Historical Trauma in the Present: Why APA Cannot Remain Silent on the Dakota Access Pipeline


By Susan H. McDaniel, PhD (2016 APA President)

Protesters being marked with numbers, put in dog kennels and shot with rubber bullets. These do not sound like events that should occur in modern day America. Unfortunately, according to media reports, these are some of the first-hand accounts of what is happening in North Dakota as protests escalate over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For those unfamiliar with the dispute between environmental and human rights protesters on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and law enforcement, I would invite to you read the New York Times detailed summary of events. In short, there is a growing perception of injustice as a 1,172-mile oil pipeline that is slated to run from North Dakota to Illinois was rerouted near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation due its potential threat of contamination to Bismarck, North Dakota’s water supply.

Native Americans have been historically marginalized and mistreated by the United States. For instance, not all States recognized Native Americans’ right to vote until 1957 and many tribes experienced great loss of life, land and culture as the result of State and Federal legislation.

According to the psychological literature, chronic, systemic loss and mistreatment, as described above, may lead to historical trauma in which the pain experienced by one generation transfers to subsequent generations through biological, psychological, environmental, and social means. Studies show that historical trauma is linked to health disparities, including increased likelihood of early death due to chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, unintentional injuries, assault/homicide, and suicide.

APA’s mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.” This mission makes it incumbent upon our field and our association to speak out when the health and well-being of marginalized and other populations are being threatened and when possible to prevent trauma from occurring.

Due to the current proposed placement of the Dakota Access pipeline, we are concerned about possible leakage, which could harm the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. As psychologists, we are troubled by the potential for adverse neurological effects arising from exposure to oil-contaminated water.

In response to current events, I sent a letter on behalf of APA to President Obama with Dr. Jacqueline Gray, President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race (APA Division 45) that expressed:

  • Our support for the Administration’s hold on the construction of the oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation, and praise for his consideration of alternate routes for the project; and
  • A request to urge law enforcement to show restraint as they try to diffuse the conflict.

It is critical that APA and the mental health community continue to show our support and bring attention to the issues impacting Native American communities and to help alleviate historical trauma.

In closing, I recommend you sign up for APA’s Federal Action Network to influence policy makers and make sure your voice is heard on critical issues in the future.

Dr. McDaniel is president of the American Psychological Association.


Image source: Flickr via Creative Commons.

Filed under: Culture, Ethnicity and Race, Health Disparities, Human Rights and Social Justice Tagged: #DAPL, #noDAPL, American Indians, Dakota Access Pipeline, environmental racism, health disparities, historical trauma, human rights, human rights abuses, law enforcement, Native Americans, police brutality, public health, public policy, racism, trauma, violence, water is life