Historical Trauma


 Historical trauma is the accumulative emotional and psychological pain over an individual’s lifespan and across generations as the result of massive group trauma (Yellow-Horse Brave Heart, 1995). Historical trauma can have varied effects on individuals and populations that may include: unsettled trauma or grief, depression, high mortality, increase of alcohol abuse, child abuse and domestic violence. Examples of historical trauma have been observed among Lakota and other American Indian populations, and Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants (Brave Heart, 2000).


The historical trauma of Alaska Natives is closely related to external events impacting them over hundreds of years; however, the underpinnings of historical trauma predate back to the ethnocentric stance of the Russians and the missionaries. The holocaust (defined as an act of great destruction and loss of life) experienced by the cultural groups of Alaska Native peoples has resulted in trauma that has been handed down to the next generations (Ball, 1998; Brave Heart, & Cashin, 2000; Duran & Duran, 1995).

Many older Alaska Natives grew up in a time when the basic foundation of the social life that bonds the Alaska Native culture and communities together was damaged. Many believe that the soul and the psyche of generations of Alaska Native peoples have inherited the pain, loss, and frustration of their ancestors. As a result of loss of cultural patterns, identities, relationships, and unresolved massive psychic traumas, many Alaska Natives are experiencing chronic social problems today. This phenomena is referred to as historical trauma and is defined as cumulative emotional and psychological wounding both over a life span and across generations, resulting from massive group catastrophes (Yellow-Horse Brave Heart, 1995).

Alaska Native cultural arrangements and patterns, including language, values, ethics, and beliefs, were severely challenged by the Western missionaries and educators. Alaska Natives lost the right to speak their languages, sing their songs, learn from contact with Elder knowledge, connect with nature, bond with their community, and pursue their traditional means of survival. Art, ceremonial objects, ceremonies, prayer, and healings were forbidden and condemned and as a result many traditional practices were lost as a living part of Alaska Native culture forever.

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Russian Exploration

The Russians came to Alaska with the goal of exploring the land, reaping the benefits of the wealth of the land and later, to “civilize” the Alaskan Native population. The missionary period was also undertaken with the goal of “civilizing” the Alaska Native population. This period of change in the history of Alaska resulted in incalculable damage to the Alaska Native population.

The Russian era lasted for two to three hundred years in Alaska, with the first Russian ship arriving in Alaska in 1762. The Russian explorers and fur traders were sometimes harsh and abusive in their treatment of the Alaska Native people. The abuse by the Russians against the Aleut, Koniag, Chugach, and Tanaina Indians during the 18th and 19th centuries in Alaska greatly diminished the population of these groups. The loss of population was caused by murder, drowning, disease, and starvation (Fortuine, 1989; Freeman, 2000; Haycox, 2000; Napolean, 1991; Weaver, 1988).

Families were broken up and permanently dispersed. During this period, Native women were raped and forcibly taken as concubines. Aleut and Koniag women began killing their babies in the womb or starving them at birth to spare them the abuse by the Russians.

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Missionary Era

The historical trauma experienced by Alaska Natives is not only related to the Russian exploration, fur trade, and occupation. The missionary era in Alaska is also central to the occurrence of historical trauma of Alaska Native people. Alaska became part of the United States in 1867 with the missionary effort beginning in the 1870s.

Alaska Native culture was further eroded by the well-intentioned but ill-conceived actions of the missionaries (Hinkley, 1961; Stewart, 1908). The missionaries arrived after having divided up Native populations to determine which denomination would control which geographical region. Although documentation of the strategic gathering of Reverend Sheldon Jackson along with the representatives of the five leading denominations in New York City is limited, Field (1895) stated the following of the meeting:

…a small affair in outward appearance…only three secretaries and Sheldon Jackson…bending over the little table on which Sheldon Jackson has spread out a map of Alaska … the allotment was made in perfect harmony. As the Presbyterians had been first to enter Southeastern Alaska, all agreed that they should retain it, untroubled by intrusion. By the same rule, the Episcopalians were to keep the Valley of the Yukon, where the Church of England…had planted its missions forty years before. The Island of Kadiak… was a generous portion for the Baptist brethren; while to the Methodist were assigned the Aleutian and Shumagin Islands.The Moravians were to pitch their tents in the interior…the Congregationalists mounted higher the Cape Prince of Wales…the Presbyterians went to Point Barrow…

The missionaries came to Alaska (approximately 1885-1886) with the goal of civilizing the Alaskan Native population at a time when their weakened state (due to the recent losses due to murder, drowning, disease, and starvation) proved to be fertile ground for missionaries’ endeavor. The goal of civilization can be viewed as the loss of everything that identifies a group of people: language, food, style of clothing, spiritual belief system, economy, family patterns, art, and traditional dance and song (Fortuine, 1989; Haycox, 2000; Hinkley, 1961; Jacobs, 1995; Napoleon, 1991; Ritter, 1993; Stewart, 1908; Thorton, 1984; Weaver & Postman, 1988.)

