Historical Trauma and Resilience

Learning Outcome addressed

Demonstrate knowledge of the challenges faced by Aboriginal people in Canada during the 20th century and their responses, with reference to:
  • Residential Schools
  • Reserves
  • Self Government
  • Treaty Negotiations

Enduring Understandings

  • The Nisga'a continue to face historical trauma
  • Improved living conditions improve the resilience of the Nisga'a

Essential Questions

  • What historical events highlighted in the DVD impacted the Nisga'a?
  • What are ways to overcome historical trauma or loss?

Suggested Time

40 minutes


Students will need to have watched the DVD.

The term “historical loss” or “historical trauma” is used by researchers to describe the intergenerational psychological consequences of historical events. Negative events such as the holocaust or the forced acculturation of Aboriginal peoples may lead to trauma that is passed down from parent to child.

Like other Aboriginal peoples, the Nisga’a in northern BC could be thought to recovering from historical trauma as a result of “a century and a half of colonial suppression to gain legal title to their land” (take their land from them) and other events like the Residential School program. The purpose of the Residential school program was to “remove the Indian problem” and separate children from their culture.
The concept of “historical trauma” will give you a framework to understand and appreciate the healing that occurred for the Nisga’a peoples with the signing of the Treaty in 2000, and the challenges faced other Aboriginal bands that are still negotiating treaties.

Suggested Activities

Begin with a discussion of the concept of “historical trauma” and the effects of this for Aboriginal people in Canada. Lead this into the resilience shown by the Nisga’a people in the treaty process.

What are some of the losses that could be thought of as “historical trauma” that are mentioned in the video?
  • Overcrowding
  • Sickness, measles outbreaks
  • Burning of regalia
  • Cutting down of totem poles
  • Residential school, loss of language, separation from parents, no personal belongings at school

What is the evidence for resilience following these historical events for the Nisga’a people?

Resilience refers to the ability of people to overcome trauma.

Aboriginal healing programs are one way that people who suffer “historical trauma” can begin the process of healing.

Education is another way to overcome trauma.

What are some of the positive effects of education mentioned in the video?

  • Frank Calder’s father sends him off to white man’s school, but insists that he maintain his Nisga’a identity at home.
  • Frank Calder’s father has high expectations for him to be successful.
  • Leonard Guno attends Malaspina University for Resource Management Officer’s Technology so that he can find full time employment.
  • Cheryl Stephens uses her university degree to become a Fisheries Manager in her home community.
  • Tanya Adams becomes a teacher in her home community.
  • Miriam Bright, a grade 12 student, hopes to study both Nisga’a culture and Classical music at UBC.
  • Miriam Bright expresses hope for a bilingual community that speaks both Nisga’a and English and enjoys both cultures.

For Aboriginal people who are living today, there may be two kinds of concerns:

  1. Historical loss as we have talked about here.
  2. Their current living conditions.

The successful ratification of the treaty was an important step in improving the living conditions because the community took control of its own decisions through Self Government. Self government resulted in expanded opportunities in tourism, fishing etc.
Improvement in current living conditions also works to improve the resilience of the Nisga’a people.

It seems clear that the successful negotiation of treaties brings many benefits to Aboriginal communities.

The title of the video “Nisga’a Dancing in Both Worlds” suggests that the Nisga’a can celebrate in both cultures and take the best from each. The events of the past will never be completely forgotten, but the new generation can “dance in the traditional regalia, come out of the change room after their performance and wear the Nikes and the basketball hats and all that. They dance in both worlds because they now are proud of who they are, where they come from, and what they are”. That’s the resilience needed to overcome historical trauma!


Whitbeck, L. B., Adams, G. W., Hoyt, D. R., Chen, X. (2004). Conceptualizing and measuring historical trauma among American Indian People. American Journal of Community Psychology, 33, 3/4 119-129.
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