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Residential School Syndrome or Historic Trauma: finding what works. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson Ph.D. student Counselling Psychology University of Calgary Website: Objectives.

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residential school syndrome or historic trauma finding what works

Residential School Syndrome or Historic Trauma: finding what works

Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson

Ph.D. student

Counselling Psychology

University of Calgary


  • To increase awareness of the interplay between the history and the health of aboriginal people.
  • To discuss approaches to treatment associated with the Residential School Syndrome and Historic Trauma models.
  • To present an overview of current treatment literature accompanied with case vignettes.
  • To discuss areas that need further research to enhance our understanding and practice
historical context cecil rhodes
Historical context: Cecil Rhodes

“I want to make the map from the Cape to Cairo red.” (Military Conquest)

“The flag is a commercial asset.” (Economic Imperialism)

“The White mans’ burden.” (Cultural Imperialism)

historical context imperialism on the northern plains
Historical context: Imperialism on the northern plains
  • Genocide and the medicine line (Military Conquest)
  • The fur trade and farming (Economic Imperialism)
  • The religious “medicine line” (Cultural Imperialism)
“I saw the Holy Ghost sitting at the foot of my bed…. He was dressed in high class White Man’s clothes.”

- Chief Piapot, 1871

residential school life7
Residential school life

"The concept of God...corresponds best to man's dark longing to reach perfection."

(Alfred Adler)

"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

(Luke 14:26, "The Holy Bible, King James Version")  

the strategy reprogram the children
The strategy: Reprogram the children

“They are in general very lazy, even more so than the Negroes, who have a great heat as their excuse; but the Indians living in the most healthy climate in the world, in a bracing air, have only neglected their mental as well as their bodily powers, and a good discipline is wanted to change them in a lapse of time to really useful working people.“

(Mme. Capelle, Superintendent of an all-girls' school, 1877, quoted in Barman, Hebra, & McCaskill, 1986 p. 78)

establishing mind control
Establishing mind control
  • You are evil, sinful
  • Your soul needs the Church’s salvation
  • You must obey without question, your own reasoning is faulty and cannot be trusted
  • Maintenance of a cult:
  • Provide alternate family, isolation from non-members, confessions, sleep deprivation, inadequate nutrition.

"At the mission, the truck backed-up and off we went. Right away, boys were separated from girls. We were lined up, sat on chairs, and had our long, beautiful braided hair chopped off. We were thrown into the shower, then had DDT sprinkled all over. It stunk. They gave me a number 79. My name was gone. I was only a number now. We all had the same little bundle of clothing, pinafores, back clothes, socks. You couldn't tell one kid from the other; they transformed individuals into a group. I don't understand how my Shuswap language was turned into English in just one day."

(Elder, Agnes Snow, 1999)




(individual culture)

Beliefs and traditions

Use Adlerian family constellation to determine initial self






(individual culture)

beliefs and traditions

subcultural norms

dominant norms

Memetic transference in a colonial society

Hawkeye Associates, 2003


Memetic transference in a residential school setting



(individual culture)

Dominant norms

Hawkeye Associates, 2003

conditions at residential schools
Conditions at residential schools
  •  loneliness
  • sanctioned brutality
  • malnutrition
  • repression of sexuality
  • sexual abuse
milestones in residential school history
Milestones in Residential School History
  • "By 1930 75% of Treaty Indian children between the ages of 7 and 16 were enrolled in residential schools
  • 50% of the children who passed through the residential schools did not survive to adulthood (Census Canada, 1941)
  • In 1948 children were allowed to spend Xmas with their parents
  • In 1996 the last residential school in Canada closed its doors
effects of residential school to the self
Effects of residential school to the self

"Animate beings are fully human if they are in possession of a theory - a theory about themselves. It is a theory in terms of which a being orders, partitions, and reflects on its own experience and becomes capable of self intervention and control." (Harre, 1989 p. 404)

effects of cultural dislocation to the self
Effects of cultural dislocation to the self

"The experience of self-validation is characterized by any or all of the following thematic components:

(a) security, comfort, and support as opposed to insecurity, discomfort, and abandonment;

(b) self-worth and self-acceptance as opposed to self-depreciation and self-rejection;

(c) competence and autonomy vs. incompetence and helplessness;

(d) identity and belonging vs. identity loss and alienation; and,

(e) love, fulfillment, and meaning in life vs. lovelessness, emptiness and meaninglessness …

