Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Indigenous Australian transgenerational trauma and psychological well-being

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Indigenous Australian transgenerational trauma and psychological well-being:
How does the transgenerational maltreatment of Indigenous people affect their psychological well-being?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Indigenous transgenerational trauma is the result of many years of horrific treatment, first by European settlers and then by the Australian government. The initial trauma of violent conflict gave way to alternating cultural neglect, abuse, or active attempts at extinction. When the Australian government recognised their mistakes, it took years for cultural processes powering oppressive traumatic systems to reverse. The continual layering of trauma has led to self-destructive and self-defeating cultural behaviours. Other cultures victimised by cultural oppression show potential similarities in steps towards recovery, showing ideas for trauma recovery and advancement. Individual, group and cultural changes have affected positive advances towards better outcomes on these levels. Psychological models that seek to share knowledge with Indigenous Australians, instead of enact change upon them, show signs of enhancing these positive outcomes, and models that address the trauma suffered by Indigenous Australians similarly show positive effects.

Despite some steps forward, the complex nature of Indigenous Australian culture, its traumatic history, and its relationship with the dominant Western culture, create problems for scientific study within the topic of psychological well-being in the Indigenous Australian population. Some methodological issues still need to be addressed, and some will simply take time to overcome. While the Western scientific approach cannot say with certainty how the Indigenous Australian population has been affected by the trauma it has been through, the broader view in society would suggest that their motivation is growing as they recover.

Trauma[edit | edit source]

The DSM defines trauma as exposure to "actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence" directly, personally witnessing it happening to another, learning that it happened to someone close to you (family or friend), or extreme exposure to details of the events (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This clinical definition of trauma, while applicable, is too specific to apply to what is a broad, complex topic. Therefore several definitions are provided below to further explain the issue.

  • Trauma, as described by Atkinson (2002) is "an event or process which overwhelms the individual, family, or community, and the ability to cope in mind, body, soul, spirit." Multiple instances may compound, and be expressed in "dysfunction, and sometimes violent, behaviour at both individual and large-scale levels of human interaction, and these are re-traumatising."
  • Historical trauma is the"socio-political genocidal impacts of colonisation" (Atkinson, 2002) or the "cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences" (Yellow Horse Brave Heart, in Hill, Lau, and Sue, 2010).
  • Complex trauma is "the pervasive effects that exposure to repeated or chronic trauma sometimes has on an individual's physical, emotional, intellectual, and psychological functioning" (Atkinson, 2012).
  • Transgenerational trauma in its purest form is the idea that "trauma can be transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring." Milroy, Dudgeon and Walker (2014) outline three factors of transgenerational trauma: the extreme sense of powerlessness and loss of control; the profound sense of loss, grief and disconnection; and the overwhelming sense of trauma and helplessness.
  • Nutritional trauma is the "introduction of food and dietary practices that overwhelm the capacity and traditions of local communities" (Korn & Ryser, in Hill et al, 2010). The European settlers initially drove the Indigenous Australians from their territories, reducing their regular food collecting abilities, then increased reliance on European foods. This sudden change in nutrition had damaging effects on health (Hill et al, 2010), wellbeing (as food was a cultural experience) (Atkinson, 2002), and resources (as more people relied on the agricultural systems to support them).

There are other aspects of trauma applicable to Indigenous Australians, not included in the above headings:

Atkinson (2002) proposes that disconnection from the land is an aspect of trauma, and being made to live on reservations in close proximity may add to this effect.

Hill et al (2010) argue that minority status can have a compounding effect on trauma, as racism and discrimination add to the challenging circumstances Indigenous Australians already face.

Atkinson (2002) discusses the idea of Indigenous lore: "the body of traditional knowledge based on the wisdom that comes from experience, and transmitted in practical teachings across generations." Indigenous Australians had practices for mediation, dispute resolution, marriage, and trade, as well as complex language structures. European settlers discounted all of this when they resettled the Indigenous population to reservations and subjected them to European law. The complete disregard of these long-established cultural practices reinforced the trauma.

There is an important distinction to be made about the accumulating effects of multiple kinds of trauma. For example, an individual experience of violence does not discount a co-occurring experience of violence enacted upon a family member, the family unit, and the community at large. The continued relocation, harassment, and other kinds of violence and trauma enacted upon Indigenous Australians are examples of collective or communal trauma. “…experiences of violence are traumatic, and that trauma, if unhealed, may compound, becoming cumulative in its impacts on individuals, families, and indeed whole communities and societies” (Atkinson, 2002). The long-running nature of these actions makes them an example of historical trauma (enacted upon the people generally), and their transference through families shows transgenerational trauma.

