“Trauma should be viewed as binding that keeps the warrior spirit from moving freely –
a binding that results from the harm caused by 500 years of colonization and
occupation.” — The Roundtable on Native American Trauma-Informed
This page has been created through the 2021 Utah Native American Trauma Academy (UNATA) as a way to distribute information regarding Native American-specific issues and treatments. If there are any additional resources you would like to see added or if a link becomes inactive, email Sara Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here: 2021 UNATA Handouts
Indigenous Historical Trauma and Healing
Indigenous Historical Trauma is the collective experience of multigenerational harm that the descendants feel. The historical trauma experienced by Indigenous Americans is captured in this statement by the US Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): “This population has been exposed to generations of violent colonization, assimilation policies, and general loss” (SAMHSA’s GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation). The suffering endured by indigenous tribal communities has dramatically impacted practices regarding family, children, and relationships, which then go on to likely disrupt communities and lead to higher rates of substance abuse, suicide, and poor health. It has also contributed to a general distrust of outsiders and government actors in Native communities.
It has become increasingly clear that genocidal and historical trauma can have a biological basis. There are two key genes that are methylated or “turned on” with respect to stress: NR3C1 and FKBP5. Stress is perceived through the release of hormones that encourage the development of coping skills. These hormones facilitate communication throughout our bodies via receptor bindings.
Studies suggest that genocide leads to the inactivation of the NR3C1 gene by DNA methyl “silencing,” preventing cells from making the NR3C1 receptor. Since not enough NR3C1 receptors exist to bind glucocorticoid stress hormone, the effect of the stressor lingers in the body (Vukojevic et al., 2014). This directly translates to a reduced ability to cope with stress, fueling the severity of the stress response in survivors of historical trauma.
In recent studies, children of exposed mothers have exhibited higher NR3C1 methylation levels than children of mothers who have not been exposed to genocide (Perroud et al., 2014). These studies demonstrate how historical trauma influences the body’s ability to cope and the continuation of these negative consequences across generations. Indigenous Historical Trauma — paralleling genocidal and racial trauma — grapples with contextual influences on psychosocial and health phenomena to better appreciate the experiences of historically oppressed and socially marginalized communities (Gone et al., 2019). Studies focusing on Indigenous Historical Trauma have found that greater perceptions of historical loss are associated with more depressive symptoms in adults and higher anxiety in adolescents (Armenta, Whitbeck, & Habecker, 2016; Tucker, Wingate, & O’Keefe, 2016; Walls & Whitbeck, 2011).
The good news is that the research is confirming what Indigenous culture has always known: the best way to heal from IHT is a cultural connection to one’s Indigenous roots. While diverse, Indigenous peoples across cultures connect via Indigenous Knowledge (IK). IK is a deep belief in the connectedness of all creation across time and space, with intersections between past, present, and future entities. Indigenous Knowledge guides Native communities toward thriving and informs personal decisions related to health. IK is relevant to designing and implementing health interventions in Native American communities.
IK relies on the senses to focus the mind on nature and on spiritual practices to connect to culture and community. Ceremonies tied to place and the environment and teachings passed down through the generations convey the collectivity of IK. It is based primarily on stories and experiences of an individual gained through careful observation and practice over time. For some, revealed, spiritual knowledge is gained through vision, ritual, and ceremony. IK absorbs contemporary knowledge gained through today’s experiences and problem-solving. IK is part of everyday Indigenous life and provides the foundation for being and becoming a “good human being” (Cajete et al., 2014). These connections correspond with personal responsibilities:
1. to place and the physical world, land, water, plants
2. to all beings, self, family, people, clans, animals
3. to ancestors past and future
4. to the spirit world
Stephen C. v. Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) was a landmark court case where the United States District Court in Arizona ruled in favor of nine Havasupai students that the historical trauma and ACEs children were exposed to both at school and in their lives led to physiological and behavioral changes which qualify as a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The court’s decision deemed it the federal government’s responsibility to meet students’ health and wellness needs including having sufficient teachers, staff, and services.
