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Addressing historical and childhood trauma: Why native people across the country are gathering in San Diego in October



Children, in what should be the safety of their homes, experience trauma, and it is ruining lives -- and perhaps entire ethnic groups.

Childhood trauma actually alters the structure of the brain – a result of consistent toxic stress, which is why it’s so difficult to heal an individual and help them attain a healthy life.

Dr. Anthony Pico

The science that was the springboard for making those linkages began with a now famous Adverse Childhood Experiences study of over 17,000 participants conducted by Dr. Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente, San Diego. It revealed that 60 percent of middle America was suffering from childhood trauma.  The study was inclusive of 75 percent Caucasians, 95 percent gainfully employed, 75 percent attended college, the average age was 54, and was evenly divided between men and women.

The research identified 10 childhood experiences that are now officially referred to by the mental health community as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). They include emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect, exposure to domestic violence, the loss of a parent, or a parent who is incarcerated, growing up in a household with alcohol or drug-addicted parents, and having a family member who is mentally ill.  

If a child experiences four or more of ACEs, the risk of adult alcoholism is increased by 7.4 times, drug abuse by 10.4 times, suicide attempts by 12.3 times, as well as higher risks for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and chronic lung disease, and living 20 fewer years than someone who did not suffer childhood trauma.

“Adverse Childhood Experiences are the greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today,” declared Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

While researchers involved in the study were shocked and surprised by the high percentage of childhood trauma symptoms threatening the health of older, white, middle class Americans, I can tell you from experience, it’s reached epidemic levels among Native Americans.   

I was working with a community program to heal alcohol and drug addictions among American Indians – generally without great success, when I heard about ACES and was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Felitti.  A quick survey of the federal statistics on Indians helped me connect the dots to so many of the problems occurring on reservations.  If the idea that 60 percent of middle Americans are permanently scarred by 10 key adverse events in their childhood is distressing, consider that my people have the highest incidence of conditions that cause childhood trauma. 

In fact, we are so far off the charts,  we surpass every other ethnic group.

Briefly, American Indians have the highest incidence of substance abuse, and depression.  Tribal communities have the highest school dropouts at 37 percent, and the lowest percentage of college attendance. We have the highest death rates from homicide, suicides, unintentional accidents and injuries.  Of our young people that die between the ages of 10-20 years, 75 percent die from homicide and suicide. There’s a report of child abuse and neglect for every 30 American Indian and Alaska Native child.  Seventy-five percent of  the U.S. Attorney’s caseloads are American Indian sexual abuse cases.

We are overrepresented in the foster care system, and underrepresented in the health care system, our children compromise one percent of the population, but two percent of the population in foster care.  Thirteen percent of Native households are drug dependent and 40 percent are single parent families, Native American women suffer the highest rate of violent incidences – 50 percent higher than that of black males.  Our incarceration rate is 37 percent, with three out of every young person in jail, on probation or with other legal complications.

The question I asked myself was why American Indians have the worst survival, health and social statistics in this country?  And how does this legacy impact our elders, our communities and families as our children and youth grow into adulthood?

No poverty isn’t the cause but a symptom. No, low educational and job performance rates aren’t the cause, but the symptoms. No, the high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction are not the cause, but symptoms. No poor diets and obesity are not the problem, but the symptoms. The inability to heal our communities, despite better economic conditions for some tribes, is not the cause, but the symptom.

What I learned was that we need to educate our communities about parenting and ACES.  We need trauma-impacted programs to end the cycle of pain passed from generation to generation.  That is why we are coming together and asking our communities across the country to join us for the "Calling Upon the Warrior Spirit to Heal Historical Trauma Conference and Ceremony" in San Diego October 8-10th. (Please see details below.)

We also must seek trauma-informed therapy, if we want to actually address the physical and emotionally related deaths, as well as the social and biological and, intergenerational transfer of trauma that stalks our reservations.  And finally, Western medicine, without the indigenous perspective, will not be successful in treating Native communities.

ACES findings are not new to tribal elders.  They go further to the roots of the “soul wound” hanging over our heads, like the Sword of Damocles.  New studies are supporting something called Historical Trauma -- the transfer of trauma related disease through the DNA of groups whose ancestors have experienced extreme traumatic circumstances.  Examples are the children of the Jewish holocaust, African Americans torn from their cultures, families and lives and forced into slavery, and American Indians.  This research is called epigenetics and, I believe, offers the answer to why so many of my people, have such difficult and painful lives today.

I am not an expert on all forms of trauma, or other ethnic groups that may have inherited the legacy of trauma from their ancestors.  But, I can speak to Historical Trauma of American Indians.

It is defined as having three phases.  The first is when a dominant culture perpetuates mass traumas on a population, resulting in destruction of the culture, family, society, and economic devastation of the people. The second occurs when that first generation responds with trauma of a biological, (ethnogeny or genetic transference) societal and psychological nature. The third phase is when the trauma is conveyed to successive generations through epigenetics, environmental, emotional and psychological factors, as well as continued prejudice and discrimination.

In searching for the answer to why our Native communities continue to suffer from trauma related illnesses, we need only to look back upon the last few centuries of westward expansion by Europeans. We witness a long history of cataclysmic events inflicted upon generations of American Indians from genocide, dislocation, and other unspeakable patterns of violence on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. It's a deep festering and unhealed wound that continues to cripple and kill our people.

As Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, known as the mother of the impact of Historical Trauma on Native Americans, explained, “Historical Trauma is the cumulative emotional and physciological wounding over one’s lifetime passed from generation to generation, following loss of lives, land and vital aspects of culture. Sadly, as parents and grandparents we pass our depressions, addictions, poor parenting skills, and social malfunctioning as individuals and communities onto our children.”

Many social and mental health therapists dealing with trauma-related prognoses, have come to believe, along with American Indian elders and spiritual leaders, that a solution has two parts: Part modern medical treatments and therapies that are trauma sensitive and ethnically responsible. The other half of the treatment is for American Indians to seek our cultural roots and grounding in the form of the wisdom and traditional healing practices of our ancestors. 

Just as the genetic makeup that transfers the trauma DNA, it may be that the same generational transfer includes a resilience gene – the stuff of survival.  We have survived and now we are searching through science and our ancestors for means to healthy lives, families and communities.

Please join us for “Calling upon the Warrior Spirit, Inspired by the Creator to Heal Historical Trauma among Native Americans through Indigenous Wisdom.”  The event will be held Oct 8-10, on the Viejas Reservation San Diego, CA,, and will feature over 17 presentations of trauma related therapists, focused on treatments from the Native American perspective, as well as elders, youth panels, a Sweat Lodge and Ceremonial Circles. 

Dr Felitti, who has led the way in research on childhood trauma and its impact on adults, will be the keynote speaker.

For Hotel registration call 619.659.2444.

Anthony Pico, PhD. is the chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians



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