Sept. 29, 2021

Trauma can be passed down through generations

Integrative healing therapist and Métis/Cree Elder Kerrie Moore discusses lasting impacts of intergenerational trauma
Elder Kerrie Moore

Traumas experienced by Indigenous Peoples due to residential schools and colonization can be passed down through generations, even among those now living in a “non-trauma environment,” says Métis/Cree traditional knowledge keeper and ceremonialist Kerrie Moore, BSW’03, MSW’04. Moore is an integrative healing therapist and wellness Elder in the Faculty of Social Work and Writing Symbols Lodge.

This, she says, is called intergenerational trauma.

In this Q-and-A, Elder Moore shares her perspective on intergenerational trauma, healing and the discovery of unmarked graves.

Q. What is intergenerational trauma?

A. Unresolved toxic stress creates trauma. Unresolved trauma can be passed down through many generations until it is resolved. Living within a caring environment is the most important way to heal trauma and also learn how to live and parent. Unfortunately, children that were placed in residential schools did not have loving, caring adults to nurture them.

We only know what we know and often repeat our behaviours and can then pass these behaviours on to our own children unless we learn something new. The new way of knowing must also be repetitive in order to change our brains … our environments and genetics play an equal role in trauma development and healing. Our ancestors also passed down their healing memories and behaviours.

Our Elders have always said, “What we do today will affect the next seven generations.” Repetitive traumas that happened to our ancestors, as many as seven generations before, can be passed down to our children.

Intergenerational trauma can also affect individuals and family members who did not attend residential school.

We may be living in a very nurturing environment, but, if our ancestors lived through trauma that was repetitive, the trauma markers can still be passed down. Some of us may experience the behaviours of trauma and not know why.

There are three behaviours attached to trauma: anger, anxiety and depression. Those behaviours can be transferred intergenerationally … Our behaviours are often connected to unresolved current or intergenerational trauma.

Q. How does healing from intergenerational trauma happen?

A. When people are in trauma, it is imperative for therapists to create safety first. A more Indigenous way of doing this is to also connect to spirit. The idea is that when we are connected to spirit, we are safe and can begin the process of healing and hearing and remembering.  

Our senses bring us into our “survivor brain.” It is the Creator’s way of protecting us from things within our environment that may be dangerous. The survivor brain is triggered by what we see, smell, hear, taste, touch, feel. Cultural healing involves all our senses.

An Indigenous way of connecting is to begin in spirit with our smudge ceremonies. Spirit is not a religion; spirit is in our belly button, where we are connected to our mothers when we are born. When we are in spirit we can think, solve problems and build relationships.

In an Indigenous way of knowing and being, we are four-dimensional beings: spiritual, emotional, physical and cognitive. The process of colonization has affected this way of being and focused more on two-dimensional aspects of the human being: the physical and cognitive, which are more accepted or known in a Western world view.

This way of thinking has been harmful to holistic ways of healing. What we look like and what we think becomes more relevant than how we feel and heal. Our spirit is pushed away from us.

We have to feel in order to heal. Our emotions are the Creator’s antibiotics. We’ve had both our spirit and emotions disenfranchised. We have to reclaim what is still ours and we cannot do that until our grief and our trauma is acknowledged.

Q. How does the recent discovery of unmarked graves on former residential school sites impact intergenerational trauma and healing?

A. We’ve always known about it as Indigenous people; that our relatives, our brothers and sisters never came back. We were always telling people and they wouldn’t believe us. We have been in a place of disenfranchised grief … grief that is not acknowledged. Until it is acknowledged, we can’t have reconciliation.

Our grief is not disenfranchised anymore. The discovery of our children created a wave of grief that permeated not just Canada, but the world. Our children were acknowledged and, with that, our grief was acknowledged. We could not really have reconciliation until there was acknowledgement of the truth.

Indigenous people can begin the process of grieving and, with grieving, will come healing.

We have been grieving for a long time, but the guilt, shame and lack of acknowledgement kept us in that place of guilt, anger and shame. We can heal now through that acknowledgement, through our ceremonies, through our community supports.

We have lost many things, but our children are the most precious and now we can bring them home and do our healing.

Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30, now coinciding with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, raises awareness of residential schools, recognizes and honours the trauma and healing of survivors and future generations, and renews commitments to reconciliation. For a list of 2021 Orange Shirt Day events hosted by the Office of Indigenous Engagement, as well as associated wellness support, please visit the Orange Shirt Day 2021 website. For other events happening around campus and organized by faculties, please visit the Community Engagement page.

For additional wellness support and information, please visit UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.