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Part Two: How Indian Boarding Schools have Impacted Generations | First Generation Descendants

LeToy “Toy” Lunderman


This is the second in a three-part series following intergenerational impacts the United States’ nearly 200 year policy of Indian boarding schools had, and continues to have, on some tribal members on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota today. This story was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2021 Data Fellowship.

ROSEBUD INDIAN RESERVATION—In scrolling black ink, LeToy “Toy” Lunderman illustrates intergenerational trauma like this: three big circles represent three generations, the first circle nearly empty but for a sliver of solid—representing all that was taken from survivors of boarding school—and the subsequent circles gradually filling with solid until the last circle is whole again.

She’s the middle circle, the conduit between hardship and healing, among the generation of children born in the mid ‘70s who grew up in the years immediately after the federal government abandoned its Indian Boarding School policy.

But it would take her a while to recognize how deeply she’s been impacted by a school system she didn’t directly experience, though she was educated in the same buildings where many in the generations before her experienced abuse: Saint Francis Indian School, formerly Saint Francis Mission, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Two year old Toy with her mother, Rosemary Lafferty, whom she always maintained relationship with and became closer to later in her life. (Photo/Courtesy)

When she went to school at Saint Francis, the history of boarding schools–including the abuse that happened there– “wasn’t talked about,” Lunderman told Native News Online, recalling that around sixth grade in 1987 was the first time her school implemented the Indian Education Act that allowed Native culture to be taught in schools. Even then, she says, the extent of the education was grandmas coming in and telling little Lakota stories. “I made no connection between boarding schools and how my family was growing up, which wasn’t very much different than other families—a lot of alcoholism, a lot of violence, unhealthy relationships, poverty. Boarding school created that. But we didn't know that back then.”

At 46, Lunderman’s work now revolves around making those connections, and helping to heal some of the severe trauma inflicted on her community.

Skin Deep

‘Historical trauma’ is a term that came of age alongside Lunderman. First coined in the 1980s by Native American social worker and mental health expert, Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart (Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota), the term conceptualized historical trauma as the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma.”

When historical trauma is not resolved and instead is subsequently internalized, Brave Heart surmised, it begets ‘‘intergenerational trauma,’ which is then passed on to a traumatized person’s descendants—often subconsciously.

In a burgeoning field of study called epigenetics, researchers are connecting historical trauma to altered gene expressions, or the ‘turning off’ or ‘on’ of certain genes based on experiences, that may be passed on through generations.

In some cases, gene alteration can be adaptive, but in others it can be maladaptive and negatively impact a person’s ability to cope with stress. Once those epigenetic changes occur, a person can become more risk-averse, more susceptible to mental illness, and more vulnerable to certain diseases.

At least three prominent studies have tied children of traumatic events that happened before their lifetimes to a modification in the action of genes.

In 2015, a team of researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York studied the genes of 32 Jewish men and women who had survived the Holocaust, as well as 22 of their children born after the war. The study found that Holocaust survivors and their children had that same changes in a stress-related gene, impacting their stress hormones, and possibly making them more vulnerable to stressors.

In 2018, researchers published a study in Science Advances that examined 442 Dutch individuals who were exposed to famine in utero during a 6-month famine at the end of World War II. That research gave a possible explanation why the children of starving mothers tended to be a few pounds heavier on average–from a disruption to the gene responsible for burning the body’s fat.

The following year, researchers surveyed 235 people, a mix of whom were exposed as a fetus to famine in China, and those who were not exposed. The study, published in Scientific Reports, found that those who were exposed had higher waist circumference and drinking rate than those who were not exposed.

Hymie Anisman is a neuroscientist and a professor in Ottawa, Canada, whose work focuses on how psychosocial stressors, such as trauma, relate to the brain.

He’s currently involved in a project with a group, including his former PhD student Amy Bombay from Rainy River First Nation in Ontario, that will be the first of its kind to study the epigenetic impact of Indian residential schools on Indigenous peoples in Canada, where education for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children was modeled after the US boarding school system.

Without that biological data, Anisman said that researchers can only guess at the epigenetic impact to Indigenous People in North America, although studies on children of Holocaust and famine survivors foreshadow what they may find.

“Since the data has not been collected [from an Indigenous population], we don't know what epigenetic changes are there, if any,” Anisman told Native News Online. “I expect there will be. If changes occur as we believe they occur, then there's a high likelihood that epigenetic changes will occur in…Indigenous people as they do with other groups.”

He added that epigenetic changes are often not permanent. “Even if they are embedded, they can be altered by diet and other experiences,” he said. “So you can sort of unring the bell…presumably, if somebody with an epigenetic change was raised in a very good environment with good parenting, good nutrition and so forth, some of these epigenetic changes may be undone.”


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