Native American Activism and Historical Trauma: Using Political Praxis as Psychological Healing



The purpose of this study was to analyze the intersections of politics and psychology by examining the way Native Americans use land and education activism to heal psychologically from the effects of historical trauma. Its scope was to underline how important it is to not divorce psychology from its political and cultural context. The study operationalizes historical trauma using the findings of Whitbeck et al. (2004) and Brave Heart, Duran, and Duran (1998). In the study, I examined the way Native American activists articulate historical trauma in their motivations through different case studies which draw on activist movements since the 1960’s. I then analyze Native American activism in light of the political liberation theories of Paulo Freire and Alschuler’s psychopolitics of liberation. This study concludes that Native Americans use political praxis in a two-pronged method: goal-oriented and process-oriented, and that the processes used are employed to alleviate the psychological suffering of historical trauma.


When examining the effects of war, colonialism, and violence, it is not enough to focus on the material issues that come out of them; it is essential to prevent psychology from being divorced from its political contexts. The negative psychological effects of legacies of violence are also an extreme result, just as loss of life and loss of basic needs are. Not only can victims of prolonged violence be subjected to trauma first-hand, but generations can suffer the effects of trauma for centuries to come. The prime example of this is historical trauma, and in particular Native American historical trauma. Though historical trauma was originally studied in Holocaust survivor descendants, Native Americans are one cultural group which has been enduring the extreme psychological effects of violence from European colonizers. Native American mental health is a pressing issue central to improving the situation of Native Americans, especially considering that Native Americans are twice as likely to die before reaching 24 years of age compared to any other race in the United States, often due to suicide (Horwitz, 2014). Ultimately, historical trauma needs to be addressed, and one way to do so is to study its causes and the way it is articulated in activism.

Many Native Americans continue to suffer intergenerational trauma passed down from their ancestors, and many have been mobilizing to mitigate and collectively heal from its effects through political activism. Though Native Americans have been cognizant of the existence of historical trauma in themselves and their communities for centuries, the 1960’s saw the advent of organized and systematic activism not only to achieve civil and political rights, but also to serve as a process of healing. Native American activism is emblematic of the growing focus on psychology in politics and the way the two meaningfully intersect. This thesis aims to explore the articulation of historical trauma in Native American activism and examine it from a lens of political psychology, contemplating the intersections of psychology, anthropology, and politics and analyzing political action as a process of psychological healing.

This thesis will begin by laying out the basis of the studies of historical trauma and political psychology which are relevant to Native American historical trauma. Following that, I will explain the methodology behind choosing the case studies and why I chose to focus on land and education activism; I will also explain the confounding variables necessary to consider in studying Native American historical trauma. Part I will examine the study of historical trauma more thoroughly and explain political psychology more in depth. The section will also examine politics of liberation and the way political liberation intersects with psychological healing. This will be followed by Part II and Part III which examine cases of Native American activism since the 1960’s in the realms of land and education, focusing on the articulation of historical trauma within the motivations and first-hand accounts of activists. Finally, in my conclusion I will examine the case studies in a lens of political liberation and pose questions for further study.

             Literature Review

Beyond the spread of infectious diseases and genocide of indigenous American populations, one of colonialism’s legacies in the present-day United States is historical trauma in Native Americans. Since the arrival of Europeans on North American soil, Native Americans have waged both violent and nonviolent campaigns against colonialism and the United States government in efforts to regain autonomy and independence. The 1960’s and 70’s in the United States saw a sharp rise in political activism, in particular Native American activism. To what extent has historical trauma been articulated in Native American activism since the 1960’s? That is one question this thesis aims to answer. In order to answer this question, it is necessary to review the literature on historical trauma, from the evolution of its research, its different methodologies, probable causes for trauma transference, and exploration of its existence in Native American communities.

             The Meaning of Historical Trauma

In order to study the phenomenon of historical trauma and its existence within the United States, it is important to clarify what exactly historical trauma is. Historical trauma is trauma which is passed down through generations; in other words, it is the phenomenon in which trauma and symptoms of trauma are experienced by descendants of victims of trauma (Brave Heart & Debruyn, 1998). Alternately, a person who experienced trauma inherited from previous generations has not experienced the traumatic events themselves, but their mind and body react as if they had (Hill et al., 2010); (Whitbeck et al., 2004). Because of this transmission of trauma, historical trauma differs from other psychological disturbances. It can be experienced in singular cases (such as in the case of domestic abuse) or it can be experienced in groups of people subjected to war, genocide, and other acts of violence (Whitbeck et al., 2004). In the case of Native Americans, the historical trauma many communities experience has evolved from the traumatic experiences of loss of land, loss of cultural stability, and more, which will be examined later in this section and sections to come (Brave Heart & Debruyn, 1998); (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

Historical trauma has only been extensively studied in the past twenty to thirty years because it is derived from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which was not officially labeled or considered a psychological disorder until it was studied in American Vietnam War veterans. The concept of historical trauma was predominantly developed by Brave Heart and Debruyn (1998) through the analysis of survivors and descendants of the Holocaust. As an offspring of PTSD, historical trauma is also referred to as Intergenerational PTSD (I-PTSD) among other names such as intergenerational trauma, transgenerational trauma, and postcolonial psychology. These terms are used almost interchangeably, though this thesis will refer to the psychological phenomenon as historical trauma for the sake of continuity and because it is the most common term that which is used in studies referring to the Native American experience.

Before being studied in Native American groups, transmission of trauma was studied as a group phenomenon in descendants of Holocaust survivors and in the families of Vietnam War veterans. The conceptualization of historical trauma has its roots in Holocaust “survivor syndrome,” with symptoms originally thought of as being those of “denial, depersonalization, isolation, somatization, memory loss, agitation, anxiety, guilt, depression, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, psychic numbing, and survivor guilt,” as early as the late 1960’s (Whitbeck et al., 2004, 3). It was assumed these symptoms led to parenting inefficacy which induced the development of psychological difficulties in the next generation; when studied, however, this theory of transmission had mixed empirical results (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

In the research aimed at exploring Holocaust-related historical trauma, the main focus has been on the second generation, termed memorial candles (Kahane-Nissenbaum, 2003). Memorial candle children have often been treated as scapegoats who inherently adopted their parents’ burdens of the Holocaust, and parents often tried to reconstruct their senses of self through their children (Kahane-Nissenbaum, 2003). The children ultimately served as symbols of their parents’ Holocaust loss and trauma (Kahane-Nissenbaum, 2003). These memorial candle children have been found to experience “transmitted guilt, anger, mistrust, and feelings of marginality,” forming the basis of their transmitted trauma (Kahane-Nissenbaum, 2003, 6). In addition to these experiences, first generation offspring have also been described as having difficulties with affect expression, depression, feelings of otherness, overdependence, and feelings of being impaired by their parents’ losses and experiences (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

This generation of Holocaust survivor descendants acted as the first basis of historical trauma study, and most studies have worked off of this conceptualization for other groups, including Native Americans (Jackson, 2006). That being said, there are many differences between the historical trauma of Holocaust survivor descendants and Native Americans: the same losses associated with Native American historical trauma are also associated with current Native American mental health issues whereas this is not the case for descendants of Holocaust survivors today (Jackson, 2006). This in fact provides confounding variables in research which will be discussed later on.

Brave Heart, Duran, and Duran, some of the first scholars who studied the soul wound of Native American historical trauma, referred to the effects of historical trauma on Native Americans as the “colonization of the life world” caused by European colonization which influenced the collective ‘mind’ of Native Americans (Brave Heart, Duran, & Duran, 1998, 2). Though many tribes had acknowledged the existence of the soul wound in their respective realities, “Native Americans and the Trauma of History” by Duran, Duran, and Brave Heart constituted one of the first scholarly works on Native American historical trauma. According to the researchers, the colonization and subjugation of Native Americans consisted of a cultural genocide which is an enduring process; this process, according to Duran, Duran, and Brave Heart, is kept alive through acculturative stress — the mental disequilibrium and anxiety caused by the modification and subsequent adaptation of Native American culture to colonization and forced assimilation (Duran, Duran, & Brave Heart, 1998). This acculturative stress that furthers historical trauma is thought to play a very significant role in not only psychological problems for Native Americans, but also in physical and social issues of individuals and communities (Duran, Duran, & Brave Heart, 1998).

             Political Psychology

Often when one considers oppressed groups and populations subjected to conflict, the most publicized issues are those of base necessity: loss of shelter, famine, lack of water, and of course, death toll. But one of the most serious consequences of oppression and conflict is the psychological toll it wages (Lakshminaranyana & Murphy, 2006). In fact, the World Health Organization issued a resolution in January of 2006 advocating “support for implementation of programmes to repair the psychological damage of war, conflict and natural disasters” (World Health Organization, 2006). It is not a coincidence that the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arose through the study of trauma experienced by Vietnam veterans, the same disorder which paved the way for the study of historical trauma itself, as previously mentioned (Lakshminaranyana & Murphy, 2006). The Native American trauma of history and its articulation in Native American activism is emblematic of the intersections between political science, anthropology, and psychology.

In recent years, a new field has been opening up: political psychology. Political psychology engages what is known about human psychology to understanding politics, and it draws from mainly social and cognitive psychology, but also from abnormal and developmental psychology (Huddy, Sears, & Levy, 2013). Political psychology primarily aims to understand why humans behave the way they do in political contexts, both on an individual level, such as in voter preferences and emotions, as well as on a group level, through the examination of group behavior, cultural identity, and political violence (Huddy, Sears, and Levy, 2013). Though a young field of academic study, it has a vast breadth because of the large number of topics in politics which can be analyzed from and researched with a psychological perspective (Erisen, 2012).

As a field, political psychology arose through the study of mass behavior and political leadership, and it was later broadened to include political movements (Erisen, 2012). Today, political psychologists “want to understand the black-box of the human mind” within the realm of political science (Erisen, 2012). Initially, the field relied on personality and psychoanalysis initiated by Sigmund Freud, but since then the field has moved towards behaviorist learning theories and social cognition as well (Erisen, 2012). Though much of political psychology focuses on individual decision-making of political elites, there has also been research conducted on analyzing trauma through political psychology (Erisen, 2012). In Part I, theories of political psychology will be examined more in depth, with a particular emphasis on the psychology at play in political liberation.


