Historical Trauma in Indian Country: Historical Trauma for Native People


We Have to Know It to Heal It: Defining and Dealing With Historical Trauma 

Mary Annette Pember 


“And I rose in a rainy autumn and walked abroad in shower of all my days.” 

I think of this bit of verse from Poem in October by Dylan Thomas as I walk over the grounds where my mother and grandmother lived at the Sister School on the Bad River reservation in Wisconsin. Life there was harsh and often brutal. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the trauma my relatives endured there; although they aren’t my direct experiences, their stories have always been with me. Today’s rain is also filled with a bitter shower of their days. 

I’m here to grieve those lost childhood days for them, something they were never permitted to do. Before I can begin I need know the whole story. 

The prospect of drilling deeper into my personal corner of historical trauma, however, is more daunting than I had anticipated. I’ve written several stories about my mother’s life, her boarding school experience and how it spilled over onto me and my family. I thought I’d grown inured to trauma and believed my role as a journalist would protect me from its impact. But standing here on the ruins of the Sister School, I feel vulnerable and afraid. 

Although this story is part of a journalism project describing the theory of historical trauma, the emerging science of its impact on our minds and bodies and describing methods to heal it, I’ve decided to occasionally step out of my journalist’s role. I will include some of my experiences and in the process care for my well being along the way, something journalists aren’t always encouraged to do. 

The Terrible Presence 

Ojibwe are taught that all spirits have a dual nature. For humans, this means all that brings us happiness and success can also bring us pain and suffering. Therefore, we make a point to acknowledge this dichotomy in our spirituality. For me, the ruins of the Sister School are the breeding ground for the negative spirit that infused my family’s lives like a terrible presence that we could never discuss let alone acknowledge. 

I drive through a snarl of tall weeds and bushes covering the old driveway leading to the remains of the convent and school. The brush snaps back so that my rental car can’t be seen from the road; the area is an open, secluded spot surrounded by small trees and bushes. It’s quiet here; the remnants of the convent and school foundations barely poke through the ground, covered by moss. The pretty little church, however still stands and I can see its steeple with its bells. My mom often spoke of fights among the children over who would have the privilege of ringing the Angelis. 

She told me the bells made a beautiful sound and could be heard all over the reservation. Hearing the bells of the Angelis was one of the few experiences the children shared with their families. Although they lived on the reservation, the children dwelled light years apart from their community and their culture. The Sister School was a place where the very fact of being Indian was wrong, something to be corrected. My mother held on to the details of those cruel corrective measures until she died. Like an awful looping spirit that wouldn’t let go, those experiences permeated her life, filling her with fear and anger. 

The terrible presence that is my mother’s trauma spirit is durable and has proved resistant to many of my intellectual efforts to heal myself from the mysterious anger and fear I took from her. The trauma spirit demands my recognition. 

All I have to give it is ceremony. 

So here on this cold rainy day, I offer up prayers and smoke with my demure little ladies pipe, abandoning my heart to the great mystery. I’ve heard elders say that everything we need to heal ourselves is already here in our old ways if only we ask the Creator for help. 

When my humble ceremony is complete, I get back in my rental car and begin the rounds of visiting. I have no idea what will happen next. 

The Cycle of Abandonment 

My cousin, Marylu, has graciously put me up in the spare room of her sweet little rez home here on the Bad River reservation. 

 A devout Catholic and alum of St. Mary’s (the Sister School) Marylu seems a bit skeptical about the impact of historical trauma. The boarding school was closed when she attended and overall her experience there was good. Her parents were strong, hardworking folks who never, in her words, “allowed me to blame who I was for what happened to me.” 

She understands, however, that not everyone was so lucky and has agreed to help me find out more about my family’s history. Fiercely committed to her community, she is known throughout the reservation for her caring and hard work. She introduces me to elders who may remember something about my family. 