Mohawk (in Hill et al, 2010) describes the sensation of anomie in survivors of trauma: "the absence of values and sense of group purpose and identity". Multiple distinct cultures were uprooted from their homelands. Some of their members were killed, others were enslaved, families were divided and then corralled into reserves. Individuals, families and cultural groups were victimised and traumatised by multiple kinds of violence. They were punished for acting in any ways they considered natural, then punished for any attempts at action or retribution. Atkinson (2012) says trauma can cause a loss of safety, coherency, orientation, connection, and can cause a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. The subsequent passivity and inaction, and self-destructive behaviours, are a reflection of anomie on a cultural level (Hill et al, 2010). This could also be seen as learned helplessness (Maier and Seligman, 1976).

"Even where children are protected from the traumatic stories of their ancestors, the effects of past traumas still impact on children in the form of ill health, family dysfunction, community violence, psychological morbidity and early mortality" (Milroy, in Atkinson, 2012).

There is clearly overlap between definitions, and different types of trauma. The underlying theme is that the term trauma encompasses much more than its closed, clinical definition. It can affect every point of the continuum from individual to society, and its flow-on effects can be transferred between multiple generations. Those affected can be disposed to traumatise others, or resort to self-destructive or ruminating behaviours.

History of Indigenous Australian and European settler interactions[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Pre-settlement[edit | edit source]

The Indigenous population first came to Australia between 50,000 and 120,000 years ago. There were around 500 different tribes around the continent (, with an estimated 260 language groups and 500 dialects ( There is evidence that the Indigenous peoples had knowledge and use of agriculture and food storage prior to European agricultural practices (Pascoe, 2014) though this is a contentious claim.

Settlement[edit | edit source]

It is estimated that when European settlers arrived there were between 300,000 and 950,000 Indigenous Australians on the continent. European settlers first landed in Sydney in 1788. The continent was claimed on the premise that it had not been settled by anyone else, a policy known as terra nullius. The indigenous population were not seen as valid ‘owners’ of the land. Colonies, freeholds, and settlements began forming around the country soon afterwards ( There are many instances of conflict, murder, and even mass killings (known as the Australian frontier wars) during the European expansion. European diseases spread quickly to the Indigenous Australians, killing many, although there is historical debate over the number of deaths attributable to violence or disease. There are also examples of peaceful interactions and exchanges. As agriculture took over much of the fertile land, large numbers of Indigenous people became dependent on the European settlements for food. Indigenous Australians were used as cheap or free labour in a number of industries, including cattle stations, agriculture farms, and pearling (

Before the federation of Australia, several institutions and laws were put in place to handle the Indigenous Australian population. The Aboriginal Protection Board set up reservations for them to live on, and the Aboriginal Protection Act (Victoria: 1869) allowed for Indigenous Australians to be forcefully moved on to these reservations, and governed who was allowed to control and visit. Later, other states enacted similar laws, which allowed for the removal of children from their parents, sent away, and exploited for free labour under the guise of training and inculturation (see 'Stolen Generation' section below) (

At its lowest point, around the 1920s, the Indigenous Australian population was estimated to be only 60,000 (

The policy of segregation gave way to assimilation and forced integration. As the government began to reduce the number of reserves, Indigenous Australians were moved between reserves, and funding was reduced, leading to less support and poorer conditions. Some Indigenous Australians lobbied for fairer treatment and equal rights, but little was accomplished until 1967, when the commonwealth referendum saw the Indigenous Australians granted the right of citizenship (

In 1972, the government changed to the policy of self-determination and self-management which gave the Indigenous Australians some control over their own fate. This was mostly in allocation of funding to projects decided by the government of the day, which in reality was tokenistic (Atkinson, 2002). In 1991, the government began a process of reconciliation with the Indigenous Australians. The High Court's decision to grant native title in 1992 (known as the Mabo decision) was a milestone in Indigenous rights. Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 was critical to this process (

"Studies of the impact of colonisation on Indigenous groups ... shows three distinct periods in the relations between coloniser and colonised. These periods are invasion and frontier violence; the intercession of well-meaning but often ethnocentric and paternalistic philanthropic and religious groups; and the reassessment of government responsibility to Indigenous needs ..." (Atkinson, 2002). “Within these three periods, principles of systemic power and control of others prevailed, facilitated by three main types of power abuse or violence: overt physical violence, covert structural violence, and psycho-social domination” (Atkinson 2002).