In this section I will operationalize historical loss and explain how I will be using historical loss to examine the way Native American activists and community organizers have articulated historical trauma in the discussion of their motivations and approaches to activism. Also discussed in this section will be the rationale in studying land and education activism in lieu of other types of activism. This section will explain the confounding variables which affect and limit historical trauma research in the Native American context. Finally, I will explain my method of analyzing Native American historical trauma and activism through a political psychology approach.

             Measuring Historical Trauma: Problems and Prospects

Though different research methods have been used in measuring historical trauma, this thesis will be drawing from recent qualitative research used with Native American communities. One study which has been especially important in laying the groundwork for measuring Native American historical trauma is “Conceptualizing and Measuring Historical Trauma Among American Indian People” by Whitbeck, Adams, Hoyt, and Chen (2004). This study is fundamental to the measurement of Native American historical trauma, and since its publication, it has been cited by 311 other works on the topic. Not only is this study relevant in the evaluation of historical trauma, it also gives insight into what parts of historical loss are most significant and present in the minds of Native Americans today.

In the Whitbeck et al. study, focus groups were conducted with Native American elders on two different American Indian reservations in the Midwest region of the United States. The groups were composed of tribal elders 55 years old or older and consisted of three meetings, two on one reservation and one on the other. One of the purposes of this study was to determine what kind of losses are associated with historical trauma and to determine what emotions these losses were evoked in the elders. The results of the focus groups were divided into a dual approach using two scales: a Historical Loss Scale and a Historical Loss Associated Symptoms Scale (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

The Historical Loss Scale is divided into type of loss and frequency of each loss in the thought process of the elders, represented by how often the losses came up in conversation. The scale was created using the number of times the topic of loss came up in discussion during a focus group; in order for an item to be included on the scale, it would have to have been mentioned at least twice. The items had to have been approved by all tribal elders that took part in the study as being relevant in order to be included in the scale (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

The losses found and cited in the Historical Loss Scale were loss of land, loss of language, loss of spiritual tradition, loss of family ties (due to boarding schools), loss of families (due to government resettlement and relocation to different reservations), diminished self-respect (due to negative treatment by officials), loss of trust in white people because of broken treaties, loss of culture, alcoholism-related losses, loss of young people’s respect for tribal elders, losses due to early death, and decreased young people’s respect for tradition (Whitbeck et al., 2004). As enumerated in the scale, the study also measured the percentage of elders who experienced each loss daily, several times a day, and weekly to determine which losses were thought of most frequently by a significant number of the elders. The study found that the majority of the parent generation of the two reservations had thoughts regarding historical trauma at least occasionally and one third of them had thoughts related to historical loss at least on a daily basis (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

The second scale composed by the study to measure historical trauma among Native Americans is the Historical Loss Associated Symptoms Scale. This scale focuses on the emotions associated with the historical losses cited in the Historical Loss Scale, and through this second measurement the study identified that most of the items associated with historical loss had emotional connotations. This scale was measured simply by asking the focus groups, “I would like to ask you about how you feel when you think about these losses,” (Whitbeck et al., 2004, 10). The purpose of creating this scale was in order to “determine the extent to which the respondent would associate emotional distress directly to historical losses,” (Whitbeck et al., 2004, 10). In other words, instead of simply focusing on correlations between psychological malaise and historical losses, the experimenters also decided to create a distinction between the types of emotions these historical losses elicited (Whitbeck et al., 2004). Following a similar structure as the Historical Loss Scale, the associated symptoms scale also noted the frequency of the feelings, as respondents were asked whether they experienced these emotional responses always, often, sometimes, seldom, or never.

Two major themes emerged out of the feelings associated with historical loss: depression and anger. Emotional responses were frequent feelings of sadness or depression, frequent anger, rage, lack of sleep, lack of concentration, shame whilst thinking about the losses, feelings of isolation while thinking about the losses, distrust of White people, discomfort around white people while thinking about the losses, frequent anxiety, feeling like events associated with historical losses are happening again, experiencing intrusive thoughts about the losses, and wanting to avoid places or people that elicit thoughts of the losses (Whitbeck et al., 2004). Out of these denoted symptoms, the study notes the most frequent emotional responses were those of sadness/depression, discomfort/distrust around White people, anger, and intrusive thoughts (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

Though large proportions of the focus group respondents at least occasionally experienced emotional responses to historical loss, it is important to note that for certain emotional responses in the scale, there was a larger proportion of respondents who rarely or never experienced them (i.e., loss of sleep, rage, feeling like events associated with historical losses are happening again, and wanting to avoid places or people that elicit thoughts of the losses) (Whitbeck et al., 2004). In other words, for certain emotional responses more respondents did not experience emotional responses than those who did. Overall, however, as long as the emotional responses were experienced at least occasionally by some respondents, they are still important emotional effects of historical trauma.

The losses and symptoms delineated by this study are pertinent to this thesis as they are often explored and verbalized by activists as motivations for taking action. The analysis of Native American activist narratives in the past 60 years can be traced back to the historical losses analyzed by Whitbeck et al. (2004), even though the study is much more recent than most of the activism that will be examined throughout this text. Native American activism has taken many forms: peaceful, armed, environmental, language-preserving, etc., and each tribe and organization has taken a different path, but one thread that has been weaved through the motivations of activists has been the trauma of history, and in particular, the losses and symptoms interpreted by the study.

When coding for language used by Native American activism throughout my own study, the symptoms and losses detailed by the Whitbeck et al. study (2004) were used. In other words, when determining whether or not activists in a particular movement were motivated by their desire to exonerate their people from the effects of colonialism and the psychological pain of historical trauma, the narratives and statements were examined against the focus group results. While it is true that focus groups tend to lack external validity and it is not possible to equate the experiences of one group of tribal elders to the experiences of all Native Americans, this and other ethnographic studies give clearer and more tangible insight into how historical trauma is experienced by Native Americans rather than the way historical trauma is generally experienced.

When examining the conveyance of historical trauma in activism narratives, it is important to refer back to qualitative research conducted with Native American populations. This research, such as the one conducted by Whitbeck et al. (2004), gives relevant information for measuring which events and losses are associated with historical trauma and the emotional responses tied to them. This thesis will use the historical loss items as enumerated by the Whitbeck et al. (2004) study as parameters for the role historical trauma plays in the motivations and action taken by Native American activists. I will use historical losses and associated symptoms to examine the psychology of liberation Native American activists use to heal through praxis, tying together the psychological experience with the process of activism used by Native Americans. Studying the articulation of historical trauma in activism will provide insight into understanding the importance of persistent psychological illness as an effect of political conflict and what makes Native American activism so special.

             Confounding Variables and Contemporary Implications for Research

Despite efficient ethnographic research on the topic, Native American historical trauma is hard to measure primarily because Native Americans today are still suffering from much contemporary trauma. Due to the similarities between the types of trauma Native Americans have been experiencing, historical trauma is often found to be weaved in between contemporary soul wounds. For example, PTSD suffered generations ago due to parental alcoholism is also common to today’s generation of Native Americans (Jackson, 2006). In a recent study done on Native American women in primary care, 29% of the sample were experiencing PTSD and 62.8% had an anxiety disorder (Duran et al., 2004). Overall, many Native Americans today suffer from a variety of mental illnesses and substance abuse which can cause implications for research.

According to the Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, four psychopathological structures have been identified by psychologists in Native Americans: soul loss, spirit intrusion, taboo breaking, and ghost sickness (Jackson, 2006). Soul loss refers to withdrawal symptoms, preoccupation with death, and fainting spells, and is similar to ghost sickness, which consists of nightmares and preoccupation with death. Spirit intrusion instead refers to psychosomatic disturbances tied to belief that one is under the effects of a spirit. Finally, taboo breaking is weight and sleep disturbances related to knowledge that one is violating social norms (Jackson, 2006). These four categories were conceptualized by researchers Joseph Trimble et al. (as cited in Jackson, 2006).

These and similar classifications, however, are problematic due to their Western-centric connotations. That is to say, ghost sickness, along with certain other specific disorders such as windigo, are considered culturally bound, which means they are behaviors particular to certain cultures (in this case Native American cultures). The problem is that behaviors which are considered normal and nonpathological in Native American tribes can be read as pathological by Western researchers and psychologists who may consider them irrational. For this reason, there is much doubt on whether or not these disorders can be considered real pathologies (Jackson, 2006). Though some of these disturbances are listed in the DSM-IV-TR, as is the case of ghost sickness, due to the controversy surrounding the legitimacy of these disturbances as psychological disorders, they will not be included when there is mention of mental illness in this thesis.

Among the different mental illnesses Native Americans are prone to, a major one is anxiety– in particular culturally relevant types of anxiety. Due to lack of sufficient mental health resources available to Native Americans, anxiety and anxiety disorders often are not appropriately or sufficiently diagnosed and treated. One type of cultural form of anxiety is kayak-angst, which is a cultural variant of panic disorder and whose symptoms seem to vanish once the individual is back in a safe place or when surrounded by people they are comfortable around (Jackson, 2006). Unlike the previous disorders such as ghost sickness, these cultural forms of anxiety are considered legitimate as instead of being from a Western-centric approach because they are expressed by Native Americans themselves as being pathological (Jackson, 2006). Rather than being assigned by Western psychologists and anthropologists, these are disturbances which are identified within Native American tribes.

Another major mental illness Native Americans are more disposed to is depression. In fact, it is the most common mental illness in both children and adult Native Americans (Jackson, 2006). Combined with the lack of mental health resources, the culturally different ways in which Native Americans manifest depressive symptoms makes this mental illness difficult to treat. These different ways include the focus on balance and spiritual harmony as well as frequent manifestation of psychosomatic symptoms. Suicide is also very prevalent, Native American adolescents being much more likely than other American teenagers to attempt suicide (Jackson, 2006).