My family’s past reveals itself to me slowly. In my haste, I want to direct the process but the information comes to me in its own time, seemingly only when I am emotionally and spiritually prepared to hear it, one difficult bit at a time. On this trip I learn more about my grandma Cecelia, called “Cele” by family. She died in 1956, before I was born. She was only 56 years old, younger than I am now. 

Cele abandoned the family when my mom was five years old; my mother and her four siblings were forced to live at the Sister School beginning in 1930. 

Although my grandpa Joe was a brutal drunk, he visited the children occasionally. He made several failed attempts to care for them himself but the drinking would overwhelm him again and again. The children always ended up back at the Sister School. According to my mother, Cele never visited them. 

 My mother worshiped her father and blamed her mother for the family’s hardship. She often spoke of one their fights in which Cele hit Joe over the head with a beer bottle, knocking him out. As she told this story she would pinch her eyes shut and close her little fists tightly, “Oh, I screamed and screamed. 

I thought she’d killed him!” 

“He was a carpenter, just like St. Joseph,” she would tell us, smiling at her memory. 

I see now that she was identifying with the family abuser; she invented a fantasy about his love and devotion that helped her survive. She described Joe as a good-hearted, happy-go-lucky drunk who couldn’t catch a break. The truth, I see now, is complicated and achingly human. Joe’s untreated alcoholism dominated his life; his unpredictable rage and violence suggests he may have had “shell shock” from his experiences in World War I. 

I learn that Cele had also gone to Sister School. She turned up pregnant when she was very young, maybe 15. My great grandma, Mary, welcomed the new life, as is the traditional Ojibwe way. Cele’s child was my auntie Geraldine, nicknamed “Bum” and was mostly raised by Grandma Mary, subsumed into her already enormous family of 15 children. 

Although Cele’s years at the Sister School made her into a devout Catholic, she was unable to endure her marriage to the much older Joe. He was a violent, unpredictable drunk. During their final fight, he attacked her, biting off much of one of her breasts. After recuperating at Grandma Mary’s house she decided to leave him.  

Mary admonished her, “Even a bitch dog stays with its pups!”  

Only 22 or 23 years old, however, she opted for survival and left the reservation. 

According to folks I interview, Cele’s children were “throw-away-kids,” part of the unfortunate crowd of parentless children on the reservation who had no relatives to care for them. 

Occasionally Cele would return to the reservation to pick medicines but never to visit her children. She would shove into a bed with one of our many cousins who recall she would keep others awake as she prayed the entire rosary every night. 

Cele later married a white man and brought the then-teenaged Bum to live with them. When Bum became pregnant, however, Cele ordered her out of the house declaring her actions sinful. Bum was incarcerated as “incorrigible” and her child was adopted away. 

Cele’s actions were the beginning of yet another cycle of abandonment. It seems more than coincidental that she was the first generation to attend Sister School and to hear their messages of Indian racial, cultural and spiritual inferiority. Did she come to believe that she and Native people were unfit to parent their own children? 

 I wonder if she hoped her nightly prayers whispered into the darkness might somehow redeem her. They did not. Instead she swallowed all that regret, rage and shame and died of colon cancer at age 56. 

Trauma, Recognized at Last 

Currently, trauma is taking center stage in public discussions about its impact on mental and physical health. Medical and social sciences research is revealing more each day about the insidious implications of trauma for children, adult victims of violence, soldiers and even future generations who may carry its effects in their DNA. 

 The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) assesses associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being in later life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the ACES Study is one of the largest such investigations ever conducted. The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. 

By using a scoring method, the ACE score, the study shows the tie between a high amount of stress – Adverse Childhood Experiences – and the risk of developing health problems such as addiction, depression, intimate partner violence, suicide, diabetes, liver disease, poor fetal health among others. 

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), used by mental health professionals. The latest version, DSM-V released in 2013 recategorized PTSD from an anxiety disorder to a separate chapter called, “Trauma and Stress Related Disorders.” Previously the “stressors” initiating the disorder were defined as experienced directly by the person, now the criteria has been broadened to include: 

Learning that a traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual event of threatened death being either violent or accidental) 


Experiencing first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (not through media, pictures, television or movies unless work-related.) 