Cultural dislocation may therefore manifest as undervalidation or invalidation of self." (Ishu Ishiama, 1995)

effects of residential school abuse on survivors

Ninety percent experienced sexual abuse at residential school

  • 3/4 of the respondents reported that they had abused alcohol
  • Half of the subjects reported that they had a criminal record
  • Thirty one percent reported that they had assaulted police officers
Effects of residential school abuse on survivors

Sample of 127 British Columbia survivor-litigants:

(Corrado & Cohen, 2003)

effects of residential school abuse on survivors19
Effects of residential school abuse on survivors

Only two of the participants did not suffer from at least one diagnosable mental disorder. The most common mental disorders were:

  • PTSD (64.2%)
  • Substance Abuse Disorder (26.3%)
  • Major Depression (21.1%)
  • Dysthymic Disorder (20%)
  • Anxiety Disorder (7.4%)
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (7.4%)
  • Residential School Syndrome (6.3%)
defining the problem a form of ptsd
Defining the problem: a form of PTSD

Specifically, Residential School Syndrome involves: recurrent intrusive memories, occasional flashbacks and quite striking avoidance of anything that might be reminiscent of the Indian residential school experience. At the same time there is an emotional detachment from others and relationship difficulties are common. There is often a diminished interest in a participation in aboriginal cultural activities and markedly deficient knowledge of traditional knowledge and skills. Often there is markedly increased arousal including sleep difficulties, anger management difficulties, and impaired concentration. As might be the case for anyone attending a boarding school with inadequate parenting, parenting skills are often deficient. Strikingly there is a tendency to abuse alcohol or sedative drugs, often starting at a very young age. (Brasfield, 2001 p. 79)

defining the problem a collective soul wound
Defining the problem: A collective soul wound
  • Dream religion of the Iroquois speaks of a "soul wound" that occurs "at the level of myth and dream." (Duran and Duran p. 46)
  • "The experience of historic trauma and intra-generational grief can best be described as psychological baggage being passed from parents to children along with the trauma and grief experienced in each individual's lifetime. The hypothesis is that the residue of unresolved, historic, traumatic experiences and generational or unresolved grief is not only being passed from generation to generation, it is continuously being acted out and recreated in contemporary Aboriginal culture." (Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004, p. 3)
possible therapies referrals in british columbia
Possible therapies: Referrals in British Columbia
  • Recommended treatments for survivors diagnosed with PTSD or RSS 47.6% Cognitive Therapy 28.6% Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy 28.6%; Residential Counselling 14.3% Treatment to deal with negative self image

(Corrado & Cohen, 2003 p. 52)

brasfield s recommended treatment
Brasfield’s recommended treatment
  • Residential treatment [often at alcohol treatment centers but is much broader than alcohol treatment]
  • Outpatient services - "The approach I use is cognitive processing therapy for rape trauma." (Brasfield, 2001)
brave heart s recommended treatment
Brave Heart’s recommended treatment
  • Psychoeducational group experiences within a traditional retreat-like setting.
  • Exposure to historically traumatic memories using audiovisual materials.
  • Traditional prayer and ceremonies
  • Purification ceremonies
possible therapies berry
Possible therapies: Berry
  • "The belief that their spirituality will provide the foundation for a sense of who they are, and a feeling of security within themselves, is a constant theme throughout these discussions."
  • "Being able to hunt, trap, fish and go berry picking were mentioned as traditional activities that were important to them.“

(Berry, 1999)

possible therapies fostering resiliency
Possible therapies: fostering resiliency

“Culture is linked to resilience by two principle aspects. On the one hand cultural norms condition parent-child interactions in ways that can either facilitate or constrain the development of protective factors. On the other hand, manifestations of one's culture (for example, traditions, ceremonies and language) are often important sources of pride and self-esteem serving to support individuals in their struggle against adversity."

(Stout & Kipling, 2003) p. 23

possible therapies combining psycho education and individual counselling
Possible Therapies: combining psycho-education and individual counselling

1) re-process traumatic experience,

2) control and mastering biological stress reactions,

3) re-establish secure social connections and inter-personal efficacy

"Aboriginal people...must be given enough information about their history to recognize the often illogical nature of the convictions some people hold on Indigenous people and an opportunity to revise their beliefs.”

(Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, Aboriginal Healing Foundation)

insight-giving psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, group therapy, relationship and family therapy

advice from two different schools of thought
Advice from two different schools of thought

"...the past has passed. It has no magical, automatic effect on the present or future. At worst, your past habits make it harder for you to change than to be the way you are right now. Harder but not impossible." (Ellis & Harper, 1997 p. 195)

"Leave Jesus on the cross. He's very happy there.... Don't ask him 'why are you there crucified?‘ He'd go bananas trying to explain.... So I did that. He said hello to me and goodbye.“

(Carlos Casteneda in Epstein, 1996 p. 31)

case vignette daniel nippi
Case Vignette: Daniel Nippi
  • Abused sexually by two nuns, a priest and an older youth; also suffered physical beatings
  • Spent the majority of his time from age 16 to 40 in prison for alcohol related offenses, assault and sexual assault
  • Lost his first family including estrangement from his children
  • Reports that counseling (cognitive-behavioral) was only partially effective
  • Turned to Native spirituality following the religious teachings of Saulteaux elders, credits this with saving his life
case vignette george
Case Vignette: George
  • Was physically and sexually abused by a priest
  • History of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, spent time in jail
  • Symptoms of anxiety intensified after initiating legal action
  • Rational Emotive Therapy proved effective in dealing with alcohol abuse, but he became a compulsive gambler
  • EMDR gave him a “bad headache”
  • Attempted “Native Spirituality”, but reported that no matter how hard he tried it did not feel true
  • Terminated therapy following an assault on his wife
case vignette deidre
Case Vignette: Deidre
  • Was physically and sexually abused by her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and at residential school by a number of staff
  • Presented with symptoms of depression, anxiety, anorexia, compulsive gambling, anger control and marital discord
  • Responded well to EMDR used with respect to specific instances of childhood trauma
  • Responded well to Adlerian Psychotherapy aimed at understanding and revising her worldview
  • Responded well to a Cognitive-Behavioral approach to gambling
  • Continues to eat minimal amounts and to exhibit irregular sleep patterns
research focusing on strengths
Research: focusing on strengths

Qualitative study of Amerindian people in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood. 31 aboriginal people took part in 1-hr individual interviews that gathered information on the subjects, backgrounds, their views on wellness, their individual strengths, and the strengths of the community. It was concluded that supporting existing strengths promotes wellness in holistic, culturally appropriate, and empowering ways.

(van Uchelen, Davidson, Quressette, Brasfield, & Demarais, 1997)

research support for resiliency
Research: support for resiliency

Survivors reported the need for support, sharing of stories (healing circles, humour), learning (academic, about colonialism, and spirituality)

The authors also recommend:

  • psycho-education group session to enhance the ability to overcome trauma
  • opening up opportunities
  • community development
  • building parenting skills

(Stout and Kipling, 2003)

research traditional methods
Research: traditional methods

Qualitative research on a group of non-native people with psoriasis

  • Sweatlodge ceremonies
  • Herbal teas and ointments
  • Prayers
  • Purification ceremonies

Over half the sample improved, one dramatically

(Young et. al., 1988)

quantitative research on ptsd
Quantitative research on PTSD
  • EMDR is efficacious (Wilson, 1995)
  • CBT is efficacious with children suffering from anxiety (Liashko & Manassis, 2003)
  • CBT showed more efficacy than EMDR (Devilly and Spence, 1999)
putting the research together
Putting the research together
  • CBT has proven effectiveness in treating PTSD
  • Agreement on the need for psycho-education leading to empowering narratives
  • Healing needs to occur at the community level
  • Families need to be strengthened and supported
resolving the issue at four levels

Societal acknowledgement of responsibility

2. Community development / empowerment

3. Family counselling, psycho-education developing positive family traditions

4. Individual therapy: cognitive restructuring, behavioral approaches specific to the individual

Resolving the issue at four levels
future research
Future Research
  • Are methods that have proven efficacy in dealing with trauma in non-Native populations (e.g. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy; Eye Movement Reprocessing and Desensitization) equally efficacious with aboriginal populations who have faced residential school trauma?
  • What is the experience of aboriginal school survivors who have used community healing circles to deal with their trauma issues?
  • Is the trauma faced by survivors of residential school survivors different from aboriginal people who fall within the tradition of cultural genocide but did not go to residential school?
future research39
Future research
  • Do the second and third generational effects of the residential school trauma also constitute a form of PTSD?
  • What are the effects of participating in community development and community healing projects on the individuals involved?
  • Are aboriginal people who have adopted traditional spiritual practices healthier than those who have maintained a Christian faith?

"To choose our cultures, to choose our practices, our beliefs, and our values, to so choose our identities according to rational bases, is to be responsible for ourselves."

Peg Tittle, 1996