Native American tribal communities provide hope for overcoming historical trauma

December 26, 2012
Written by Shannon Eliot

The key to recovery from historical trauma lies in restoring a community's "original instructions" and returning to cultural roots, according to Native American mental health leader Elicia Goodsoldier.

Historical trauma — which refers to a collective experience of one group experiencing repeated trauma over time — is neither immediately recognizable nor widely understood.

Perhaps nowhere is Native American historical trauma more apparent than on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. An Oglala Sioux reservation, Pine Ridge was established in 1889 and is the eighth largest reservation in the country.

But despite the reservation’s size and history, Pine Ridge residents struggle. The suicide rate is 300 to 400 percent higher than the national average. Unemployment on the reservation is 85-90 percent. Nearly 40 percent of homes have no electricity. Eighty percent of the population falls below the federal poverty line. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the continent (three times higher than the national average) and the school dropout rate is 70 percent.

Perhaps the most striking statistic of all relates to life expectancy. A male living on the reservation can expect to get an average of 46 years (a female gets 49), making rates comparable to third world countries like Afghanistan and Somalia.

How could such conditions exist in present-day America? The answer, Goodsoldier says, lies in historical trauma and the corresponding unresolved grief born from the U.S. government’s destruction of Native Americans and their way of life beginning in the nineteenth century.

Some examples of that destruction include overturning of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which marked boundaries of native Lakota land and promised sovereignty; the hanging of 38 Sioux men two days after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, making it the largest mass execution in U.S. history; passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which ended the communal ownership of reservation lands; and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, where 300 people — mostly women and children — were killed by rapid fire weapons and thrown into a mass grave much like the Jewish Holocaust, according to Goodsoldier.

"So often when I talk about historical trauma, people just tell me to get over it, to forget about it," Goodsoldier said. "What if I told you to just get over 9/11? How would you feel about that? Most people would be shocked at such a suggestion. It makes you think."

While the concept of historical trauma has been around only for the last few decades, studies have shown that even family members who have not directly experienced the original trauma can feel the effects of the event generations later.

"Each event is traumatic, but taken together they constitute a history of sustained cultural disruption and destruction directed at specific communities," Goodsoldier said. "Trauma that is held personally is then transmitted over generations to join an overarching legacy of assaults."

Goodsoldier, who is originally from a Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona, was raised by her grandparents and still feels their pain. Both her grandfather and grandmother were forced into boarding schools by the government in their younger years, where they were sexually abused and banned from using their native tongue. As a result, Goodsoldier’s mother and her siblings were never allowed to learn the Navajo language, further isolating them from their roots.

The historical trauma intervention model
Thankfully, Goodsoldier believes that the historical trauma intervention model can lead to lasting healing. The four main intervention model components include confronting the trauma, understanding the trauma, releasing the pain, and transcending the trauma.

"If we never confront the trauma, we will never get over it and we will never heal," Goodsoldier said.

Multiple periods of emotional and spiritual trauma in Native American history need to be addressed, she says. They include:

  • Beginning of contact with the white man, which led to shock, genocide, and a lack of time to grieve in the greater interest of survival;
  • Economic competition over buffalo, which was a large physical and spiritual loss of sustenance;
  • Invasion/war period, which led to extermination and the development of refugee symptoms;
  • Subjugation and reservation period, where natives were either confined or translocated and had no sense of security;
  • Boarding school period, which destroyed the family system and to this day is main reason why families remain so disconnected as traditional parenting was lost to the boarding schools; and the
  • Forced relocation and termination period, which involved a transfer to urban areas and prohibition of religious freedom.

After addressing the atrocities committed, it is important that the trauma is fully understood. While difficult and often time painful, Goodsoldier believes it is an essential step in the road towards becoming well.

Goodsoldier agrees with the Native American scholar Vine Deloria who said that a "society that cannot remember its past and honor is in peril of losing its spirit."

Common feelings and emotions during the understanding process include survivor guilt, depression and psychic numbing, fixation to trauma, low self-esteem, victim identity, anger, self-destructive behaviors, substance abuse and alcoholism, hypervigilance, internalized oppression, and a preoccupation with death.

"The death identity issue really breaks my heart because I’ve talked to eight-year-olds who are considering suicide," Goodsoldier said. "Suicide is common on reservations, and when it happens, you see lots of memorials in the forms of T-shirts, car decals, posters, etc. It's a commonly held belief that the only way someone will be remembered or known at all is through death."

Once the trauma is fully understood, it needs to be released as quickly as possible, according to Goodsoldier.

"By allowing ourselves to feel and express the emotions and pain tied to the trauma, the healing process can finally begin," said Goodsoldier. "Validating the experience of people and not denying that events happened are also healing."

And by releasing trauma, one is then fully equpped to transcend the trauma, accoring to Goodsoldier.

"Transcending is healing and moving beyond trauma; you no longer define yourself in terms of the trauma,” said Goodsoldier. “We see ourselves as survivors instead of victims. We are restoring our original instructions and the methods of living that we followed one hundred years ago. We remain true to ourselves."

One such example of restoring original instructions can be found in the Lakota community. In the last 10 years, concerted efforts have been made to preserve Lakota history and language as community elders, who are the sole possessors of the information, are aging and dying.

During the period of forced assimilation, Native Americans became disconnected from basic sacred teachings of how to relate to one another, according to Goodsoldier. Restoring the original model of how people once related to one another is both healing and empowering.

"The tribes lost the use of their kinship terms because boarding schools wanted to retrain the natives," Goodsoldier said. "Language changed from a collective model with words like "you" and "us" to "I" and "me." Native Americans would never address their family members by their first names, but that's what they were forced to do."

So how does a society actually transcend trauma? The Lakota people are currently promoting traditional intervention techniques such as:

  • Wokigna, or comfort, where a child is given care and gentle nurturing;
  • Wopakinte, or spiritual cleansing, designed for the four parts of the spirit, or nag;
  • Nagi Kicopi, or calling the spirit back after having the spirit wander aimlessly;
  • Wiping of Tears ceremony to address and release grief: and 
  • Woapiye, or doctoring, which process heals the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual parts of an individual.

Using her own story and the stories of her peers as examples, Goodsoldier hopes that more people begin to heed the words of Margaret Mead:

"Never look for a psychological explanation unless every effort to find a cultural one has been exhausted."