Lawrence Gross is an assistant professor at Iowa State University with a joint appointment in the American Indian Studies Program and Religious Studies. He is also a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe.

Abstract: Postapocalypse Stress Syndrome and Rebuilding American Indian Communities (link to paper)

This paper will consist of three parts: an introduction to the theory of post-apocalypse stress syndrome; an assessment of work that needs to be done on the theory; and examination of the role the theory might play in helping to rebuild American Indian communities.

The theory of post-apocalypse stress syndrome (PASS) builds on the writing of Sidner Larson, who argues that Indians are postapocalypse people, having seen the end of their respective worlds within historical memory. The theory of postapocalypse stress syndrome argues that in the wake of the apocalypse, Indian societies are in a situation in which post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become pandemic to the culture. It also has a social dimension in that institutions cannot fulfill their historical mission of maintaining a stable and viable society. Additionally, since PASS affects social institutions as well, it cannot simply be thought of as PTSD raised to a cultural whole. Normally, social institutions would help a society recover from disaster. But, without the assistance of social institutions, post-apocalypse stress syndrome affects successive generations, and it takes a culture at least 100-150 years to fully recover from its effects.

Features of Postapocalypse Stress Syndrome

Effects on individuals

  1. Abandonment of productive employment
  2. Increase in substance abuse
  3. Increase in violence, especially domestic violence
  4. Increase in the suicide rate
  5. Increase in the rate of mental illness
  6. Abandonment of established religious practices
  7. Adoption of fanatical forms of religion
  8. Loss of hope
  9. Sense of despair
  10. Sense of survivor’s guilt

Effects on social institutions

  1. Collapse of family structures
  2. Collapse of religious organizations
  3. Collapse of governing institutions
  4. Collapse of health care systems
  5. Collapse of educations systems

Because the theory works on many levels, research from a variety of fields, including posttraumatic stress disorder, disaster studies, and millennialism, will need to be brought to bear on the subject. As will be become evident in part three, work in myth, storytelling, and the oral tradition will help develop the theory as well.

American Indians have experienced something rarely encountered in human societies: the intentional destruction of culture. Unfortunately, the cultural trauma faced by Indians is often couched in euphemistic terms. One important starting point of this theory is to name the historical circumstance for what it was, an apocalypse. Having named it, the full extend of the work necessary to rebuild American Indian communities becomes evident. Of critical importance is the necessity of rebuilding the worldviews of American Indian societies. Since worldviews are often found in myths, one way to start to rebuild Native societies is to encourage Indians to tell their stories.

With strong, vibrant, and vital worldviews American Indians can begin to rebuild their communities. The research on this theory will underscore that point and have practical applications in Native communities.

Postapocalypse Stress Syndrome and Rebuilding American Indian Communities

Lawrence W. Gross, Iowa State University

One critical aspect of exploring the reality of Indian history is to correctly name the experience Indian societies have suffered and which they continue to endure to this day. To put it in a word, American Indians have seen the end of their respective worlds. Using vocabulary from the study of religion, this should be correctly termed an apocalypse. Just as importantly, though, Indians survived the apocalypse. This raises the question, What happens to a society that has gone through an apocalyptic event? The effects of the apocalypse have lingered on and the history of Indians has thus become their current reality. They are faced with having to deal with the consequences of imposed cultural destruction. I have named the resulting personal trauma and social dysfunction "postapocalypse stress syndrome." This paper introduces the theory of postapocalypse stress syndrome (PASS), provides an assessment of work that needs to be done on the theory, and examines the role the theory might play in rebuilding American Indian communities.

American Indians, in general, have seen the end of their worlds. There are no Indian cultures in the United States unaffected by the presence of Euro-Americans. Although some cultures have remained more intact than others, no Indian nation can claim to live in complete accord with its precontact culture. Also, there is no nation that enjoys unabridged sovereignty, as existed in the past. In effect, the old world of their ancestors has come to an end. Thus, American Indians are living in a postapocalyptic environment (Larson 18-19). This is not to say that the world views that previously informed the cultures have also become defunct. It simply means American Indians are in the process of building new worlds, worlds that are true to their past history but cognizant of present realities.

