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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

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."

Image: Mina Blyly-Strauss
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 (MartinRogers & 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.


This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of CYFC Monthly. Sign up today to receive  more articles like this and stay in the know about community, Family Development, and University of Minnesota happenings and job opportunities: CYFC Monthly.
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