As Northwestern University moves to broaden recruitment and inclusion of Native American students on campus, a panel of indigenous scholars spoke to about 40 people in Tech auditorium about how historical trauma continues to impact native families today. The event was part of a series of lectures related to The Inconvenient Indian, this year’s One Book One Northwestern.
“The term historical trauma may lead people to think that we’re only talking about the remote past,” Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart said. “But for me everything up to the last minute is history.”
Brave Heart, the clinical social worker and researcher who originally developed the concept of historical trauma for the Lakota people, compared the experience of Native Americans to that of survivors of the Jewish holocaust. The impact of the original genocide compounds over generations, leaving scars not only on those who saw the loss, but, Brave Heart argues, on their descendants. Brave Heart said the legacy of massacres, forced relocation, and hostile US policy, continued to traumatize Native Americans into the 21st century.
According to Brave Heart, one of the most traumatizing examples were the American Indian boarding schools. US government officials forcibly separated Native American children from their families and brought them to boarding schools run by military personnel. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant, Brave Heart said, and when those children grew up, they often abused their kids in turn, creating a cycle of violence.
The result is the highest rates of suicide, unemployment and alcoholism among any demographic in the United States, according to Brave Heart, along with high rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self esteem, intense fear and survivor’s guilt from historical massacres. Therefore historical trauma devastates communities to this day, Brave Heart concluded.
“Community members feel like they’re constantly going to funerals because of the high rates of deaths, alcohol related illness and the ongoing trauma,” Brave Heart said. “So they’re always in a state of mourning.”
Brave Heart cited a woman who lost five relatives in a collision with a drunk driver, lost five relatives in a collision with a drunk driver the next month, lost another relative to a heart attack and a teen cousin to suicide the month after. The surviving members of her family are descendants of massacre survivors and boarding school people.
The trauma is observable on a molecular level. Brave Heart cited research that trauma leaves epigenetic markers – reversible changes on top of genes that can affect everything from weight to mental health – that are passed on to children.
To treat the epidemic, Brave Heart developed a response intervention program specifically designed for indigenous people. It centers on confronting genocide and the policies that inflicted trauma, while embracing traditional indigenous culture and ceremonies. She said it’s led to reduced feelings of depression, shame and guilt and increased joy in clinical studies.
“The brain is actually very resilient and there’s a lot of literature coming out now about [the effectiveness of] different kinds of alternative healing, which are similar to many of the things we do in our traditional ceremonies,” Brave Heart said. “I believe that our ceremonies can actually affect brain chemistry.”
Brave Heart and fellow panelist Megan Bang, an associate professor at the University of Washington, said that native students need these particular interventions, because most of the literature on mental health comes from studies on people who are are W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and might not apply to indigenous people.
Bang emphasized the need to hire native teachers so native students have role models and adults who understand their needs and histories. University of Denver Professor Ramona Beltran said workshops in which indigenous people tell their history can also curb historical trauma.
Beltran worked on a research team at the University of Denver that examined the role John Evans, a founder of Northwestern University, played in the Sand Creek Massacre that killed nearly 200 Native Americans. She said just having the governor of Colorado acknowledge the massacre and apologize was important.
“This speaks to the great resilience of our indigenous people.” Beltran said, “They are not asking for erasure of old stories of history, they just want their story told as well”
In October, Northwestern announced they would hire a new assistant director for Native American outreach and inclusion. The decision came a year after Northwestern’s own investigation into the Sand Creek Massacre produced 50 recommendations for how the university could improve its relationship with Native American communities.
One of the main recommendations, an Indigenous Student Resource Center, was replaced in October with an Indigenous Studies Research Initiative.
Still, Bang suggested there was a limit to which the University could truly be inclusive. She said that classroom settings devoid of nature, land or water continued to rob Native Americans of their culture's education, pointing specifically to the Tech lecture hall where the panel was held.
Editor's note 1/8/16: This story was updated to correct a copy error.
Update 1/13/16: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart as Heart on second reference, instead of the proper Brave Heart. Thank you to reader Lorenzo Gudino for noting this error.