Reference Guide for Native American Family Preservation Programs discusses Family Preservation Programs such as Financial Literacy, Education Services, Parenting Styles, and Challenges to Stability. https://calswec.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/reference_guide_for_native_american_family_preservation_programs.pdf
Invisible Tribes: Urban Indians and their Health explores the challenges that Urban Native Americans face when trying to access quality health care. https://nativephilanthropy.issuelab.org/resources/9923/9923.pdf
White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (WHIAIANE) and US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) report on a series of listening sessions to hear directly from Native youth, parents, school officials, and tribal communities regarding school environments — the first nationwide effort of its kind. https://sites.ed.gov/whiaiane/files/2015/12/81326-SchoolEnvir.-394-260.pdf
Behavioral Health Services for American Indians and Alaska Natives: For Behavioral Health Service Providers, Administrators, and Supervisors – TIP 61 summarizes substance use and mental illness among American Indians and Alaska Natives and discusses the importance of delivering culturally responsive, evidence-based services to address these behavioral health challenges. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/tip_61_aian_full_document_020419_0.pdf
Mending the Sacred Hoop provides resources on OVW Tribal Programs Technical Assistance, Sexual Assault programs, and Trial Resources. https://mshoop.org/resources/
Intergenerational Trauma and Indigenous Healing: Dr. Evan Adams on the medicine of resilience. https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/visions/indigenous-people-vol11/intergenerational-trauma-and-indigenous-healing
A How-to Handbook on Creating Comprehensive, Integrated Trauma-Informed Initiatives in Native American Communities: Dan Press with the Roundtable on Native American Trauma Informed Initiatives. https://www.12wisdomsteps.com/traditions/native-american/
Cultural Humility Practice Principles from the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute proposes a process of openness, self-awareness, being egoless, and incorporating
self-reflection and critique. https://ncwwi-dms.org/resourcemenu/resource-library/inclusivity-racial-equity/cultural-responsiveness/1415-cultural-humility-practice-principles/file
Culturally Informed Substance Abuse Programs
White Bison has offered healing resources to Native America since 1988. White Bison offers sobriety, recovery, addictions prevention, and wellness/Wellbriety learning resources to the Native American/Alaska Native community nationwide. https://whitebison.org/
Mending Broken Hearts for Youth is a White Bison program to train facilitators who work with youth in a culturally based way of healing from unresolved grief, loss, incomplete relationships, and Intergenerational Trauma. https://whitebison.org/Training/Mending_Broken_Hearts.aspx#:~:text=The%20purpose%20of%20the%20Mending,incomplete%20relationships%20and%20Intergenerational%20Trauma.
Native American Spirituality and the Twelve Steps is an interpretation of the Twelve Step Program that includes the Teachings of the Medicine Wheel, the Cycle of Life, and the Four Laws of Change. https://12wisdomsteps.com/native_american/index.html
Warrior Spirit treats the malady of mind, body, and spirit through the healing of generations while introducing traditional medicine and comprehensive care. https://www.warriorspirit-recovery.com/
Living in 2 Worlds (L2W) Substance Use Prevention Curriculum is a culturally adapted version of keepin’ it REAL (kiR) redesigned for urban American Indian (AI) middle school students. https://sirc.asu.edu/content/living-2-worlds
Culturally-Informed Programs to Reduce Substance Misuse and Promote Mental Health in American Indian and Alaska Native Populations https://www.theathenaforum.org/sites/default/files/public/cultural_approaches_programs_march2018_interactive_1.pdf
Te Ata Thompson Fisher, whose name means “Bearer of the Dawn,” was born Dec. 3, 1895, near Emet, Okla. A citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, Te Ata was an accomplished actor and teller of Native American stories. She is best known for her artistic interpretations of Indian folklore, and her legacy and influence on the Native American storytelling traditions continues to this day. https://youtu.be/fX7E5SEXiKM
Programs for Children
There is clear research that Indigenous children benefit from learning via culturally-inspired storytelling about their original culture, how their culture was upended, and how to re-gain cultural strategies to heal from colonialization and genocide. Recent findings related to improving developmental delays among young Indigenous children, showed storytelling improved educational outcomes; family involvement improved child development; culturally adapted therapy reduced trauma symptoms; and rewards-based teaching improved child attention (Macniven et al. 2020).
The following interventions benefit both Native American kids and staff.
