Historical Trauma

Lesson 1: Historical Trauma


Gain basic understanding of historical trauma


  • Read the following material for Lesson 1
  • Read definitions relative to historic trauma on the resources page
  • Activity

Our focus is on diabetes but in order to address the holistic components associated with a balanced life, we need to address other potential affects.  The mind holds our life experiences and is central to our emotional and spiritual health. It is connected to our feelings and emotions of the heart and spirit.  Certain studies have shown that treating mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are significant in diabetes management, especially among Indigenous cultures.

Indigenous people have been living with unresolved grief and anger trapped by the historical events of our past due to distrust with non-Indian doctors and counselors and the lack of Native doctor’s and counselors who understand the holistic and collective healing methods of our Native people.   Many of us have learned to hold in our pain, it is forbidden or believed to be bad to talk about certain traumatic things that happen to us.

The lack of knowledge of our traditional healing practices sometimes keeps us from going to see a medicine man or medicine woman, or attend a ceremony for healing and guidance.  We also have few traditional healers and they are always in demand, or we fear opening our hearts and minds to other traditional healers.

The more education we have about ourselves, our traditional healing methods and our prescribed diabetes management the more successful we can be in controlling it without medication or preventing further damage, and for some a chance to reverse it by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

This introduction to historic trauma and intergenerational trauma are part of treating our diabetes so it is recommended that we also take advantage of all the material offered on this website; Healing Circles, Addictions, and Domestic Violence, to ensure we are addressing all possible affects that may be contributing to unhealthy choices.

We hope that this information will be a basic foundation to enrich and empower you towards healing your spirit, body, mind, and emotions.


Historical trauma

Historical Trauma is defined by Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD as “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma.”

What is trauma?

Webster’s definition of trauma is a bodily or mental injury usually caused by an external agent.  In other words when someone has hurt us, physically, emotionally or mentally, so badly that we have not truly healed from it and we experience feelings of unhappiness, depression, or loneliness.  Our bodies also feel physical pain that we cannot explain.

The psychiatric definition of "trauma" is "an event outside normal human experience." Trauma generally leaves you feeling powerless, helpless, paralyzed. It tends to be sudden and overwhelming; it "owns" you. You cannot think clearly during and after a severe trauma; at the same time, you are forced to focus your consciousness in an attempt to deal.

What is genocide?

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.

Our people suffered through war and genocidal acts of European and western colonizers seeking to claim new lands, gold, and other valuable goods.   Government policies and different genocidal tactics were used to try to destroy our people.

Some genocide methods

Bounties paid for Indian scalps caused our people to be hunted like animals and terrorized.

Ecocide is a method of destroying the food sources like buffalo by allowing commercial hunting for hides and meat.  Some government officials supported hunting buffalo to extinction so that Indians would starve to death or move from their homelands.

Assimilation is absorbing into a culture so that Indian children would become similar to the white culture. The U S government removed children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools, where they were stripped of their identities, language, and cultural practices.  They were forced to accept Christianity.  Many of our elders were abused and died while attending boarding schools and those whom returned home were lost to their families and cultures.  While still many died from abuse and emotional pain of loneliness and separation from their parents, family and tribal communities.

Ceremonial practices were outlawed in order to destroy our spiritual practices and beliefs that are at the heart of our cultures.

Removal Acts forced our people to walk hundreds of miles to reservation lands away from our homelands, separated from our traditional diets and natural resources.

As we look back at history we must learn from it and understand that we are moving forward towards healing and understanding, that confronting our past is a way to begin healing the spiritual wounds passed through the generations of the past 500 years.

Trapped in unhealthy cycles of behavior

Native American have, for over 500 years, endured physical, emotional, social, and spiritual genocide from European and American colonialist policy.  Contemporary Native American life has adapted such that, many are healthy and economically self-sufficient.  “Yet a significant proportion of Native people are struggling with health disparities that stem from intergenerational trauma.”  Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD

We are currently plagued with chronic diseases that our non-Indian doctors have not been able to truly diagnose and treat us for, but our ancestors and elders have known all along that when our land, food sources, water, spiritual beliefs, medicinal plants and families have been separated from one another our people and all that is a part of our culture have become ill. We have been one with our landscapes since time immemorial and our traditional stories hold those histories within them, yet we have been doubted and disregarded.

We have many tribal leaders, who are doctors, with a voice and understanding about our needs and it is through their hard work that changes are being made, our health needs are being recognized, and technology is being used to increase our knowledge, validate our beliefs, and provide us opportunities to share our traditional healing, like this one.

As presented earlier that historic trauma is real and a root of what is happening with our people today because we are linked with what is called Intergenerational trauma and Dr. Cornielia Wieman, Six Nations of Canada has provided an explanation of how it works.

Intergenerational trauma:

How it works according to Dr. Cornelia Wieman, M.C. FRCPC, Six Nations of Canada

"I think you're dealing with generations of people who have been damaged by colonialism," Wieman says, "and the way that we have been treated by the dominant culture makes you feel dispirited. You feel devalued and so people will turn to things like addictions as a way of coping, of self-medicating, of not really wanting to be here because their situation is just so intolerable."  (thestar.com November 25, 2006 article 144908)

We have seen many or our people struggling with these types of coping methods in our homes, on the reservation, and in our urban cities.

This brief introductory lesson on historic and intergenerational trauma are a way to awaken our spirits and gain some insight about our feelings pain and does not begin to cover all the information available to us.

According to Dr. James W. Pennebaker, writing down your deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in your life for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days helps us to focus and organize an emotional experience. Some people have found that their immune systems improved, students have seen their grades improved, and some have had their entire lives changed.  And so we will be writing for healing.

Activity: Journaling/Writing exercise:

You will need pencil/pen and paper or a notebook.


Writing is often used for healing and wellness.  By taking our thoughts and emotions that are trapped in our minds they can control our emotional responses to things that frighten or make us uneasy, we will be able to transfer them onto paper making them have substance or ability to see what we are feeling.

We can keep a daily journal which helps with everyday situations.

We can write about one particular event that bothers us and throw the paper away.

This is personal and you can choose to share your stories or not.

Write about, “What historical trauma means to you”

You can reflect on your tribal history.  Some questions:

  • What kind of events changed where you live?
  • Has it impacted your family?
  • How may it have impacted your culture?
  • Does your tribe or band still practice their same tribal traditions?  How have they changed?
  • Have you heard any elders talk about your tribe’s history and what did they say or feel?



Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raphael_Lemkin

Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD, Takini's Historical Trauma,


For more info contact Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart; [email protected]

Dr. Cornelia Wieman, M.D. FRCPC, The lost generations, Two Aboriginal doctors seek a way to heal the trauma that has haunted a community for a century. http://www.thestar.com/specialsections/article/144908--the-lost-generations

Trauma; Merriam Webster Dictionary; 2004 p762

Trauma; Psychiatric definition, http://www.palace.net/llama/psych/trauma.html

Dr. James W. Pennebake, University of Texas at Austin, Writing to Heal, Research shows that writing about emotional experiences can have tangible health benefits. http://www.utexas.edu/features/2005/writing/