From Intergenerational Trauma
| Laughter is
Conference participants take part in a connectedness
exercise led by Beverly Watts-Davis of CSAP (Center
for Substance Abuse Prevention)
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart
History and Historical Trauma
was one of the strong feelings or themes that was alive
at the Wellbriety Conference in Denver in 2005. Dr.
Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart gave a keynote talk
and teaching on this subject on Friday morning, April
22 at the Conference, which we proudly present in this
issue of Wellbriety! Online Magazine. We will continue
with grassroots feedback about this topic in the next
issue of Wellbriety!, Volume 6, #7.
going to focus on healing and what we are trying to
do in terms of healing the historical trauma and to
describe to you some of the healing work we are doing
in the Takini Network. I’m starting with a quote
because this quote really describes historical trauma.
It’s from a traditional Hunkpapa Elders council
booklet from the 1990 Sitting Bull Memorial and the
Big Foot Memorial Ride. It says,
“It is our way to mourn for one year when one
of our relations enters the spirit world. Tradition
is to wear black when mourning our lost one. Tradition
is to not be happy, not to sing and dance and enjoy
life’s beauties during mourning time. Tradition
is to suffer with the remembering of our lost ones
and to give away much of what we own and to cut our
hair short. Chief Sitting Bull was more than a relation.
He represented an entire people, our freedom, our way
of life, all that we were. For 100 years, we as a people
have mourned our great leader. We have followed tradition
in our mourning. We have not been happy, have not enjoyed
life’s beauty, have not danced or sung as a proud
nation. We have suffered, remembering our great chief,
and have given away much of what was ours. Blackness
has been around us for one-hundred years. During this
time the heartbeat of our people has been weak and
our lifestyle has deteriorated to a devastating degree.
Our people now suffer from the highest rates of unemployment,
poverty, alcoholism and suicide in this country.”
a Lakota word that means “survivor” or “to
come back to life.”
That really describes what we are talking about when
we talk about historical trauma and historical unresolved
This next quote we have permission to use from a Lakota
parent who is in recovery. It really talks about the
intergenerational trauma which goes back to the original
genocide of our people. The quote says,
“I’ve never bonded with any parental figures
in my home. At seven years old I could be gone for
days at a time and no one would look for me. I’ve
never been to a boarding school. All the abuse we talk
about happened in my home. Maybe if it had happened
by strangers it wouldn’t have been so bad—the
sexual abuse, the neglect. Then I could blame it all
on another race.” He added that his parents went
to boarding school and that’s where they learned
the abuse that they then passed on to him. It’s
like stepping stones in a pecking order.
WHAT IS HISTORICAL TRAUMA?
I want to talk about the development of historical
trauma theory and interventions with Native people
and a little about the historical trauma response
features, and then give a few recommendations. We
formed as the Takini Network in 1992. Takini is a
Lakota word that means “survivor” or “to
come back to life.” We are a Native non-profit
organization. We focus on trying to help our people
heal from this historical trauma. The origins of
the work go back before 1992. The work really goes
back to 1976. In 1985 we came up with the term “historical
trauma,” and “historical unresolved grief,” and “historical
trauma response.” We had a conference in December,
2004 called Models for Healing: Indigenous Survivors
of Historical Trauma. This conference series started
in 2001 and we’ve held it for the last several
have a lot of wisdom in our culture and we have
a lot of traditional healing practices. We have
traditional grief ceremonies, we have spirit
keeping, and spirit releasing ceremonies. We
have ways of dealing with death and loss and
grief and trauma and purification, when warriors
would come back from war.
First, about the need for historical
trauma theory. Why do we need that when there is
a lot of stuff in the literature about post traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD). Well, it doesn’t really quite fit for
our people because the theory of post traumatic stress
disorder doesn’t capture not only chronic trauma
in one’s lifetime, but trauma across generations.
There are more theories that are starting to emerge,
like complex trauma,
which does deal with multiple traumas in one’s lifetime. But still it doesn’t
really address generational trauma and it doesn’t
talk about massive group trauma. The group of literature
and body of work that is most relevant in the United
States to our people is actually the Jewish Holocaust
literature because it is addressing trauma for a group
of people. It addresses a massive group trauma and
genocide. That was what I started to look at and it
was very helpful and informed some of our thinking
and some of our ideas. We are survivors of genocide.