When a culture enters a postapocalypse period, it will usually undergo great stress. There are several considerations that need to be taken into account in this regard. First, the stress will pervade the society. The stress will not simply involve a small segment of the population, as might be the case with combat veterans experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. Instead, everyone in the culture will be affected. Second, the stress will strike at both the personal and institutional level. Some features will be expressed in the lives of individual people, but an apocalypse will also see the collapse of societal institutions that normally circumvent and/or minimize stress in the wake of a shock to the culture, and that would assist in the recovery process. A number of features of the postapocalyptic environment can be enumerated.

On the personal level, a postapocalyptic period includes:

  1. An abandonment of productive employment
  2. An increase in substance abuse
  3. An increase in violence, especially domestic violence
  4. An increase in the suicide rate
  5. An increase in the rate of mental illness
  6. The abandonment of established religious practices
  7. The adoption of fanatical forms of religion
  8. A loss of hope
  9. A sense of despair
  10. A sense of survivor's guilt

    On the institutional level, a postapocalyptic period involves the collapse or weakening of the following:
  11. Family structures
  12. Government institutions
  13. Educational institutions and processes
  14. Established religious institutions
  15. Health care delivery systems

Together, these personal and institutional features constitute what I call postapocalypse stress syndrome, which can be thought of as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) raised to the level of an entire culture. However, since PASS involves institutional structures as well as personal concerns, the phenomenon should not be thought of as posttraumatic stress disorder becoming pandemic in a society. The affliction goes much further than that. This is what makes recovery so difficult, especially since PASS tends to be generational in nature. It is not simply the case that a shock wave will move through the society, after which time people will be able to continue as they had in the past. Instead, the effect is so profound, that the stress can ruin people for the rest of their lives, with the attendant despair and dysfunction being continued in subsequent generations. This is the situation that many Indian communities face today.

I am in the early stages of developing the theory of postapocalypse stress syndrome. The area in which I received my academic training, religious studies, places some limitations on my knowledge. As I will explain below, observations drawn from the study of religion can be helpful in defining the larger matrix of the social trauma that Indians experienced, especially as related to the world-building activity of humans and the importance of myth in world maintenance. However, the medical and sociological aspects of the theory need to be addressed as well. I am beginning that endeavor and will now present my preliminary thoughts on how the study of posttraumatic stress disorder and disaster studies can deepen the theory. There are, however, shortcomings in both these areas that need to be acknowledged.

The literature surrounding posttraumatic stress disorder, is, of course, quite rich. As place to start is with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals, or DSM, of the American Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV lists the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. It consists of six criteria, involving exposure to stress, reexperience of the stress, avoidance of stimuli associated with the stress, persistent symptoms of arousal, duration of the disturbance for one month or more, and significant distress or impairment of important life functions (Brewin, 6-8).

In developing the theory of postapocalypse stress syndrome, these diagnostic criteria pose at least one significant problem: the Indians who are alive today would not have necessarily experienced the stress associated with the apocalypse. It is impossible to derive from the historical sources the presence of these criteria in the Indians who went through the trauma.

It may be possible, however, to separate the criteria into one category that would have affected only the first generation of sufferers from another involving learned behavior that could be passed on to future generations. The first category, which provisionally will be called initial generation criteria, includes exposure to the stress, reexperiencing the stress, and arousal. All of these concern first-person activities. Of course, later generations will not have been exposed to the trauma. Reexperiencing the stress includes a suite of symptoms idiomatic to a given individual, such as recurrent dreams and recollections of the event. Arousal manifests itself in such symptoms as difficulty falling asleep and concentrating. In the second category, which provisionally will be called potentially taught behavior, are found symptoms that the affected individual could teach a younger generation. For example, under the criteria of avoidance are such actions and responses as diminished interest in activities, restricted range of affect, and, perhaps, sense of a foreshortened future, which conceivably could translate into a pessimistic attitude. Under arousal, irritability and outbursts of anger can be learned most definitely. Finally, impairment may include some of the features of PASS listed above, such as chemical dependency, suicidal tendencies, and violence. Thus, some of the diagnostic aspects of posttraumatic stress disorder may be helpful in understanding PASS.