These psychological disturbances often find their roots in many of the same themes and losses which Native Americans mention when speaking about their experiences with historical trauma (as shown by Whitbeck et al. (2004)). Anxiety and depression are disorders prevalent in Native American communities today but are also considered symptoms of historical trauma. The difficulty in measuring historical trauma, therefore, lies in distinguishing between the origins of the experienced trauma: contemporary versus intergenerational disturbances. Qualitative studies such as the one conducted by Whitbeck et al. (2004) play such an important role for this very reason: they measure which historical losses exist due to historical trauma in Native Americans and the extent to which they generate an emotional response such as the aforementioned anxiety and depression. Qualitative studies help bolden the fine line between contemporary and intergenerational mental illness by investigating the root of the disturbance as explained by Native Americans themselves instead of relying on solely measuring the existence of trauma. It is also for this reason this thesis will refer back to and base its methodology on analyzing results of qualitative studies on Native American historical trauma.



Part I: Historical Trauma & Political Psychology

While much of Native American activism in the two realms of education and land has been goal-oriented (i.e. the restoral of land/education autonomy is important for the ability of future generations to move on), the activism has been emblematic of the way in which political praxis can be used for psychological healing. Native American historical trauma and the activism in relation to it are representative of the way in which psychology and political context should not be divorced. In order to examine this idea further, this section provides more information on the study of and different perspectives on historical trauma as well as a close look at political psychology and psychopolitical liberation.

             Historical Trauma

As mentioned earlier in this thesis, the study of historical trauma is a relatively new field which bases itself in the study of “survivor syndrome,” diagnostically known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The field has seen many different types of data collection on the phenomenon, from focus group analysis of its existence in a cultural context to its conceptualization as an individual transmission of trauma from parent to child. Contexts in which historical trauma is viewed include sociology, anthropology, psychology (in particular psychoanalysis), and postcolonial research. Because of the different lenses through which historical trauma can be examined, scholars range from historians to psychologists and anthropologists. This thesis will synthesize the different perspectives on Native American historical trauma in order to provide as holistic a picture of the phenomenon as possible.

An important movement on the issue of historical trauma is the French psychoanalytic work of the 1990’s and early 2000’s on the intersubjectivity of human beings. This work focused on the way in which trauma manifests itself through generations through the presence of coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms include, but are not restricted to, repression, denial, and complete negation of the event that generated the trauma (Mucci 2013). According to this stream of thought, these coping mechanisms then come together collectively. One pioneer of this view is Haydee Faimberg with her idea of the “telescoping of generations” (Mucci 2013).

One less prevalent view of what could be the force behind the transmission of historical trauma is genetic transmission. Scholars such as Harkness and MacFarlane were among the first to point out there could be a genetic transference of PTSD from one generation to the next, though still to this day there has not been a reliable and conclusive study on this possibility (Birney, 2015). In August of 2015 a study by Yehuda et al. was conducted to see if epigenetic mechanisms, which have been proven to manifest in the transmission of stress in animals, could play a significant role in intergenerational trauma of Holocaust survivor descendants (Yehuda et al. 2015). Though the study claims to have found epigenetic mechanisms had in fact played a part in the transmission of trauma in the sample, the study has since been highly critiqued as not having used a large enough sample or control group therefore lacking external validity (Birney 2015). The literature on the topic of genetic transference of trauma is inevitably ambiguous, though in the future causal ties may be found.

While genetics is observed as not playing a significant role in the transmission of trauma, many scholars believe that attachment theory, therefore the interaction between primary caretaker and child, plays a big role in the transmission of historical trauma. Attachment theory in the study of child development lies on the idea that the level of security of attachment of a child can hinder or reinforce development for years to come. Some scholars claim that trauma can even be transmitted in the prenatal stage, before dyadic interaction between caretaker and child even begins to occur on an interpersonal level. However, the literature on the topic up to now leans on the idea that a mother’s traumatic history does not necessarily affect prenatal attachment unless it is interpersonal trauma. In this case, interpersonal trauma is identified as traumatic events such as rape and mass killings. A prevalent hypothesis of attachment theory is the idea that a mother’s insecurity due to trauma can create insecure attachment in the child, making the child more prone to psychological disturbances. Though this does not focus on transmission of trauma in a cultural context, it can and has been applied in that context in certain research.

Another brand of thinking on the transference of historical trauma lies on the idea that trauma can be transmitted through traditional cultural mechanisms. This idea is especially prevalent on the studies conducted on Holocaust survivor descendants, wherein many scholars claim that the Jewish culture in itself facilitates the transmission of trauma (Kahane-Nissenbaum, 2011). The significance of this view for Native American trauma lies in the fact that Native American and Jewish culture vary incredibly, meaning that the trauma transferred in one cultural group can be passed down through different cultural mechanisms. In particular, the two differ in the fact that Native Americans are currently undergoing structural violence on a large scale in the United States (Kirmayer, 2014). By focusing on this divide, many scholars pose the question, “How much of the trauma Native Americans are experiencing is cumulative through time and how much of it is present-day trauma?” (Kirmayer, 2014).

There is also a divide in the literature on conducting research on clinical samples rather than non-clinical samples of trauma descendants. Some scholars research using clinical samples whereas others focus on non-clinical samples and even others do comparative research on samples of both. Clinical samples refer to people who are already part of a diagnostic category (such as PTSD patients) and non-clinical samples refer to any descendants of trauma survivors regardless of whether or not they have already been placed within a clinical, or diagnostic, framework. Many scholars criticize the focus on clinical samples because the research lacks a sort of control group: because these types of samples revolve around people who have already been diagnosed with a psychological disturbance, there is no room to look at historical trauma beyond diagnostic categories (Denham, 2008). In fact, many scholars claim that one does not have to have a clinical diagnosis in order to experience a transmission of trauma and that historical trauma can manifest itself in different ways. This being said, of the scholars who conduct studies on non-clinical samples, many do focus on the manifestation and extent of pathologies within their sample (Moorehead, 2015).

Another debate in historical trauma literature is on whether or not to look at the work done by Native American healers on the subject of Native American trauma. In recent years there has been a greater focus on traditional Native American healer input rather than on conventional Western medical practices. Brave Heart headed this movement and continues to advocate for a focus on traditional Native American healing practices in response to historical trauma to this day (Brave Heart & Debruyn, 1998). This movement towards openness in working with Native American healers roots itself in a growing culturally-sensitive approach to historical trauma in indigenous populations (Moorehead, 2015). This shift in the way Native American historical trauma is looked at shows a growing shift towards more culture-oriented causes of trauma transference, and many studies are now generating qualitative research with focus groups of Native Americans.

             Rethinking Historical Trauma

In recent years, there has been a movement among scholars of historical trauma to re-conceptualize and “rethink” historical trauma and find new, more reliable methodological approaches to measuring the prevalence of historical trauma. Major scholars who have led movements to rethink the approach to historical trauma in regards to Native Americans include Sotero, Whitbeck, Mucci, Gone, Denham, and Kirmayer.

Sotero (2006) constructed a theoretical framework on historical trauma which has three different phases. Sotero claims that communities affected with historical trauma each have gone through these three phases in a sequential order. In the first phase, the community undergoes mass traumas by the dominant culture, leading to economic, cultural, and societal destruction of the community. The second phase has to do with the reaction of the primary traumatized generation; this phase is the manifestation of the primary generation’s symptoms which, according to Sotero, are psychological, social, and biological. Finally, the last phase is the transmission of the trauma to the successive generations through environmental and psychological factors (Sotero, 2006). Whitbeck, Hoyt, Adams, and Chen (2004) later applied this theory to create and research the historical losses that resulted from these three phases which culminate in historical trauma.

Another relevant scholar on the reworking and rethinking of historical trauma in Native Americans is Aaron Denham. Denham focused on one four-generation family of Native Americans, the Si John family. What Denham discovered was that while the family he was interviewing did exhibit features of historical trauma, they did not really express either psychopathology or dysphoria as dictated by western measures of both (Denham, 2008). This study proved those historical trauma scholars focusing on exclusively clinical samples of historical trauma populations lacked the entire picture of the manifestation and articulation of historical trauma.

The study provided a new element to historical trauma debate on sample configuration because the Si John family was, in fact, a de facto non-clinical sample. This is to say that not only was the Si John family not a clinical sample, but the family did not exhibit a “textbook example of historical trauma” as Denham had suspected they would (Denham, 2008). Rather than exhibiting dysfunction, they expressed problems due not only to the transmitted memory of colonialism but also more recent issues such as disparaging United States healthcare policies. Not only this, but Denham discovered that historical trauma was deeply embedded in the family’s own cultural and ethnic identity, which in turn played a strong role in their resilience through time. What this research concluded was that an intersection of historical trauma, cultural identity, and resilience against cultural extermination can exist all at once. This intersection of cultural identity, historical trauma, and Native American resilience has now become an important factor in recent studies and literature on historical trauma.


             Political Psychology

Since the 1990s there has been an increased interest in trauma for political psychologists: the advent of PTSD research, the Rwandan Genocide, the increased study of intergenerational trauma, and of course the study of the trauma of history (Koopman, 1997). The 1990s saw trauma examined as an important effect of war and oppression. Since then, there has been a growing focus in analyzing trauma less on an individual pathology basis and more from a political psychology perspective (Koopman, 1997). While it is true collective trauma does not just occur in cases of war, as has been seen through the trauma of Native Americans, much of trauma analysis has only focused on the effects of war (Koopman, 1997).

One way political psychologists have created this distinction has been to shift the focus away from PTSD, which is focused on pathology, and bring it to the concept of “ongoing traumatic stress” which takes into account the many social and political factors that affect the trauma of marginalized or conflict-affected populations (De Angelis, 2013). Political psychologists studying trauma acknowledge that it is not enough to cure politically-induced trauma, such as historical trauma for example, with psychotherapy and psychiatric drugs, but that systemic social and political solutions must be used as well (De Angelis, 2013). In fact, this is what Native American activists have been doing for decades.

Political scientists began to realize during the 1990s that not only was PTSD a major issue, but that the way a society is organized after a period of oppression, genocide, and trauma is very important. In particular, psychology became a focal point of conflict resolution studies through the study of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation studies. One solution that arose from this period was an increased focus on ‘reconciliation’ and its relationship with justice. Reconciliation can be divided into two entities: reconciliation as a process and reconciliation as an outcome; both types of reconciliation have been heavily studied since the 1990s (Murphy & Radzik, 2015). Reconciliation has been looked to as an alternative to punitive justice.  After the Rwandan Genocide, the Tutsi-led government engaged in a policy of punitive justice for those who took part in the genocide, utilizing traditional Gacaca courts once the go realized it was impossible to process more than 120,000 accused in the country’s criminal justice system and in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda created by the UN.

