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Considering Historical Trauma When Working with Native American Children and Families

By Mina Blyly-Strauss, Research assistant - Children, Youth & Family Consortium, Extension Center for Family Development

This post first appeared in Family Matters, the newsletter of the Extension Center for Family Development.

Image: Mina Blyly-Strauss
I came to my CYFC graduate assistant position as an educational professional whose early work was with Native American teenagers. This is a demographic group often noted for some of the largest educational and health disparities in the state of Minnesota. More recently, I have focused on early childhood as a critical time to interrupt cycles of recurring disparities and to start healthy developmental trajectories.

What We Know

Historical trauma has been defined as a "cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences" (Brave Heart, 2007, p. 177). For Native American populations, examples of such massive group trauma experiences have included being pushed off homelands, massacred, and forcibly confined to reservations. Often in collusion with law enforcement and child welfare agencies, children as young as three years old were forced to attend government-sponsored boarding schools where they were separated from familial caregivers for extended periods of time. The goal of these schools was, as Richard Henry Pratt of Carlisle School is often quoted, to "kill the Indian, save the man."

Although today’s Native American children are not directly facing these specific traumatic experiences, researchers are finding that the adverse effects of prior generations’ experiences continue to impact them. For example, higher-than-average infant mortality rates for Native populations are seen as connected to historical trauma through factors such as ongoing distrust of providers, the impact of extreme poverty, and elevated levels of substance abuse (Martin, Rogers & Evans, 2015).

While research that explicitly focuses on the effects of U.S. boarding schools has not yet emerged, Canadian researchers have studied a similar government-sponsored residential school system for First Nations children in that country. Those researchers have found that children of the survivors of residential schools experience increased incidence of learning difficulties, are more likely to repeat a grade in school, and have lower school success overall than First Nations children whose parents did not attend such schools (Bombay, Matheson, & Anisman, 2014).

Where We Can Go

Image: Mina Blyly-Strauss
As historical trauma reverberates across generations, I believe it is incumbent on professionals like myself and many of our readers who work with Native American children and their families to acknowledge this and seek to develop practices that do not continue cycles of traumatization within the institutions in which we work. Authors such as Romero-Little (2011) have pointed out that "...for American Indian/Alaska Native parents and leaders, if schools are to be viewed as beneficial for American Indian/Alaska Native children, they must not be in conflict with a community’s or family’s cultural and linguistic goals and aspirations for their children" (p. 91). This approach to education runs in stark contrast to the philosophy of the boarding schools and differs as well from the way many schools function as places where licensed professionals' values shape what students are exposed to in school and what behaviors are considered signs of deviance or deficit.

In recent years, many Native communities have worked to create Native language revitalization efforts to bring back language that was often beaten out of children in government schools. A return to traditional foods has been advocated for helping to reduce the rate of diabetes. Looking back to cultural wisdom and practices — sometimes referred to as "original instructions" — has also been advocated for helping parents to heal so they may parent in healthier ways. For example, the Wakanheja (meaning "children" in Lakota) program promotes traditional values on the sacredness of children (Brave Heart, 1999). As Native communities regenerate their cultural traditions, I believe it is important that schools and other institutions support these efforts to return to traditional values and practices.

What does all this mean for practice? I suggest that it means reflecting on one’s own values and their origins rather than assuming that they are commonly shared among all people. It means fostering warm and open lines of communication with families and the larger Native community while acknowledging that distrust of systems and those that represent them is well-based in historical experiences — many of them traumatic. It is also important to revisit curriculum, making sure that depictions of Native peoples accurately represent them both historically and contemporarily. As caregivers and/or other community members express concern or offer suggestions, take them seriously regardless of their formal credentials — there are many valued ways of knowing in the world.

Check out CYFC’s  short video series and related resources on the Historical Trauma and Cultural Healing website.
-- Mina Blyly-Strauss,
Research assistant — Children, Youth & Family Consortium
Extension Center for Family Development

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  1. Mina-

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog post on such an important topic. I appreciate your mention of our CYFC videos and related resources, and want to add that we have been using these as a structure for facilitating conversations about historical trauma and cultural healing. We have found that they help organizations, schools, and community groups begin conversations about historical trauma and microaggressions, and explore ways to change their practices in order to promote education and healing.

    Cari Michaels,

    1. Thank you for adding that in there, Cari! Yes, these resources have definitely been helpful in raising awareness and discussion. The discussion questions for each video--located on the Historical Trauma & Cultural Healing Website--were generated by an interdisciplinary group of people and have really seemed to get conversations rolling with groups...


  2. Thank you Mina for your meaningful contribution to the topic and issues around historical trauma for American Indian families and communities. Traumatic events experienced by Native families have left an imprint, and ongoing micro-aggressions continue to contribute to a cycle of disparities for those communities. Initiatives such as the Wakanheja program you reference is a good example of how culturally informed services can improve childhood outcomes. Also, programs and services that consider and incorporate traditional practices into their programming are not only addressing disparities (which sometimes can appear to be a deficit based approach), but also acknowledge that Native people have within them the power to heal themselves. I once heard an elder speak about medicines, he said for example, if you get poison ivy, the medicine/cure for it is within arms reach of poison ivy plant itself. This example reminded me that healing from historical trauma resides within the resiliency of Native people an their communities.

    1. Thank you for emphasizing that point, Jennifer! Cultures definitely have their own pillars of strength and ways of fostering healthy development and healing that have developed over many, many years to allow them to persist and meet the needs of their peoples. Those within a cultural context often are best able to develop processes and solutions that will work with the values, strengths, and needs of their local community. This doesn't mean that those from outside can't support Native children's development and community healing; it does, however, mean that charging in to save the day with an evidence-based curriculum or strategy assessed elsewhere is not the best approach--taking the time to get to understand the community, to listen to those who have insights into the culture, and adjusting or reconfiguring things to meet the local context is very important.

      A caveat here seems appropriate, too, in reminding readers that though single broad terms are used in this discussion such as "Native American" and "American Indian" really this subsumes a great deal of diversity between indigenous tribes living in the area that has politically been defined as the United States. While there may be some similarities in values or language roots between tribes and bands across the country, everything's not universal so specific values on how to best educate and how to bring about healing are likely to differ somewhat.



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