We may have a higher trauma threshold due to our severe
chronic trauma so we may not fit the PTSD (post traumatic
stress disorder) criteria. Even with that said, our
PTSD rates nationally are higher than the national
norms. I think it’s like 28% now for us, and
the national norm is much lower. Ours is much higher
even though it is probably not as high as it should
be on these assessment instruments, which are culturally
biased. Perhaps we have had so much trauma that it
doesn’t register as much on our people. So, for
example, 2/3 of American Indian youth have had multiple
traumas in their lifetime but yet they don’t
meet the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder
as measured by the assessments.
We are survivors of intergenerational
trauma, not just traumas within our lifespan. Our
culture and history also influence the way we show
our symptoms and the way in which we manifest our
symptoms. Our grief is different from the dominant
One reason why I say that is true is because the way
we mourn in our traditional cultures is a little different.
All cultures have their ways of mourning, but in our
culture we maintain a connection with the spirit world.
The way that we mourned and buried our dead was taken
away from us. We have some of that back but we don’t
have it fully back. We can’t bury our dead the
way that some tribes did. Some tribes did not bury
their dead in the ground. That’s not possible
for our people any more. Then we just got hit with
so many things happening to us in history that we didn’t
have time to heal from one loss, before another occurred.
We have a lot of wisdom in our culture and we have
a lot of traditional healing practices. We have traditional
grief ceremonies, we have spirit keeping, and spirit
releasing ceremonies. We have ways of dealing with
death and loss and grief and trauma and purification,
when warriors would come back from war. But a lot of
that was outlawed by the federal government policies
around 1883. We were not able to practice that in an
open, communal way without having to worry about somebody
coming in and arresting us or stopping us from doing
amazing how many of our own people really don’t
know our history that well. It’s important
to know our history because we are carrying it.
We feel that knowledge is power. The more we
know about it the more control we have over how
it affects us.
As a result of all this we have
historical trauma, which we define as cumulative
emotional and psychological wounding across generations,
own lifespan, because everything up to a minute ago
is history. It is all historical. What’s happened
in your own personal history, as well as what’s
happened in the generational line of your parents,
grandparents, and in your community—great grandparents,
great great grandparents––is all meaningful.
The historical unresolved grief goes along with that
The historical trauma response
is a group of features that is similar to what’s written about in the
Jewish Holocaust literature, which they call the survivor’s
child complex. It is a group of features that people
tend to have in reaction to the trauma. It’s
also been written about in the Japanese-American internment
camp literature about the survivors and descendents.
I understand that it takes place in Australia as well,
in the Aboriginal population. There are other groups
of people that are writing about and looking at the
same kinds of issues.
In our 2001 Takini Network conference we brought together
other massively traumatized groups to share with us
about what they did and how they healed. We found that
we have a lot of things in common. We thought if we
kind of joined with other traumatized populations that
we could do some cross-fertilization or cross pollenization
in terms of healing ideas and in help and support for
all parent the way we were parented unless something
happens to enlighten us in a different way or
help us to learn a different way of being with
our kids. I was a better mother when I was working
on writing a parenting curriculum because it
kept me on my toes. I liked to do that work because
it kept me on track much better with my daughter.
INTERVENTIONS TO HEAL HISTORICAL TRAUMA
We developed an intervention in 1992 having four major
components. It grew out of work that we were doing
in the mid 80’s and we refined it into an actual
four-day intensive psycho-educational intervention.
We did that in the Black Hills in 1992. The main
components of that are to 1)
confront our trauma and embrace our history; 2) understand
that trauma; 3) release the pain; and then 4)
transcend the trauma.
Transcend is kind of like healing and moving beyond
it so that you no longer define yourself in terms
of the trauma. Even the word “survivor” is
better than “victim.” You move from “victim” to “survivor.” But
even as a survivor you are still defining yourself
in terms of the trauma. We want to move beyond that.
We are still at the survivor level right now, I think,
collectively as a group. Some of us are still at
the victim stage. There are a few people who have
maybe transcended, who no longer define themselves
even as survivors. They’ve gone beyond that.
That’s our goal, the healing that we want to
do. I’ll talk about a couple of these now.
