Breaking Free of Historical Trauma – We Must Find a Way

“Collective trauma” happens to large groups of people—who experienced genocide, war, even disasters. Its effects are specific: fear, rage, depression, survivor guilt, and physical responses in the brain and body that can lead to illness and a sense of disconnection or detachment. Collective trauma can be transmitted down generations and throughout communities.” – Lisa Gales Garrigues , a healing consultant in San Francisco.

Another definition:

Cultural trauma is not just at the level of the individual; it’s at the level of culture—which has been damaged, meaning its institutions, cultural practices, values, and beliefs.

Below is a haiku verse, written in 2008 by a Muscogee Creek descendant struggling to put a voice to her ancestors’ loss and grief during the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the southeastern U.S. indigenous tribes in the 1830s.

Winter trees wept

a river of blood

when we were torn

from the land

She explains her inspiration, “I’ve been thinking about the land itself, the rivers and forests that had sheltered and supported and been cared for by the Muscogee. I wonder if the land felt the loss of a people who had spoken the language of the forest and lived in harmony with the earth.”

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is one of the pioneers of applying the concept of historical trauma to native peoples in the Americas. She writes, “Genocide, imprisonment, forced assimilation, and misguided governance have resulted in the loss of culture and identity, alcoholism, poverty, and despair.”

While she was viewing native historical photos in the late 1970s, a deep knowing occurred for her. “It was almost like a light bulb went off in my head, like some kind of spiritual transformation.” She began making connections between indigenous people and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. She came to understand that “historical trauma is the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding across generations, including one’s own lifespan, because everything up to a minute ago is history.”

Statement prepared for the Sitting Bull and Big Foot Memorial Ride in 1990, by a council of elders, dedicated to Chief Sitting Bull:

It is our way to mourn for one year when one of our relations enters the spirit world. The tradition is to wear black while mourning our lost one. Tradition is to not be happy, to not sing and dance, or to enjoy life’s beauty during mourning time. Tradition is to suffer with the memory of our lost one, to give away much of what we own, and to cut our hair short.

Chief Sitting Bull was more than a relation. He represented an entire people, our freedom, our way of life, all that we were, and for a hundred years we as a people have mourned our great leader. We have followed tradition in our mourning. We have not been happy; we have not danced, nor enjoyed life’s beauty or sung as a proud nation. We have suffered remembering our great chief and have given away much of what was ours.

The blackness has been around us for a hundred years. During this time the heartbeat of our people has been weak and our lifestyle has deteriorated to a devastating degree. Our people now suffer from the highest rates of unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, and suicide in the country. – from a video lecture by Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart, Part 1 [starting at 4:19]

Statement from a Lakota Sioux man recovering from drug and alcohol abuse as well as sexual abuse :

“I never bonded with any parental figures in my home. At 7 years old I could be gone for days at a time and no one would look for me. I’ve never been to a boarding school. All of the abuse we talked about happened in my home. If it had happened by strangers, it wouldn’t have been so bad, the sexual abuse, the neglect, then I could blame it all on another race [adding that his parents were boarding school survivors, where all the abuse had been learned.] – from a video lecture by Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart, Part 1 [starting at 5:45]

Brave Heart identifies four necessary steps for healing:

  • Confronting trauma,
  • Understanding it,
  • Releasing the pain,
  • And most importantly, transcendence.

In other words…

We must re-frame our collective experience.

We must let go of victimhood and build a collective resilience.

“The lesson of centuries of torture and millions of human sacrifices, including of my own people, on the altars of extremists and fanatics is not a lesson for exacting revenge. Rather, in the name of those who went through it all and saw the inferno’s flames firsthand, we must prepare the ground for a better world.”  – Israeli author Avraham Burg in The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes

Burg views Israel as a nation formed from the collective trauma of the Holocaust, driven by fear, with the persona of the “battered boy” who unwillingly becomes the abusive father.

Armand Volkas, a psychotherapist whose parents were Holocaust survivors, uses the approach of exploring and owning the “potential perpetrator” in all of us as an important part of the reframing process.

A network of healers called the Kindred Southern Justice Healing Collective, formed after the traumatic events of Hurricane Katrina, choose to celebrate the healing traditions that have kept their ancestors going: song, art, prayer, touch, and community.

“In many cultures, the ancestors continue to play an important part in our lives even after they’ve passed on. Practitioners of Ancestral Healing use psychological and shamanic techniques, energy medicine, and ritual to heal our connections to our ancestors. – from the Healing Collective Trauma website, citing the article “The Importance of Ancestral Connection

“If we were to truly recognize the importance of healing collective trauma, it would reframe and transform our approach to everything, including international economic development, diplomacy, and nation-building. […]We hold collective memory in our bodies, our relationships, and our institutions. These may seem like small gestures when faced with the enormity of collective trauma. But for those who are working toward healing, they are the beginnings of a new social tapestry of respect, understanding, and hope.” – Sousan Abadian, a former fellow at the MIT Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformational Studies

[We heal] “by understanding and disseminating how we understand historical trauma’s impact, how historical trauma has created pain, tremendous pain, and has impacted the lives of us today, our relationships with each other and also how we can repair those relationships together to create a good life with each other. I think when we get more and more people grounded that way, regardless of ethnicity, I think we all begin to create a better world for ourselves. People do it from their spirit, from their heart. They just kind of take care of themselves that way. That’s the first way we model healing historical trauma. “ – Ray Daw, Navajo health administrator

We can remember, we can show honor and even feel pain. But we must then let go of the pain and create a good life with each other…from our spirits, from our hearts.

Lift your voices in song, dance, create from your heart, walk in nature. Bring joy and laughter into the world, not anger and hate. Help us all heal.

***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***


Online article from YES! Magazine: Slave and Slaveholder Descendants Break Free of History’s Trauma—Together, by Lisa Gale Garrigues, posted Aug 02, 2013

Related resources: Healing Collective Trauma website, with links to videos of lectures by Maria Yellowhorse Braveheart (four parts)

Wisdom of the Elders, developing multi-media health and wellness curricula to raise awareness of historical trauma

Haiku from the blog called Inspiraculum by American-born artist Melinda Schwakhofer, of Muscogee (Creek), Austrian and French origin

Featured artwork: Woman Walking, by Diane O’Leary (1939-2013), a Native American multimedia artist, half Irish and half Comanche, who studied at Bacone College, Muskogee, Oklahoma..






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