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American Indian Students Experience Historical Trauma

Since the 1998 Adverse Childhood study, other causes of childhood trauma have been identified by researchers at SAMHSA, Centers for Disease, and the National Institute for mental. These include natural disasters, poverty, divorce, separation of children from their families, living in a violent neighborhood, racial discrimination—and historical trauma, where the physiological effects of trauma have been passed from generation to generation, first recognized among Holocaust survivors and since recognized in American Indians and other communities of color.

Brave Heart and Debruyn (1998) utilized the literature on Jewish Holocaust survivors and their decedents and pioneered the concept of historical trauma. The current problems facing American Indians may be the result of “a legacy of chronic trauma and unresolved grief across generations” enacted on them by the dominant European culture (Brave Heart & DeBruyn, 1998, p. 60). The primary feature of historical trauma is that the trauma is transferred to subsequent generations through biological, psychological, environmental, and social means, resulting in a cross-generational cycle of trauma (Sotero, 2006).

The theory of historical trauma was developed to explain the current problems facing many American Indians. This theory purports that some American Indians are experiencing historical loss symptoms (e.g., depression, substance dependence, diabetes, dysfunctional parenting, unemployment) as a result of the cross-generational transmission of trauma from historical losses (e.g., loss of population, land, and culture). The theory of historical trauma has been considered clinically applicable to American Indian individuals by counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists (Brave Heart, Chase, Elkins, & Altschul, 2011; Goodkind, LaNoue, Lee, Freeland, & Freund, 2012; Myhra, 2011).

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, trauma-sensitive schools create safety—physical, social, and emotional—for students who may have experienced trauma. In a trauma-sensitive school, as defined by the NASP, all school personnel are trained to recognize and respond to the impacts of trauma. Discipline is a positive and productive process. The schools have access to mental health professionals and a wide range of services. Moreover, they recognize that helping traumatized children thrive is a community-wide challenge and responsibility.

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your school community gain an understanding of one’s sense of self, as well as developing an understanding of students’ values; having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown that it is linked to better well-being, less stress, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed.

Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally responsive practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a dynamic learning environment that honors your student community, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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