How Native Americans Are Healing Despite Ongoing Settler Colonialist Trauma

drawing of two Native Americans back to back with eyes closed

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • November has been recognized as Native American Heritage Month since 1990.
  • The impacts of settler colonialism on the mental health of Native American communities deserve greater attention, as violence against Indigenous individuals is ongoing. 
  • For Native American peoples, the Western construct of mental health may be considered a poor fit to meet their needs, especially following intergenerational trauma.

The pandemic has contributed to a growing understanding of the impacts of collective trauma and indigenous communities have long navigated this in terms of settler colonialist harm. For Native Americans, this began in 1492, following the arrival of Columbus, and continues today.  

Many may associate Standing Rock with the #NoDAPL movement that gained momentum in 2016 to address the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, but that is only one example of the settler colonialist violence that has threatened Native American communities for centuries.

For Indigenous communities across Turtle Island (the Indigenous name for the American continent), settler colonialism includes such legislation as the Indian Civilization Act Fund of 1819 and the Peace Policy of 1869, which implemented cultural genocide through boarding schools, and undeniably negatively impacts mental health.

#NoDAPL Movement at Standing Rock

Desiree Kane, a Miwok journalist, worked in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as part of the #NoDAPL movement. She says, “It is hard to put a pin in a time that someone experiences colonial violence because we are born unwillingly into a world rife with it.”

Kane describes how she is often asked in a myriad of ways to explain how she is still living, as she reflects on a terrible experience trying to access support after the trauma at Standing Rock through the Indian Health Service (IHS), whereby her confidentiality was not maintained.

To cope with the mental health impacts of trauma from Standing Rock, especially after having her privacy violated by the service provider that was recommended to support her healing, Kane notes how she connected with the land for relief. “Nature has no colonizer gaze,” she says.

Traditional Healing Practices

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing noted how settler colonialism views Indigenous health through a deficit lens, which constructs them as ill, contributing to their erasure.

With that disconnect in mind, it is no wonder that McGuire-Adams employed “an Anishinaabeg research paradigm to promote "gwesayjitodoon indo bimaadiziiwin", which means to transform oneself into a better life.”

By relying on traditional practices that helped their ancestors survive, Native Americans continue their resistance in a country that sent the Seattle Indian Health Board body bags when COVID-19 supplies were requested.

Kane says, “the Indigenous adaptation of the BITE model gives language for the Native community to work with when we're talking about what our healthy selves look like outside of the control of authoritarian regimes.” 

Noting such concepts as Wellbriety, Kane highlights how it can facilitate recovery from substance use, as trauma often contributes to unhealthy behaviors to survive the mental health impacts of settler colonialism.

Kane explains, “By relying on coalition-building, trauma-informed healing practices, community support, and approaches that are grounded in truth and reconciliation, Native peoples can defend our communities against the disinformation that John Trudell described as the mining of our minds.” 

By understanding how “a colonization of the mind” accompanies the capitalist extraction of resources from Indigenous land, Kane draws connections to how such settler colonialist trauma can make it hard for Native Americans to think clearly and feel mentally and emotionally well.

Kane explains how Indigenous communities often feel a deep connection to their land, but settler colonialist trauma can rob them of it, which is why the LANDBACK movement cannot be separated from the promotion of mental wellbeing, as that requires Indigenous sovereignty.

Trauma Since 1492

Steven Fast Wolf, LPCC, says, “Intergenerational trauma can be more likened to intercultural trauma. Certainly, the Native American indigenous peoples were traumatized by the forced imposition of another culture. It was not a gradually integrated imposition, but an abrupt imposition resulting in Native American peoples being relocated to reservations.”

Steven Fast Wolf, LPCC

It was not a gradually integrated imposition, but an abrupt imposition resulting in Native American peoples being relocated to reservations.

— Steven Fast Wolf, LPCC

Fast Wolf describes how most, but not all Native American cultures survived such settler colonialist trauma, often through reliance on their cultural spirituality and traditions to cope.“Many Native Americans still seek traditional healing for mental health,” he says. 

Native Americans like Kane have long made use of ancestral practices to survive the reality of settler colonialist trauma, often by connecting with nature as part of their community. She says, “Most people in the Redwoods have a shared tradition called tree washing. When something is going on, you go outside barefoot, and you ask the community of trees for help.”

Decolonization is Necessary

Assistant professor in Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Cary B. Waubanascum, MSW, PhD, is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Wakeny^ta (Turtle Clan), with ancestral roots in the Menominee, Forest County Potawatomi, and Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Nations of Wisconsin. 

With her research that delves into the harms of ongoing colonialism, Waubanascum draws on the work of María Lugones and Anibal Quijano, as she explains, “Colonialism is defined as the Western-imposed society of capitalism, racism, and a modern colonial gender system, a dichotomous hierarchical construct to create dominance and control and justify violence against Indigenous peoples.”

In this way, Waubanascum notes how the violence perpetrated at Standing Rock is just one example of settler colonialist violence that is rampant. It is why Indigenous scholars, Eve Tuck and Patrick Wolfe describe colonialism, not as an event in history, but as the whole structure. 

Navigating Social Work

Waubanascum recalls being in class in the first semester of her doctoral studies when the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock developed. “I was emotionally distressed over what was happening, but most of my Social Work professors didn't even ask me about it,” she says. 

Stepping into the hallway, Waubanascum ran into one of the few professors who was aware and had a good relationship with Indigenous communities, who asked how she was doing. “It impacts our whole health, the things that cause violence that we continue to experience, whether it's the raping of our Mother Earth or threats from the settler colonialist systems,” she says. 

Cary B. Waubanascum, MSW, PhD

It impacts our whole health, the things that cause violence that we continue to experience, whether it's the raping of our Mother Earth or threats from the settler colonialist systems.

— Cary B. Waubanascum, MSW, PhD

Even as a social worker, Waubanascum describes how she has had another social worker use his power to threaten to put her nephew into foster care. Especially given social work’s complicity with settler colonialism, Waubanascum says that her definition of justice must be different.

Resilience with Community

A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Community Psychology recognized the complicity of culturally incompetent healthcare providers who fail to adequately meet the health needs of Indigenous communities.

To address these healthcare disparities, researchers created a brief training program to promote mental wellbeing that was grounded in multicultural competence, cultural humility, and decolonization for Native Americans.

This aligns well with the decolonization that Waubanascum recommends for promoting mental wellbeing, as she shares how healing it was for her to attend virtual events with the Minneapolis American Indian Center earlier in the pandemic in 2020, and access the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center while completing her doctoral studies in 2021.  

Waubanascum says, “They had called for volunteers to help sew ribbon skirts and shirts for the young people graduating from high school. That was my way of taking care of myself. I knew that if I walked into that room of Indigenous women who were doing this good work, creating things, we put our good minds into it, my stress and anxiety would just shed right off.”

Sitting with other Indigenous women, Waubanascum shares how it helped to listen to the laughter, support, and love, among the sewing machine sounds. She says, “Every stitch that we were putting in was going to go on to a young Native graduate, which meant everything in the world to me, and it was very healing, as people confirmed what I was writing about.” 

Waubanascum explains how that space helped her cope. “As they prayed following the murder of Daunte Wright, they acknowledged how this violence was continuing to happen on Indigenous land. It helped me so much to reckon with that, to just process what was going on,” she says.

What This Means For You

Whether you are new to thinking critically about the mental health impacts of settler colonialist trauma on Native Americans or have been familiar with this for years, it is important to address your own complicity. Indigenous communities are far from a monolith but they deserve equitable access to mental health especially on their very land that settlers have violently colonized to their detriment.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.