Scars of Historical Trauma Still Felt by Native Americans

Many of us grew up learning the catchy tune about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. It shows up in elementary schools across America. What we may not have learned was what happened to the indigenous people who had been living for thousands of generations on the land that Columbus “discovered.”

How many of us, for example, learned about “removal,” the U.S. government policy to force Indians from their ancestral homes? Or that Native American children were routinely (legally) removed from their parents and placed in boarding schools or “foster” homes of white people, where their cultural identities were systematically erased in the name of assimilation? What about the government-sanctioned program that forcibly sterilized a quarter of Native women, right up until 1976?

These historical atrocities are the truth of our past.  Shelby Rowe, a Chickasaw Native American, recounted them and more at the Vermont Suicide Prevention Symposium last month. Her talk, “A Social Justice Perspective on Suicide Prevention” shone a light on the generational trauma Native Americans have endured. Our nation’s coming-to-terms with the breadth of these traumas may be part of a long-overdue reckoning with the past.

“The scars of wounds inflicted generations ago are still felt today,” says Alex Karambelas, project director for COVID Support VT. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an opportunity to reflect on how systemic racism impacts Native Americans today. How can our individual actions help bring about change?”

Mental Health Impact on Indigenous Peoples

American Indians and Alaska Natives have higher rates of mental health symptoms compared with other U.S. ethnic groups. In addition, Native American youth die by suicide at far higher rates than other groups. These disparities reflect socioeconomic factors linked to generational poverty, which is in turn rooted in systemic inequities. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of inequality, as growing up in poverty contributes to poor health, physical and mentally. 

Ancestry and environment interplay in complex ways to mediate an individual’s risk for mental and physical health disorders. Scientists call these conditions “social determinants of health,” which essentially means your circumstances matter to your health. The impact of “historical trauma” on life-long health is only beginning to be recognized. 

“The cumulative emotional trauma spanning generations of American Indian and Alaska Natives—also known as historical trauma—continues to affect behavioral health and wellness among families and Tribes.”

~ Child Welfare Information Gateway; Mental Health and American Indian and Alaska Native Communities

Challenging Stereotypes of Native Americans

These generational effects on Native families can show up as mental health challenges, substance use, and economic hardship. This feeds perceptions of Native Americans as “homeless, suicidal, and alcoholic,” Chickasaw Nation’s Rowe said at the suicide symposium. She challenged those stereotypes. “It’s not what’s wrong with us but what happened to us, and what is still happening to us,” she said. Native American children who survived the boarding schools show trauma similar to Holocaust survivors. “It’s not culture; it’s historical trauma.”

Rowe says it’s time to tell a different story, a story that recognizes that Native culture and community has endured, despite the white man’s efforts to erase it. A story of survival.  

“We’re still here. We are not the problem to be solved. Maybe we are the answers to be discovered.”

~ Shelby Rowe, Chickasaw Native, Suicide Survivor

Covid’s Effect on Indigenous Populations 

As with other marginalized groups, the Covid pandemic has disproportionately affected indigenous populations across the country. According to the CDC, American Indians and Alaska Natives have infection rates more than 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic whites. They are also more than four times as likely to be hospitalized as a result of Covid, and have higher rates of mortality at younger ages than non-Hispanic whites. 

Vermont’s health department lumps Native Americans into “other races” in its statistics, making it difficult to gauge the true impact of Covid on the Abenaki community here. Generally, the rate of Covid infections in BIPOC Vermonters (Black, indigenous, and people of color) is about triple the rate in non-Hispanic whites. 

UVM Features Dawnland Documentary on Indigenous Atrocities

Vermont was among the first states to officially change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The state legislature passed the bill in 2019 to recognize the “history, cultural, and contemporary significance of the indigenous peoples of the lands that later became known as the Americas, including Vermont.” The state is the ancestral home of the Abenaki Nation, part of the larger Wabanaki Confederacy that stretches all the way to the Eastern seaboard in Maine. Vermont’s Abenaki were among those subjected to state-sanctioned forced sterilization as part of the state’s eugenics research from the 1920s until 1957. 

This year, UVM is marking Indigenous Peoples’ Day with a community discussion with Aaron York (Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation) and a virtual screening of Dawnland. (Wabanaki means Dawn Land, a reference to the Tribal lands’ location on the easternmost part of North America, where the light of dawn reaches the continent first.) The Dawnland documentary tells the story of Native American children systematically forced by government agents from their homes and placed with white families, a practice that continued for most of the 20th century. Join here

Learn More and Find Resources

Join the “Dawnland” film screening and panel discussion at the UVM Center for Cultural Studies on Oct. 12, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Read Unlearning Columbus Day Myths: Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, from the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum.

Read Rethinking How We Celebrate American History—Indigenous Peoples’ Day, from Smithsonian Magazine.

For an overview of the Abenaki experience in Vermont, read As Abenaki Bills Pass, A Look at Where Vermont’s Indigenous Tribes Stand from Heady Vermont.

Visit the National Museum of the American Indian to learn more about the culture and history of Native Americans.For an overview of the mental health impact on Native Americans, read Native and Indigenous Communities and Mental Health from Mental Health America.

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Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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