Intergenerational Trauma

Guest blogger: Jessica Mohn-Johnsen, Many Rivers Montessori

During a study of World Colonization, my middle school students came across the term “historical trauma” in a seminar reading.  One student in particular had a difficult time grasping its meaning.  “That can’t happen.  It can’t be real,” he said. “Can it?”  I encouraged him to investigate further as we began our study of Migrations and Invasions in the Americas.  He collected articles and did his own research and finally brought it back to me when he requested we read Chapter Three from The Trauma of History by Bonnie Duran, Eduardo Duran, and Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (1998).  The students had one week to read the chapter, find an accompanying reading, write three probing questions, identify and define two or more vocabulary words, and highlight one profound passage.  This reading so engaged the students that all students completed their prep work within three days.

The seminar began with the leader’s selected passage. “Historical trauma and its effects are complex, multigenerational, and cumulative.  A constellation of features that occur in reaction to multigenerational, collective, historical, and cumulative psychic wounding over time–over the lifespan and across generations–historical trauma is characterized as incomplete mourning and the resulting depression absorbed by children from birth onward.  Unresolved trauma is intergenerationally cumulative, thus compounding the mental health problems of succeeding generations” (64).  He chose to follow this text with support from multiple articles about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and epigenetics that link trauma to genetic expression.  The students generated a list of the traumatic events experienced by Native People in this region and I added a few others that they were unfamiliar with.

The students were most fascinated with the cultural losses experienced through removal from ancestral land and the boarding school program.  They considered what dominant white culture continues to do today that compounds this trauma.  Finally, they discussed what their responsibility is as members of the dominant culture.  They determined that first they must acknowledge history by learning about it and talking about it.  Next they must seek to understand through the eyes of Native People rather than presuming to know best as their white ancestors did.  They decided they must engage with a diverse group of people and “keep an eye out for trauma happening NOW before its effects are felt by generations.”

I felt as though this chapter was a great seminar for my students because it was prompted by the interest of a student, because they had already learned about Colonization and its effects on various groups around the world, and because they are well versed in the seminar process.  This would have been a difficult reading to do at this level if those three conditions had not been met.  Also, this book is nearly twenty years old so the students were asked to come up with more current research.  I felt that the epigenetics articles that students discovered helped those who required “proof” that the effects of trauma could be passed to the next generation.

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