Trauma not only effects those who directly experience it, but also those in the generations that follow. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart describes historical trauma as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from massive group trauma.”
The span of one generation is not a long time. In fact, an American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) who is over the age of 30 is only one generation removed from the “boarding school era.” During this era, many AI/AN children were removed from their homes, families, and communities and forced to assimilate to the culture and practices of the majority population. These experiences caused a ripple effect of intergenerational trauma throughout Indian Country.
When discussing the effects of this historical trauma, many AI/ANs have been told to “get over it.” However, dismissing what happened does not help these communities move forward. To move forward, this history and its effects on AI/AN communities must be understood. This is not dwelling on the past, but ensuring a brighter future by addressing barriers and creating solutions.
As noted in the White House’s 2014 Native Youth Report, tribes, federal and state programs, and non-profit organizations are creating focused strategies to overcome historical trauma. There is a specific focus on Native youth and supporting their return to cultural traditions, practices, and language. Strengthening ties to community and culture have been successful in promoting behavioral health and supporting recovery.
One way tribes have started addressing historical and cultural trauma is by Gathering of Native Americans (GONA) and Gathering of Alaska Natives (GOAN). GONA and GOAN focus on the underlying reasons causing individuals, families and communities to become at risk for addictions and self-destructive behaviors while recognizing the importance of cultural values, traditions and spirituality in healing.
By reflecting the four levels of life’s teachings – belonging, mastery, interdependence and generosity – GONA and GOAN provide a structure for communities to address healing, and how to develop response plans and strategies. The GONA and GOAN are also important because they confront historical trauma in culturally sensitive and healthy ways that allow for critical prevention planning. More than just a one-time event, they are the start of continuous community efforts.