With a master’s degree in clinical social work, I have learned how to assess mental health symptoms and form a diagnosis. I’ve learned about terms such as “historical trauma” and “intergenerational trauma,” and what those terms mean in a clinical setting. I also know the history of the near genocide of Native Americans in our state and country.

However, learning terms and diagnoses does not compare to what I learn working with Native American families who are struggling through the most personal and painful situations — witnessing how their life circumstances can be directly tied to the historical trauma they have endured. It is hard for me to put into words how significantly I have seen trauma permeate the lives of our Native American brothers and sisters.

My work as a social worker in the Indian Child Welfare Act division of child protection involves developing case plans with families, working on goals to address safety concerns, and giving referrals to outside providers such as mental and chemical health specialists. I most frequently encounter post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder.

The families I work with have acute need. Increasingly, I realize that the solutions our European-based clinical training offers is a band-aid on the issues. 

Terms as distancing mechanism

Frankly, I don’t like the term “historical trauma.”
It does attempt to explain the rape of sacred people
and their culture. But my concern is that the term
distances us from the reality and impact of what
our white culture has done. “Historical” implies
there is not a “present” to the impact. Putting a
label on it enables us to put it in a metaphorical
box, over there.

Yet a Native American who is over the age of
30 is only one generation removed from the
boarding school era. That was the white culture’s
practice, from 1819 to 1978, of removing Native
American children from their homes to “civilize”
them in boarding schools and in homes with
white families. What are we doing to address that
unresolved grief?

While I might refer a mom, dad, or child to seek
help for mental health symptoms, my concern is
that the system I work in — the professionals I
defer to and society as a whole — is not prepared
to fully, truly acknowledge the pervasive impact of
historical trauma on Native American people.

The statistics we see over and over again show
that Native American families suffer the most
disparity in education, foster care placement of
their children, socio-economic status, suicide,
health care, and life expectancy. This is disturbing
to me.

I believe this is due to the deep-seated denial
of our white culture about what we have done
to others, ongoing systemic discrimination, a
false belief that reparations have been made,
the idea that mental health issues are solely the
responsibility of the individual to change, and the
Western-centric view that we know the best way to
heal an individual.

It’s not working.

If a parent I work with, for example, is suffering
from combined mental health symptoms and
chronic chemical dependency, she or he will most
likely be asked to participate in treatment that
most often looks like a 30- to 90-day stay in an
inpatient treatment facility. The parent is expected
to maintain ongoing stability and sobriety with
little support. But what is being done to address
and heal the communal sense of loss due to
generations of persecution, oppression and

In mental health, the emphasis remains focused
on individual causes and solutions, even though
trauma has been transferred through generations
and is not individually based.

Native American communities suffered traumas
that were systemic in nature — massacres, Trail of
Tears, large-scale removal of children. I believe
the systemic trauma has never ceased. It has
simply changed how it looks over time — the
current opioid epidemic ravaging through the
Native American community, the corporate white
supremacy of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A gap I see is a lack of funding to support
and increase culturally specific educational
ways of teaching, and resources that offer Native
families traditional methods of healing and a
sense of community ownership. From a clinical
perspective, I also see a lack of empirically
demonstrated treatment methods to address the
unique needs of Native American clients.

Despite all these inadequacies in our current
system, I find hope and strength from the families
and communities I work with. Resilience is not
easy, but there are Native elders, grandmothers,
mothers, and daughters who are stepping up and
stepping out every day to meet the challenges head
on. And thus, so shall I.