Indigenous Trauma and Healing

Trauma and Indigenous Peoples

For more than 500 years in the Americas, colonial systems have been violently enforced and have negatively affected Indigenous peoples in profound ways, resulting in vast inequities. Since first negotiating the Treaties, including Treaties 1 and 2, Canada has violated the spirit and intent of these documents, the cumulative impact of which has created the current marginalization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples.

Canada’s unique history of colonization includes:

  • Removal of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands.
  • Intentional starvation was used as a way to contain and control Indigenous peoples.
  • Imposed salvation was imposed to abolish the spiritual and cultural beliefs of the Indigenous peoples.
  • Forced sterilization was done in an attempt to eliminate Indigenous bloodlines.

In the creation of the residential and day schools, culture, language, family ties, and community networks were destroyed for generations of Indigenous children. This destruction of structures and practices that allowed groups to thrive and continue as Nations, is cultural genocide and has resulted in damage to political and social norms among the Indigenous populations[1] .

These policies have had wide-ranging effects on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of individuals their families, and their communities.

  • isolation/alienation
  • shame
  • anger toward school and parents
  • self-hatreda
  • internalized racism
  • fear of authority
  • low self-esteem
  • self-destructive behaviours (substance abuse, gambling, alcoholism, suicidal behaviours)
  • acting aggressively
  • unresolved grief
  • difficulty with parenting effectively
  • family violence
  • loss of stories
  • loss of traditions
  • loss of identity
Community and Culture
  • loss of connectedness with languages, traditions and cultural history
  • loss of togetherness and collective support
  • loss of support from Elders
  • lack of control over land and resources
  • increased suicide rate
  • lack of communal raising of children
  • lack of initiative
  • dependency on others
  • communal violence

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart coined the term Historic Trauma as the “Cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.[2]”  She describes why this definition is distinct from our current understandings of PTSD:

“The theory of post traumatic stress disorder doesn’t capture not only chronic trauma in one’s lifetime, but trauma across generations. There are more theories that are starting to emerge, like complex trauma, which does deal with multiple traumas in one’s lifetime. But still it doesn’t really address generational trauma and it doesn’t talk about massive group trauma.[3]

In addition, the concept of Intergenerational Trauma has been brought forward:

“Intergenerational or multi-generational trauma happens when the effects of trauma are not resolved in one generation. When trauma is ignored and there is no support for dealing with it, the trauma will be passed from one generation to the next. What we learn to see as “normal”, when we are children, we pass on to our own children. Children who learn that physical and sexual abuse is “normal”, and who have never dealt with the feelings that come from this, may inflict physical abuse and sexual abuse on their own children. The unhealthy ways of behaving that people use to protect themselves can be passed on to children, without them even knowing they are doing so[4]

Hope and Healing Trauma

Most Indigenous scholars proposed that the wellness of an Aboriginal community can only be adequately measured from within an Indigenous knowledge framework that is holistic, inclusive, and respectful of the balance between the spiritual, emotional, physical, and social realms of life. Their findings indicate that treatment interventions must honour the historical context and history of Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, there appears to be strong evidence that strengthening cultural identity, community integration, and political empowerment can enhance and improve mental health and substance use disorders in [Indigenous] populations.[5]

Unresolved trauma from residential school abuse continues to impact individuals, families, communities and nations and will do so until it can be expressed, validated and released in healthy, creative ways.

Individual health and healing is integral to a balanced family and community life. In this context, healing is a group process involving all those who are impacted by an individual’s disease, whether of the mind, body, heart or spirit.

“The Elders teach that, if a problem is due to ignorance, meaning the person lacks the knowledge or skills required for balanced relationships or a balanced life, the situation requires teachings. If the person possesses the knowledge and skills, but the problem persists, the situation requires healing. Through Elders, traditional healers and cultural teachers, these beliefs and customs live on whether in remote, rural or urban [Indigenous] communities[6].

Pathways to Knowledge and Healing

There has been much written and shared by Knowledge Keepers and Elders regarding models for wellness that include healing from trauma. While not exhaustive, the following are some examples of ways of living in balance and pathways to wellness from Anishinabe, Ininew, Mi’kmak, and Dakota/Lakota traditions:


  • Bimaadiziwin
  • Medicine Wheel
  • 7 Sacred Teachings
  • Walking the Red Road


  • Medicine Wheel
  • Mino-pimatisiwin – Michael Hart


  • Two-eyed Seeing 


  • Return to the Sacred Path – Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart
  • Circle of Courage – Martin Brokenleg

Two Eyed Seeing

In the Fall of 2004 Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall offered the Mi’kmaw term Etuaptmumk or in English – ‘Two Eyed Seeing’ as a way of understanding the integration of Indigenous and Western worldviews or forms of knowledge. (Martin, D.2012).

However, there are other ways of understanding ‘Two Eyed Seeing’, one of which recognizes that the Indigenous worldview and knowledge incorporates both the intuitive, holistic, metaphorical mind of the brains right hemisphere with the analytic, reductive, linear left hemisphere.  Whereas Western worldviews and knowledge rely predominantly on the functions of the linear, analytic left hemisphere.  In this case ‘Two Eyed Seeing’ refers to a state of mind that relies on a balanced use of the left and right brain functions.x1   This is often referred to as a holistic worldview. From an Indigenous perspective we define this as consisting of knowledge produced from the body, mind, heart and spirit.  It appears that this form of ‘traditional’ indigenous knowledge gave indigenous populations the capacity to perceive crisis as an opportunity to grow and become stronger.x2   As a result, Indigenous populations were endowed with the capacity to minimize the negative effects of trauma.

When First Nations people used ‘Two Eyed Seeing’ in the past we faced crisis with confidence because we were able to manage and grow from crisis and cope with trauma.

