Myself, I’m one of the generations. My mother is one of the generations, wandering out there in alcoholism, and death, and murder, and domestic violence, and thinking there’s no way out. Well, there is a way out… Like I tell my children, my grandchildren, ‘You don’t have to walk that road of alcoholism and drug addiction. I walked that road. I took all those beatings for you guys. You don’t have to walk that road.

–  Verna Bartlett, Ph.D., Native American elder and sexual abuse survivor

Looking back at the past few centuries of America’s westward expansion, we can witness a long history of cataclysmic events inflicted upon generations of American Indians. Our country’s growth was at the expense of the continent’s indigenous peoples who suffered genocide, dislocation, and other unspeakable patterns of violence on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels.

The adverse effects of this history carried down from generation to generation are known as historical trauma. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, widely regarded as the “mother of historical trauma” by Native Americans, describes historical trauma as the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over one’s lifetime and from generation to generation following loss of lives, land and vital aspects of culture.

The descendants of Native People continue today to suffer from massive group trauma across many generations.  This group trauma manifests itself today in myriad ways, from alcoholism and drug addiction, to domestic violence and sexual abuse.[1]

The list of historical traumas is long and painful. First contact with people from Europe caused sometimes as high as 85% of Indian people to die from smallpox, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. These diseases were in fact used as biological warfare to clear the way for foreign communities, plants and animals. Many know of the massacres of Wounded Knee and Sand Creek, but do not know that there were dozens of others. The Cherokee Trail of Tears, for example, forced hundreds to relocate to Indian reservations, which were operated like prison camps by Indian agents.

Federal policies required that children be removed from families and sent to boarding schools where they were systematically belittled and beaten, and sometimes raped and murdered. Prohibiting and perpetuating doubt about Native cultural traditions coincided with a loss of cultural identity. People began to be ashamed to be Indian. This was further exacerbated when the ancient spiritual practices of Indian people were declared illegal, including grieving traditions, songs, and healing practices. Spiritual leaders were frequently banished, imprisoned or murdered. Their sacred pipes, drums and other spiritual bundles were confiscated and burned or put into museums. Tribal terminations, relocation of Native Americans to cities where they lived in poverty, resulted in rampant alcohol abuse and severe mental health and health conditions, especially Type 2 Diabetes.  Research continues to demonstrate that these conditions are co-occurring in many of today’s Native peoples.[2]

Locally, Judy Bluehorse Skelton, Adjunct Professor at Portland State University’s Graduate School of Education is one of many who are helping to heal historical trauma by educating her community, Native and non-Native. Wisdom of the Elders, Inc. (WISDOM) recently recorded her for the Discovering Our Story Project:

Historical trauma is something that goes from generation to generation as opposed to a personal trauma of a shock, or a breakup, or physical illness, or something else that happens in our lives. This historical trauma is very much steeped in a history of people, and a pattern of demoralization, a pattern of disempowerment that is carried out against a people or one group by another.

…the history of the people or our people, whether it’s the Cherokee Trail of Tears (all the tribes have their Trails of Tears, as we know), boarding school experience, or being taken away from parents, or being beaten regularly because that’s what the school or the religious experience for some might have entailed… we look back to a loss of a relationship with the natural world, a loss of a sense of place, of where we belong and we realize that’s connected again to our history as a people, being moved around or being taken from our culture, not doing the songs anymore, not having the traditional foods anymore.

But also the genocide, the violence committed against men and women and children. This history lives on in us. There’s that memory, that physical memory that some have talked about. It lives on at a cellular level – a cellular memory.

Native people manifest stories of internalized ancestral trauma in the personal stories of their life. They demonstrate how trauma continues today to be unintentionally passed down to generations of Native American elders, adults and children who continue to suffer from multiple issues. Although this will continue to be felt for years to come, many Native leaders serve as role models to our people who are beginning to overcome the high rates of addictions, domestic violence, sexual abuse, Type 2 Diabetes, and educational failure within their families.

Yakama elder and educator, Lavina Wilkins:

Lavina Wilkins, an elder, educator and counselor from Washington State’s Yakama Nation, speaks of suffering as a child from early school experiences. Because she was raised and protected by traditional grandparents, she didn’t know how to speak English when she first started school.

Now being raised the way I was raised not speaking English, I started school not speaking English… You talk about trauma. That was really traumatic, because I didn’t know what they would be talking about in the classroom.

And then I was being poked fun of because of how I dressed and because of how my hair was combed and because of the shoes I wore and all of that… And then they would laugh, you know. The kids would be laughing and I’d be laughing right along with them.

