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Native Americans: Canaries in the coal mine of historical trauma

Native Americans: Canaries in the coal mine of historical trauma

Picture of Mary Pember
Generations of warriors carry the colors during the Fort Totten Days Powwow in North Dakota in the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation.

American Indians represent the “gold standard” for bad health in this country. We top the lists for mental health related illnesses like addiction and suicide.  American Indian women also suffer the highest rates of sexual assault of any U. S. ethnicity, which frequently leads to or co-exists with mental illness.  These problems have remained remarkably resistant to wave after wave of mainstream interventions and programming.

The good news, however, is that tribal communities have often been on the cutting edge of creating innovative health programming to address such crushing problems. Additionally, their efforts and willingness to take risks on addressing such urgent mental health needs like addiction, suicide, sexual assault has the potential to provide new information and approaches that may benefit the world at large.

One such effort is the theory of intergenerational historical trauma that began emerging in Indian Country in the 1980’s. Pioneered by Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart and influenced by research regarding Holocaust survivors, intergeneration historical trauma describes the influence of trauma experienced by parents and ancestors on the contemporary community.

I’ve written several articles detailing the impact of historical trauma on my own family such as the impact of my mother’s Indian boarding school experience on my family as well as other pieces looking at the ways in which Native women are using the theory in developing treatments for sexual assault.

These stories have been among my most popular work and clearly touch a common nerve among Native peoples. My most recent profile of an Alaskan Native boarding school survivor, Kim Oseira, was among our most read articles on line at Indian Country Today Media Network. We received hundreds of comments on our Facebook page from Native people who had either attended boarding schools or felt that their parents experience at such schools had infused their lives with a “dis-ease” that was difficult to name. Oseira’s story helped readers identify their pain. Clearly this is a path that needs to be followed more deeply.

During my fellowship I plan to describe the beginnings of this treatment theory and approach. I hope to interview Dr. Braveheart about her work. Since health problems in the Native community are so urgent, innovators such as Braveheart and her colleagues rarely have the chance to document and discuss the history of their work therefore I’m excited to learn more about the process that guided her. I’m certain it will be a compelling story.

SAMSHA has funded a project aimed at supporting tribal programs that use historical trauma in their mental health programs so I plan to visit 2-3 of the program participants, describe their work and find 1 or more protagonists who will help me put flesh and bones on this very human story and provide a narrative vehicle that shows the nature of its impact on generations of Native peoples. These programs, I hope, will also help address the intractable nature of social ills in Indian Country and tell us how the healing process, truly an ongoing endeavor, can be pursued in a meaningful way.  

Links to Pember articles about historical trauma:

Sexual assault of Native women and historical trauma


Picture of Joaqlin Estus

Wow, what a great topic. My mother went to a boarding school, and I'm just becoming aware of how it affects me and my siblings. So I'm interested in reading these articles. I'm headed to the NAJA conference then to L.A. next week. I look forward to meeting you!


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