Confront our trauma and embrace our history
I want to go into some of the intervention components
and tell you a little of what we do. Dr. Eva Fogleman
is a colleague and friend. She is a Jewish Holocaust
therapist and a child of Holocaust survivors from
New York City. In her writing she talks about confrontation
with the past. (please see the book Conscience
and Courage : Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by
Eva Fogelman) That’s what she does with children
of survivors. That’s what we were already doing––to
look at our history, to look at what happened to
us, to educate our people about our history. It’s
amazing how many of our own people really don’t
know our history that well. It never ceases to amaze
me. Sometimes we get feedback in communities. People
say, “I didn’t know this was happening… I
didn’t know all this went on for our people.” It’s
important to know our history because we are carrying
it. We feel that knowledge is power. The more we
know about it the more control we have over how it
affects us. We do that confrontation with the past
and focus on the genocide.
Our people’s history meets
the United Nations 1948 Geneva Convention definition
on genocide. If you look in the Congressional record
you find all kinds of genocidal language in resolutions
that were passed. There was one that spoke of no
further recognition to our rights over the land over
which we roamed. Another said we were to go
upon said reservations and choose between this policy
of the government or extermination. The genocidal
language is right there. Others say we are to be
placed on said reservations
controlled and managed at the discretion of the government. The Bureau of
Indian Affairs (BIA) Education Division used to be
called the Civilization Division. The Bureau of Indian
Affairs used to be under the War Department. We have
an historical legacy. IHS (Indian Health Service)
evolved out of the BIA and then was switched to HHS
(Health and Human Services). So it also has that legacy
of evolving from the War Department. I think that historical
legacy affects us unconsciously. Congressional policy
was clear that it was for separation of children from
family and tribe. There was a lot of militaristic influence
in the boarding schools. In our conferences we show
videos and we have small and large group discussions
that go on around the historical aspect of this.
Understand the trauma
The second component is understanding the trauma. We
talk about the trauma response features and we talk
about cultural context for our own mourning and our
own grief resolution. We talk about how outlawing
our ceremonies also impaired the release of our grief.
So we have to go back and do that. That was part
of the purpose of the Bigfoot Memorial Ride in 1990
commemorating and healing from the Wounded Knee Massacre
of1890. The dominant society’s view of Native
people as savage also enters here. Any time you think
of someone as not being quite human then you don’t
have to take them seriously. You can do things to
them and you think they don’t really have feelings
about it. You don’t really have to feel guilt.
It enables you to go to war against a people. So
it is a very dangerous kind of thinking to think
of someone as being inhuman or subhuman, or less-than or savage. These were the ideas that our people had.
Some of the historical trauma response features include
survivor guilt. We are all survivors in this room,
but a lot of our relatives and ancestors are not here
with us. So we feel guilt about that. That is true
about a lot of trauma survivors. It was talked about
at 9/11 and at the Oklahoma City bombing. Those who
survived as well as the rescue workers can go through
this intense guilt at surviving.
psychic numbing is another trauma response feature. You shut down
all feeling because you are trying to avoid the pain.
It helps you get through the immediate crisis and
the trauma. But if they persist, if they go on for
a long time, they become a problem and you don’t
feel much of anything. You numbed yourself from the
pain but you stunted your feelings, your warmth and
Fixation to trauma is another feature.
There is more research now showing that there is
an emotional fixation to trauma. Trauma is a way
of life, and comfortable, so you sort of get attached
to it and you unconsciously recreate it. The research
shows you also remain loyal to the suffering community
that you come from. New biological research shows
that certain kinds of hormones get released in the
body, like cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and
other things that keep you kind of stuck in a physical
way in terms of having a trauma response. The adrenaline
keeps going and that affects the physical symptoms
you have, including Type II diabetes. There is a
physician, Dr. Anne Bullock, at Cherokee, North Carolina
who has been looking at historical trauma’s
relationship to Type II diabetes. Cortisol interferes
with the body’s use of insulin. It also causes
weight gain, which affects diabetes. There are direct
and indirect ways that trauma affects us physically.
Low self esteem, victim identity, anger, self-destructive
behavior, and substance abuse are also a ways of trying
to numb that pain.
Hypervigilance is talked about
in adult children of alcoholics meetings. It’s basically staying on
guard and waiting for the other shoe to drop. The best
example is a kid coming into an alcoholic home after
school trying to size up whether they are going to
be safe or not or how they are going to keep themselves
safe and what they are going to do. So the adrenline
starts going and the cortisol is released. They start
having racing thoughts trying to figure out what they
need to do to be safe––who is going to
be there, who is going to be drunk, who is not, who
is going to hit them, where should they go, and so
forth. That’s a good example of hypervigilance.