Stolen Generation[edit | edit source]

Beginning around 1890-1910, Indigenous Australian children were removed from their parents and families and taken to foster homes, group homes, or institutions (Wilson and Dodson, 1997). Governor Macquarie opened a school for Indigenous Australian children in 1814, but it was shunned by the Indigenous Australian community after they realised its purpose was to “distance the children from their families and communities (Wilson and Dodson, 1997). The policy of forcible removal continued until at least the 1970s (Wilson and Dodson, 1997).

“At a Royal Commission in South Australia in 1913 ‘experts’ disagreed whether children should be removed at birth or about two years old.” (Wilson and Dodson, 1997)

“Coping with this influx of people put demands on the Board’s budget. Its response was to persuade the government to amend the 1909 Act to narrow the definition of ‘Aborigine’. Children who did not fall within this definition were not entitled to remain on the reserves with their families. According to the then acting Premier, ... quadroons and octoroons will be merged in the white population, and the camps will merely contain the full-blooded aborigines and their descendants ... By this means, considerable savings will be effected in the expenditure of the Aborigines Protection Board ... There is hope ... in years to come, the expenditure in respect of Aborigines will reach vanishing point (quoted by NSW Government submission on page 28)” (Wilson and Dodson, 1997).

The governmental policy through the first half of the 20th century was that any child of ‘mixed descent’ could and should assimilate into European culture. It is worth noting that assimilation was seen as an active process, intentionally erasing the Indigenous Australian cultural identity in favour of European culture (Wilson and Dodson, 1997). This policy changed to integration (although this was functionally very similar to assimilation), then finally recognition and reconciliation in the 1990s (Wilson and Dodson, 1997).

The Bringing Them Home Report (1997) conducted by Wilson and Dodson begins with definitions of terms used under the umbrella term ‘forcible removal’. Compulsion is the authorised or unauthorised use of force or coercion. Duress encompasses the use of threats or moral pressure, but differs from compulsion in that ‘it can be achieved without the actual application of force’. Undue influence is ‘improper pressure’, similar to duress. The concept of justification is explored, because while there are examples that would be considered justified in modern times (for neglect or abuse), often the justifications used were tenuous or deeply rooted in racial prejudice (Wilson and Dodson, 1997). Throughout the report there are examples of persuasion, threats (both explicit and implicit), and ultimatums.

“Apart from just ‘being Aboriginal’ other commonly cited reasons for removal were ‘To send to service’, ‘Being 14 years’, ‘At risk of immorality’, ‘Neglected’, ‘To get her away from surroundings of Aboriginal station/Removal from idle reserve life’ and ‘Orphan’.” (Wilson and Dodson, 1997)

It was common for adoptions to happen informally, with children being moved without warning and far from their birthplace. In some instances where records were kept, the records were actively destroyed to ensure children could not find their families at the time. This also makes reuniting families and communities challenging in modern times. Establishing exact figures of those in the Stolen Generations is therefore extremely difficult (Wilson and Dodson, 1997). Through extensive interviewing and searching the remaining records, the report has concluded that between 1910 and 1970, “between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities” (Wilson and Dodson, 1997).

Similarities in other cultures[edit | edit source]

Colonial expansion occurred in many locations, and even the concept of terra nullius was used on multiple occasions. Indigenous cultures in America, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the Philippines, and Norway have been discovered to share common elements, as their indigenous cultures were forcefully relocated (Atkinson, 2002; Hill et al, 2010; Lillemyr, Sobstad, Marder, and Flowerday, 2010).

The three stages of coloniser-colonised relations described above (see Settlement section) are one of several different views of the history of the Age of Discovery. Duran and Duran (as cited in Hill et al, 2010) propose a six-stage model of historical trauma. Doyle (2011) discusses the differences between colonisations of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

There are similarities and differences between the histories of all colonised cultures, and even within cultural groups (as is the case for Indigenous Australians). However, these models show that the broad similarities are a starting point to shared experiences, and help demonstrate that research or reparations in some cultures may assist in the process for other indigenous cultures.

Psychological models and approaches[edit | edit source]

Much like government policy, research into Indigenous Australian health, culture, and psychology has become more sensitive, holistic and involved in more recent times.