Two aspects of PASS limit the helpfulness in using post traumatic stress disorder in understanding the experience of Indians, however. First, while it is acknowledged that certain groups, such as war veterans, may be at higher risk for posttraumatic stress disorder, the way the illness is understood does not address the critical question of what happens when a large majority-indeed, an entire society-is affected by the disorder, as happened with American Indians. Also, most of the interventions for sufferers of posttraumatic stress disorder are designed for individual treatment and do not include what may be termed larger cultural recovery. This is particularly pertinent because, as suggested above, PASS involves the collapse of social institutions that would normally assist in a recovery. Not only must individual needs be acknowledged, but underlying problems systemic to the society must also be treated as well. There is a body of inquiry dedicated to that task, however, that can be broadly construed as disaster studies. It, too, has some insights to contribute to an understanding of PASS, but, like posttraumatic stress disorder, it also has its limitations.

In developing its diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder, the American Psychiatric Association recognized that the illness can extend beyond combat veterans to include any individual who has been exposed to a stressor (Saigh, 1-10; Ursano, Fullerton , and McCaughey, 6). With that insight, it is now known that large sections of a population can experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of disasters, whether natural or man-made. In this regard, two observations merit consideration. First, it is evident that in the wake of a disaster, posttraumatic stress disorder can become widespread within a community, severely affecting the overall health of the population. Treatment of the mental health consequences of disasters is recommended, and procedures for helping communities recover from traumatic events are continually being researched (Gist and Lubin; Ursano, McCaughey, and Fullerton; Zinner and Williams). So, one major contribution of disaster studies involves assessing recovery not just for the individual, but also the wider community.

As with posttraumatic stress disorder, certain limitations of disaster-recovery models need to be highlighted. Of greatest consequence is the underlying assumption that seems to inform disaster studies as a whole. It is taken as a given that after a disaster, social institutions will have remained stable and thus be able to provide the services necessary for recovery. It may be true, however, that the institutions within a community are greatly weakened and cannot provide the necessary assistance. In those cases, social institutions at higher levels of society are presumed to be strong enough to make up for shortcomings on the local level. Such was not the case with the apocalypse that American Indians experienced. Along with individual stress, the traditional social institutions of Indian societies also underwent severe pressures, and, in many cases, collapsed -at least temporarily. The institutions at the higher levels of society did not step in to fill in the gaps, and, in fact, in many cases worked to destroy those Native institutions and destabilize the cultures. Therefor, the given in disaster studies that social institutions will assist in the recovery may not necessarily be applied to the Indian apocalypse. As a result, much like posttraumatic stress disorder, while the study of disasters has some contributions to make to the theory of PASS, because of the unique experience of Indian societies, observations drawn from disaster studies need to be nuanced in this case.

As has been stressed, the aspect of Indian experiences that make it different from sufferers of posttraumatic stress disorder and communities struck by disaster is the collapse of the given world. In order to understand how a theory of PASS can help rebuild communities, it is first necessary to explain the nature of world construction, especially as developed by the sociology of religion. Peter Berger has done the most important work on that topic, and my comments are based on his thinking.

Berger argues that the world humans inhabit is not a mere given, but that humans engage in a process of world construction through a dialectic process of externalization, objectivation, and internalization (Berger 3-51). Most animals interact with the environment instinctively. Humans, however, have a low instinctual drive, and, as a result, they structure methods for being in the world. This is the process of externalization whereby humans construct culture, both material and nonmaterial. Once created, these things acquire an objective reality of their own. Such objectivity includes the nonmaterial aspects of human creativity, including society itself. Society, then, on the one hand, provides an identity for an individual human being, but, on the other, may also have a coercive effect of controlling an individual's life as well. Internalization is the process whereby individuals develop a symmetry between the objective world of society and the subjective world of the individual. While recognizing that this process is never complete, socialization is successful to the degree an individual accepts and follows the established norms of society.

William Paden argues that the process of world building is a closed circuit shaped by language. Thus, for a culture with only two kinds of animals--cats and dogs--other animals such as elephants and zebras will either be seen as aberrant cats or dogs, or as odd (Paden 56). Another way of saying this is that people generally see what they expect to see or what is important to them. So, the world is not a given, but rather based on the dictates of what is important individually and collectively. People see what they are trained to see, and pretty much ignore the rest. The physical reality we inhabit is not neutral; instead, it is informed by our cultural biases. Thus, even though Berger puts his emphasis on society, his observations indicate we simply do not inhabit a given society, but, in fact, exist in worlds of our own creation.

