The impact of slavery and of unequal treatment based on skin color or ancestry was and continues to be painful. It caused trauma to those who were treated badly, those who participated in hurting others directly or through exclusionary practices, and those who witnessed people being hurt. If left unhealed, trauma is destructive to both the individual and the community. It impacts people on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and spiritual levels. Finding ways to face trauma and work toward healing is important. Otherwise, trigger reactions, including acting out or retreating, will continue to get in the way of building a healthy community and instead the hurt will get passed to the next generation.
Trauma, historical trauma and trauma healing are all key concepts to understand when referring to healing from historical harms. Traumatic events are those that overwhelm the rational brain’s ability to respond. When the rational brain is overwhelmed, the brainstem or reptilian brain takes over. Humans are designed this way to respond to threat. When in a dangerous situation, the time in takes to reason, reflect and consider take up valuable time when there’s a need to flee, freeze or fight back in order to survive. Under ideal circumstances, when the person is out of danger, there is an opportunity for the body to shake, sweat, or sob out the trauma energy that was required for the quick response. In these cases, people go back to normal functioning. However, when there are not opportunities to get to safety and shake off the energy or when the threat is on-going, people can became what is called “traumatized.” This is when normal trauma responses become habitual and reminders of the incident inhibit rational brain functioning. There are even times when small events lead up to an event that can become overwhelming – the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. What further complicates the situation is that humans are meaning making beings and physical release is not always all that’s needed in a healing process. There are often needs for understanding what happened and why as well as needs for justice and vindication that are an important part of the healing process.
A different kind of response, but with similar traumatic impact, is when someone engages in hurting other human beings. It damages one’s sense of what it means to be human and humane. It diminishes one’s ability to feel and connect with other human beings. Similar trauma responses for victims of trauma are experienced by people who perpetrate trauma. Those who witness overwhelming incidents and participate in systems that are unjust and harmful to people can also experience trauma responses. In some cases, those who witness traumatic events can also feel overwhelmed in their inability to respond in a helpful way.
Historic trauma is defined by Marie Yellow Horse Brave Heart as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.” The system of enslavement was a massive group trauma, and everyone who was touched by it was affected in some way. The movement across generations happens in a number of ways. One way people experience unhealed trauma is in their bodies. A number of health problems can be passed between generations. Studies of epigenetics identifies a companion structure to the genome that passes information to the genome. It is the epigenome that is influenced by environmental factors and like genes is also passed from generation to generation. Illness related to the stress of trauma can be passed from generation to generation. Attitudes and emotions are also passed from generation to generation. This transfer happen through direct communication of words and actions. Even if parents don’t talk with their children about these attitudes or fears, they are evident through body language, tension and unwillingness to talk about certain topics. Many of the fears and attitudes that are being passed down don’t even relate to the carrier’s lived experience. What was once a rational response to an overwhelming situation may no longer be a rational response, but the overwhelm or trauma remains. Physical and emotional abuse are other ways that trauma is passed down. The abuse is someone’s trauma reaction that they act out on someone else. Although the initial cause may be gone (the original abuser may be gone), the harm is renewed from generation to generation. This can be described as cycles of victimhood and violence, when those who are victimized turn to violence and victimize someone else. What exacerbates historical trauma is on-going trauma and stress that exist in communities where discrimination and disparities make everyday life difficult.
Healing Wounds Practices:
In order to address the legacies and aftermaths of historical harm, gaining awareness about trauma is important. Education can help people identify patterns of trauma and responses to trauma in their own lives and the lives of family members and the community. Without understanding it, it is difficult to address. Support groups (both same-identity and multi-identity) can help people begin to tell their stories about traumatic experiences and trauma responses that have been passed down. Through telling ones own story and hearing others, people are able to acknowledge what is wrong. This is a key first step in healing. Rituals related to acknowledgement of the past can be important in making the connections between past and present and understanding where some of the harms originated. There are different ways to grieve that people find helpful in working through trauma – writing, painting, drawing and sharing feelings with someone who is trusted are all possibilities. Physical activity is helpful especially right after a traumatic incident – dance, running and other forms of physical expression that engage the right and left side of the brain can be help. Personal experience connecting with someone from the other side of a difficult history can be healing if the interaction supports mutual expression of humanity. Creating new narratives of triumph over trauma can help in the healing process as long as acknowledgement has taken place. Finally, taking action in the present to deal with on-going harms so they do not continue to hurt people is one of the most important aspects of healing from historical harm.