When apartheid ended in South Africa, however, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu decided to engage in a policy of retributive justice instead of punitive justice, creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Murphy & Radzik, 2015). To this day, however, the committees are controversial. While some victims found them to be psychologically healing, the program has been criticized for not being harsh enough on those responsible for human rights abuses during apartheid and that it may pressure victims to forgive when they are not yet psychologically ready to (Murphy & Radzik, 2015). Because the commission offered amnesty to certain high-level perpetrators if they were able to prove their actions were only politically motivated, including the infamous commander of the secrete Vlakplaas police Eugene de Kock who received amnesty in 2015 (Krog, 2015).

The psychological component most studied in this program was the possible psychological benefits which could be gained by the victims once they were able to know the truth of their loved ones’ murders and meet the perpetrators face to face (Murphy & Radzik, 2015). The commission also allowed the victims of apartheid to make public their sufferings, and in a way, the program gave them a way to move on from the trauma. In other words, the commission allowed victims to lift the burden of anger and bitterness they felt toward the perpetrators, and through that the victims and society as a whole could heal psychologically from the years of trauma they had experienced (Murphy & Radzik, 2015).

The way the situation of South Africa differs from the status of Native Americans is that the reconciliation process came after the abolition of apartheid, whereas Native Americans are still heavily marginalized in and to an extent segregated from American society. Not only this, but South Africa faced a shift in power dynamics as well: the government shifted from the Afrikaner National Party to the black liberation African National Congress party. Because the anti-apartheid party was now in power, they had the liberty to deal with the perpetrators as they saw fit, but this cannot be said for Native Americans (Murphy & Radzik, 2015). While non-white South Africans composed 80% of the population and were ruled by an ethnic minority, Native Americans have been a particularly small minority in the United States for centuries (Murphy & Radzik, 2015). Though it may not be applicable to the situation of Native Americans, the study of peace and reconciliation shows the growth in academic focus on psychological process involved in politics.


             The Political Psychology of Liberation

Beyond post-conflict reconstruction, many political scientists have studied the issue of liberation as a means of psychological healing from trauma. Because Native American activism is not focused on reconstruction after a conflict, but rather liberation from a system which has been against Native Americans and their cultural freedom for generations, the political psychology which is more pertinent to examining Native American activism and the potential of political praxis to be psychologically healing would be the study of the psychology of liberation.

One of the first such works is The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire explores interpersonal relationships in education, but he also speaks about the necessity of the oppressed to liberate themselves. As far as education, he states that the teacher and the student must be equals and the student must be, at a psychological level, ready to learn in order for the relationship to work (Tobbell, 2000). This evokes much of Native American educational activism which focuses on the process of connecting the teacher (usually a tribal elder) to the student (a young person from the generation who wants to regain a connection with the culture). In many cases of Native American educational activism, as with the Wapato Indian Club mentioned in the education chapter, it is driven by a desire of young people to reconnect with their traditions in an attempt to halt the process of cultural genocide and historical traumatization which resulted from United States policies.

In addition, Paulo Freire analyzes liberation from oppression. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he claims that oppression is a form of dehumanization of the oppressed by the oppressors, and that the oppressed must rise up and liberate themselves (Freire, 1970). In liberating themselves, the oppressed regain the humanity that was stripped from them by their oppressors, and part of the struggle is creating an education on the oppression itself by the oppressed (Freire, 1970). Once the oppressed liberate themselves, they also liberate the oppressors from their own dehumanization, and Freire insists that only the oppressed can liberate themselves; the oppressors cannot liberate the oppressed (Freire, 1970).

In this work, Freire focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors, and he puts an emphasis on the process of liberation, not just the outcome. While it is important, according to Freire, to regain one’s humanity through liberation, freedom is just as important as the process of recognition of oppression and subsequent mobilization that achieves it (Freire, 1970). Freire states that rather than through systematic education, this liberation can be achieved through educational projects conducted by the oppressed to shed light on their oppression (Freire, 1970). It is not only a political process but a psychological one as well. The process of liberation requires political consciousness, education, and collective action; it is necessary to recognize the present situation is unequal before change can occur (Freire, 1970).

Many years later, Lawrence L. Alschuler took the analysis of liberation further and examined it in a Jungian perspective. Alschuler defines the psychology of liberation as “the practice of psychology under the conditions of state repression,” which employs mental health professionals in the psychological well-being of the victims of state repression and which studies motivations for fighting against oppression (Alschuler, 2007, 3). Liberation psychology also attempts to understand the way authoritarian rulers gain power, how citizens guard themselves psychologically under a regime of repression, how victims of psychological and physical violence can rebuild their lives, and why some revolutionary movements fail (Alschuler, 2007).

Alschuler further coined the term “psychopolitics of liberation” to describe psychopolitical analysis in regards to the oppressed (Alschuler, 2007). Psychopolitics of liberation include programs to improve the oppressed group’s political consciousness, the creation and implementation of policies which assist psychological healing from oppression, and direct action against oppression itself (Alschuler, 2007). As stated earlier, Alschuler bases his analysis on the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung (drawing in particular on his depth psychology), postcolonial scholar and sociologist Albert Memmi, and Paulo Freire, as well as Franz Fanon and Gandhi (Alschuler, 2007).

Alschuler contrasts the different approaches to liberation of Franz Fanon and Gandhi and explains how the two approaches could work in terms of psychopolitical healing. Fanon, who was not only a revolutionary but also a psychotherapist, claimed that psychological liberation had to be achieved through violent revolutionary liberation: it would only be in this way that the oppressed would eradicate their feelings of inferiority and powerlessness (Alschuler, 2007). Because the oppressors used violence to put down the rest of the population, the only way for the oppressed to break free from the internalization of their inferiority would be through violent political action. Gandhi, meanwhile, advocated non-violence because he believed only non-violent action could restore self-reliance to the colonized and “also cleanse the militants of their oppressed consciousness” (Alschuler, 2007, 140). According to Gandhi, non-violence is the only way because resorting to violence only robs the oppressed of their humanity even more, whereas non-violence elevates the oppressed. Alschuler concludes that what both theorists share is the idea that the process of liberation is intrinsically important to psychological well-being and consciousness and that engaging in liberation can psychologically heal the trauma of oppression (Alschuler, 2007).

This thesis will consider Native American activism in relation to the theories presented by Alschuler and Freire to examine the different ways Native Americans engage in activism as a way to exonerate future generations from the psychological effects of trauma. This thesis will not be evaluating whether or not this method is successful, but it will analyze the different ways Native Americans have engaged in activism and how the processes are reminiscent of liberation psychology.



Part II: Native American Land Activism

“In the beginning, our Creator spoke the word and this earth was created. He spoke the word again and all living things were put on the earth. And then He said the word and we, the (Indian) people, were created and planted here on this earth. We are like the plants of this earth. Our food was put here as plants to feed us; just like when we plant a garden. That is the way our earth was in the beginning. There were salmon, deer, elk, and all kinds of birds. It is as if our bodies are the very end of this earth, still growing while our ancestors are all buried in the ground. He named everything He created. He put water on this earth. He made it flow into the rivers and lakes to water this great garden and to quench the thirst of the people, the animals, plants, birds and fish. He took the feet of the people and made them walk on this earth. He created the horse; which is like a human being. He put the horse and the people together to help one another. All of the land where we live and where our ancestors lived was created for the (Indian) people.” (Yakima Indian Nation Tribal Council 1977, 4, found in Jacob, 2013)


The role of land in Native American culture and history is significant; the earth holds both a spiritual and material weight in various Native American cultures. This material and spiritual duality of land ownership creates two facets to United States land policies which affect Native Americans, both policies which have restricted Native American land possession and those which have posed an environmental threat to Native American land (Barrett & Markowitz, 2004). As has been shown through ethnographic research such as the Whitbeck study, three major themes emerge in regards to the role of United States law in Native American historical trauma: land, education, and health. In particular, the results of the Whitbeck study (2004) enumerate loss of land and loss of family connections due to forced government relocation, the creation of reservations as being Native American historical losses, and others which will be discussed later on in the chapter. Due to the environment being of spiritual and cultural importance, environment-related land policies also touch upon loss of culture and loss of spiritual tradition (Whitbeck et al., 2004).

Land claims and land tenure have played an essential role in the conflict between Native Americans and the United States government as well as in the disputes between Native Americans and colonizing European nations (Barrett & Markowitz, 2004). How has historical trauma been articulated in Native American political activism in favor of or against to certain land policies? And in particular, how has this taken place in the past 55 years? This section will examine different policies which are related to land in order to evaluate these questions. Policies examined in this chapter will be the Alaska Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, the Oneida Indian Nation and the Supreme Court decisions (1974-1985), the actions of the American Indian Movement, and the 2015 issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Each of these cases reveals something different about Native American activism and the outcomes of each case hold historical importance, which is why I chose to analyze them for this chapter. Both the Oneida Indian Nation case and the ANCSA case are related to land possession, but Native American land claims are not the only type of land policy Native Americans have taken action against. The American Indian Movement at times chose violence and had many core issues apart from land. As stated before, land has a particular spiritual relevance to Native Americans, in particular land in relation to the natural environment. For that reason, I also chose to examine the response to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which Native Americans in the Midwest opposed because of the its threat to the environmental integrity of the area.

In attempting to regain ownership over land and protect their natural environment, Native Americans have employed a variety of means in their interactions with the United States government; this activism consists of legal action, violent disputes, and peaceful direct action (Barrett & Markowitz, 2004). The Alaska Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA) is an example of the culmination of Native American legal action, as are the Oneida I-III cases of New York. With the Keystone XL Pipeline, Native Americans placed their activism outside of the legal system, through nonviolent direct action such as the Tar Sands Blockade grassroots campaign in the American south. The three cases chosen for this chapter had significant outcomes for Native American communities, represented both land as property and land as spiritual, and represented three different kinds of Native American collective action.

