names are also funny as they are named after what the European settlers named them not what they actually call themselves. My favorite story is about the Pima Indian Nation. They way they got their name was when the Spanish came in and asked them their name they answered “Pima”. Of course they did not speak Spanish so when they were asked they responded in their language with “What?” So the Spanish called them the Pima but it actually means What.

    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Marc!
      love the story about the Pima Indian nation. What you say about the power of words and silence is so true. Not many words are spoken but what is said is powerful and has meaning

  2. Bill

    Thank you for the post Emily. I enjoyed your whole site. You present a great deal of information that most people not associated with Native people would understand. I have lived in the Four Corners region for over 45 years. We have six Native reservations in the immediate area. The closest are the Navajo and two Ute tribes. I attended Fort Lewis College which was classified as a BIA school in the late 1960’s. You are right about our Eurocentric approach to the Native people. We have done everything we could to destroy their cultures. Although there is still a significant amount of racism evident today, the cultures , at least around here are doing fairly well. Please keep the inspiration coming.
    Aztec, NM

    1. Emily Post author

      thank you Bil!
      you live in a region rich in history for sure! I think the culture is coming back to life,the beauty of it is shining through. All my Relations

  3. Jess

    Wow, it makes me sick to think that man can have such egos to treat anyone this way. Repulsive. Ignorance and fear have been at the root of too many disruptions of cultures and civilizations. When will we learn? All people have a right to live the way we want as long as we are not hurting one another and native american culture is nothing but beautiful. I wish people would have left well enough alone, and better yet shown the respect that they demanded for themselves. They could have benefited by another perspective, learning valuable insights and skills, and coexisted in peace. What a shame. I hope that at some point their actions weighted them down with regret. Unfortunately not soon enough to prevent this awful trauma. My heart goes out to all who suffer because of these sickly actions. I wish them peace and healing.

    1. Emily Post author

      thank you Jess. A lot of trauma was inflicted due to ignorance and fear. Fear of was that were unknown to the Europeans and fear of facing a superior nation. When in fact we are all related and all contribute to this world. Centuries of abuse and trauma followed. Really shows the resilience of the Native people

  4. Matt

    WOW! I really like that you’re going out of your way to tell the HISTORY of the native american culture, I think it’s awesome that you’d share something like this! when ever I drive through central Washington, I go through yakima Nation, which is a native american territory- they have their own police and courts and everything!
    Its interesting, cant wait to see more of your posts in the future!


  5. Travis

    Once again I see you have written another great post. Just as you bring forward the situations of the Native American people, I find the more you travel around and get to talk to the locals not in the touristy areas but in the heart of the area of where you are, you can get some truths.
    You have brought up many issues that just get buried away so people like myself and others in different communities are not aware of some of the other worldly issues being silenced to the outside.

    1. Emily Post author

      thanks Travis! I agree that talking to the locals, the Elders, that’s where you actually get the truth. Not the made up one. Bein in BC, I am surrounded by the culture and the history. it is a great place to be and to raise awareness


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