 According to a 2010 report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “The Foundations of Lifelong Health Are Built in Early Childhood,” advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics offer three compelling conclusions regarding adverse childhood experiences: 

—Early experiences are built into our bodies. 

—Significant adversity can produce physiological disruptions or biological “memories” that undermine the development of the body’s stress response systems and affect the developing brain, cardiovascular system, immune system, and metabolic regulatory controls. 

—These physiological disruptions can persist far into adulthood and lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health. 

Native peoples have known about the deadly fallout from trauma for a long time. Our health care professionals and community leaders championed the importance of considering the deadly role historic and ongoing trauma and violence plays in making us the gold standard for disease in this country. 

With our high rates of addiction, suicide, diabetes, violence against women and other ills, we could be viewed as ground zero for Adverse Childhood Experiences. 

 It seems likely that my mother witnessed that last terrible attack by Joe on Grandma Cele. Such an event would certainly earn mom a top ACES score if it happened today. Hearing the story as an adult so many years later was very unsettling for me. I am ill at ease as my psyche struggles to make sense of the event; I wish I didn’t know about it. 

As I wade through these medical and behavioral studies and reports, I can’t help thinking of my family and how they hid their trauma. Those who lived through it had no choice but to push onward with their burdens of addiction, mental illness and physical ailments, accepting the Sister School lessons of innate inferiority. 

I’m stunned by their courage, not only to survive, but to dare to hope for a decent life. My mother created a fantasy in order to survive all she’d experienced. She fiercely defended her invented past, lashing out angrily if anyone challenged her. She carried on, raised a family and wrestled a measure of happiness from life. Imperfect as it was, hers was a story of bravery and perseverance. 

But how exactly do we move beyond stubborn survival and begin living weweni (in a good way)? Social service and mental health professionals as well as tribal leaders say Native peoples first need to heal and grieve their historical trauma. Indeed, the need to heal this trauma seems to be on the agenda of nearly every social service and community conference throughout Indian country. But how exactly do we heal? How do we develop and strengthen what the researchers call “resilience”? 

There is a growing body of research that indicates resilience is something people can be taught. 

Learning Resilience 

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. The ACEs study has given rise to the field of resilience research. This body of work suggests that rather than focusing on risk and deficits, social and behavioral science should instead examine what has worked for people. 

The APA shares a list of findings for successfully building resilience that includes; 

—Making connections 

—Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems 

—Accept that change is a part of living 

—Move toward your goals 

—Take decisive actions 

—Look for opportunities for self-discovery 

—Nurture a positive view of yourself 

—Keep things in perspective 

—Maintain a hopeful outlook 

—Take care of yourself 

The APA findings also include additional ways to build resilience, such as meditation and spiritual practices. 

The ongoing and historical trauma in Indian country may not yield to such scant suggestions. Historical trauma encompasses a complex series of events driven by colonial forces in their quest to dominate North America. They created waves of devastating public practices and policies that very nearly wiped us out. The boarding school era was one of the most devastating engines of these policies. The schools helped create generations of traumatized children who often grew into adults with little experience in parenting and loads of unresolved grief and trauma. Many people medicated the pain with intoxicants or obscured it with rage, denial and other destructive ways. 

The APA guide’s passing mention of spirituality as a means for building resilience, then holds special meaning for Native peoples as we address trauma, historical and otherwise, in our communities. In his book, Healing the Soul Wound, Eduardo Duran stresses the importance that spirituality plays in the world view of Native peoples. He insists that successful healing and resilience building efforts must include strong elements of spirituality. He argues that mainstream mental health practice and spirituality are not as far apart as one might imagine. He notes that the root of the word psychology is literally “study of the soul.” He further argues that psychology and the practice of psychotherapy is enmeshed in spiritual metaphor. If clinical mental health interventions are to be successful among Native peoples, the therapy must be tied to its spiritual root. 

When Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, PhD first described the theory of historical trauma for Native peoples in the 1980s, she argued that the most effective methods of healing must emerge from within tribal communities and draw from traditional ways of knowing and spirituality. 

Increasingly, mainstream mental health care professionals are beginning to consider the notion that spirituality is an important element of good health. In a study recently published in The Permante Journal researchers explore the role that culture and spirituality play in healing trauma among Native peoples. In the article, “Our Culture is Medicine: Perspectives of Native Healers on Post trauma Recovery Among American Indian and Alaska Native Patients, the authors interviewed several traditional Native healers. 

According to the researchers, “Indigenous means of treatment through culture may include any or all of the following: language, traditional foods, ceremonies, traditional values, spiritual beliefs, history, stories, songs, traditional plants and canoe journeys.” 

“Research is discovering that mindfulness and spirituality engages the brain’s medial pre-frontal cortex, the part that experiences trauma,” notes Mary Vicario, clinical counselor and researcher at Finding Hope, a Cincinnati based mental health professional training and consulting firm. 

Vicario notes the work of Rochelle Dala PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In Dalla’s study of prostituted women who successfully left prostitution, she found that 100 percent credited new, found spirituality as a basis for their success. 

Such interventions may not be easy to measure and study or yield themselves to the creation of evidence-based practices. Most federal health care funding supports only those interventions that are backed by mainstream medical research and evidence based practices, considered the standard for acceptable mental health treatment. 

“Although the impact of spirituality and mindfulness may be harder to study, it doesn’t mean they don’t work the best,” Vicario said. 

In the coming months, I will describe the theory of historical trauma, emerging science of trauma’s impact on our minds and bodies and “evidence based practices” that health care professionals are using to help people. 

Additionally, I will tell the stories of individual and community healing efforts in Indian country that, although not evidence-based, hold great promise. 

My hope is that this project will provide insight into the depth of trauma in Indian country and shine a light on innovative ways that people are using to heal the soul in their communities and travel the road to weweni. This can best be done in the Native way, that of stories told by those who are living the journey. I’ll leave you with one more such report. 

Crisis Mode 

 During my trip to Bad River, I attended a gathering of residents and employees of the tribes social services department. According to the employees, the department is operating in “crisis mode” as they struggle to help the growing number of drug-affected babies born to tribal members. “In the past year, 1.3 of our babies on the reservation is born affected by drugs. Half of those infants are addicted to narcotics at birth,” noted Essie Leoso, director of Bad River Social Services. 

The problem, she explained, is not confined to the Bad River Reservation. According to Leoso, in 2013 all of the babies born addicted to narcotics that were being served by the neo-natal unit at the Duluth Hospital were Native American. 

Marylu, who works part-time in the social services administration office is seated with me during the gathering; she was visibly worried. “What will become of our people in the future? Who will care for all these children when they grow into adults with special needs?” she asked to no one in particular. 

The gathering was part of the department’s efforts to reach out to the community for answers to this growing epidemic. I asked if learning about history such as that of my grandma’s experience at Sister School would help in such a crisis. 

“Addressing historic trauma is a big piece in recovery (from addiction),” Leoso said. 

“It would help give them a sense of the bigger scheme of things. Many of our young people are hopeless and think this is just the way it is supposed to be. Knowing the history would help them realize that powerlessness and low self-esteem are not part of our identity as Native people.” 

Unfortunately, only one or two social services clients attended the gathering. 

Later that evening I joined several ladies in a community sweat. My relatives did not have the luxury of this ceremony. If they did so, it would have had to have been done in secret. It felt good to pray for them there. 

Before entering the lodge, we danced and briefly faced the darkness, acknowledging the power of the spirits that dwelt there. This recognition was not surrender, however, it was an understanding of the forces, good and bad, that govern us all. Now we could freely practice our spirituality. In the end, it will bring us strength to face the future. 

This work is supported by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and the USC Annenberg/National Journalism Fellowship.