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Historical Trauma and Cultural Healing

What is historical trauma? How do people and communities experience it? And how can reconnecting to cultural practices help families and communities heal?

Genocide. Slavery. Forced relocation. Destruction of cultural practices.

These experiences, shared by communities, can result in cumulative emotional and psychological wounds that are carried across generations. Researchers and practitioners call this concept historical trauma.

The effects of the traumas inflicted on groups of people because of their race, creed, and ethnicity linger on the souls of their descendants. As a result, many people in these same communities experience higher rates of mental and physical illness, substance abuse, and erosion in families and community structures. The persistent cycle of trauma destroys family and communities and threatens the vibrancy of entire cultures.

Historical trauma is not just about what happened in the past. It's about what's still happening.

Video Discussion Questions

These questions are meant as discussion starters following viewing of the video above. These are not meant as a comprehensive list; rather, they provide a variety of starter questions that facilitators may choose from and, as appropriate, add in additional questions specific to the field in which they work.

In this brief three-part video series, you can learn about:

  1. What is historical trauma? — Historical trauma is “a constellation of characteristics associated with massive cumulative group trauma across generations” (Brave Heart, 1999).

    “These events don’t just target an individual, they target a whole collective community...the trauma is held personally, and can be transmitted over generations. Even family members who do not have a direct experience of the trauma itself can feel the effects generations later”

    — Karina Walters, Ph.D.

  2. How historical trauma is perpetuated today — Microaggressions are everyday experiences of discrimination, racism, and daily hassles that are targeted at individuals from diverse racial and ethnic groups (Evans-Campbell, 2008). Health disparities, substance abuse, and mental illness are all commonly linked to experiences of historical trauma (Miachels, Rousseau, and Yang, 2010).

    “The sign of ultimate oppression working is when the oppressor can take away his hands, stand back and say ‘look at what they’re doing to themselves.’”

    — Jessica Gourneau, Ph.D.

  3. How connection to culture and community can heal the wounds — Reconnecting people to the vibrant strengths of their ancestry and culture, helping people process the grief of past traumas, and creating new historical narratives can have healing effects for those experiencing historical trauma.

    “A lot of what we do is conversation. Contact. Connecting...Whatever is said, we go deeper. Whatever is said we know is only part of what is goes deeper behind the pain...what is it that you cannot say? Can you reach and connect with what I cannot say, what I do not have words for. What I only have songs for, what I only have stories for, what I only have poetry for. Can you reach that?”

    — Elder Atum Azzahir

Learn More About Historical Trauma

Historical Trauma Book List (PDF) — See our book list of relevant texts that explore the complexities of historical trauma from a variety of diverse perspectives.

Historical Trauma Research Article List (PDF) — Research articles that examine historical trauma and cultural healing.

Presentations from researchers and professionals on historical trauma and cultural healing (PDF).

Microaggressions (PDF) — List of books and articles covering the research on microaggressions.

Historical Trauma eReview (PDF) — For more on historical trauma and cultural healing, read CYFC’s children’s mental health eReview.


Brave Heart, M. Y. H. (1999). Gender differences in the historical trauma response among the Lakota. Journal of Health & Social Policy,10(4), 1–21.

Evans-Campbell, T. (2008). Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(3), 316–338.

Michaels, C., Rousseau, R., & Yang, Y. (2010). Historical Trauma and Microaggressions: A Framework for Culturally-Based Practice. Children’s Mental Health eReview, 1–9.

"When you think about healing, do not underestimate your ability to be an agent of change."

— Jessica Gourneau, Ph.D.

Related resources

White Earth Reservation Academy — Program offers culturally relevant science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educational opportunities to White Earth students.

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