Exercise: According to the California Surgeon General, physical activity improves memory, attention, cognition, academic achievement, psychosocial functioning; for example, a child who has experienced ACEs and is hyper-aroused and hypervigilant at school may be more activated by perceived threats and have trouble sitting still. Brief physical activity breaks may help the
child release the excess energy and regulate the threat-response system. Recess and playtime during school benefits students’ memory, attention, and concentration and reduces disruptive behavior in the classroom, while improving social-emotional development. Brain breaks give the brain new stimuli to regain focus. Recess and play can take place inside or outside but are
enhanced in the presence of nature. Tumbling and kinetic play helps build and heal the brain and the body.
Nutrition: Fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains decrease inflammation and improve health. Cooking traditional foods that integrate fruit, vegetables, fish, or whole grains can help children connect to their ethnic identities while increasing overall health and wellbeing. Leah’s Pantry is an organization that has numerous budget-aware recipes from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Leah’s Pantry also provides information on trauma-informed nutrition security principles.
Mindfulness: Using the senses and mind-focus decreases arousal and promotes coping and resilience. Games, art, and skills-building activities to focus the senses and the mind can help kids to notice, attend to and regulate their own emotions and express themselves pro-socially.
Nature: Interacting with nature, in places such as school playgrounds and other outdoor spaces, improves outcomes associated with toxic stress. According to the California Surgeon General, access to natural environments decreases diabetes, depression, heart rate and blood pressure, heart disease, and mortality. By directly calming the stress response system, as well as by increasing healthy behaviors such as physical activity, mindfulness, and relational health, nature is good medicine.
Community: The people around us that provide compassion, safety, nurturance, and support turn the experience of a stressor into tolerable stress, rather than toxic stress. They are our buffers in times of need. Community-based resources provide stability to families in good and challenging times.
Sleep: Sleep improves child mood, emotional behavioral regulation, mother’s self-reported mood, school readiness, and literacy outcomes (especially when reading is part of the bedtime routine). Enhancing sleep hygiene and quality is effective in buffering toxic stress, which is also critical for effective learning. Improving sleep requires a consistent bedtime routine. Bedtime routines can include feeding (for infants and children), bath, massage, reading books, rocking, prayer, singing, and listening to music.
Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)
ICWA requires state courts to consider the relationships that Indian children have with their extended tribal family and Native community. According to federal data, American Indian and Alaska Native children have the highest rate of kinship care (AKA living with relatives) among the different populations in foster care. This outcome is due to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 (Lovett & Xue, 2018)
Many experts consider ICWA practices to be superior to the traditional child welfare approach and it is currently best practice to consider the cultural context of all children involved in child welfare. Because evidence shows that ICWA’s framework achieves better outcomes for children, Congress encourages state child welfare frameworks to look more like ICWA to the benefit of all children. Placing value on familial and community ties makes a difference in the well-being of children (James-Brown, 2020)
To improve the implementation of ICWA and provide a more systemic structure, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provided additional federal guidance in 2016 entitled Guidelines for State Courts in Indian Child Custody Proceedings. These are non-legally binding and were the first revisions since 1979. Soon after, the first-ever comprehensive federal regulations addressing ICWA implementation for state courts and public and private agencies became effective. These regulations provide clarification of many of the key requirements under ICWA and are legally binding. There is an increase in structure in NICWA in recent years and NICWA could benefit from additional clarity.
As of 2020, the NICWA website contains specific information on grievance policies and the history of NICWA in the United States. NICWA acknowledges that many Native children today face many of the same issues as when ICWA was enacted. Applying a trauma-informed lens to ICWA in Mendocino County may increase ICWA’s ability to protect Native children and reduce the placement of Native children outside of their families and communities.
The Gathering of Native Americans (GONA) is an almost four-decade-old proven model to assist communities to heal from the lasting impacts of colonization. Historical and intergenerational trauma is at the root of hopelessness and healing is the answer to trauma. The GONA follows four developmental phases and values of Belonging, Mastery, Interdependence, and Generosity.
The Indian Child and Preservation Program provides a wide variety of services from projects to get involved with, ICWA support, supervised visitation, training, consultations, cultural services, and more. Visit https://www.icfpp.net/services
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