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«The Lakota (Teton Sioux) historical trauma response is a constellation of fea- tures associated with massive group trauma across generations, such as ...»

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Carrying the Historical Trauma of the Lakota

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart

The Lakota (Teton Sioux) historical trauma response is a constellation of fea-

tures associated with massive group trauma across generations, such as the

1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the removal of children to federal board-

ing schools. Similar traits have been identified among Jewish Holocaust de-

scendants. This article presents both quantitative and qualitative data on the experience of Lakota historical trauma among a coping segment of the popu- lation. The data supported the theory of a Lakota historical trauma response.

Wakiksuyapi. those carrying the historical trauma, can transcend trauma through a collective survivor identity and a commitment to traditionally ori- ented values and healing.

The Lakota (Teton Sioux) historical trauma response is a constella- tion of features associated with massive group trauma across generations, such as the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre (Black Elk & Neihardt, 1932/1972;

Brave Heart, 1998; Brave Heart-Jordan, 1995; Lakota Times, 1990) and the forced removal of children to federal and mission boarding schools (Noreiga, 1992; Tanner, 1982). Similar traits have been identified among Jewish Holo- caust descendants (Fogelman, 1988; Kestenberg, 1990). This article presents qualitative data on the experience of Lakota historical trauma.

The development of a Lakota historical trauma response theory and its features are presented. Imbedded in this discussion is a review of relevant trauma literature. Further, the concept of Wakiksuyapi (Memorial People) is defined. Quantitative data from historical trauma intervention research, which support the theory of a Lakota historical trauma response, are briefly reported.

Next, the qualitative study is described and the findings elucidated. The ar- ticle concludes with recommendations for future research.

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Ph.D., is Director, The Takini Network, and Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, Denver, CO. Inquiries should be addressed to the author at The Takini Network, P.O. Box 4138, Rapid City, SD 57709-4138, e-mail address takininet@aol.com. or (605) 399-2554.

© 2000, Tulane University, School of Social Work 245




Lakota history has been traumatic. Legters (1988), Stannard (1992), and Thornton (1987) detail the genocide perpetrated against Native people.

Tanner (1982) asserts that the United States had no intention of long-term Lakota survival but treaties became more affordable alternatives to war. The policy of genocide is detailed in congressional documents: "[Indians] are to go upon said reservations.... they are to have no alternative but to chose between this policy of the government and extermination" (U.S. Senate Miscellaneous Document cited in Brave Heart, 1998, p. 288).

In 1890, Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull), the personification of traditional Lakota leadership and resistance, was viewed as a threat by government officials. On December 15, 1890, Tatanka Iyotake was assassinated. Several of his survivors and followers fled in fear to join Sitanka (Bigfoot). Sitanka and his band also feared persecution by the cavalry who in fact followed them to Wounded Knee. Here, these hundreds of Lakota were disarmed and then massacred at Wounded Knee Creek on December 29,1890, their bodies thrown into a mass grave (Brave Heart-Jordan, 1995; Lakota Times, 1990; Miller, 1959/1985). This massacre has reverberated through the hearts and minds of Lakota survivors and descendants.

An additional trauma for Native people has been the placement of American Indian children in boarding schools, sometimes over 1,000 miles away from families and tribal communities, under federal policy since 1879 (Brave Heart-Jordan, 1995). Tanner (1982) described the mistreatment of Native children being shackled and chained to bedposts, and beaten in boarding schools. Further, overcrowded and deficient conditions fueled the tuberculosis epidemic from which more than one-third of the Lakota population over one year of age died between 1936 and 1941 (Tanner, 1982). Gradually, many boarding schools were replaced with regular reservation day schools but individuals report boarding school trauma even as late as the 1970s (Brave Heart, 1999a).


As a Lakota immersed in Lakota culture and history, I have been examining generational trauma and its impact for the past 20 years, first as a clinical social worker and more recently as a clinical researcher. Personal cognizance of historical trauma—cumulative wounding across generations—facilitated the development of the theory of a Lakota historical trauma response.

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart 247 Carrying an ancestral legacy of trauma as a lateral descendant of Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull) and a member of the Wapaha Ska tiospaye (White Lance extended family kinship network) who are Wounded Knee descendants, I became conscious of my own unresolved historical trauma in 1978.1 began incorporating this concept in clinical work as well as community training and healing workshops, initially describing this phenomenon as the historical legacy and then intergenerational Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 1988,1 developed the theoretical construct of the historical trauma response, refining my earlier hypotheses. Confirmatory experience among the Lakota and other Native people, in clinical social work practice and community workshops, led to more systematic study of historical trauma and its application in prevention and intervention (Brave Heart-Jordan, 1995; Brave Heart, 1998, 1999a).

The Lakota Historical Trauma Response Features

The Lakota historical trauma response is analogous to the survivor syndrome and survivor's child complex identified among those who endured the Jewish Holocaust, and their progeny (Fogelman, 1988; Kestenberg, 1990;

Niederland, 1988), and similar traits in other trauma survivors and descendants (Lifton 1988; Nagata, 1991; van der Kolk, 1987). Specific features of this historical trauma response include (a) transposition (Kestenberg, 1990) where one lives simultaneously in the past and the present with the ancestral suffering as the main organizing principal in one's life, (b) identification with the dead (Lifton, 1968, 1988) so that one feels psychically (emotionally and psychologically) dead and feels unworthy of living, and (c) maintaining loyalty to and identification with the suffering of deceased ancestors, re-enacting affliction within one's own life (Fogelman, 1988, 1991). Additionally, there is survivor guilt, an ensuing fixation to trauma, reparatory fantasies, and attempts to undo the tragedy of the past.