The (traditional) tribal family continues to grow in spite of whatever trouble comes along and has the ability to use crisis as an opportunity for growth.  The (traditional) tribal family is adaptable and resilient in that it has the capacity to encounter crisis and use the discoveries from these experiences to become stronger.  Problems are perceived as challenges and opportunities for learning.  These perceptions have provided Aboriginal people with the capacity to survive numerous challenges from the environment and European settlers.  However depleted abilities may be Aboriginal people have remained strong enough to survive tremendous crises over the past five hundred years.

Connors, Maidman, 2001

Colonization experiences which have included residential schools and resulted in loss of language, culture, teachings, beliefs, lands and self determination all contributed to progressive disconnection from ‘two eyed seeing’ and weakened our ability to face and cope with crisis, leaving us vulnerable to the negative effects of crisis. Today crisis often creates increased events of trauma that result in prolonged and pervasive physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm. In addition, colonization has weakened our positive connections and relationships within family, and community. These losses have also contributed to depleting our capacity to cope with crisis and trauma. Current western research supports First Nations knowledge recognizing indigenous communities that maintain and support traditional cultural practices, beliefs, values and self determination experience less crisis and trauma and cope more effectively with these events (Chandler & Lalonde, 2008), Levy, 1965, & Westlake & May, 1986). In other words, ‘two eyed seeing’ and living appears to increase our capacity to cope with and benefit from crisis so that trauma occurs less and when it happens it is less likely to produce enduring harmful effects. Today we refer to this capacity as resilience. From an Indigenous perspective we can refer to this as ‘Two Eyed Seeing’ and living. Elders often refer to indigenous culture as ‘a way of life’ or a way of seeing and living.

The ability to employ the functions of both hemispheres of the brain in balance, as described in ‘two eyed seeing’, appears to offer the abilities that enable resilience.

From a healing or therapeutic perspective this condition can be encouraged by utilizing therapies or healing practices that speak to the development of, each hemisphere. Both Western and First Nations healing/therapeutic practices offer approaches that can accomplish this. However, the effects of colonization on First Nations people have shifted our worldviews so that First Nations people now have worldviews that range from assimilated western worldviews to traditional First Nations worldviews (Two Eyed Seeing). As a result therapeutic interventions that address both brain hemispheres have to be used and have to match the client’s worldview. It is therefore, imperative that therapists/healers assess the worldviews of their clients and ensure that the healing/therapeutic practices offered match with their worldview. This means that appropriate healing practices can consist of Western therapies, traditional First Nations practices or combinations of both. Today we identify these approaches as culturally safe or competent practices. Practitioners who desire to be effective healers within First Nations and Inuit communities should complete an indigenous cultural competence program.

In short traditional indigenous cultures contain the strengths that create the capacity to cope effectively with crisis and trauma.

Despite the many assaults that have occurred on the Aboriginal families of North America during the past five hundred years, Native people have survived and are… (recovering from the impact of colonization). While it is a travesty that some First Nations did not survive to see this time of healing, it is a testament of the resilience and strength of the tribal family that so many Aboriginal families remain. Today, many Aboriginal people are beginning to realize that most of the strengths that enabled our survival lie within our cultures. Those ways that the colonizers regarded as primitive and from which they attempted to separate Native people are what many First Nations and Non-Native people now realize contain the tools that will likely ensure the survival of all peoples and all of creation on this planet. This is why today there is a strong resurgence of native culture and native pride. Aboriginal families are now coming full circle to redefine the principles from our past that will help us to form a healthier future.

Connors, Maidman, 2001

One core principal that can promote our healing and recovery is ‘two eyed seeing’. As we learn once again to utilize the functions of both hemispheres of our brains in more balanced ways we rebuild resilience and by doing so recover our capacity to cope effectively with crisis and traumax2. In short much of the rebuilding that we need to do is from within ourselves in balance with some of what is offered from others. Some First Nations people refer to this process as decolonization or reclaiming much of what we have lost.

Our elders often remind us ‘Creator has given us all that we need to live good lives. We need only to attend to these gifts and use them well for our benefit and the benefit of all of creation.’

Contributed by Dr. Ed Connors.

x1Jill Bolte Taylor in her book My Stroke of Insight offers useful insights into this phenomena.
x2Rupert Ross offered useful insights into the indigenous worldview in his book “Dancing With A Ghost” Exploring Indian Reality.

Indigenous People and Trauma Resource List

  • Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies – Renee Linklater, 2014.
  • Reclaiming Youth at Risk (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Bockern, 2002)
  • Seeking Mino-Pimatisiwin: An Aboriginal Approach to Helping – Michael Anthony Hart, 2002.

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission. P. 1

[2] Brave Heart MYH. The Return to the Sacred Path: Healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the Lakota through a psychoeducational group intervention. Smith Coll Stud Soc Work.


[3] Brave Heart MYH. Wellbriety! White Bison’s online magazine. Vol. 6, Number 6. May 23, 2005

[4] Aboriginal Healing Foundation (1999). Aboriginal Healing Foundation Program Handbook, 2nd Edition. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation found in Wesley-Esquimaux CC, Smolewski M. Historic trauma and Aboriginal healing.Ottawa, Canada: Aboriginal Healing Foundation; 2004.

[5]Teresa Naseba Marsh, Diana Coholic, Shila Cote-Meek, and Lisa M Najavits. Blending Aboriginal and Western Healing Methods to Treat Intergenerational Trauma with Substance Use Disorder in Aboriginal Peoples who Live in Northeastern Ontario, Canada, Harm Reduction Journal (2015) 12:14

[6]Chansonneuve, D. Reclaiming Connections: Understanding Residential School Trauma among Aboriginal People. Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2005.