My brother finally told me. He understood English some and he told me, “What are you laughing for? Don’t you know they’re laughing at you?”

And that just put a damper on everything. I began not to like school. I didn’t want to be there to be made fun of.  And because I didn’t know what they were talking about, I didn’t know what they were teaching in the school.

Lavina began drinking alcohol at an early age.

And at that time I didn’t realize it, but then I start getting kind of hot headed… I loved to dance modern dance, so I started going to dances. My grandma said no, but yet I sneak out anyways and started drinking. I ended up addicted to alcohol and I traveled a lot, getting out of my family’s sight so they couldn’t see me and what I’m doing.

And during that time too, my sisters both met death because of alcoholism. One of my sisters got crushed between two cars. When she was crushed she left three children, who I inherited because I didn’t have any and I was available… to take care of them. So I had three children at a very young age. Then my other sister had four or five and she drowned down in the Yakima River. She left hers who became mine. In the end, I had eleven children. I raised eleven children as my own, and I’m addicted to alcohol. But all week long I worked two jobs to take care of my children.

Despite her alcoholism, after overcoming a severe bout of depression following the loss of another close relative, Lavina continued raising her children, and went on to college where she received a Master’s degree in education and counseling.

While she was in school, she learned more about the history of her people.

A lot of history… they talk about the war and what our people did. (We) always were doing something terrible. But, a lot of the things our people did were in retaliation during the war for what was done to them. All the raping of our women and children, all the slaughter of our elders, and this was even after the treaty was signed. That was traumatic.

That was their way to get our warriors to give themselves up. It happened on almost every reservation. You know, it was like they would capture wherever the elders where…a village. Or, they would come into a village at a fast pace and start slaughtering everyone in the village, even if the warriors were not there. The elders and the children had nobody to protect them.

Grandmother Wilkins reflects on why domestic violence and sexual abuse became commonplace among a people who had never practiced violence among their families. She learned how the victim became the perpetrator.

You know a lot of this happened from trauma from the past–like the boarding schools.  A lot of our young men, things happened to them in boarding schools that a lot of them would not talk about.  It was never beautiful what happened.  And so they had to take it out on somebody.

Maybe their mothers became alcoholics and left them. And maybe this is why they became like they hated womanhood, whatever the situation. But again, it all points back to trauma that happened to them. They take it out on somebody weaker.

And that’s why I look at our children and I feel they shouldn’t have to go through any of this. All this learned behavior… It’s something that triggers it off.

Lavina sees better days coming for her people because more of the community are recovering and turning to higher education so they can help their community heal. After her 4 year old granddaughter gets older, she plans to go back to school to get her Ph.D.

Haida story keeper, Woodrow Morrison:

Woodrow F. Morrison, Jr. was born of Virginia Elsie Cloud, a Cherokee, and Woodrow F. Morrison, Sr., a Haida. His parents met as a result of his father being sent to an Indian School in California. His father was a well respected Haida elder and spoke the Haida language.

Woodrow Jr. began his training as a history keeper with Haida elders when he was three years old. As a young child he enjoyed the depth of his culture and was inspired to walk the footsteps of his father as a fisherman. His life changed following eighth grade when he was sent to Indian boarding school. His anger grew and rage began to consume him.

The only way that I could survive was to fight all the time. I fought anybody all the time. I was always in trouble. There weren’t always fistfights, but I got kicked out of classes, once because I got in an argument with a teacher… Since it was a Presbyterian school, it was Christian teachings. She said that if you didn’t know Jesus Christ, you were going to hell.

I said, “Well, what about my great grandparents? They never heard about Jesus.”

And she said, “They all probably went to hell.”

And I just went into a rage. I started throwing desks and chairs around.

And I thought, “Is that what love is all about?”

And then I got kicked out of class. Wasn’t too much longer, I got kicked out for something else.

With me, when I got out of school, I went right into the military, and I didn’t get out until I was 25 years old. Well, I started kindergarten when I was 4. So for 21 years, I was institutionalized, and of course I was angry. I mean there was a rage going on in there.

I would lash out and I nearly killed people. I didn’t kill them, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying. There were people that would intercede, and I knew, after the last one, I was absolutely convinced that I will kill the next one.

And fortunately I never turned my anger on my family, in a physical way, but I abused my wife and kids emotionally I guess, psychologically. They were terrified of me and I wanted it to stop and I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was sort of funny in a way, my wife had called me wanting a divorce the night before final exams when I was in Law school…

Over the years, after Woody became a lawyer, he returned to explore his people’s spirituality.

