Native American Behavioral Health Conference Puts Spotlight on Historical Trauma

April 25, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Dr. Don Warne speaks at Wakanyeja: A Conference on American Indian Behavioral Health. The event was sponsored by the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Center for Great Plans Studies at the University of Nebraska. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Leaders from across the Midwest gathered Wednesday in Omaha for a conference focused on American Indian behavioral health. Several speakers focused on the role of historical trauma in the lives of Native Americans now.

The conference began with music and prayer, bringing the group together. The topic was broad –behavioral health can encompass a lot of things, from family structure to substance use to suicide.

Ruby Gibson is the executive director of Freedom Lodge, a historical trauma recovery organization in Rapid City, South Dakota. She says many behavioral health factors can be traced to something called epigenetics.

“The DNA is like a train, right. It connects you to your ancestors. The payload that that train carries is epigenetics. ‘Epi’ simply means ‘on top of,’ so it’s what the genes carry, but it influences our belief systems, our cultural values, our creativity, our maternal instincts. All sorts of things like that,” Gibson said.

For Native American people, epigenetics means people today carry not only their own trauma and stresses, but effects from trauma their parents and grandparents experienced. Gibson works to help people better understand that inheritance.

“So we look at the ways in which our grandparents –the epigenetic information that was passed forward. Because you can’t change your DNA, but you can change your epigenetics,” Gibson said.

The idea that more than physical traits are passed through generations makes the role of parenting even more important. Gibson says that’s where work can be done to help change behavioral health outcomes.

“Being able to influence the birth givers, or the prospective parents, especially the mothers, how to nurture, and take care of their children, is a really important part of it because it’s been so, that process has been so disrupted by boarding schools, and family separation, and loss of culture,” Gibson said.

Boarding schools were a recurring topic in discussions of historical trauma. Native American children were taken away from their parents and forbidden from speaking their native languages.

Dr. Don Warne is the director of Indians into Medicine at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“There is a long-term intergeneration impact of boarding schools, and in fairness not everybody had a bad experience with boarding schools, but many of our people did, and my own mother is a survivor of boarding schools, and so we have many of our people still today who’ve seen these things first hand and understand the impact of what this had on many of our people,” Warne said.

Warne says acknowledging history is important in understanding its impact. For instance, before contact with Europeans, he estimates there were 20 million Native American people in North and South America.

“By 1900 our population had dipped below 200,000. From over 5 million in what is now the United States, to below 200,000. So almost a complete genocide. So what is the long-term impact of this? How do we link these historical issues to current chronic disease disparities and behavioral health disparities? The first step is let’s be honest about this. Let’s be honest about the truth of history,” Warne said.

Warne also talked about the lasting impact of the Food Distribution on Indian Reservations program.

“On the right that’s a large container of pure corn syrup that they used to distribute, and if you look on the label it says ‘use in your baby formula.’ What is the epigenetic impact of toxic food generation after generation on our people? That’s another question we need to answer. And we know, even the microbiome, our normal bacteria in our gut, has an impact even on behavioral health, even on mood and how we feel,” Warne said.

To learn more about behavioral health issues, more research has to be done.

Melissa Walls is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School at Duluth. She says there is mistrust in Native American communities around research.

“So the Barrow, Alaska, study just briefly led to a community in Alaska, an Alaska Native community, becoming so stigmatized that it was economically hurt by the label of being a ‘drunken village’ basically,” Walls said.

Walls emphasized the importance of not just measuring negative factors in native communities. Researchers often look at what are called “negative childhood experiences,” things like physical abuse or the death of a family member.

“There’s this other really cool measure out there called benevolent childhood experiences, and they’re things like ‘when you were growing up, did you have at least one caregiver you felt safe with?’ Did you have beliefs that gave you comfort? Did you have good neighbors?’ The punchline here is that about 83% of our participants report at least 7 of these 8 benevolent childhood experiences,” Walls said.

Like adverse experiences, Walls says those positive things in childhood show lasting effects in adults.

“Even accounting for adult good things, like having a positive family and receiving social support, those positive child experiences have lingering effects as well. They’re hanging on to promoting flourishing status for these Ojibwe adults,” Walls said.

Attendees and speakers alike spoke of their own children and a hope that they can make a better life for people that come after them.