Recent approaches include:

  • The Social and Emotional Well-Being approach (SEWB). First alluded to in the 1980s (Day and Francisco, 2013), this approach combines positive psychology and Indigenous Australian worldviews to create a model of therapy more relevant to Indigenous Australians. Positive psychology, based on humanistic psychology, is a holistic, strength-based approach (Srinivasan, 2015) that focuses on happiness and well-being instead of the deficit-based approach used in some other fields of psychology. Indigenous worldviews also stem from a holistic philosophy, combining individual physical and mental health with social, cultural, and environmental factors.
  • The integration of trauma psychology and cultural psychology (Hill et al, 2010). This approach allows for involvement and cultural expression from the community in question, instead of applying Westernised practices. Hill et al argue that the ‘West knows best’ approach denigrates cultures with valid healing practices, and marginalises those who disagree.
  • ‘Reciprocal Research Partnership Model of Indigenous Thriving Futures’ (RRPM) (Craven et al, 2016). This approach parallels the SEWB model above, in that it combines positive psychology and Indigenous worldviews and methodologies. Craven et al propose a research framework they call EMU: Exemplars (identifying goals to strive for, valued by Indigenous people), Measurement (developing valid measures to assess the research being conducted using both Indigenous and Western knowledge), and Utilization (application of discoveries in partnership with communities to improve Indigenous outcomes). RRPM also incorporates the Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), which also parallels Indigenous worldviews.
  • Trauma training for Indigenous communities (Green, 2010). Green presented a trauma training course to support workers in an Indigenous community, treating it as a pilot program for further trauma training in other similar communities. This more focused approach is based on the Conservation of Resources (COR) theory (Hobfoll, 1998), which argues that dealing with negative life circumstances such as stress and trauma drains resources (particularly social resources). Indigenous cultures that relied more heavily on social and community resources have less of these resources as their communities are collectively dealing with transgenerational trauma. Green gave specialised training to Indigenous support workers, to help their community members work through their historical and personal trauma. Green identified that the community had scant training in trauma care, and so her training program provided support workers with a broad introduction to trauma, its flow-on effects, symptoms, and methods of treatment (including self-management procedures). Green’s program also involved a slow and deep connection with the specific community, including a follow-up session months later. This caring, culturally-sensitive approach seems to have increased the effectiveness of the training (Green, 2010).

Prior to these new models, government-sponsored health approaches have predominantly been Euro-centric, with many failing to see the Indigenous point of view or unwilling to accept the effects of trauma. Additionally, many Western scientists in the past took a sightseeing-style approach, travelling to assess the Indigenous people without attempting to engage with and understand them (Atkinson, 2002; Hill et al, 2010; Dudgeon et al, 2014).

Studies into psychological well-being[edit | edit source]

Studies into Indigenous Australian motivation show some interesting data, though it is limited. Tarbetsky, Collie and Martin (2016) surveyed Australian highschool students on their beliefs about intelligence, and their levels of achievement. Indigenous Australian students were more likely to believe that intelligence was a fixed attribute than non-indigenous students, and these beliefs affected their levels of achievement. Negative stereotypes, like racism, reinforced the idea of fixed beliefs, and older students were also more likely to have fixed beliefs than younger students in the sample.

Cunningham and Paradies (2012) analysed national health survey data, comparing Indigenous Australians to non-indigenous Australians in remote areas of Australia. They found that Indigenous Australian adults were around three times more likely to have very high levels of psychological distress, but that in the more remote communities with a higher ratio of Indigenous Australians to non-indigenous Australians, their psychological distress levels were not as high. Cunningham and Paradies theorised that inter-racial tension, racism and discrimination in less remote areas may increase distress, and that in the more remote communities, Indigenous Australians can rely on each other more than in less remote communities.

Limitations and complications[edit | edit source]

The limitations and complications in Indigenous studies are in part explained in Day and Francisco (2013). They attempted a systematic review of the SEWB framework interventions that had been attempted with Indigenous Australians at the time of writing. Of the 8000+ search results, only three that related to Indigenous Australians were scientifically rigorous enough to be included in the review.

Considering the history of colonial oppression, it is not surprising that Indigenous Australians do not seem to want to involve themselves with scientific research. The Australian government has, inside of a hundred years, moved from segregation, through assimilation and extinction, to now recognition and well-meaning assistance. The Indigenous perception of government, and by extension anyone with legitimised authority in Australia, is suspicious (Lillemyr et al, 2010). Western scientific practices can be seen as an extension of this colonial oppression (Hill et al, 2010). Indigenous approaches that are effective involve slow, concerted relationship-building between researchers and cultural groups, and programs tailor-made to suit the cultural group (such as in Green, 2010). Because of the tailoring process, the research does not conform to the rigorous standards expected of the western scientific community, and so most cannot be applied further than its specific context.

