Exploring Historical Trauma in Native American Communities

America was founded with an inspiring vision of a democratic society compromised by two original sins of white supremacy, slavery and genocide. Our nation has never fully reconciled and amended for either. Instead, these sins tragically evolved over time. While more and more of us understand the evolution of slavery through Jim Crow laws, widespread racial discrimination, and the prison industrial complex, the evolution of Native American genocide to cultural genocide in the 20th Century has been sadly less visible. It is important to understand this history when working with Native communities.

My exploration of these issues was facilitated by the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment. Lac du Flambeau is one of 10 regions of the state funded to move population change in behavioral health over an eight year period. I am consulting with the endowment, and each quarter we visit one of the communities. Exploring behavioral health often turns us toward understanding the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. In some communities, that trauma has accumulated over generations and impacts behavioral health today.

Wisconsin has eleven federally recognized tribal nations and one that is not federally recognized. The largest population of Native Americans live in the city of Milwaukee, but that adds up to just less than 1% of the population (Native Americans and Alaskans also represent less than 1% of the U.S. population). Of the 53,000 or so Native Americans in Wisconsin, just over one-third (19,000) live on tribal lands.

The Lac du Flambeau band of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe of the Ojibwe nation live on a reservation in Northern Wisconsin with approximately 3,400 tribal members, 1,800 of whom live on tribal lands. Like many other Native communities, their population has disproportionately suffered from many chronic problems including diabetes, addiction, and alcoholism. Mounting research finds historical trauma as the foundation of these challenges. Historical trauma is understood as “the intergenerational accumulation of risk for poor mental health status among Native peoples that purportedly originates from the depredations of past colonial subjugation, including ethnocidal policies and practices.”[1]In other words, individuals and families have internalized the societal racism, the structural racism, and the legacy of racism on families and communities in ways that generate mental health challenges.

Ernie St. Germaine, an elder from the tribe who played professional baseball, served as a judge, and is now a community educator, began our visit by sharing the origins of the land and the tribe. When French traders saw the Ojibwe people fishing at night with torches, they were amazed by what they called “the lake of torches” — Lac du Flambeau.

The reservation was created after another awful chapter in U.S. history. St. Germaine explained that instead of paying Native Americans outright for land, the U.S. offered annuities, annual payments of food and supplies. In 1850, the U.S. wanted the tribes to move west of the Mississippi River to Sandy Lake in North-central Minnesota. To get their food and supplies, the tribal leaders and members would have to travel there during the time of their annual rice harvest – wild rice being the staple of their diet and reason for settling in north-central Wisconsin. The U.S. had planned to confiscate their land while settling the tribe in Sandy River. When many of the tribal leaders stayed back and the tribe refused to move, the food and supplies were delayed and the people starved. About 400 tribal members died in Sandy Lake and 127 more died during their return to Wisconsin, almost 15% of the tribal members. This tragedy outraged many in the public and led to the creation of reservations in the new state of Wisconsin negotiated by Chief Buffalo La Pointe with the Millard Fillmore administration.

The food annuities over time also contributed to increasing health problems. The food they received became more highly processed and less healthy. In 1949, the first case of diabetes was noted, now it is widespread. Their primary diet of wild rice and fish more limited over time, their diets became dependent on the foods provided by the government, which were more processed and high in carbohydrates. And their fishing and hunting rights were increasingly limited by the state in conflict with their treaty rights.

In the late 1980s, the tribes won a case in court that re-affirmed their treaty rights to hunt and fish not just on their reservations but on their original lands. The region received national media attention as white protesters, often spewing racial epithets and turning violent, sought to stop the Ojibwe from spearfishing during walleye spawning season. The Wisconsin Walleye Wars” lasted for several years and required actions by the governor and police from surrounding counties to protect the Ojibwe while they exercised their treaty rights. The situation was resolved by a court injunction against the protest groups, public outrage at their racism and violence, and Act 31, which required that Wisconsin schools teach Native American history and treaty rights in history and geography courses. While those who opposed the spearfishing were certain the Ojibwe were depleting the stock for sportfishing, a subsequent 20-year study found that the tribe’s effect on fish stocks was negligible.

The deeper story of trauma that we explored in Lac du Flambeau was the long-time policy of removing Indian children from their families and tribes, and sending them to boarding schools to “assimilate” them into Western culture. Under the guise of child welfare and “well intended” social service, children were removed from what were termed “savage families” and “uncivilized communities.” They were then placed in boarding schools far away from their tribes, where their hair was cut, their language forbidden, their culture denied, and their bodies abused. The boarding schools, run by religious groups and government, partly financed themselves from the labor of children, who were taught rote lessons and industrial skills. The children’s nutrition was often inadequate, corporal punishment a norm, and physical and sexual abuse widespread. These were more like prisons than schools.

