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A pain passed down through generations is the target of a new nonprofit counseling and education service that its director hopes can help curb such lingering Native American problems as the suicide epidemic among the young.

Historical trauma, a term that refers to past transgressions against ethnic, religious or other minority groups, can be debilitating to the present generation, says Ruby Gibson, director of Freedom Lodge, which recently opened in Rapid City.

“If there are repeated traumas — assaults, deaths, loss of homelands — all the things we know happened to Native people, if all those things are happening continuously or simultaneously, then there’s never any chance to recover," Gibson said. "So it begins to accumulate and create stress. And that stress has finally landed in this generation of our youth.”

After working all over the world in countries suffering from the ravages of war, Gibson has decided to focus her efforts on the Native Americans of South Dakota. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, between 20 and 23 young people have committed suicide in a little more than a year.

The concept of historical trauma was developed to help explain the enduring, multi-generational effects that the Holocaust has had on Jewish people, or that World War II internment camps in the United States have had on Japanese Americans.

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a Lakota who became a social worker, earned a Ph.D. in clinical social work and is now a professor at the University of New Mexico, has written that historical trauma has contributed to ongoing problems experienced by Native Americans.

In a paper published in 2000 by the Tulane University School of Social Work, she wrote about the "traumatic" history of the Lakota, including the Wounded Knee Massacre and the period in which Native American children were taken from families and sent to boarding schools.

Yellow Horse Brave Heart wrote: "Manifestations of the historical trauma response include depression, self-destructive behavior, psychic numbing, poor affect tolerance, anger and elevated mortality rates from suicide and cardiovascular diseases observed among Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants as well as among the Lakota."

"Historical trauma is much larger than one or two incidents," said Cari Michaels an extension educator at the University of Minnesota, where she specializes in children's mental health. "One of the phrases used is 'total cultural erasure.' It’s really about trying to take a way a whole culture’s identity."

Historical trauma, she said, can be kept alive in the form of everyday examples of prejudice and racism.

"Historical trauma is not only about what has happened in the past," Michaels said. "It’s still happening now." 

Whether it’s the still reverberating anguish of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre or the painful memories of the boarding school era, today’s Native youth are bearing a heavy burden of historical trauma, Gibson said.

She said Freedom Lodge will provide free youth suicide-prevention services and historical-trauma counseling sessions to all enrolled tribal members.

But Gibson doesn’t want her service’s reach to end there. Her goal is to educate the educators in Rapid City about how they can integrate trauma awareness into the classroom so young people can recognize and cope with their own historical trauma.

“When you don’t have an ability to say 'yes' or 'no,' when you can’t speak up for yourself and be heard, when someone overpowers you and takes away your dignity and your rights,” Gibson said, “that’s when trauma happens.”

As Gibson sees it, historical trauma inhabits not just the minds but the physical bodies of those who endure it. Those bodies are “walking libraries of experience,” and catalogued in those libraries are the collective stories and life experiences of one’s ancestors.

“A woman is born with all of her eggs,” Gibson said. “So when I was just an egg in my mother’s womb, she was inside my grandmother’s womb … and that can either be a place of safety or a place of fear, a place of nurturing or a place of stress.”

Humans, Gibson said, oscillate between high and low states of rest and hyperactive motion, between the instinct to hunker down and the instinct to fight back. Finding a normal balance between such polar states is key to survival.

The problem with a culture awash in historical trauma is that “normal” doesn’t exist any more.

“A lot of people want to go back,” Gibson said, “to remember the days before our colonization to find our ‘normal,’ to remember who we were when we were free.”

Learning to cope with the collective experiences of an entire culture is an enormous challenge that requires positivity and communal support, Gibson said, things that she hopes the Freedom Lodge can help cultivate.

“Our survival depends on each other, so we’d better stay connected,” Gibson said. “But how do we connect safely? How do we connect in a way that honors each other?”

Located at the Black Hills Historical Trauma Research & Recovery Center in Rapid City, Freedom Lodge is holding an open house gathering from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 10. The address is 809 South Street, Suite 205.

Gibson invites the public to stop by or visit to learn more about historical trauma and Freedom Lodge’s approach to addressing it. 

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Education/County Reporter

Education/county reporter for the Rapid City Journal.