             The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA)

Native American political struggle and activism has not only led to resistance against land policy but has also helped shape the creation of certain land policy; the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 is one of these instances. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was a culmination of an ongoing legislative struggle between the Alaskan government and Alaska Natives which compensated Natives an amount never before granted (Mitchell & Dartmouth, 1997). In compensation for the extinguishment of their indigenous land title through the creation of the state of Alaska, ANCSA compensated Alaska Natives $962.5 million and granted ownership of forty-four million acres of land (Mitchell & Dartmouth, 1997).

The money and land were awarded on one condition: the creation of an organization of Alaska-chartered business corporations to be placed on that same land. All natives alive as of the passing of the law would have ownership of one hundred shares of stocks in the Alaska Native-led corporations (Mitchell & Dartmouth, 1997). The limiting corporate condition withstanding, the law seemed to constitute a compromise between the federal government and indigenous land claims while also allowing Native Alaskans the possibility to achieve a higher measure of economic development. Though ANCSA had a high cost of implementation, it is an example of Native American policy response which operated within the United States legislation system (Case & Voluck, 2012). It is also important to note the act’s introduction of non-Native forms of societal organization, i.e. business corporations, showed the intent of Alaskan officials and Congress to use it as an opportunity for economic assimilation, particularly in the way tribes were not given unconditional ownership of land but were given the land only through creation of Native businesses (Case & Voluck, 2012).

Native Americans who campaigned for land claims through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act often cited the cultural value of Alaskan land as a reason for their mobilization, and in particular, Alaskan Natives seeking to regain ownership of the land did so because of a sense of duty to use the land which had been used by their people for generations. “The point then was not that the land belonged to the Natives, but rather that the Natives belonged to the land,” noted Alaskan anthropologist Fienup-Riordan about Alaskan tribal elders of the 1968 hearings during early Congressional consideration of ANCSA (Case & Voluck, 2012). In saying this, Fienup-Riordan exemplified the way in which Native Americans were rooted to their land–land does not represent just a material possession, but a heritage of tradition and community. The land ties generations of Alaska Natives together:

“… these [Alaskan] lands and waters were and are the sources of community, family, and individual sustenance, as well as the source of materials for their arts, crafts, and technologies, Alaska Native peoples understand that they would not exist as peoples, communities, & cultures without them. For these reasons, and for reasons related to spirituality and the Alaska Native cosmologies involving intimate connection with creation, Alaska Native peoples have exercised wise stewardship and passed along their knowledge and wisdom about the land, waters, and wildlife to each new generation.” (Roderick, 2010, p. 33)


As shown above, Alaska Natives have articulated their resistance against the seizure of their land and their proactiveness to secure their land (notwithstanding the compromises involved with ANCSA) as being tied to the tradition of using the land for subsistence and communal interaction.

Because ANCSA forced Native Americans to operate outside of traditional forms of business, the role of Native Americans in its creation and execution faced a difficult decision. “Those involved in Native issues wrestle with the huge challenge of how to help lift the economic boats of Alaska’s Native peoples while simultaneously protecting the cultures, lands, and waters of our peoples,” wrote Paul Ongtooguk, an Alaska Native educator who has been involved in tribal-level decision-making, in reference to ANCSA in particular (Ongtooguk, 2010 p.40). Although the Native activists faced this moral dilemma, ultimately they chose to comply with the proposed legislation in the hopes it would not only protect their legacies, but also provide economic well-being.

In the end, Alaska Natives made the decision to mobilize and create the for-profit organizations mandated by ANCSA in order to regain possession and control over their native lands; because of the importance of land, activists had to make sacrifices in other realms of society. “The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was a giant act of compromise on the part of Alaska’s Native peoples; we had to make huge sacrifices of our lands in order to arrive at any kind of a settlement,” (Ongtooguk, 2010, 42). This compromise is representative of Native Americans’ choice to prioritize their core cultural values (that of land and community) in order to try to right the wrongs of historical losses, in particular loss of culture and loss of spiritual tradition mentioned earlier (Whitbeck et al., 2004). ANCSA demonstrates Native Americans’ internal tension in regards to policy response and the double-edged sword of historical trauma: what happens when a policy can alleviate the effects of one loss while reinforcing another? With land and culture are so intertwined in Native American culture, what happens when they conflict as is the case with the forced creation of Native-led corporations? In the case of ANCSA, Alaska Natives chose to focus on land.

             The Oneida Indian Nation and the Supreme Court

Another way in which Native Americans protested land policy is through taking United States individual states to court. Two cases were brought forth to the Supreme Court over Native American land claims regarding the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, once in 1974 and again in 1981, both being landmark Supreme Court cases on the topic of Native American land claims. Both cases were based on the Nonintercourse Acts (1790-1834); while the acts prohibited the sale or seizure of Indian land without prior federal approval, they were frequently ignored by individuals and U.S. states (Johansen, 1998). The Oneida Indian Nation referred to the acts in court, where it argued its land in the state of New York had been acquired illegally by individuals and U.S. states not following the mandate of the Nonintercourse Acts. This was represented in the cases of Oneida I, Oneida II, and Oneida III (Johansen, 1998).

The Oneida Indian Nation of New York v. County of Oneida case (also called Oneida I) of 1974 marked the first time a modern-day Native American land claim case was brought before the Supreme Court instead of before the Indian Claims Commission (Johansen, 1998). In this case, the Supreme Court asserted the existence of federal subject-matter jurisdiction for Native American possessory land claims brought to court by Native American tribes. The Supreme Court supported this opinion of the court as being based on Indian treaties, aboriginal title, and the Nonintercourse Acts (1790-1834) (Johansen, 1998). In other words, the Supreme Court ruled that Native American land claims could be determined by the federal government.

The Oneida Indian Nation, however, went again before the Supreme Court two more times (Oneida II and III), the second in 1981 with County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation, referred to as Oneida II (Johansen, 1998).    In this case, the Supreme Court held that the Oneida Indian Nation had the right to sue under common law which had not been affected or diminished due to passing of time, and as a result the Oneida Nation won back rights to 100,000 acres which had been seized by the state of New York in 1795 (Johansen, 1998). The case and verdict were extremely controversial as well as very significant, as the outcome of the case set a precedent that property rights dating back as far as 175 years could be denied if the land was Native American land originally acquired without following the Nonintercourse Acts of centuries earlier.

             American Indian Movement and Land

The American Indian Movement, though not focused on land activism but more on civil and political rights, did approach the issue of land throughout their operations and many of its more prominent members advocated on behalf of the importance of land for the future of Native Americans. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was a militant organization headed by Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and Clyde Bellecourt among others and was responsible for the armed resistance operations of the Alcatraz Island occupation (1969-71), the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. (1972), and most famously the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 (“American Indian Movement”, 2005). The occupation of Alcatraz, in particular, became the longest occupation of federal land by Native American activists and acted as an act of disobedience against a federal government which AIM felt did not care about Native Americans and did not care about the legacy of colonialism it left (“American Indian Movement,” 2005).

Lakota Sioux AIM activist Mary Crow Dog wrote about the importance of land activism in her book, Lakota Woman, wherein she also articulated historical trauma and its place in Native American activism (Trodd, 2006).

“Our land itself is a legend, especially the area around Grass Mountain where I am living now. The fight for our land is at the core of our existence, as it has been for the last two hundred years. Once the land is gone, then we are gone too. The Sioux used to keep winter counts, picture writings on buffalo skin, which told our people’s story from year to year. Well, the whole country is one vast winter count. You can’t walk a mile without coming to some family’s sacred vision hill, to an ancient Sun Dance circle, an old battle-ground, a place where something worth remembering happened. Mostly a death, a proud death or a drunken death. We are a great people for dying.


“It’s a good day to die!” that’s our battle cry. But the land with its tar paper shacks and outdoor privies, not one of them straight, but all leaning this way or that way, is also a land to live on, a land for good times and telling jokes and talking of great deeds done in the past. But you can’t live forever off the deeds of Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. You can’t wear their eagle feathers, freeload off their legends. You have to make your own legends now.” (Mary Crow Dog, as cited in Trodd, 2006).


In this famous passage from her memoir, Mary Crow Dog went on to describe a legendary Ghost Dance which took place with Russell Means and other AIM members in honor of the land. Crow Dog explains it is not enough to reflect on the legends of historical warriors, the ancient Native American “activists,” but that Native Americans should turn to activism to restore their land and culture continuously until they achieve self-determination (Trodd, 2006). Mary Crow Dog considered political action and spiritual connection, as through the Ghost Dance, interconnected. Through her experience of the Ghost Dance, she showed the way in which culture, and in particular reconnecting to culture, can be in itself a political act.

The Ghost Dance represented the effort of Native American activists of the 1960’s to start their own movements which, though respecting the memories of their ancestors’ determination, engaged communities in fighting their own, new political battles. As she says “The fight for our land is at the core of our existence, as it has been for the last two hundred years. Once the land is gone, then we are gone too,” she exhibits the necessity of land activism to rescind or at least mitigate the effects of colonialism on the psyche and physical existence of her people. Her recount of the Ghost Dance is emblematic of the way AIM activists integrated spirituality and tradition into their political actions.

             The Keystone XL Pipeline

In 2015, the corporation TransCanada’s proposal to create the 1179-mile crude oil pipeline, the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, was met with considerable distress and resistance from Native Americans. The pipeline, an extension of the pre-existing Keystone Pipeline, would have run from Alberta, Canada through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and into the United States, particularly North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska (TransCanada). In doing so, the pipeline would pass through many different Native American reservation and sacred areas, making Native American resistance against the project.

TransCanada had to file a request with the United States Department of State to build the cross-border pipeline, and the Presidential Permit was submitted in May 2012 (TransCanada). The proposed route in Nebraska was in fact approved by Nebraska governor Dave Heineman, and a Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS) released in early 2013 by the U.S. Department of State claimed there would be no significant impacts to most [natural] resources along the proposed Project route,” (TransCanada). Notwithstanding, the Keystone XL Pipeline was denied by the U.S. Department of State in November of 2015. According to TransCanada, the company followed every Federal and State guideline and requirement over a review period lasting seven years, and the company claims the project passed every economic, geopolitical, and environmental standard (TransCanada). In response to the denial of its project, the company began taking legal action against the U.S. administration under NAFTA (TransCanada).