I got invited to go to a sweat. It was a woman who invited me because it was for her birthday. There were a bunch of us and my reason for going to the sweat had nothing to do with spirituality. And I knew what it was going to be. It was going to be dark, and it was going to be hot, and it was going to be sweaty. So this was what went through my mind and I went into that sweat.

And it wasn’t very long before I suddenly saw what I had become. I wanted no part of that and I yelled, “Let me the hell out of here!” and I forced my way out. I wanted no part of that.

It was a couple weeks later, I was convinced. This guy practically twisted my arm to get me in the sweat again, and this was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And I decided, I’m going to face me. It was the first time that I can recall crying since I was a kid. And I was ashamed of myself. And I walked out after four rounds.

This Navajo guy came up and he put his arm around my shoulder and he says, “Congratulations, Woody. Now you’re weak enough to be a man.”

Woody’s anger began to subside. Today, a treasured elder and Haida story keeper, he utilizes his education and culture to help others transform abuses and anger by exploring their own heritage.

The Return to the Sacred Path

All of the elders and storytellers attribute their healing and resilience to their spirituality. Woodrow Morrison was no exception.

I used to pick the biggest guy I could find; maybe I was hoping, this one could kill me. I wasn’t what you would call a good fighter. I was just crazy. I wouldn’t even remember it afterward when the rage was gone.

In the ten years that I tried to figure out how to make that stop, I managed to meet a lot of Elders from a lot of places all across North America, from Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia. It all seemed like we were trying to find the same thing. We were all trying to find our way back.

A man from West Africa said, “You know, you’ve got to stop once in awhile and let your Spirit catch up.”

“Well, how the Hell is my Spirit going to catch up when I don’t know where it is? They cut my head off.”


One day I asked an old, old man—I said how do I find my Spirit?

He said, “It’ll find you.”

And I asked, “How am I going to do that?”

And he said, “Stand on the land that’s your home. Quiet your mind. Just stand there quiet. Pretty soon you’ll feel your Spirit come back.”

And that’s when my healing began, when I could feel that come back again.


The Mother of Historical Trauma

According to Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, widely regarded as the mother of historical trauma, “First is confronting the historical trauma. Second is understanding the trauma. Third is releasing the pain of historical trauma. Fourth is transcending the trauma.”  As exemplified by the stories of Grandmother Wilkins and Woody Morrison, this means we must tell our story and the story of our elders and ancestors.

In our view, community healing along with individual and family healing are necessary to thoroughly address historical unresolved grief and its present manifestations. The process is not quick nor is it easy. However, without such a commitment to healing the past, we will not be able to address the resultant trauma and prevent the continuation of such atrocities in the present. Nor will we be able to provide the positive and healthy community activism needed to stop and prevent the social pathologies of suicide, homicide, domestic violence, child abuse, and alcoholism so prevalent in American Indian communities—as in society at large—today.

The crux of our argument has far reaching implications for other colonized, oppressed peoples throughout history and those being oppressed, as we write, that are obvious to us. Wherever peoples are being decimated and destroyed, subsequent generations will suffer. We need only heed the traditional American Indian wisdom that, in decisions made today, we must consider the impact upon the next seven generations. [3]

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart has given a huge gift to our Native people. While the healing circle is growing to encompass the world, the work of Wisdom of the Elders, Inc. in Portland, Oregon is another example of how Maria’s work is bearing healing fruit for Native communities.

Historical Trauma in Portland, Oregon

Portland has the ninth largest Native American population in the United States according to the U.S. Census, with 19,209 members of one race and 38,926 multiracial self-identified as Native American, representing 380 tribes. The U.S. Census shows Native American poverty rates in Oregon skyrocketing in recent years, from 22 percent in 1999 to 31 percent from 2006 to 2008.

It is no wonder that Portland State University and Coalition of Communities of Color reported in 2010 that Native American children are up to 26 times more likely to end up in foster care than white children in Multnomah County.[4] Additional statistics show urban Native Americans in Portland, Oregon as low-income, living in distressed neighborhoods, and in families headed by a single parent lacking the skills and education to participate fully in today’s economy. As a group, they still enter school with measurably lower social, personal and cognitive development than other children in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Education. American Indians now earn a lower percentage of the state’s college degrees than they did in 1997, according to the Oregon University System.

In response, focus group research was conducted in Portland, Oregon by Native American Rehabilitation Association among their clients. This uncovered instances of historical trauma and consistently high levels of co-occurring substance abuse (alcoholism), mental health (depression), and Type 2 Diabetes.[5]

Compromised behavioral immunity, another devastating consequence of historical trauma, has also been uncovered within Portland’s Native community.  This condition is signaled by an inability to form significant emotional connections with others. It is related to the policy of forcing generations of Indian children into boarding schools which thrust them into a harsh institutional culture contrasting sharply with their traditional family-oriented environment.

