Redressing First Nations historical trauma: theorizing mechanisms for indigenous culture as mental health treatment

Transcult Psychiatry. 2013 Oct;50(5):683-706. doi: 10.1177/1363461513487669. Epub 2013 May 28.


Indigenous "First Nations" communities have consistently associated their disproportionate rates of psychiatric distress with historical experiences of European colonization. This emphasis on the socio-psychological legacy of colonization within tribal communities has occasioned increasingly widespread consideration of what has been termed historical trauma within First Nations contexts. In contrast to personal experiences of a traumatic nature, the concept of historical trauma calls attention to the complex, collective, cumulative, and intergenerational psychosocial impacts that resulted from the depredations of past colonial subjugation. One oft-cited exemplar of this subjugation--particularly in Canada--is the Indian residential school. Such schools were overtly designed to "kill the Indian and save the man." This was institutionally achieved by sequestering First Nations children from family and community while forbidding participation in Native cultural practices in order to assimilate them into the lower strata of mainstream society. The case of a residential school "survivor" from an indigenous community treatment program on a Manitoba First Nations reserve is presented to illustrate the significance of participation in traditional cultural practices for therapeutic recovery from historical trauma. An indigenous rationale for the postulated efficacy of "culture as treatment" is explored with attention to plausible therapeutic mechanisms that might account for such recovery. To the degree that a return to indigenous tradition might benefit distressed First Nations clients, redressing the socio-psychological ravages of colonization in this manner seems a promising approach worthy of further research investigation.

Keywords: cultural traditions; healing; historical trauma; indigenous peoples; postcolonial studies; therapy outcome evaluation.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acculturation
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Canada
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American / psychology*
  • Manitoba
  • Middle Aged
  • Schools
  • Spiritual Therapies / psychology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / ethnology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy
  • United States