In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Importance of Identity, History, and Culture in the Wellbeing of Indigenous Youth
  • Lisa Wexler (bio)


Indigenous people have experienced profound disruptions, including epidemics, forced relocation, cultural colonization, and genocide over the past few centuries. Indigenous young people have not evenly understood or consciously articulated these historical events,1 but the behavioral health consequences for them have been well documented. These historical events have been linked to acculturation stress and identity conflicts, and rapid social change has been associated with significant health problems among Indigenous young people.25 Conversely, studies have consistently found robust correlations between positive affiliation and engagement with their culture and Indigenous young people's well-being and resilience.69 Resilience, consists in the processes by which people overcome life challenges to achieve their sense of well-being. Although the connection between culture and these processes are clear, previous studies have neglected to describe how cultural identity plays into Indigenous youth wellness and resilience. Specifically, they have failed to explain how a strong and positive link to their culture supports young people, especially as they encounter and respond to hardships. In this article, I will present a model for understanding the role of ethnic identity development in Indigenous youth resilience and will point to the value of historical consciousness in that process.

Historical Trauma and Indigenous Youth Health

Historical trauma has been defined as "a combination of acculturative stress, cultural bereavement, genocide, and racism that has been generalized, internalized, and institutionalized.10, 12 Such trauma is cumulative and unresolved,11 [End Page 267] as well as both historic and ongoing."12 According to Indigenous people and researchers, historical trauma can be implicated in many of the current health problems experienced by Indigenous communities.13, 14

For example, the youth suicide rate for Indigenous populations around the globe is elevated when compared to other minority groups.1519 Research has clearly established a connection between these high suicide rates and the culture loss or historical trauma experienced by Indigenous people.16, 2023 These generalized associations of historical trauma refer to the lingering and negative effects associated with traumas experienced by previous generations and affecting contemporary people.1 Although the influence of historical trauma on Indigenous health is assumed,7, 24 few investigations have provided an explanatory model to describe this link.

This is also true for the converse. Scholarship connecting cultural affiliation to youth well-being is abundant,2527 but the mechanics of this process go without scrutiny. The link between cultural affiliation and well-being is explained as the answer to core questions such as "Who am I?" "Who are we as a people?" and "Where am I going?"7 but the specific processes involved in this discovery remain unexamined. I will consider how and in what ways historical consciousness and memory—individual and group awareness of the past—intersects with cultural identity and affects the health of Indigenous youth.

Although there has been some scholarship on history and memory that emphasizes linkages between historical understandings and cultural identity,1 there has been little attention paid to the mechanisms that support these connections. The following arguments borrow mainly from youth development, Indigenous mental health, and post-conflict psychology.

Adolescent Development and Culture

Developing a distinct identity and crafting a sense of purpose are key elements in healthy youth development.28, 29 Accomplishing these tasks fosters continued healthy development and psychological ease.

In order to get a realistic picture of how this process works in the lives of Indigenous youth, it is important to consider how the dominant society intersects with identity formation and negotiation in adolescence. Identity formation is related to expectations of what it means to be a man or woman, Indigenous or White, elder or youth in different settings. The relative importance and meaning of these categories is shaped by the young person's community and the dominant society. In the case of Indigenous youth, images of the "noble savage" or the "drunk Indian"30 make it hard for them to construct salient identities within the larger society without a strong sense of their group history. Clearly, [End Page 268] identifying with one's heritage and developing a strong cultural...