Historical trauma

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Historical trauma (HT), as used by social workers, historians, and psychologists, refers to the cumulative emotional harm of an individual or generation caused by a traumatic experience or event. Historical Trauma Response (HTR) refers to the manifestation of emotions and actions that stem from this perceived trauma.

According to its advocates, HTR is exhibited in a variety of ways, most prominently through substance abuse, which is used as a vehicle for attempting to numb pain. This model seeks to use this to explain other self-destructive behaviour, such as suicidal thoughts and gestures, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, violence and difficulty recognising and expressing emotions. Many historians and scholars believe the manifestations of violence and abuse in certain communities are directly associated with the unresolved grief that accompanies continued trauma.[1]

Historical trauma, and its manifestations, are seen as an example of Transgenerational trauma (though the existence of transgenerational trauma itself is disputed). For example, a pattern of maternal abandonment of a child might be seen across three generations,[2] or the actions of an abusive parent might be seen in continued abuse across generations. These manifestations can also stem from the trauma of events, such as the witnessing of war, genocide, or death. For these populations that have witnessed these mass level traumas (e.g., war, genocide, colonialism), several generations later these populations tend to have higher rates of disease.[3]

First used by social worker and mental health expert Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart in the 1980s, scholarship surrounding historical trauma has expanded to fields outside of the Lakota communities Yellow Horse Brave Heart studied.[4] Yellow Horse Brave Heart's scholarship focused on the ways in which the psychological and emotional traumas of colonisation, relocation, assimilation, and American Indian boarding schools have manifested within generations of the Lakota population. Yellow Horse Brave Heart's article "Wakiksuyapi: Carrying the Historical Trauma of the Lakota," published in 2000, compares the effects and manifestations of historical trauma on Holocaust survivors and Native American peoples. Her scholarship concluded that the manifestations of trauma, although produced by different events and actions, are exhibited in similar ways within each afflicted community.

Other significant original research on the mechanisms and transmission of intergenerational trauma has been done by scholars such as Daniel Schechter, whose work builds on the pioneers in this field such as: Judith Kestenberg, Dori Laub, Selma Fraiberg, Alicia Lieberman, Susan Coates, Charles Zeanah, Karlen Lyons-Ruth, Yael Danieli, Rachel Yehuda and others. Although each scholar focuses on a different population – such as Native Americans, African Americans, or Holocaust Survivors – all have concluded that the mechanism and transmission of intergenerational trauma is abundant within communities that experience traumatic events. Daniel Schechter's work has included the study of experimental interventions that may lead to changes in trauma-associated mental representation and may help in the stopping of intergenerational cycles of violence.[5][6]

Joy DeGruy's book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, analyzes the manifestation of historical trauma in African-American populations, and its correlation to the lingering effects of slavery. In 2018, Dodging Bullets, the first documentary film[7] to chronicle historical trauma in Indian Country, was released. It included interviews with scientist Rachel Yehuda, sociologist Melissa Walls, and Anton Treuer along with first hand testimonies of Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe and Blackfeet tribal members.


Historical Trauma (HT), or Historical Trauma Response (HTR), can manifest itself in a variety of psychological ways. However, it is most commonly seen through high rates of substance abuse, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, suicide, domestic violence, and abuse within afflicted communities. The effects and manifestations of trauma are extremely important in understanding the present-day conditions of afflicted populations.

Within Native American communities, high rates of alcoholism and suicide have direct correlation to the violence, mistreatment, and abuses experienced at boarding schools, and the loss of cultural heritage and identity these institutions facilitated. Although many present-day children never experienced these schools first-hand, the "injuries inflicted at Indian boarding schools are continuous and ongoing," affecting generations of Native peoples and communities.[8]

Countries like Australia and Canada have issued formal apologies for their involvement in the creation and implementation of boarding schools that facilitated and perpetuated historical trauma. Australia's Bringing Them Home report and Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Canada) both detailed the "experiences, impacts, and consequences" of government-sponsored boarding schools on Indigenous communities and children.[9] Both reports also detail the problems facing Indigenous populations today, such as economic and health disparities, and their connection to the historical trauma of colonization, removal, and forced assimilation.