Before the project was denied and the proposal was pending approval, there was significant Native American opposition to and mobilization against the proposed pipeline and the effects it would have on their communities and on the environment which plays such a crucial role in Native American culture. In addition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline which would end in Nebraska, another leg of the pipeline, one passing through Oklahoma and Texas, was approved in 2014 by president Obama. Native Americans responded mostly through nonviolent direct action, citing their rationale of opposition as being grounded in the relationship with Mother Earth and a duty to protect their land from environmental degradation which they claimed would be inevitable in the existence of the Keystone XL (Goldtooth, 2015). For example, Indigenous activist and journalist Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network wrote the following on Native American opposition to the pipeline:


“We must see all aspects of life as related, to respect the feminine principle of creation and to maintain a sustainable relationship with the land. These tenets are antithetical to the extractive economy we are faced with today. The land, air, and water are commodified. Mother Earth is being drilled, fracked, clear-cut, and destroyed with such brutality. We are on the brink of climate catastrophe. In order to avoid drastic climate change, we need a moratorium on fossil fuel development and we need to invest in a zero carbon economy: our original teachings demand no less than this.” (Goldtooth, 2015)


As stated by Goldtooth, conservation of the environment and land in particular is not just because of the tradition of having the land, but the relation of the land to all other aspects of Native American culture — everything is interrelated, and that same idea is part of the culture itself. In proposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, TransCanada threatened the very core of many Native American cultures in threatening Mother Earth.

In January of 2015, a group of Native Americans staged a protest, called the “No to XL Rally” in Lafayette Square outside the White House against the Keystone XL (RT International, 2015). Around the same time, Native Americans established a long-term form of nonviolent opposition in the creation of a Spirit Camp in South Dakota built 10 months earlier specifically as opposition to the proposed pipeline, as the area would be the closest the pipeline would get to Native American land (Brandt, 2015). The camp was set up to serve as an area of prayer for the preservation of Native American land and environment in the face of the Keystone XL Pipeline and had been visited by many groups of people, both Native American and not, in solidarity with the Native American tribes who would be affected by the pipeline (Brandt, 2015). Some Native Americans organized and attended conference and training sessions at the time to prepare for non-violent action against the pipeline. One in particular was called “Help Save Mother Earth from the Keystone Pipeline” and was sponsored by the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota (Hotakainen, 2014). Participant Greg Grey Cloud of Rosebud Sioux stated, “We’re going to do everything we possibly can … We’re not going to damage anything or riot or anything like that,” (Hotakainen, 2014).

Another program created by Native Americans to organize planned non-violent resistance was the ‘Moccasins on the Ground’ program, organized by the Owe Aku International Justice Project, which held three-day trainings on blockade tactics and civil disobedience (Queally, 2014). One evening organized by Owe Aku International Justice Project on Pine Ridge Reservation focused on preventing the creation of a power station utilizing sacred Lakota water, the Missouri River, to generate electricity which would be needed to transport the pipeline’s crude oil (Lebsock & Hand, 2014). Debra White Plume of Moccasins on the Ground cited a traditional story: “We sought spiritual guidance and were told that the spirit of Unci Maka [Mother or Grandmother Earth] will awaken people to protect her. For us it has always been about protecting sacred water, whether it’s uranium mining or KXL,” (Lebsock & Hand, 2014). Another participant stated, “The electric power necessary to move tar sands bitumen does not come close to the power of the Lakota Oyate to protect our sacred water,” (Lebsock & Hand, 2014). In this case, not only were Native Americans mobilizing to protect their land and protect resources of spiritual importance, but their activism was directly related to a spiritual request (one from Mother Earth) and a duty to protect Native culture.

Certain Native Americans involved in the protests have been very direct about how their past experiences as a people were supporting their decision. Faith Spotted Eagle, a Yankton Sioux tribal elder, stated, “Our history has caused us not to be optimistic. . . . When you have capitalism, you have to have an underclass — and we’re the underclass,” (Hotakainen, 2014). She continued by saying “For those of us who have the history, it smacks of repetitive economics, when they put us in forts and they wanted our land. … All we’re willing to do here is sell our soul, just for the economy. That’s the dark side,” referring to the money that was flowing into her community in preparation for the pipeline and the promise of more money once construction would begin (Hotakainen, 2014). The historical trauma of land seizure as a means of economic exploitation therefore functioned as a reminder, or rather a warning, of what could become of the tribes whose land and communities would be affected by the pipeline. There is also the threat of losing cultural integrity in favor of survival through the money the construction of the pipeline could bring into the community– this scenario mirrors the creation of ANCSA, though in that case the outcome and the activism involved was different, focusing on creation of policy rather than solely lying in rejection of it.


Overall, historical loss has come up both in the struggle to regain land as well as the struggle to protect natural resources. The motives Native Americans have expressed for convening over these policies or potential policies, and the losses they have referenced in their responses can be specified as being: loss of land, loss of families from reservations and other government relocation, loss of spiritual tradition, loss of culture, and loss of trust in white people due to broken treaties. While loss of families from reservations and other government relocations could not be studied in the time frame of this thesis, it is important to note that responses to the relocation and termination acts of the 1950s were very much centered on the legacy of forced confinement to reservations (Johansen, 1998).

Meanwhile, loss of culture and loss of spiritual tradition were both at the center of the Native American push for ANCSA as well as the non-violent direct action against the Keystone XL. Loss of trust in white people due to broken treaties is seen as well in the Oneida cases, where the legacy of loss of trust was transformed by Native Americans into a court case, taking the actors of broken treaties to trial. The role of historical trauma in Native American collective action for land is one of trying to recompense the wrongs committed against their peoples as well as action taken to make sure land-related, and in turn culturally bound, historical losses would not be perpetuated more than they already had been. Not only that, but in organizing politically to end historical trauma, the activists were able to form stronger ties with their culture, as had Mary Crow Dog.



Part III: Native American Education Activism

“Education reinforced the First Americans’ unique economic & spiritual link with the land, a connection that was maintained through an ongoing symbiotic relationship. Countless generations carrying on the precepts and traditions of that ancient heritage are a testimony to educational success.” (Hoxie, 1996).


“If a child learns only the non-Indian way of life, you have lost your child.” (Rough Rock, Arizona Navajo elder as cited in May, 1999)


Throughout the history of United States’ social mobilization in relation to race and ethnicity, education has played a central role. From the prohibition on educating slaves, to traumatic Native American boarding schools, to the segregation and subsequent desegregation of public schools, American schools have found themselves turning into battlegrounds for racial equality (Johnson & Joshee, 2007). “Kill the Indian and save the man” was the trademark phrase of Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of The Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, the most widely known Indian boarding school of the 19th century (Hoxie, 1996). This motto encapsulated not only the philosophy of Carlisle, but of boarding schools for Native Americans throughout the United States. In this chapter I will be examining the American Indian Movement’s community education programs, federal policies granting Native American self-determination, and the Yakama Nation’s educational activism, analyzing the role of historical trauma as a motivation for creating new modes of tribal-controlled and culturally relevant education. The aforementioned initiatives have been previously analyzed as emblematic of Native American education activism and represent different Native American approaches to education.

Boarding schools were a federal policy which was emblematic of the United States’ federal government’s assimilation policies toward Native Americans: a way to “kill the Indian” as soon as possible. American boarding schools isolated young Native Americans from their communities and families, exposed them to disease, castigated them for using their native tongues, and overall attempted to ‘whiten’ Native American children into model [white] Americans, causing countless untimely deaths of students and trauma that spanned generations and (Hoxie, 1996).

According to Whitbeck et al. (2004) Native American elders not part of the boarding school generation barely ever thought about boarding schools, but they were constantly cognizant of the effects of federal educational policies; the boarding school past resounded clearly in historical losses like loss of cultural, loss of spiritual traditions, loss of language, and more. During the boarding school era, Native Americans mobilized in attempts to extinguish the policies, culminating in the publication of the Meriam Report of 1928 which confirmed the many complaints of Native American communities, including the malnourishment of their children, insufficient clothing, overworking through manual labor, and harsh punishments (Hoxie, 1996). This report led to the closure of most boarding schools while the rest succumbed to major reforms or ended up under tribal jurisdiction (Hoxie, 1996). From the 1960s onward, Native American activism, community organizing, and lobbying in response to federal education policies has led to the creation of extensive new legislation and educational programs (Hoxie, 1996).

The significance of education in Native American culture is paramount, even beyond the existence of boarding schools and tribal education as a form of self-governance; Native American culture is rooted in intergenerational teachings on history and spiritual traditions (Jacob, 2013). Culture is passed down from tribal elders to young children throughout their childhoods, often orally and ritually, creating a strong bond and link between tribal elders and the children of the entire community. It is not surprising then that one of the historical losses most damaging according to the Whitbeck et al. study (2004) is the loss of respect by children for their tribal elders. Because much of traditional culture is taught through community and tribal elder teachings, community education is forced to exist side by side with federal education, federal education sometimes taking up most of children’s energy. These two entities can intersect or exist separately, and different Native American activists have different views on how federal and cultural education should behave. The struggles of Native Americans against damaging and neglectful federal educational policies kept Native American cultural teachings alive in the face of cultural genocide (Hoxie, 1996).

Considering the topic of education activism in Native American communities, it is also important to include activism done in favor of keeping young Native Americans within their communities. This does not just have to do with public or formal education but also has to do with the forced removal of Native children from their communities and their placement in foster families with no ties to the children’s heritage. There have been activists, in particular in the 2000’s, working to place Native children in Native American foster families and to combat states’ forced and illegal removal of children. This initiative is headed through the Lakota People’s Law Project, which will be examined later in the chapter.


             The Lakota People’s Law Project


In South Dakota on the poorest reservation and in one of the poorest areas of the United States, there exists a strong movement to bring Native children back into their communities and families: the Lakota People’s Law Project of Pine Ridge Reservation.  The Lakota People’s Law Project was founded in 2005 to end the illegal seizure of Lakota children and placement by the South Dakota Department of Social Services in non-Native homes and communities (Sullivan, 2011). The South Dakota Department of Social Services is required to place Native youth in foster care within their communities according to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, but out of the almost 700 cases each year, many children are ending up in non-Native households (Sullivan, 2011).

