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'Historical Trauma' Follows Generations Of Native Peoples

Students gather outside the Stewart Indian School near Carson City in 1905.

Students gather outside the Stewart Indian School near Carson City in 1905.

For hundreds of years, indigenous people in this country have suffered through violence, misguided government policies, disease, and the theft of their ancestral lands. 

The discovery of unmarked graves at former Indian boarding schools in Canada and the United States — including one near Carson City — highlights the toll those policies have had on native communities.    

What psychologists now know is: the mental toll of that legacy carries on through generations. They call it historical trauma.

The term is used to "describe the psychological and social impact of collective traumas on the indigenous population, and the intergenerational transmission of adverse health effects stemming from those traumas," said Arella Trustman, a Walker River Paiute tribe member who is trained in psychology.

She said the recent discoveries of mass graves on the campuses of former Indian schools in Canada and the United States, including Nevada, can cause psychological harm even after all this time.

“Indigenous spirituality universally holds the value that those who have passed on still live within us,” she said. “The trauma of ancestors is a part of the individual's soul identity; this idea is also referred to as blood memory.”

Trustman said the issue deserves federal attention — and dollars — to assist “these individuals who are living within what people call a wounded community.”

“They need to make programs for cultural revitalization and put money into research such as that on historical trauma into Indian health services so that people can have equity in health care,” she said.

Arella Trustman, Walker River Paiute member, studies historical trauma

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.