Treatment of HT must repair the afflicted person or communities' connection with their culture, values, beliefs, and self-image. It takes the forms of individual counseling or therapy, spiritual help, and group or entire community gatherings, which are all important aspects in the foundations of the healing process. Treatment should be aimed at a renewal of destroyed culture, spiritual beliefs, customs, and family connections, and a focus on reaffirming one's self-image and place within a community.[10] Cultural revitalization initiatives for treating historical trauma among Native groups in North America include “culture camps,” where individuals live or camp out on their tribe’s traditional lands in order to learn cultural practices that have been lost to them as a result of colonial practices.[11]

Due to the collective and identity-based nature of HT, treatment approaches should be more than solutions to one individual’s problems. Healing must also entail revitalization of practices and ways of being that are necessary not just for individuals but for the communities they exist within. Relieving personal distress and promoting individual coping are important treatment goals, but successful treatment of HT also depends upon community-wide efforts to ending intergenerational transmission of collective trauma.[12]

Particular attention should be given to the needs and empowerment of peoples who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Social workers and activists should promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients, individuals, families, groups, and communities. In order for advocacy to be accurate and helpful to the afflicted populations, social workers should understand the cultural diversity, history, culture, and contemporary realities of clients.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart "The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship to substance abuse: A Lakota illustration." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 35(1)
  2. ^ Abrams, M. S. (1999). Intergenerational transmission of trauma: Recent contributions from the literature of family systems approaches to treatment. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 53(2), 225-231.
  3. ^ Sotero, Michelle (2006). "A Conceptual Model of Historical Trauma: Implications for Public Health Practice and Research". Journal of Health Disparities Research. 1 (1): 93–108.
  4. ^ Vinnie Rotondaro,"'Reeling from the Impact' of Historical Trauma," National Catholic Reporter, September 03, 2015. https://www.ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/reeling-impact-historical-trauma
  5. ^ Schechter DS, Myers MM, Brunelli SA, Coates SW, Zeanah CH, Davies M, Grienenberger JF, Marshall RD, McCaw JE, Trabka KA, Liebowitz MR (2006). Traumatized mothers can change their minds about their toddlers: Understanding how a novel use of videofeedback supports positive change of maternal attributions. Infant Mental Health Journal, 27(5), 429-448
  6. ^ Schechter DS (2004). Intergenerational communication of violent traumatic experience within and by the dyad: The case of a mother and her toddler. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 3(2), 203-232.
  7. ^ Poling, Les (2018-10-02). "Minnesota-Made Documentary Sheds Light on Historical Trauma Plaguing Native Communities". Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Retrieved 2018-10-05.
  8. ^ Ann Piccard, "Death by Boarding School: "The Last Acceptable Racism" and the United States' Genocide of Native Americans." Gonzaga Law Review 49, 1 (December 2013): 161
  9. ^ "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada." Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian Government. http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=7
  10. ^ Swinomish Tribal Mental Health Project. (2002). A Gathering of Wisdoms: Tribal Mental: A cultural Perspective. (2 Ed) Intergeneration Trauma in the Tribal Community (pp. 77-114). LaConner, WA: Swinomish Tribal Mental Health.
  11. ^ Gone, Joseph P.; Calf Looking, Patrick E. (2015). "The Blackfeet Indian culture camp: Auditioning an alternative indigenous treatment for substance use disorders". Psychological Services. 12 (2): 83–91. doi:10.1037/ser0000013. ISSN 1939-148X.
  12. ^ Gone, Joseph P. (2016). "Alternative Knowledges and the Future of Community Psychology: Provocations from an American Indian Healing Tradition". American Journal of Community Psychology. 58 (3–4): 314–321. doi:10.1002/ajcp.12046.
  13. ^ Weaver, H.N. (1999). Indigenous People and the Social Work Profession: Defining Culturally Competent Services. Social Work 44(3). 217-225.

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