Therapists Must Recognize and Treat Historical Trauma

Donna Ennis

The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that rates of co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse, especially alcohol, are higher among Native Americans, and that the suicide rate among the Native population is 50 percent higher than the national rate. Studies have found rates of depression ranging from 10 to 30 percent higher among Native people.

In light of alarming disparities in suicide, incarceration rates, juvenile detention, alcoholism, etc. we have moved from a call for cultural sensitivity to a demand for cultural competency as it relates to therapeutic services in our Native American communities. Those of us in the helping profession have an ethical and moral obligation to confront individual racism, institutional racism, and white privilege. In therapy we need to explore historical, intergenerational and cultural trauma with our clients and to provide culturally informed practice.

I was recently asked by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers to sit on a panel exploring successful engagement of ethnic minorities. The theory being that dominant-culture helping professionals can learn how to successfully engage ethic minority clients by providing culturally-responsive services. This request gave me opportunity to reflect on best practices for successful cross cultural engagement. What knowledge would be helpful to a practitioner to allow for a more sensitive and competent service?

Foremost I believe a review of Federal US Policies aimed at the extermination of Native people is necessary. In addition, tribal sovereignty and self-determination are terms that require further exploration by dominant culture practitioners.

Boarding schools were the federal government’s first attempt at cultural assimilation. In the late 1800s through the early 1900s, in an attempt to destroy Native culture, thousands of Native youth and children as young as five were placed in schools run by Christian groups and stripped of their language and cultural ways in an attempt to break apart the Native family.

The Dawes Act of 1887 further alienated Native people from their Tribes by encouraging individual land ownership and granting United States citizenship to those who accepted allotted land. The stated objective of the Dawes Act was to stimulate the assimilation of Indians into mainstream American society.

The Office of Indian Affairs was formed out of a necessity to negotiate treaties and was renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been involved in many controversial policies over the years when they served in a supervisory capacity rather than an advisory capacity which is better suited to Tribal sovereignty. Most recently the BIA has been sued over the mismanagement of Indian trust assets.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was enacted to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of Native Americans. The act itself was more of a policy statement but it acknowledged previous infringement on the first amendment right of free exercise of religion for Native people. The major criticism of the AIRFA was its inability to provide religious freedom without conditions.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 is a Federal Law that governs jurisdiction over the removal of Native children from their families. When ICWA has been applied it has resulted in keeping many Native families together however minimal Federal oversight of the implementation of, and compliance with, ICWA has resulted in violations of Native people’s civil rights under ICWA.

Native people have endured physical, emotional, social and spiritual genocide from colonial policy resulting in historical trauma. Practitioners need an understanding of unresolved historical grief. Exposure of previous generations to a traumatic event (boarding schools) continues to effect the subsequent generations and so the intergenerational trauma continues. Racial profiling assaults us on a daily basis resulting in cultural trauma and must be acknowledged in order for healing to occur.

Practitioners must have a strong sense of their own cultural identity, their own values and attitudes before they can help others or they risk engaging in cultural oppression. When a practitioner and a client share the same cultural background, empathy, understanding and the therapeutic relationship is facilitated. For the dominant culture practitioner understanding your client’s racial identity development is important in the therapeutic setting.

Donna Ennis is employed in the Behavioral Health Program and is a Tribal Elder at Fond du Lac Reservation. She is on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Board of Social Work. She is also on the Approved Continuing Education Committee for the Association of Social Work Boards.

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