Historical Trauma

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For centuries Native people have survived the loss of our ancestors and our land, attacks on our culture, and racism. Although we are strong, many of us still carry with us the pain inflicted on our ancestors.

To cope with the trauma experienced by our ancestors and the trauma we may have experienced first-hand in our own lives, some of us have begun to use drugs and alcohol or bully others in the ways we have been hurt. For others of us, the pain we carry expresses itself as anger, sadness, or negative feelings about ourselves.

For many Native people these types of experiences are a result of historical trauma or trauma that gets passed down generation to generation.

How can something that happened hundreds of years ago affect me?

To better understand historical trauma, think about boarding schools- which are one source of trauma still affecting Native teens today. Starting during the late 1800’s and lasting through the mid 1900’s many of our grandparents and great grandparents were forced to attend government-run Indian boarding schools. At boarding schools, our family members were not allowed to speak their language, practice their beliefs, and learn their stories and tribal history. Many of our elders were emotionally and physically abused at the boarding schools. They were told that our traditions and way of life were bad and that they should try to change themselves to be more like other Americans.

Our elders were traumatized by this experience and some passed the trauma on to their children and grandchildren, but not on purpose and not consciously. For example, some of our elders who were forced to attend boarding school began drinking as adults to forget the abuses and cope with the pain and anger. This impacted their spouses and their children. Others continued to abuse their family members as they were abused.

Many Native teens still carry this trauma with them today. How many of us know other young people who drink or use drugs? How many of us know someone who is abusive because someone in their life abuses them? How many of us have not felt good about ourselves when we hear people say a racist comment or stereotype?

The challenge is learning how to heal from this historical trauma. Generally experts suggest these steps:

Get educated. Talk to your elders about your tribe’s history, go to your tribal website, and read about the history of Native people. Click Check out the My Culture section to get started.
Think about how your ancestors’ trauma experiences have affected your own life. Consider how the experiences of your ancestors and your tribe’s history have impacted your family members’ and your own life.

Cope with your own pain in some positive way. Sometimes when Native people learn more about the past and really consider some of things that happened to their people, a lot of anger, sadness, and other emotions come up. Some people find it useful to journal about their feelings.

Check out some more ways at Historical Trauma - Steps to Healing

Dear Auntie, Why is there high rates of mental illness within the indigenous communities and what traditional and non-traditional ways can we combat it?

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