Historical Trauma

Lesson 2: Social Traps


  • Social Traps
  • Understanding Culture Loss


  • Read the following material


Historical trauma is at the root of how our people were displaced upon destitute lands and among depressed environment.  We are currently experiencing that same depressive state of mind and it is contributing to an unbalanced state of health. Our mind, body, spirit, and emotional state are all affected by what is happening within and around us.  We have been experiencing the ill effects of social traps and that is a term we don’t hear of on a daily basis but it has and still does affect us every day.

What is a social trap?

A Social trap is a term used by psychologists to describe a situation in which a group of people act to obtain short-term individual gains, which in the long run leads to a loss for the group as a whole.

John Platt recognized that individuals operating for short-term positive gain ("reinforcement") had a tendency to over-exploit a resource, which led to a long-term overall loss to society.

Examples of social traps include

  • Overfishing; loss of food resources
  • Logging; destroys vegetation, allows for soil erosion, and disrupts animal habitats.
  • Agriculture; destroys lands containing traditional roots and plants used by our people, and over use of water resources depleted resources on reservation lands.
  • Cattle; overgrazing of vegetation and contamination of water resources.
  • Commercial hunting; Near-extinction of the American bison.

An example of how policies were used as means to benefit the non-Indian group is:

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 which has lead to a great deal of loss to the American Indian population as a whole.  The only difference is the non-Indian population has continually benefited from this act for a lifetime, while our tribes are still fighting to regain lands and rights wrongfully taken and denied to us.

What is the Indian Removal Act of 1830?

The Indian Removal Act is a United States government policy that was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 26, 1830.  According to Wikipedia, “The Removal Act was strongly supported in the South, where states were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the "Five Civilized Tribes".  This act was used on other tribes as well.

History has impacted us throughout Indian Country but it is not all bad as we are reaching and succeeding new heights in understanding what it takes for us to heal in a culturally appropriate way.  Science is now recognizing that the “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” of our cultures has contained answers to questions about sustainability, “Living a sustainable lifestyle is to live a balanced life with our environments, in essence a traditional lifestyle, the way of our Indian people.” We as Native people have the answers we just have to be willing to return to some of those traditional ways of life, especially where nutrition is concerned.

Why is it important to understand our history?

Our history has played a part in the types of environments we live in today.  We have literally and spiritually been disconnected from the environments of our traditional cultural practices.  We have adapted unhealthy behaviors in order to cope with the living situations and environmental stressors found around us.

We cannot change the past and we cannot allow ourselves to be trapped by the historical events by feeling victimized, cheated, or hopeless.  The end results of social traps have left us with changed environments but also we have adapted to the current lifestyles of convenience and technology.

Convenience of traveling; vehicles are used to drive short distances that can be walked.  We are also able to order foods and have them brought to us, or drive up to a fast food window so we can eat while we drive.

Shopping for packaged and processed foods filled with chemicals, salts and fats are more convenient than taking the time to prepare a meal from fresh vegetables and broiling meats.  We find satisfaction in drinking high fructose drinks rather than consuming water.

This high stress and quick fix lifestyle has been adapted by many of us and this has caused us to disconnect from communicating and connecting with family, like when  our grandmothers used to be at the kitchen table preparing meals and everyone would help prepare the meal and catch up with what is happening in their lives, listening to traditional stories about coyote, sharing jokes, planning upcoming family events or other family activities that took us outdoors to the park, down to the river, up to the mountains, or back to places where we camped while gathering roots, plants and berries, taking the time to ponder good memories and reconnect with environments.

For some of us it seems like we are stuck in this unhealthy situation and don’t feel as though we have the support or energy to change, some of this mind set is due to the unhealthy foods we have been eating, another part is because throughout the years we have heard the stories over and over again and again about the traumatic events of our history that we have unconsciously associated the tragic events as a part of our identities, and this has affected our attitudes about how we manage our life and the affects of diabetes.

Diabetes can have psychological effects on us, just as harmful as the foods we eat.  We must understand that hour whole body is affected by external stressors and diet.  Some of the attitudes we have adapted have allowed diabetes to take control of us and for some of us we are heading towards a diagnosis of diabetes if we aren’t making positive changes to our life and diet.

We must take control over diabetes by first of all changing our attitudes about our situation, because our brain and body work together; unhealthy thoughts and unhealthy food consumption will change our bodies metabolism and the outcome is not a good one.

Attitudes like:

  • Ignoring the problems (denial), diabetes isn’t that bad in our community.
  • It will never happen to me, I’m not like others.
  • If I get diabetes there are pills I can take, that’s what science and doctors are for.
  • Lost hope, there’s nothing I can do to change it, my family is pre-disposed to diabetes.

Here is an example of an elder speaking on attitudes from the Wisdom of the Elders interview transcripts.

Delphine Woods, Umatilla, 2005.


Q:  What would you recommend to other people who are in your situation if they’re having you know, problems inspiring themselves to do, you know, do it.


“You know, it’s like, you have to think of your body, to me, it’s a temple.  It’s something you have to maintain.  You have to keep it, keep it going, to keep it in good shape.  And you need to exercise.  You need the diet control.  You need the medicine to help keep the diabetes in control.  And a good attitude too!  And not, try not to get too depressed about it or to stress out about it, because then you’re just kind of working against yourself.”

Social traps provide short term satisfactions but in the long run create damaging effects on our health.  We have adapted a lifestyle that provides us with short time distractions, easy access to entertainment, like TV programs, games, and videos which creates a sedentary lifestyle.

Along with changing our attitudes we need more education and changing the environments which limit our physical activity, and support from our communities.

Delphine addresses this concern in her interview.


Q:  What would you recommend that the tribe, at the tribal level with the tribe or health clinic, or whoever’s responsible, that they do that they’re not doing now, that you’d like to see more of?


“Well, I think they’re starting it, but we need more education out for the young people, to let them know that when you’re obese, when you’re inactive, when you’re sitting in front of the TV with those games, you’re a good candidate for becoming diabetic.  And you think the junk food they eat, you know, all the hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, chips and all of that stuff.  They’re good, but then you, it should be limited to maybe once a week or even less-once a month.”

When Delphine says the junk food is good, she is referring to how the taste of these foods bring us pleasure and satisfaction for a short period of time; over the months and years of this type of food consumption we begin to see our bodies get bigger, the external physical change, and internally we feel unappealing and our emotional response may be a depressive we feel stuck in this addictive behavior of wanting to those high sodium and fatty foods known as carbohydrates.  This also becomes a trap.


Go to website and read the traditional story of “Coyote and the Tree”

Discuss the story with a friend, family member, or group and ask each other what kinds of messages you received from the story.  Stories have been told to teach us and each of will find a moral or behavior that we can associate with but at the same time we also can find answers if we just listen with an open mind and heart and enjoy the lesson at the expense of “Coyote the Trickster.

While discussing the story, take some notes about Coyote’s behavior and see if anything he does applies to you and see how they fit with changing how we think and feel about getting trapped into over consumption of foods, time at computer, TV, games, and unhealthy “thinking.”

Take one thing you would like to work on and start making a change to it.

For example:

How much time do I sit at the computer?  Plan a limited amount of time and use the other times for walking or doing chores outside.


Social Trap:

John Platt's 1973 paper in American Psychologist,,Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_trap