From studies on the Armenian genocide to the Jewish holocaust and North American frontier conflict and dispossession (e.g. Ehlers et al. 2013; Harris 2020; Mangassarian 2016) it is now recognised that collective and individual trauma can have a long-term effect on successive generations of people. The most common term for this is “historical trauma” — the inter-generational legacies of “a collective trauma inflicted on a group of people who share a specific group identity or affiliation” (Evans-Campbell 2008:320). We recently published a paper on this issue in the context of the Native Mounted Police (NMP) in the Journal of Genocide Research (Burke et al. 2020). This particular blog post distils for a more general audience some of the arguments we made in that paper .
Various studies in anthropology and health research have pointed to the connections between historical trauma and ongoing health effects, including biological, emotional, and psychosocial problems. Contemporary health effects include inadequate parenting, greater rates of alcohol and drug dependence, distress, depression, anxiety-related disorders, and other mental health issues, including PTSD-like symptoms (Ehler 2013; Jablonka and Gal Raz 2009; Mulligan 2016).
While individuals may deal with trauma in different ways, studies have shown that trauma can interrupt an adult’s ability to be attuned to the needs of their children, connect emotionally with their children, provide soothing and security, and teach that child to self-sooth. Children with multiple adverse experiences are more vulnerable to multiple poor health outcomes, have more challenges with relationships, and find it difficult to flourish in their adult lives (Felitti et al. 1998).
While many of the effects of trauma are transmitted through learned behaviour, some epigenetic research suggests that the long-term consequences of trauma may also be passed on to succeeding generations via experience-induced changes to human DNA (Holliday 2006). In this context, war, famine, and even racism can affect the health of subsequent generations through biological mechanisms, often in surprising ways (click here for more information).
In our research there is clear and abundant evidence that massacres, violence, conflict, displacement, and the ultimate dispossession of land and destruction of traditional cultural practices were an integral part of the colonial frontier experience. Any and all of these would have constituted trauma for the people that survived it. In considering frontier conflict as historical trauma, affected Aboriginal people experienced immediate impacts, such as witnessing the murders of family members, separation from family, separation from culture and spiritual practices, forced removal from country, and starvation.
There were also persistent, long term, but sometimes less directly or physically violent, impacts from colonialism. These include the suppression of culture and language, forced assimilation, a lack of contemporary recognition or acknowledgement, education and health disadvantages, and the adoption of a perspective of Aboriginal primitivism that has underlaid various paternalistic policies. It is this persistent trauma, without relief, that results in challenges to sustaining psychological, physical and emotional security, and stability, even in contemporary society several generations after the initial trauma was experienced (Merritt 2011).
While the effects of frontier trauma on Aboriginal populations may be fairly readily recognised, we argue that the lesser known victims of frontier trauma are the Aboriginal troopers of the NMP themselves. While undoubtedly the instruments of inflicting trauma on others, many of these men would also have been victims of prior trauma themselves before being co-opted into the NMP and used to perpetuate the cycle. They were also potentially subject to violence themselves whilst in the Force: depending on the character of their commanding officer, troopers could be subject to violent beatings as a form of “discipline,” and the threat of extrajudicial execution for infractions such as desertion, as well as threats of violence from local Aboriginal populations should they be released from their service or desert successfully.
We suggest that trauma was induced for the troopers by both the dislocated context from which they were drawn (and often forcibly taken) and therefore their own traumatic family and community histories, as well as by the tasks they had to complete as members of the NMP. While we will never know the precise nature or scale of the psychological toll taken on troopers or officers, there are some grounds for arguing that various coping mechanisms may have been adopted by NMP personnel to deal with the consequences of their actions. Self-medication through alcohol was one potential solution, sometimes combined with attempts at suicide. Many transitioned out of the NMP as soon as they were able due to the stresses induced by the life they had to lead.
The long-term and ongoing effects of trauma can be seen today in the descendants of troopers, even though they themselves have no first-hand relationship with the events of the nineteenth century. For example, a descendant of Jack Noble, an Aboriginal trooper who served in the NMP from the 1870s to the early 1900s, articulated the consequences of Jack’s time in the NMP for subsequent generations of the family. According to her, Jack became a harsh disciplinarian, not because he viewed that as normal practice, but because his knowledge of the NMP’s activities made him worry for the futures of his children. In wanting to make them tough enough to survive should the police ever come for them, Jack’s behaviour created multi-generational distrust, if not outright fear, of the police as an institution.
Recognising that frontier conflict and its repercussions had ongoing, long-term psychological impacts on Aboriginal people in the form of both individual and collective trauma at the time, and historical, inter-generational trauma since, is neither simple nor easy. Despite the Australian frontier wars taking place over a century ago, their impacts continue to reverberate today in a range of different ways that need to be understood. It is also important to understand that Aboriginal people responded to what happened on the frontier in a range of ways, many demonstrating considerable agency and adopting strategies which ensured their survival.
The real question now is how should we, as a community, deal with claims of historical trauma today? The current politics of apology and the ongoing debates over whether or not the frontier “really” constituted a war obscure any concerted or concerned attempts to deal with the subject effectively. Recognising the existence of trauma—both then and now—may be the first step towards a more generous and representative dialogue, as difficult, confronting and messy as that may be.
Atkinson, J. 2002 Trauma Trails: Recording Song Lines – The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. Melbourne: Spinifex.
Burke, H., B. Barker, L.A. Wallis, S. Craig and M. Combo 2020 Betwixt and between: Trauma, survival and the Aboriginal troopers of the Queensland Native Mounted Police. Journal of Genocide Research.
Ehler, U. 2013 Enduring psychobiological effects of childhood adversity. Psychoneuroendocrinology 38(9):1850–1857.
Ehlers, C.L., I.R. Gizer, D.A. Gilder, J.M. Ellingson, and R. Yehuda 2013 Measuring trauma in an American Indian community sample: contributions of substance dependence, Affective Disorder, Conduct Disorder and PTSD. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 133:180–187.
Evans-Campbell, T. 2008 Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska communities: a multi-level framework for exploring impacts on individuals, families and communities. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 23(3):316–338.
Felitti, V.J., R.F. Anda, D. Nordenberg, D.F. Williamson, A.M. Spitz, V. Edwards and J.S. Marks 1998 Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14(4):245–258.
Harris, J. 2020 An inheritance of terror: post-memory and transgenerational transmission of trauma in second generation Jews after the Holocaust. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 80:69–84
Hartmann, W.E. and J.P. Gone 2014 American Indian historical trauma: Community perspectives from two Great Plains medicine men. American Journal of Community Psychology 54:274–88.
Holliday, R. 2006 Epigenetics: a historical overview. Epigenetics 1(2):76–80.
Jablonka, E. and G. Raz 2009 Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: prevalence, mechanisms, and implications for the study of heredity and evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology 84(2):131–176.
Mangassarian, S.L. 2016 100 years of trauma: The Armenian genocide and intergenerational cultural trauma. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma 25(4):471–381.
Merritt, S. 2011 First Nations Australians: surviving through adversities and malignant grief. Australian Journal of Grief and Bereavement 14:74–77.
Mulligan, D.J. 2016 Early environments, stress and the epigenetics of human health. Annual Review of Anthropology 45:233–249.