Native American historical trauma: the silent risk factor
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.
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 such 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
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.
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.
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.
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