When you are chronically traumatized, you start reacting
to everything in that way. You start staying on guard
in all kinds of situations.
asked me if we were going to have more of the
four-day intensive training-of-the-trainers or
healing-of-the-healers intervention conferences.
We do that but we are dependent on the tribes
to bring us in and to pay for those events.
Compensatory fantasies is another
trauma response feature that is written about in
the Holocaust literature. It basically means to compensate
for, to try to make up for. Children of Holocaust
survivors want to make up for the Holocaust, the
past. So they live out their lives trying to undo
the trauma they had nothing to do with, that they
have no control over. There is simply no way they
can undo it. When I read that I thought––this
is our people too! I think a lot of our people are
trying to do that so we kind of sacrifice ourselves
and live our lives in ways that we think might undo
this trauma that is not ours to undo. We can’t
undo it—it happened. We can heal from it. It
is interesting to look at how you are living out your
own life and whether you are sort of fixated to the
trauma and stuck in it and just trying to make up for
with death, death identity, and loyalty to the ancestral
suffering and to the deceased are other features. That loyalty
will cause you to create suffering in your own life.
It is not a conscious process. It’s something
Eva Fogleman talks about. We pass this trauma on
because parents have been traumatized and the children
often pass trauma response patterns to their children.
We all parent the way we were parented unless something
happens to enlighten us in a different way or help
us to learn a different way of being with our kids.
I was a better mother when I was working on writing
a parenting curriculum because it kept me on my toes.
I liked to do that work because it kept me on track
much better with my daughter.
of ancestral suffering we are carrying the suffering with us.
We carry it inside of us. It becomes part of us.
Vitality in one’s own life
is seen as a betrayal of ancestors who suffered so
much. It’s hard for us to be joyful in our own
lives and really free and happy. That’s what
we want to get back to. That’s part of transcending
the trauma and the healing process.
Rachel Yehuda is a Jewish Holocaust
researcher who is beginning to find some hard core
evidence of the effect of the parents on the children
by measuring cortisol levels in the children of Holocaust
survivors. She is finding differences between them
and children who didn’t have Holocaust parents. What’s
exciting is that it supports what we’ve been
saying for years in NANACOA and in other movements:
intergenerational trauma is affecting our people!
Internalized oppression is a trauma
response feature especially talked about by Paulo
Freire, who is a Brazilian sociologist. Anna Freud
speaks about it as identification with the aggressor.
We identify with the perpetrators of our abuse, people
who harm us as children. It’s
kind of a natural thing that happens. As adults we
get into situations where we continue to be abused
or we become abusers ourselves. Through internalized
oppression, we hate ourselves because of we have been
told. It is not necessarily conscious. Then we start
to hate others like us. We subject others to that understanding
and we have a lot of violence in our own community.
There is more that we can learn about through the Takini
Someone asked me if we were going to have more of the
four-day intensive training-of-the trainers or healing-of-the
healers intervention conferences. We do that but
we are dependent on the tribes to bring us in and
to pay for those events. We wanted to have it set
up so that we would be able to just go out and cover
all those expenses but we’ve not been able
to achieve that goal. We have gone to several different
tribes in different parts of the country and worked
with them. They are getting things going now on historical
trauma work in their own communities. It dovetails
with other work that’s already being done and
had been done. Several of these communities have
also done GONA (Gathering of Native Americans). Some
of the people here at this White Bison conference,
like Theda New Breast and others have all done this
work for a long time with healing and with NANACOA
(National Association of Native American Children
Thank you so much for your time and attention!
Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is
the president and director cofounder of the Takini
Network of Rapid City South Dakota and an associate
research professor at the University of Denver Graduate
school of social work. In addition to teaching clinical
courses, Dr. Braveheart’s research interests
focus on psycho-educational historical trauma, intervention,
and incorporating this model in to parenting intervention,
We wish to thank the cofounders of the
Takini Network and all those who particpated in the
film shown at the Conference.
For more information, and to participate
in the work of the Takini Network contact the Network
at email@example.com or
call Dr. Braveheart at (303) 759-0975