Tarbetsky et al (2016) surveyed high school students, but like many surveys there are complications involving sampling biases, language, response biases, and other issues. One such issue in schools is that with the high truancy rate of Indigenous Australian children (, the children attending school and responding may not be representative of the population. Any research conducted cannot be empirically compared to previous generations because of the high rates of mortality in the Indigenous population. Research into Indigenous mental health is limited at this point, due to such factors.

Moving forward[edit | edit source]

Research into Indigenous Australian health is mostly recent, as cultural milestones such as the apology speech have helped the cultural grieving process. Schools around the country have begun Indigenous language revival programs (, and Indigenous studies programs are also more prevalent in schools now ( The Uluru statement from the heart ( is an example of Indigenous Australians making themselves heard on the world stage.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The Indigenous Australian people have been subjected to intense trauma on many levels, for many years. This trauma has been self-reinforcing, and compounded by additional overt and covert acts by the dominant Australian culture. The Stolen Generation is a specific example of horrible mistreatment of the Indigenous people, including active attempts to assimilate the population and extinguish the culture. Since the recognition and reconciliation for these acts, Indigenous Australians have seemed anecdotally to make cultural progress through the trauma, but western research has been largely culturally insensitive and therefore unwelcome. Where it has been respectful and successful, the research has not been able to assimilate back into Western science effectively. Indigenous-led research is minimal, but seems to be increasing. Western science has progressed considerably through its pursuit of pure science, but Indigenous cultures, such as that of Indigenous Australians, has wisdom to share.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington DC, USA: American Psychiatric Association.

Atkinson, J. (2002). Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: Recreating Song Lines. North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press.

Atkinson, J. (2012). Educaring: A trauma informed approach to healing generational trauma for Aboriginal Australians [Workbook]. Goolmangar, Australia: We Al-li.

Cunningham, J. and Paradies, Y. C. (2012). Socio-demographic factors and psychological distress in Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian adults aged 18-64 years: analysis of national survey data. BMC Public Health, 12. 95-110.

Day, A., and Francisco, A. (2013). Social and emotional wellbeing in Indigenous Australians: identifying promising interventions. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 37.

Doyle, K. (2011). Modes of Colonisation and Patterns of Contemporary Mental Health: Towards and Understanding of Canadian Aboriginal, Australian Aboriginal and Maori Peoples. Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, 35. 20-23. ISSN: 1037-3403

Dudgeon, P., Walker, R., Scrine, C., Shepherd, C., Calma, T., & Ring, I. (2014). Effective strategies to strengthen the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Issues paper no. 12). Canberra, Australia: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Green, G. (2010). Developing Trauma Training for an Indigenous Community: Hopefully Not Seagulls. Australian Social Work, 64, 215-227.

Hill, J. S., Lau, M. Y., and Sue, D. W. (2010). Integrating trauma psychology and cultural psychology: Indigenous perspectives on theory, research, and practice. Traumatology, 16, 39-47.

Hobfoll, S. E. (1998). Stress, culture, and community: the psychology and philosophy of stress. New York: Plenum Press.

Maier, S. F., and Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 105. 3-46.

Milroy, H., Dudgeon, P., and Walker, R. (2014). Community Life and Development Programs - Pathways to Healing. In Milroy, H., Dudgeon, P., & Walker, R. (Eds). Working together : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice (pp. 419-435). West Perth, WA: Kulunga Research Network.

Pascoe, B. (2014). Building precolonial life. Agora, 49, 50-58. ISSN: 0044-6726

Ralph, N., Hamaguchi, K., & Cox, M. (2006). Transgenerational Trauma, Suicide and Healing from Sexual Abuse in the Kimberly Region, Australia. Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal & Indigenous Community Health, 4(2).

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55. 68-78.

Srinivasan, T. S. (2015, December 2). The 5 Founding Fathers and A History of Positive Psychology [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Tarbetsky, A. L., Collie, R. J., and Martin, A. J. (2016). The role of implicit theories of intelligence and ability in predicting achievement for Indigenous (Aboriginal) Australian students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 47. 61-71.

Wilson, R., and Dodson, M. (1997). Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Retrieved from

External links[edit | edit source]