Dear Auntie, is there truth that historical trauma could be passed down genetically? If so what can we do to heal as Native Americans?
Wow. Excellent question!
Historical trauma is defined as a collective, cumulative emotional wounding across generations, which is a result of some cataclysmic event. The cataclysmic events in the case of Native Americans were genocide, slavery, forced relocation, and destruction of cultural practices. One of the biggest effecting events was the removal of children from their homes to be ‘re-educated’. The programs plan was to exterminate the identity of the indigenous population. This is now widely considered cultural genocide. There were more than 25 off-reservation boarding schools with over 150,000 Native children. At least 4,000 of these children died.
Kids as young as 3-4 years old were forced to attend these schools. They were not parented, allowed to speak their own language, and sometimes encountered torture and brutality if they did anything cultural. They also encountered sexual abuse. Up to 90% in some communities.
As a result, part of this generation did not learn traditional knowledge, or how to relate to each other in traditional ways, how to parent, how to discipline, how to express themselves. What they learned instead were the practices they learned in their schools; harsh physical punishment and militaristic ways of living.
The way trauma works is that an individual can hold on to it personally and this can be passed down through the generations. Even a person who has not experienced the trauma can feel the effects generations later.
Can historical trauma be passed down genetically?
Recent studies on the science behind inter-generational trauma — for instance, between Holocaust survivors and their children — have discovered that trauma can be passed between generations.
There is a theory (called epigenetic inheritance theory) that says environmental factors can affect the genes of future generations. Something that looks like a post-it (chemical tag) is shown to latch onto our DNA, switching genes off and on. Some of these tags could be transferred across generations and could even undergo something called environmental fallout, which could even leave an imprint in utero.
What are the symptoms?
In response to historical trauma, we learn to cope in ways through drugs and alcohol, withdrawal, being numb, or through depression. The result is the further erosion of family and community systems, which leads to more violence and stress. This creates this terrible cycle of unhealthiness.
Now onto the most important part of this question…how do we turn this around?
How can we heal?
First, start with the beauty. Start with what makes us proud to be Native.
Acknowledge and show gratitude to our elders for enduring and preserving our culture in spite of what they went through.
See yourself as part of this cycle. You are part of new generation to carry forward the goodness of our culture. Connect with others. Connect with your culture through your traditions, customs, practices, and most importantly your people. Talk to your elders.
From a science perspective, there is an upside to the genetics part; luckily our genes are like plastic, which means they have the potential to be transformed. Right now we don’t know to what extent, but if there is possibility for change you can be guaranteed that our Native communities, who have persevered through so much, can find a way to resilience through our genes and through our intention to let our tribal communities thrive.
Find your way into the solution. Connect with your community. Use sites like We R Native to uplift, share, and support your Native brothers and sisters.
Take care, Auntie Manda