|Native Americans suffer from ‘historical trauma,’ researcher says
July 27, 2005
|A Web-only photo by Edna Steinman
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart describes the negative impact of historical trauma on Native Americans today.
By Edna Steinman*
REDLANDS, Calif. (UMNS) — The treatment given to American Indians as
the United States pushed its boundaries westward has resulted in an
ongoing emotional condition that a Native American social
worker-researcher calls “historical trauma.”
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, research associate professor in the
Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, described
her work at the 2005 Native American Family Camp, held July 19-23 at the
University of Redlands. The annual event is sponsored by the United
Methodist Church’s Native American International Caucus.
Historical trauma has a layering effect and is the “cumulative
emotional and psychological wounding over the life span and across
generations, emanating from massive group trauma,” she said.
Historical or intergenerational trauma is similar to that suffered by
the Jewish people as a result of the Holocaust, the Japanese Americans
interned in California at the beginning of World War II and African
Americans suffering the aftermath of slavery, she said.
Native American history meets the 1948 Geneva Convention’s definition
of genocide, Brave Heart said, defining genocide as the intent to
destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. She said research
has shown the U.S. government never intended the long-term survival of
During the Civil War period, Congress passed a resolution stopping
negotiation of treaties with Indian tribes and decided to establish two
reservations, one east and one west of the Mississippi River.
Involvement in the Civil War kept Congress from implementing this plan.
Brave Heart cited the government-run Indian boarding schools as a
major factor in the historical trauma. Congressional documents outlined
the boarding school policy of forced separation of Indian children from
the tribal communities. Gender roles and family relationships were
impaired at the boarding schools, where the focus was on the European
tradition of male-female relationships and not the Indian tradition of
holding women and children sacred. The boarding schools compounded the
trauma with a loss of parenting skills, a loss of the child’s
identification with the parents and other complex processes, she said.
Children of boarding school survivors passed the trauma on to their
descendants, but not on purpose and not consciously, said the professor.
Type II diabetes was common among Native American people, fostered
both by the overcrowded, deficient conditions in boarding schools and by
trauma-caused stress hormones that wear out the body.
Historical trauma generates such responses as survivor guilt,
depression, low self-esteem, psychic numbing, anger, victim identity,
death identity, thoughts of suicide, preoccupation with trauma, and
physical symptoms, Brave Heart said.
The positive outcomes needed to overcome this intergenerational
trauma are a reduction in shame, a better feeling of self-worth, an
increase in joy and health, a stronger sense of parental competence,
greater use of traditional language, an improved relationship with
children and the extended family, and increased communication, she said.
Brave Heart founded the Takini Network in 1992 as an avenue to help
overcome historical trauma. It has sponsored workshops to help Native
Her recent work includes numerous book chapters and journal articles
focused on historical trauma and parenting curricula. Her research was
primarily with the Lakota reservation population in South Dakota. In
2001, she initiated an international conference for massively
traumatized peoples, bringing together Native Americans, Jewish
Holocaust survivors and descendants, Japanese internment camp survivors
The annual Native American Family Camp, a five-day conference,
brought together adults and youth from across the United States. Funding
for some of the programs came from the National Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries
and the Youth Service Fund, administered by the Division on Ministries
with Young People at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
*Steinman is a freelance writer and former annual conference newspaper editor in Redlands, Calif.
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