Transforming Historical Harms
The following is an excerpt our new manual, Transforming Historical Harms, by David Anderson Hooker and Amy Potter Czajkowski, presented by Eastern Mennonite University in partnership with Coming to the Table. Download a free PDF of the entire manual. To order a hard copy, email us at email@example.com with a description of your plans to use the manual.
Historical trauma, the multigenerational transmission of trauma and historical harms
In the THH framework, when we speak of “historical trauma,” it is not simply a trauma from a historical period. Rather, historical trauma refers to an event or complex set of events that affected a significant segment of society or the entire populace. The trauma responses to the event or events were then transmitted to the following generation. The modern day impacts are what we call historical harms.
Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart coined the term “historical trauma,” defined as “the collective emotional and psychological injury both over the life span and across generations…emanating from massive group trauma” (Brave Heart & Evans-Campbell, 2008). The wounding goes beyond impacting individuals and overwhelms the majority of a group of people. Often, historical trauma is cultural trauma in the sense that a complex set of traumagenic events, policies and practices were directed at a segment of society because of some specific distinguishing feature of that group (e.g., race, ethnicity, belief, gender, sexuality, etc.).
The responses to traumagenic circumstances can be passed down between generations. Vamik Volkan describes this as the trans-generational transmission of trauma (Volkan, 1991). We use multi-generational transmission of trauma to signify the many generations that can be impacted by historical trauma.
The more traumagenic the circumstances, the more likely that trauma responses will be passed between generations. Martha Caberea describes these as “multiply wounded societies.” She writes, “Multiply wounded societies run the risk of becoming societies with inter-generational traumas. It is virtually a law that one treats others the way one treats oneself. Anywhere that large population groups are traumatized, the trauma is transferred to the next generation” (Cabrera, 1995).
A traumagenic society is one in which the society has incorporated (de facto or de jure) policies, practices and beliefs that continue to traumatize specific groups within the society to that group’s detriment and the benefit of others. Over an extended period, the traumagenic society reflects the continuing trauma through clear disparities in health, welfare, economic status and many other forms of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. Over time, the group feature (race, ethnicity, religion, etc) that was the basis of the original traumagenic policies, practices and beliefs becomes a clear predictor of dysfunction, or lack of well-weing. These modern day manifestions are historical harms.
Historical trauma is massive group trauma that crosses generations through the multi-generational transmission of trauma. It impacts individuals as well as groups and society and manifests as current day harms, which we refer to as historical harms because they are present harms linked to historical trauma. These understandings are significant in that strategies for group and societal change need to be explored in addition to strategies for individual healing and both the history and present need to be explored and connected.