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 (Eitinger & Strom, 1973;

Keehn, 1980; Sigal & Weinfeld, 1989) as well as among the Lakota (Brave Heart, 1998, 1999b; Brave Heart-Jordan, 1995). Lakota mortality rates for heart disease are almost two times the rate for the general United States population; suicide rates are more than twice the national average (Indian Health Service, 1995). The association of heart disease with PTSD and other psychiatric conditions such as depression has been identified by Hamner (1994) and Shapiro (1996). Current lifespan trauma, superimposed upon a traumatic ancestral past, creates additional challenges for Lakota survivors. The pervasiveness and frequency of traumatic exposure among modern American Indian youth is identified by Jones, Dauphinais, Sack, and Somervell (1997)


248 and Manson, Beals, O'Nell, Piasecki, Bechtold, Keane, and Jones (1996).

The Concept of Wakiksuyapi Traditional Lakota culture encourages maintenance of a connection with the spirit world. Thus, we are predisposed to identification with ancestors from our historical past. Traditional mourning such as cutting the bereaved's hair and body are expressions of a felt loss of part of oneself with the death of a close relative. Grief was impaired due to massive losses across generations and the federal government's prohibition of indigenous practices for mourning resolution. Hence, our impaired grief and our proclivity for connection with the deceased fueled historical unresolved grief, a component of the historical trauma response.

Family members among Jewish Holocaust descendants who shoulder the collective generational trauma of lost ancestors are called "Memorial Candles" (Wardi, 1990/1992). For the Lakota, the closeness of the tiospaye (extended kinship network) and the degree of bereavement may result in Wakiksuyapi or Memorial People, those who carry the grief and whose lives are a testimony to the lost ancestors. Carrying Lakota ancestral trauma may be extended to certain tiwahes (families), tiospayes (extended kinship networks), or even ospayes (bands). For example, following the assassination of Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull), many traumatized Hunkpapa fled to join the Hohwoju who mourned the death as a near relative (Miller, 1959/1985). These Hunkpapa and Hohwoju, led by Sitanka (Bigfoot), were pursued by the cavalry and massacred at Wounded Knee two weeks later. Settlement and intermarriage of many Hunkpapa and Hohwoju survivors among the Oglala have placed these three bands at special risk for unresolved grief and trauma responses. Additionally, other Lakota and Dakota bands, because of their own traumatic histories and intermarriage with the Hunkpapa and Hohwoju, may also carry this particular historical legacy of trauma and unresolved grief. These are the Wakiksuyapi, true to the cultural mores around grief and the connection with the spirit world and shouldering cumulative massive generational trauma.


The Return to the Sacred Path study was a preliminary step in the development of historical trauma theory. Conducted in 1992, this study asserted that the Lakota suffer from impaired grief, a consequence of massive cumulative trauma throughout history. The study examined the effectiveness of a culturally congruent four day psychoeducational intervention designed to initiate grief resolution for a group of 45 Lakota human service providers.

Methodology included assessment at three intervals utilizing a Lakota Grief Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart 249 TABLE 1. Affects Experienced Before and After the Intervention

–  –  –

Experience Questionnaire (GEQ), semantic differential, self-report evaluation, and six week follow-up questionnaire. Data was analyzed using measures of central tendency, frequency, descriptive statistics, paired t-tests, and t-tests for independent samples.

Results confirmed that (a) education about historical trauma would lead to increased awareness of associated affects, and (b) sharing these affects in a traditional context would provide cathartic relief. Participants affirmed the usefulness of the theory of historical trauma in facilitating a healing process (Brave Heart, 1998; Brave Heart-Jordan, 1995). Tables 1 and 2 indicate the reduction in affects over time and significant changes in the Lakota GEQ respectively (see Table 1 and Table 2).


The emotional experiences of trauma survivors has a bearing not only on coping skills but also levels of stress which can result in or exacerbate physical and psychological problems; depression and somatic symptoms are comorbid conditions with PTSD (Brave Heart, 1999; Pribor, Yutzy, Dean, & Wetzel, 1993; Ursano, Griefer, & McCarroll, 1996). A tension in the literature on Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants is the failure of some research to capture the internal affective experiences of survivors and descendants in spite of positive quantitative measures of coping behaviors (Fogelman, 1988;

Solkoff, 1992). In light of this issue, a sample of high functioning individuals, defined in the following section, were selected to participate in a qualitative study that would elaborate affective experiences of Lakota historical trauma, including personal lifespan trauma.

This study was orientational qualitative research (Patton, 1990), one



–  –  –

that was informed by a theoretical framework, which incorporated heuristic and phenomenological features in that (a) the researcher is immersed in the study population, and (b) extensive time was spent with the study participants.

Because of the sensitive nature of the material and the potential for affect intensity, a safe therapeutic environment and sufficient emotional containment were crucial. Consequently, intensive group interviews were conducted over four days for two sessions respectively in the sacred place of origin for the Lakota, Paha Sapa (Black Hills, South Dakota). Further, traditional ceremonies provided culturally congruent emotional containment and catharsis.

For the first session, there were nine participants, five women and four men. At the second session, two years later, there were eight participants and equal gender distribution. Five of the original participants—three men and two women—were present, which provided the phenomenological study opportunity.

Selection and Description of Participants

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