Wisdom of the Elders: Healing With The Heroes Journey Story Model

Today, Portland’s Native community is demonstrating increasing cultural resilience and enjoying a renaissance of our diverse cultural heritage. Community leaders are actively and aggressively tackling issues, addressing the impact they have had on generations of Native families, and restoring traditional Native parenting practices.

Research indicates that historical pain becomes even more painful when it seems to be forgotten, trivialized, or denied.[6] This trauma is similar to that of other historically oppressed groups who have experienced “difficulty in mourning a mass grave, the dynamics of collective grief, and the importance of community memorialization.” [7]

With this in mind, Wisdom of the Elders, Inc. (WISDOM) has created a unique multimedia project in response to the discovery of historical trauma for Native American clients and the therapists that serve them. To recover the loss of cultural traditions and family structure across generations, WISDOM has produced the Discovering Our Story Project, and is sharing video-recorded stories of resilient Native Americans like Verna Bartlett, Lavina Wilkins, Woodrow Morrison, Jr. and other exemplary elders and storytellers.[8]

The videos and teachings form a culturally tailored curriculum that fits the unique learning style of Native Americans. Sharing stories is a traditional native practice that provides a vehicle for learning and healing. We know that life is a difficult journey, one that causes some people to become lost along the way. In the video recordings and health and wellness teachings, tribal elders and storytellers reveal how they experienced being “lost,” and they share how they found their way to eventually return to a meaningful life.

On WISDOM’s web pages, Native people learn more about historical trauma, its history, its effects, and most importantly, its treatment. This site, available at no cost to users, presents teachings designed to help re-establish respect and harmony throughout all generations of Native families and communities. These teachings integrate positive identity development with building healthy relationships, encouraging appropriate conduct and skills development, and the restoring of traditional cultural values back into our family relationships. It provides hope for those affected by historical trauma, not just Native people, but all peoples.

As we strive to end violence against all people, we at WISDOM especially focus on those most vulnerable:  women, children, and elders within Native communities. Our Native youth are our future. The Discovering Our Story video productions and lessons being provided at WISDOM’s website over the next three years are being created to help them, their extended families, and others as they re-awaken their identity, remember their own story and create their own career pathway plan.

Today’s Native people, currently experiencing a dynamic cultural renaissance, are demonstrating the potential and resilience to break through historical barriers so they can enjoy a culturally enriched and financially secure life. WISDOM welcomes other communities, survivors and providers interested in healing historical trauma to contact WISDOM at

[1] The Historical Trauma Response Among Natives and Its Relationship with Substance Abuse: A Lakota Illustration, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35 (1), 7-13, 2003.

[2] Crofoot, Thomas L., et al. “Mental Health, Health, and Substance Abuse Service Needs for the Native American Rehabilitation Association Northwest (NARA NW) in the Portland, Oregon Metropolitan Area.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research:  The Journal of the National Center 14.3 (2008).

[3] The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D. and Lemyra M. DeBruyn, Ph.D. Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health 8(2) p.75.

[4] Curry-Stevens, A., Cross-Hemmer, A., & Coalition of Communities of Color (2010). Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile. Portland, OR: Portland State University, 2010.

[5] ATRIAD: The Risk for Alcohol Abuse, Depression and Diabetes Multi-morbidity in the American Indian and Alaska Native Population, AI/ANMHR, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2007), p. 1-21.

[6] Crofoot, Thomas L., et al. “Mental Health, Health, and Substance Abuse Service Needs for the Native American Rehabilitation Association Northwest (NARA NW) in the Portland, Oregon Metropolitan Area.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research:  The Journal of the National Center 14.3 (2008).

[7] The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D. and Lemyra M. DeBruyn, Ph.D. Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health, 8(2) p. 61.

[8] Also supported by grants from National Endowment for the Arts, The Oregon Community Foundation, The Collins Foundation, McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, Spirit Mountain Community Fund, The Charlotte Martin Foundation, O. P. And W. E. Edwards Foundation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, and Wildhorse Foundation. Partners include Native American Rehabilitation Association, Indigenous Ways of Knowing Program at Lewis and Clark College, National Indian Child Welfare Association, Cowlitz Tribal Health Clinic, Northwest Indian Storytellers Association, Westview High School ESL Program, and Roger Burt, Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant.