An exploration of the transmission of historical trauma in urban Native Americans

Kimberly Walker
School of Professional Psychology, Allian International University, San Francisco Bay
July, 2005


The understanding of the experiences of Urban Native Americans is an important undertaking, as they are over- representative in statistics of suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, unemployment, and income levels (UIN CDC, 1998). It is a fast-growing group of people with more than half of Native Americans living outside of a reservation in an urban environment. The topic is focused on Urban Native Americans because it is this population that has a multitude of risk factors and it is this population in general that will be most likely to participate in mainstream mental health settings. This study aimed to allow the participants to give voice to their individual stories and experiences regarding Native American historical trauma. Furthermore, the participants were divided into the three generation groups (young adult, middle adult, and elder) to illustrate any intergenerational differences in the experience and transmission of historical trauma. Participants were recruited from the Native American Health Center in Oakland, California and via Fifteen participants took part in this study, which utilized a qualitative method. Interview questions were developed by the researcher and based on previous research on historical trauma in Jewish Holocaust survivors as well as conceptual-analytic research on historical trauma in Native Americans. Part A of the interview questions consists of demographic questions, intended to gather a better picture of the participants' backgrounds. The main themes of the questions in Part B include knowledge of history, relationship with the Native American community, relations with their family, and personal effects of historical trauma. In addition, the results of this study reveal that the majority of participants are grappling with the effects of Historical Trauma. Such effects manifest in feelings of anger towards the dominant cultural group, feelings of responsibility towards their cultural group, and feelings of connectedness with their Native American ancestors regardless of connectedness with one's own family. Trauma symptoms in the form of traumatic dream imagery and depressive ideation were reported by the majority of participants despite the majority of participants reported growing up disconnected from their tribal cultures and customs. There was a generational difference in how participants gained knowledge of their history and culture in that all of the participants in the elder group more likely to report gaining knowledge through a family elder. This study revealed that urban Native Americans do experience psychological effects related to historical trauma. It also points to the need for further research regarding historical trauma in Urban Native Americans. Such research would have clearly defined inclusion criteria and having varied recruitment methods.