In particular, South Dakota receives an increase in federal funding the more Native American are put in foster care and psychiatric institutions, so an incentive exists for going against the Indian Child Welfare Act (Sullivan, 2011). This situation is reminiscent of the boarding schools decades earlier. In their motivation for fighting the illegal seizure of their community’s children, Lakota activists claimed that in order to move on from historical trauma, they would need to win back the ability to determine the fate of their children: “We have taken good care of our children for thousands of years. We have to heal from the trauma of the past 130 years and begin to build a positive future for our people” (activist Phyllis Young as cited in Native News Online Staff, 2014). The way in which the state of South Dakota has been in control of the fate of Native American children takes autonomy away from Native Americans not just in the present, but future Lakota autonomy, independence, and cultural survival was also put in danger by targeting children.

In response to this, Lakota community members came together and continue to work under the Lakota People’s Law Project to raise awareness and create new policies for handling foster care of young Native Americans. Since its conception, the Lakota Law Project has created petitions, videos (in particular the Hearts on the Ground series), and has worked with tribal leaders and federal officials to get federal approval for new programs (Native News Online Staff, 2014). In 2014, two Lakota tribes succeeded in receiving $300,000 in planning grants from the Department of Health and Human Services (Native News Online Staff, 2014). Now, tribes with planning grants are slowly putting foster care services of Native children under Native American rather than federal control, and by doing this are ensuring cultural survival and longevity and securing the possibility to educate the youth of the community in Native ways and traditions.


             American Indian Movement and Community Education


The American Indian Movement is probably most known for the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, the Alcatraz occupation, and the case of Leonard Peltier of 1975 (Johansen, 2013). However, the American Indian Movement also organized community education, called survival schools, particularly in Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) metropolitan area, the area where the American Indian Movement originated. These survival schools were created to give Native children an education within their own cultural context (Timmerman, 2015). Many AIM members or their parents were victims of the boarding school era, so it is not surprising that in the 1970s, AIM created survival schools in Minneapolis to enact educational self-determination (Timmerman, 2015).

At this point in time, there was an ever dwindling amount of government support and growing discrimination towards Native Americans, and AIM recognized that young Natives were the most vulnerable group (Davis, 2013). The creation of the survival schools was also in response to forced removal of Native American children and placement in non-Native homes and communities, and AIM members, in particular Pat Bellanger, Dennis Banks, and Clyde Bellecourt all worked to provide legal advice to families of the children in the years preceding the survival schools (Timmerman, 2015). The American Indian Movement had financial difficulties in trying to open the schools, but with the help of the Indian Education Act (1972) and donations from the local communities, they were able to open the Red School House in St. Paul and the Heart of the Earth School in Minneapolis in 1972 (Timmerman, 2015).

The curriculum of these schools aimed to educate the children in Native history as well as cultural traditions. In particular, it based itself in three realms: political, cultural, and academic activism (Davis, 2013). While comparisons have been made between the AIM survival schools and Black Panther Party liberation schools, survival schools had a particular philosophy which focused on communal responsibility for the education of young Natives (Timmerman, 2015). What made the survival schools different from other types of Native American education activism is the way they were positioned completely separately from the federal education system. Instead of finding programs within public school environments or creating curricula within federally-controlled schools, AIM exercised education self-determination by creating an entirely new alternative.


             The Indian Self-Determination & Educational Assistance Act of 1975


In analyzing the implementation of educational policies by the United States federal government, it is important to note it does not guarantee an improvement and multicultural shift in the educational system. In fact, educational policies can be and at times have been used in American history to make it appear that the federal government is taking measures to improve Native American situations while, in fact, no qualitative change in teachings and attitudes is taking place (Johnson & Joshee, 2007). Any educational policy can be annulled whenever the Congress so rules, and that creates an instability in relying on more inclusive and culturally sensitive federal policy (Manuelito, 1973). That being said, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act (1975) is generally considered to be legitimately useful in improving educational independence or at least in setting a legal precedent.

The Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act was part of a series of education-related legislation passed by Congress in the 1970s, including the Indian Education Act (1972) and the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act (1978) (Hoxie, 1996). This legislation was the culmination of efforts of liberal politicians in Congress and the lobbying of Native American groups, and brought Native American control over the education of 85% of Native American children–the Self-Determination Act doing the most. This legislation allowed tribal and community based education to become integrated, at least in part, into the greater educational system (Hoxie, 1996). Not only did the Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act legally bring much Native American education under tribal control, but this act set the stage for future activism efforts because it set a legal precedent: Native American activists could cite this act as giving them more control over the future of their youth.

             The Yakama People and Educational Activism: Language and Cultural Revitalization

“Language is the foundation of culture, and without the language, what kind of tribe are you? Without the language, all the priorities, all the things that made you that tribe, your ancestors, all the things that you ate, places that you went, the foods you gathered, materials you gathered, the medicines, all of that, that can really only be truly expressed in the language and that’s what makes you unique as a tribe. Otherwise, things are getting pan-Indian or just all washed out, and being American. That’s really where the rubber hits the road in terms of trying to hold onto your true tribal identity, I mean, I think I could only express it in the language.” Roger Jacob, Jr. (Yakama tribal member) (as cited in Jacob, 2012, 57)


This quote by Roger Jacob, Jr. summarizes the importance of language to the Yakama Tribe. The Yakama Nation of Washington has been actively fighting for independence and self-determination for centuries, being an extremely politically active tribe; the tribe is very well-organized and has fought many legal battles and created their own communally-organized institutions in protest to United States policies (“Yakama,” 1996). Though known in particular for its successful legal battles in fishing rights, the Yakama Tribe is also especially committed to retaining its culture and is very involved in its educational aspects. Through the activism of everyone from children to tribal elders inspired by “intergenerational responsibility,” the tribe has created alternatives to federal control of education through clubs, partnerships, and heritage centers to preserve language and culture and instill respect for traditions and tribal elders in the hearts of the younger Yakama generations (Jacob, 2013, 52); (Hoxie, 1996).

Many Yakama activists focus on language revitalization through education in response to their family members refusing to teach their native languages as a result of boarding school-related trauma, which affected the Yakama activists throughout their lives (Jacob, 2012). For their particular commitment to activism and their deep sense of connection with historical trauma, I decided to study and expand on their educational activism and the articulation of historical trauma within it. In the following section of the education chapter, I will explore the Wapato Indian Club, the Yakama-NILI Partnership and present-day achievements of Yakama educational activism.

             The Wapato Indian Club

Native Americans have shown through the Wapato Indian Club that activism can come from any generation, even children. In 1973, Native students of the Yakama Reservation in Washington state banded together to create a space for the expression and fostering of their Native culture and identities in their public school. This club was called the Wapato Indian Club (Jacob, 2013). When the club was created, Wapato Middle School (formerly called Wapato Junior High School) had no curricula which touched upon Native American culture or history and had no extracurricular activities which focused on this either. In order to organize this club, the young students went to Sue Rigdon, the only district Yakama counselor, and asked her to help them reconnect with their culture through traditional dance (Jacob, 2013). With that, the Wapato Indian Club dance group was formed. Along with fostering their Native culture, through this club the students were able to celebrate the traditional teachings of their elders (Jacob, 2013). By demanding and creating this space for themselves, the Native American students represented a type of activism which shifted the community from dependence on federal institutions to autonomous organization of education which honored their heritage.

At the request of the students, Sue Rigdon approached tribal elders to seek advice and direction in how to help the students organize this space and how to teach them about traditional dance. The elders shared with her the lessons they had grown up with through the Yakama oral tradition so that she too could embody the “spirit” of the dances and transmit them through the students (Jacob, 2013, 21). True to Yakama culture, Rigdon did not “assert authority for its own sake,” but worked hand in hand with students, the school administration, and parents to found the dance club (Jacob, 2013, 21). In advocating for the students and their indigenous and cultural activism, Rigdon was able to ensure that the teachings of tribal elders was passed down through generations. As is stated in Whitbeck et al. (2004), decreased respect of young people for their traditions and loss of their respect for elders are both losses felt through historical trauma. By taking action to represent the children of the Wapato Indian Club, Rigdon was able to extend a respect for traditions and a respect for elders by seeking the advice and guidance of tribal elders directly. What Rigdon was able to embody was intergenerational teaching at the heart of the culture itself (Jacob, 2013).

The Wapato Indian Club dance troupe served as a way to resist assimilationism and reassert cultural independence from formal federal educational systems. Young Native Americans used it as an overt challenge to federal policy which overlooked and dismissed cultural education for young Native Americans by creating this space within an area designated to the federal government (public school). Through the intergenerational bonds and “cycle of reciprocity” formed between tribal elders and young people, the club managed to re-establish a respect for the wisdom and cultural burden of tribal elders in the community while also attempting to reverse the effects of historical trauma on cultural literacy (Jacob, 2012). Therefore, the indigenous grassroots activism exemplified by these Yakama youth and elders is an example of Native American activism based in cultural revitalization and an effort to re-establish independence from federal assimilative educational control.

             The Yakama-NILI Partnership

Just like traditional dance in public schools, language preservation and revitalization is an issue of education – educating not just fellow Natives on their culture, but on the language that has worked to preserve it for generations. The efforts of activists on the Yakama reservation to preserve their native language has yielded the building of a partnership between the Yakama people and the Northwest Indian Language Institute at the University of Oregon (NILI): the Yakama-NILI partnership (Jacob, 2013). This contemporary effort to preserve and reanimate native language comes as a reaction to years of United States policies, such as the termination policies up until the mid-1960’s, aimed at dismantling Native culture and assimilating Native Americans into White American culture (Jacob, 2013). The federal policies of preferring English-based and English-only educational curriculum and policies for Native Americans were an attempt to remove the indigenous culture, including language and the traditional dances reanimated by the Wapato Indian Club, and replace it with a White one (Jacob, 2013).