Alaska Native peoples were forced by negative circumstances to turn their children over to the missionaries for education and instruction. Children were removed from their home in favor of missionary schools and boarding schools. While in the missionary schools, boarding schools and boarding homes, children were allowed only limited contact with their families and were told their traditional ways were in opposition to the modern Christian teachings (Fortuine, 1992; Napoleon, 1991). Those who attempted to practice traditional ways or to speak their language were sometimes severely punished and shamed, which seriously challenged or damaged their identity.

The missionaries and priests told the Alaska Native people that their spirit world and their spiritual practices were Satanist and these beliefs and practices aligned them with the devil as envisioned by the Western religious doctrine. As a result, many of the traditional ceremonies, songs, dances, and languages of Alaska Native people vanished (Freeman, 1965; Fortuine, 1992; Napoleon, 1991; Ritter, 1993; Weaver & Postman, 1988). The children grew up without the wisdom of their culture and began to feel ashamed of their parents and themselves.

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Disease Epidemics

Epidemics of small pox, measles and influenza decimated the Native population in the early 1900s. These viruses were exceedingly contagious and spread rapidly through the Native population that had no prior immunity and no natural defenses. The small pox epidemic of 1835-1840 and the influenza and measles epidemic of 1900 caused such destruction that no other event in recorded history comes close to the damage to the people affected. Death, social disintegration, desertion of traditional housing and anguish resulted in such overwhelming individual, family, community, and cultural catastrophe that the effects are still being experienced today.

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Cultural Devastation

The cultural devastation by illness, depletion of natural food stock, discredit of traditional religion, language and Native roles, resulted inhistorical trauma. The social issues currently facing Alaska Natives today can be traced to the devastation of culture. Substance abuse, diabetes, suicide, family disruption, community and interpersonal violence, and mental health issues Alaska Natives are experiencing are directly linked to the cultural turmoil experienced by their ancestors (Fortuine, 1992; Freeman, 1965; Haycox, 2000; Napoleon, 1991; Weaver & Postman, 1988) DeVries (1996) explained that when cultural patterns, cultural identities and relationships are lost, existence becomes erratic because culture helps protect against depression and aggression. The problems of the individual are proportional to the cultural disintegration experienced by the group.

Native people lost many of their sacred spiritual beliefs and traditions when their Elders died and many of the survivors decided not to talk about the horror they had experienced. Alcohol was introduced to Natives during this time period by Russian traders and whalers and later during the American period by sailors on trading ships and miners. During this period in the history of Alaska, the majority of Russians and Americans engaged in binge drinking and Alaska Natives followed their pattern of drinking. The experience of having their cultural world decimated left Alaska Native peoples in a state of shock, vulnerability and disbelief (Fortuine, 1992; Haycox, 2000; Ritter, 1993; Weaver & Postman, 1988). The abuse of alcohol may have become a way to numb the pain and loss Alaska Native people were experiencing.

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Current Social Disparities

Currently, Alaska Native families continue to experience extreme social disparities such as poverty, poor housing, and underemployment or unemployment, which can cause severe trauma reactions in families over time. Table 2 presents contemporary historical events beginning with the 1950’s to present day. Socioeconomic disadvantage causes fatigue, irritability, and illnesses while jeopardizing security and well-being. Over time, social inequalities can lead to an obstruction of intellectual development despite the complete lack of evidence of an organic deficit related to learning. Social structural trauma generated by assaults to social structure produce demoralizing and long-enduring effects across generations (Kira, 2001).

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Effect of Military Events

Military events such as WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm and Iraq War have implications for health care and long term care for aging Vets in Alaska. PTSD from WWII vets, Korean Conflict, and those Vets that were in their late teens or early 20s in Vietnam are getting close to be designated as Elders. There are Vietnam Vets in many parts of rural Alaska that are still dealing with PTSD. The families of these Vets have also suffered with their Vets and there have been a number of suicides. Some lower 48 groups have formed Warrior Societies that honor their Vets and this has helped those with PTSD. While Vets living in urban areas in Alaska receive adequate care, rural Alaska Native Vets do not have access to specialized care.

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