In Lac du Flambeau sat one of the only boarding schools on a reservation. Today, the boy’s dorm from that school serves as a historical marker and museum to educate visitors about the sadness and horror of the experience. Parents of these children often did not speak English or know where their children – some younger than five years old – had been sent. Parents in Lac du Flambeau, knowing about this school, often hid their children so they would not be taken away which kept them from any type of schooling. Children in the boarding schools experienced trauma when they were separated from the love of their families and communities, and when they were forced to internalize the racist narratives about their people, communities, and culture. This trauma often haunted them for years, and it is no wonder many turned to alcohol and drugs, repeated the abuse they received, and exhibited cynicism and hopelessness about their place in society. While the boarding school in Lac du Flambeau closed in 1932, these practices continued throughout the 20thCentury across America.

We watched the recent documentary “Dawnland” about how the state of Maine formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at the issue of Indian child removal from 1978 to 1992. The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed by Congress in 1978, when it was found that almost one third of children were being removed from their families and 85% of them were being sent away from their tribal lands. Despite the act, the practices of child removal continued. In Maine, over 150 individuals came forward to share their stories, which included horrific examples of individual and family trauma, parents who watched their children be taken away without knowing where they were going and children who experienced physical and sexual abuse from their new guardians.

This followed on the heels of Canada, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 2008 to explore their own history of forced assimilation of First Nations through boarding schools. Their Commission eventually described it as cultural genocide, identified action steps, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a public apology on behalf of the nation. The Maine commission likewise declared that the child welfare system had contributed to cultural genocide. They also issued a call for action for system changes and healing. Biases within child welfare continue today. In Maine, a Native American child is five times more likely to enter the child welfare system. In Minnesota, they are 21 times more likely. The National Indian Child Welfare Association, led by Sarah Kastelic, continues fighting these policies and building practices for tribal child welfare today.

It is important to note again that these were well-intended social services by the dominant white systems, and that there is a long history of white people coming to native communities to help them in ways that instead produced greater harm and oppression. This is why partnering, and bringing in models from outside native communities can understandably be met with great resistance.

The stories of the people who survived these experiences and the immense pain and continued trauma they experience are heartbreaking. And it is compounded by all of the other forms of racism, discrimination, and deprivation their tribes have endured. Yet, the resilience of the people and their culture have been huge assets, and many have worked together to begin building solutions based on these assets.

Lac du Flambeau leaders believe that “culture is prevention,” and that the way to address social ills is to re-instill their language, culture, and their seven teachings (honesty, humility, truth, wisdom, love, respect, bravery). Their Family Circles project is a 24-week program that helps to re-build individual dignity and community pride in their language, culture, and traditions. Brian Jackson, Sue Wolfe, and Ruben Santiesteban lead a team of community educators who are filling the community with pride and hope. They ground their lessons in culture and in their individual experience, focusing on self love, family connections, healthy lifestyles, and positive thinking. They are also building a bi-lingual community by speaking Ojibwe, and teaching children to speak it in the schools. They look to the Menominee tribe in Wisconsin, which has seen its focus on “culture as prevention” lead to significant drops in teen pregnancy, smoking, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Our first morning in Lac du Flambeau opened with an invocation, a welcome from Tribal President Joey Wildcat, and a drum song from the Ogichidaa Singers, a group of Native youth. Instilling the language and cultural pride in the next generation demonstrates the sustainability of this approach and a more hopeful future. The tribal members we met throughout our visit exhibited that love and pride. They are amazing hosts.

In most of our cities, we see little Native American history and culture: public museums, casinos, occasional cultural events, and rare books or films. In Wisconsin, the tribal lands sit far away from Milwaukee or Madison, and the population is small enough that their communities and culture are invisible to many of us. Few understand the full history of our tribes, the government policies that continued oppression of Native communities, and the importance of treaty rights with Native tribes. During our visit, many of us were embarrassed by what we did not know.

During my visits to Australia in recent years, I have been struck that every single meeting and event I’ve attended began with a recognition of the aboriginal land we stood on, and the honoring of the first people. In some cases, an aboriginal elder welcomed us. On Indigenous Peoples Day in October, I spoke at the Parents as Teachers international conference in Phoenix, and they likewise opened with a recognition and welcome by Pima & Maricopa tribal leaders. This is a practice that should be more widely adopted in America.

We need to honor the people whose land we live and work on today, and embrace that history as our history. As with African Americans and immigrant communities, ignorance of the historical foundations of inequality and oppression make it possible to continue pernicious policies and biased practices that exacerbate them. Failure to understand this history can also lead to mis-steps when working with tribes. An equity agenda would call on us to meet them where they are and understand their distinct history and culture before prescribing models and solutions. Writing from the Potawatomi land known now as Milwaukee, we have a lot to learn and much more to do to build a more just and equitable future with our Native American communities.


The Lake of Torches Casino in November snow

Brian Jackson and the Ogichidaa Singers

Tribal President Joey Wildcat welcomes our learning community.

Ruben Santiesteban and his partners introduce us to the Family Circles program.

Ernie St. Germaine, a tribal elder who oriented us to the community’s history.

The boy’s dorm of the former boarding school.

An image from the Boarding School museum of the children who had been taken from their families and tribes

A tour of the Lac du Flambeau tribal museum to learn more about their history and culture.

The Parents as Teachers International conference opened with a welcome and history lesson about the Pima & Maricopa Tribe


[1]A Community-Based Treatment of Native American Historical Trauma: Prospects for Evidence-Based Practiceby Joseph Gone, University of Michigan