The Yakama-NILI partnership is an attempt by activists to shape the policy in relation to their tribe and many of the activists involved in this initiative have mentioned, explicitly or implicitly, the soul wound of historical trauma (Jacob, 2013). Living with the knowledge of the trauma their great-grandparents experienced in boarding schools which forced assimilation and rejection of indigenous languages, many activists chose to create this Yakama initiative in order to prevent these historical losses from continuing (Jacob, 2013). Patty Whitefoot, who has also been involved in the Washington Indian Education Association and National Indian Education Association is one activist who has been working with the Yakama-NILI partnership to reinforce indigenous identities in young Natives (Jacob, 2013). She stated the following about the partnership:

“We all are working toward the common goal of raising healthy children, and working toward community wellness is what I think makes a big difference in trying to maintain who we are in terms of sovereignty and our treaty, but also in terms of our language, and our tradition and our culture . . . helping our children to be able to identify with their heritage and who they are.” (Jacob, 2013, p 50)


In this statement, Whitefoot stresses the importance of creating an activism focused on the community’s children. She stresses that not only is education part of the larger picture of maintaining and regaining sovereignty, but that it is also about being able to pass down the culture and revitalizing cultural traditions which have been overlooked or at times faded with newer generations which have been separated from their roots. This belief in the need to help young Natives reconnect with their indigenous language is at the heart of the Yakama-NILI partnership which puts joint efforts between Yakama activists and scholarly research on language revitalization.

             The Yakama Today

In June 2015, Yakama activist and educator Shana Brown succeeded with the help of her community to make the teaching of tribal history required in Washington public schools (Brownstone, 2015). For almost twelve years, Brown worked to create an alternative social studies curriculum for the state which honored and included the tribal history of Washington tribes. The original curriculum Brown had to teach her students marginalized and disrespected the memory of Native Americans, painting the classic revisionist American history which depicted pilgrims as peaceful and Natives as savage. The new curriculum, of the type Washington is only the second state to adopt, is called “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty Curriculum” and was created with the input of all of the federally recognized tribes of Washington state (Brownstone, 2015).

Brown aspired to create a curriculum which did not erase but rather brought to light historical trauma of Native Americans and she succeeded; in particular, the curriculum includes an entire section on Native American resistance. Not only that, but she believes, as do other scholars, that by providing culturally-relevant teachings within public school curricula, the achievement gap between Native American students and other races will narrow and eventually close (Brownstone, 2015). By bringing this type of multicultural education into formal public education and not just beside or outside of it, Brown and her colleagues were able to usher it into the mainstream to affect as many Native and non-Native students as possible in order to educate on historical trauma so that it may not be repeated or reinforced.


Native American efforts on the education of their youth have centered on the concept of Native sovereignty as well as the passing down of traditional beliefs. The most pressing historical losses for Native American tribal elders today are those associated with culture and with the loss of respect for tribal elders (Whitbeck et al., 2004). In attempting to regain control over education of their youth, Native American communities and individuals have lobbied congress, created legal initiatives, created new public school curricula, created culturally relevant extracurricular activities, and formed partnerships with higher education institutions. In all of these initiatives, the activists focused on historical trauma and the need to halt and eventually reverse the effects of historical trauma as a motivation for changing education.

What varies between the initiatives is what level of education they focus on and what means they use to try to achieve this. In the cases of the Yakama-NILI partnership and Shana Brown’s curriculum, activists are working within the educational system, using the federal system to their advantage, or in the case of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, push for new policies. Though the Lakota People’s Law Project focuses on foster care, it is still for the purpose of having the freedom to educate the youth on their indigenous roots, and in this case as well the activists are appealing to change federal policy. On the other hand, AIM’s survival schools and the Wapato Indian Club dance troupe create their initiatives around the federal education system, offering their own alternatives within or without the space of federal education. All of these different initiatives are bound together with the same motive: to create communities which have the tools and possibilities to move on from historical trauma.




What makes Alschuler, Freire, and the idea of the psychopolitics of liberation relevant to Native American activism and historical trauma? They provide a theoretical explanation as to why Native Americans engage in activism as a way to mitigate the effects of historical trauma and prevent its transmission, and it explains the importance of engaging in political praxis to heal trauma. The psychopolitics of liberation explain that yes, it is possible to use politics for healing, but Native American activism demonstrates how it is used for historical trauma. The connection that can be drawn between Alschuler’s psychopolitics of liberation, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Native American activism sheds a light on the important interdependence between psychology and politics.

Alschuler’s psychopolitics of liberation can be applied to Native Americans in the United States because through their education and land activism are working towards freeing themselves not only from federal control of land and education, but also from psychological colonial dominance and ill-being caused by American colonialism. While it is important for Native Americans to regain their land in order to sustain themselves and regain control over education to preserve their culture, the process of engaging in activism acts as psychotherapy for the soul wound of historical trauma. The source of Native American historical trauma is colonialism and repression, but a way out is engaging in political activism. Politics lays on either side of the soul wound— it is the source but at the same time it is the solution.

Freire’s theory of liberation through education is heavily present in Native American activism. As mentioned earlier, Freire states that the oppressed have to liberate themselves through education, realizing they are oppressed and through that gain freedom. Through the Wapato Indian Club, the Yakama-NILI Partnership, community education, and the Lakota People’s Law Project all not only stress the importance of educating Native youth in their traditional culture, but they also focus on teaching history from their own perspective. As mentioned in the education chapter, much of federal education has provided a warped narrative of United States history where Native Americans were savages and White Europeans were devoid of blame. In doing this, educational programs are erasing the reality of Native American oppression. However, Native American education activism puts the focus back on Native American oppression, and by teaching their communities and young generations about the trauma of history they working to liberate themselves. It is not just the goals they achieve through the activism that is important, but the process of education activism is necessary for Native American freedom.

What makes Native American activism so special from a psychological standpoint is the way it not only engages in a pedagogy of the oppressed, but brings in the elements of culture, community worth, and intergenerational connection. It is not only focused in political consciousness, but it also gives Native Americans the tools to reconnect with their culture on a psychological level. The Native American approach to curbing historical trauma is a two-pronged method of collective healing: it is both procedural and goal-oriented. While it is true that Native American activists stress the importance of regaining land and jurisdiction over the education of their youth, the activism has procedural importance.

Alschuler’s psychopolitics of liberation, as mentioned in Part I, refers to programs created to help a community or society recover and heal from oppression and state repression. This includes programs which increase the oppressed group’s political consciousness, programs that assist psychological healing, and direct action to end the oppression. The Wapato Indian Club, apart from teaching Yakama children their cultural roots, also assisted healing by connecting elders and children through cultural dance. The work of Moccasins on the Ground has taught Native American environmental activists tactics of nonviolent activism. On a psychological level, Native American liberation activism fights acculturative stress, explored by Brave Heart, Duran, and Duran (1998), by fighting assimilation thereby reducing related stress. Native American activism blends together Alschuler’s different strategies of psychopolitics of liberation, and through this they are able to pursue psychological healing.

This study concludes that Native American activism is important to study and analyze from a lens of political psychology because it engages Freire’s educational element and Alschuler’s psychopolitics of liberation. It differs from other types of activism not only due to the presence of historical trauma, but also due to the importance for Native Americans of connecting generations and reclaiming culture through activism. Both in the realms of land and education activism, Native Americans have repeatedly stressed the importance of ending the legacy of European colonialism and use these movements for psychological healing. This research is important because it represents how the psychopolitics of liberation extend beyond cultural boundaries and how psychology and healing play an important role in politics and activism. It is important to analyze historical trauma from a political psychology lens approach because in this case, and in the cases of Holocaust-induced historical trauma and Vietnam veteran transmission of trauma, the psychological disturbance and its political context cannot be divorced. If they were, only half of the phenomenon would be analyzed– it would not be a complete picture.

Some limitations of the study lie in the difficulty of measuring historical trauma. Although Whitbeck et al. (2004) were able to operationalize Native American historical trauma into symptoms and associated feelings and other ethnographic studies have attempted similar research, ethnographic studies have more internal than external legitimacy. In other words, while it is possible to gain a lot of important and legitimate information in the form of first-hand accounts of historical trauma, due to the fact that these studies focus on small groups and because Native American tribes vary significantly in cultural traditions and experiences, the results of these studies are not well generalizable. While this is a limitation of ethnographic work, the ethnographic studies conducted on Native American historical trauma provide the correct framework for viewing historical trauma and reveal the reality of the source of Native American transgenerational suffering. Because this thesis draws on ethnographic studies, this is a limitation.

             Questions for Further Research

Some issues and questions were raised during the research for this thesis that I did not have the time or ability to answer, but that I think are relevant and important to answer. How successful is the psychopolitics of liberation for Native Americans? Does it achieve more or less than psychoanalytic therapy? What about other kinds of therapy for that matter? Would it be more useful to enact programs which combine political activism and Western psychotherapeutic practices? In order to determine this, it would require the operationalization of successful therapy and collection of primary research from Native Americans: those who have only engaged in political activism for healing, those who have only experienced psychotherapy, and those who have experienced both.

It would be important to conduct this kind of research in a variety of different political and cultural contexts in order to better understand how generalizable the conclusions found are. It is also important to point out that just because political praxis might not be a comprehensive “cure” for historical trauma, that does not mean activism is not beneficial at a psychological level. Native Americans face many other problems connected to historical trauma but distinct in their own way — addictions, unemployment, health risks, poverty — and it is likely that activism alone cannot fix everything. However, psychological ill-being is frequently tied to inability to work and physical illness, as identified by Brave Heart, Duran, and Duran (1998). It is also essential to consider the confounding variables that exist in Native American historical trauma research: psychological disturbances such as anxiety and depression which are influenced by contemporary rather than solely historical factors. Studying more in depth the way in which contemporary and historical factors of trauma intersect in Native American historical trauma would be very useful and could provide new ideas for programs of healing.

             Concluding Statements

Can historical trauma be “cured”? As of yet, it is not clear, but what is clear is that the study of historical trauma is gaining more and more momentum, despite it being recognized as a reality by Native Americans for many generations. In the effort to ‘rethink’ historical trauma, scholars are increasingly learning how Native Americans process historical trauma and how they work to mitigate it. Through this, processes of collective understanding of intergenerational trauma are coming to light as well, and we are able to move towards an understanding of the power of political activism in mitigating cultural trauma and loss.

The goal of this thesis was to examine the historical trauma of Native Americans and their political, community-based approaches to overcoming and healing. However, this thesis was also meant to demonstrate the intersections between anthropology, political science, and psychology, showing that psychology can play an important role in cultural activism and politics. The study of Native American activism when connected to historical trauma is emblematic of how political psychology can address culture and psychological healing. Although there are many different Native American activism approaches tackling issues of land and education, through their activism Native Americans have been able to reconnect young generations to traditions and create an environment of collective healing from historical trauma.


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