Trauma in the Americas
In the face of cultural crisis, modern people tend to seek material, social, and political solutions. Depth psychology approaches cultural issues from a different perspective. Depth psychologists tend to look beneath the surface. On an individual level, we look for complexes, networks of ideas and emotions that may have been forgotten, or simply were too complicated to fully process at earlier stages of development. Yet the energy contained in these complexes will continue to act autonomously, upsetting our best laid plans, regardless of our conscious intentions. Often, the early formation of a complex involves an underlying trauma.
Not individuals alone, but cultures, too, can develop complexes (Kimbles, 2000). If, without entering into contemporary political or partisan debates, we were to look at the history of the current cultural chaos in North America, what might we identify as determining factors? What complexes might we find? People in Europe and Asia routinely live among the artifacts of cultures that are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. The settlers of North America rarely look back that far, and perhaps with good reason. Not so very long ago, the land in which we live was inhabited by people who had lived here for literally thousands of years. These were not simply nomadic tribal people, just passing through. Although that is the origin myth that the modern inhabitants of North America have been taught, the reality is much different. The first inhabitants of the Americas had developed their own agriculture – independent of, and nearly simultaneous with, the agricultural centers of China, India, and the mid-East – as well as their own civilizations, towns, roads, and systems of trade.
The Americas were not discovered, they were invaded (Jennings, 1975, Wright, 1992). This invasion was followed by colonization and involved an ongoing process of deliberately deceiving the native people, breaking treaties one after another, slaughtering whole villages, and finally corralling each tribal group into small sections of land that would not support the production of crops (Churchill, 2004; Stannard, 1992; Grenier, 2005). This system was so effective that it eventually inspired Adolf Hitler.
In an oft quoted passage, Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Toland (1976) writes: "Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America's extermination -- by starvation and uneven combat – of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity” (p. 702).
Why do I mention this in relation to contemporary chaos in North America? The origin myth that we have been taught is a false narrative. In the words of historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014a):
"Origin narratives form the vital core of a people’s unifying identity and of the values that guide them. In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land. That part of the origin story is supported and reinforced by the Columbus myth and the 'Doctrine of Discovery.'"
The Americas were not a virgin land, free for the taking. They were populated by literally millions of people whose civilizations and cultures, though quite different from European ways, were nonetheless sophisticated and highly developed. Our true origin myth has been, as historian Francis Jennings has said, “buried under an ideology” (p. v).
Such a deliberate attempt to rewrite our origins is important enough for the historian, but it is even more important for depth psychology. Instead of being a culture founded on freedom and high ideals, as we have long been taught, the truth is slowly emerging. This truth is that we are a culture built upon savagery – not the savagery of those whom we once called ‘savages’, but our own savagery (Churchill, 2004; Stannard, 1992; Grenier, 2005). We are a culture that has been built on greed, white supremacy, and slavery (Baptist, 2016; Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014b; Blackmon, 2009; Davis, 2008; Pearce, 1988). That these very traits should once again be emerging from our cultural shadow should be of no surprise to those with any understanding of depth psychology. They are revealing to us elements of the traumatic core of an autonomous cultural complex.
Moreover, the atrocities that our antecedents visited upon the native peoples and Africans whom they perceived to be either impediments to the achievement of their goals or a means to achieve them, carried with them trauma of horrific proportions. Although these traumas were no doubt more virulent for those upon whom they were visited, recent studies show that the perpetrators of violence and injustice are not unaffected by their actions. Researcher Rachel MacNair (2010; 2009; 2005) reports a form of post traumatic stress that she identifies as perpetrator-induced traumatic stress (PITS). In studies of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), those who had killed others or committed atrocities (as opposed to simply having viewed such acts) reported more, and more debilitating symptoms. More research needs to be done in this area, but the evidence remains clear that trauma impacts everyone associated with violence and other morally repugnant behaviors. In the context of our cultural history, it seems that, whether victim or perpetrator, we are all heir to a collective memory of trauma.
In keeping with the mission and vision of the Depth Psychology Alliance (DPA), we are continuing our practice of initiating discussions, conversations, and healing activities around key, non-political issues that appear to be active in the cultural unconscious of the people of the Americas. Our most recent initiative is an attempt to address the traumatic and ongoing decimation of the native peoples of the Americas from a depth psychology perspective. How can we best address such issues from the perspective of depth psychology? How can those of us who feel that the perspectives of depth psychology can have a positive cultural influence begin realize such ideas in a way that actually inspires positive change in the world? How do these historical events impact our current world? How can we respond to historical events in a constructive and healing way?
If these questions interest you, you may want to watch the video replay of our online community conversation on the topic of Multi Generational Trauma in the Americas.
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Baptist, E. (2016). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.
Blackmon, D. (2009). Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor.
Churchill, W. (2004). A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.
Davis, D. (2008). Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014a). Jacobin. America’s Founding Myths. Retrieved from: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/11/americas-founding-myths/
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014b). An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Grenier, J. (2005). The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607–1814. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jennings, F. (1975). The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Kimbles, S. (2000). The Cultural Complex and the Myth of Invisibility. In Singer, T. Ed. The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics and Psyche in the World. New York, NY: Routledge.
MacNair, R. (2010) Psychological reverberations for the killers: Preliminary historical evidence for perpetration-induced traumatic stress, Journal of Genocide Research, 3:2, 273-282.
MacNair, R. (2009) Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress in Combat Veterans, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 8:1, 63-72.
MacNair, R. (2005). Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. Bloomington, IN: Authors Choice.
Pearce, R. (1988). Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Stannard, D. (1992). American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Toland, J (1992). Adolf Hitler. New York: Anchor.
Wright, R. (1992). Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes since 1492. New York: Houghton Mifflin.