Although Berger mentions the low instinctual drive of humans as the primary necessity for humans to create societies, another element important to world creation is the expansive nature of human consciousness. Human beings have a consciousness stretching from the beginning of time to its end. Unlike animals, which seem to inhabit an eternal now, humans can contemplate now and forever. Human imagination also reaches across the vastness of space and beyond. Thus, humans create worlds of fiction where heroes and villains fight epic battles of life and death and dream up worlds out of this world—heavens, hells, and all manner of extra-spatial dimensions. In short, humans envision the cosmos.

As a result, humans invariably ask questions concerning our place in creation, generally involving why we are here and the meaning of life. The cosmos, however, provides no ready, evident answers, only vast emptiness. This is the chaos humans seek to fend off by constructing worlds in which human life has meaning and security. As Susanne Langer has argued in another context, chaos is the one thing human beings cannot stand (Langer 287). Berger writes "nomos," or established order, is a shield against terror, "Seen in the perspective of society, every nomos is an area of meaning carved out of a vast mass of meaninglessness, a small clearing of lucidity in a formless, dark, always ominous jungle" (Berger 24). The emphasis here is on the horror supposedly inherent outside of social control.

World building serves as a useful heuristic tool in understanding the culture-building activities of humans. However, as Berger also observes, worlds are inherently unstable. As human creations, the societies people create are not permanent. The process of socialization is never complete, and, though they do so at their own peril, people can and do question the underlying basis of social structures. If the questioning reaches an acute level, the world could collapse. Also, although the process is sometimes almost invisibly slow, worlds inevitably change over the course of time. Worlds are further subject to outside pressure in many forms, such as natural disasters. For example, the Lisbon earthquake shook more than the foundations of the city itself. The questioning of the will of God regarding this event set up a chain reaction, it has been argued, which ended the age of optimism in eighteenth-century Europe (Kendrick 180-212). Pressures can also come from competing worlds, from people living in other societies. Interaction with outside groups has been the norm more than the exception throughout history, and these interactions are fertile fields for new ideas and ways of doing things. Worlds can also collapse. The supporting pillars of a given world can give way for whatever reason, and society come tumbling down. People undergoing such an experience are left to deal with the fallout, and to somehow adjust to new realities, either by giving up their world for dead, or by trying to pick up the pieces as best they can. This is what I would term an apocalypse, and this is the reality that Indian societies must deal with today.

Assuming that Indian societies have gone through an apocalypse, the question, then, is, What role research can play in helping to rebuild Indian communities?

To begin, it is necessary to name and correctly analyze the phenomenon. The collapse of Indian cultures at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries is well accepted. What needs further understanding is the consequence of that collapse. It needs to be clear that Indian societies went through a apocalypse. This was not a simple disaster or crisis. The difficulties cut to the quick of Indian cultures. They have seen the end of their worlds and can never go back. Beyond that, it is necessary to correctly interpret this phenomenon, especially in comparison to other societies. Europe went through a similar process during the Bubonic Plague (Cantor). Knowing the parameters of that event, and comparing it to Indian societies, can help us to better understand the contours of PASS. Additionally, it can be seen that the personal and social dysfunctions currently experienced by many Indian societies are to be expected when a culture goes through an apocalyptic event. Knowing this can promote the first step on the road to recovery, self-forgiveness.

How can viable societies be rebuilt in the wake of an apocalypse? From the discussion of Berger above, it is apparent that for a society to thrive, the process of world construction and world maintenance, as artificial as they may be, must be promoted. For most societies through most of time, social worlds have been built on religious foundations. Until recently in American history, the federal government made a concerted effort to destroy Indian religions. In fact, the assault on Native traditions continues to the present day. The task before Indian people, then, is to rebuild their worlds in the face of continuing genocidal pressure. The study of religion points to one way this can be done. One primary means by which humans construct worlds is with myths, or sacred stories. It should be kept in mind that "myth" is being used here as a technical term from the academic study of religion. Thus, it is not being used in the sense of folk tales, or stories with no sacred significance. Of course, in the academic study of religion, there is much discussion about the nature and role of myths. However, for our purposes here we will focus on the observation that myths form the "sacred, world-constituting language within living religious traditions" (Paden 75). As world-building language, myths determine both the shape of a given religious world and the manner of being within that world. Myths can therefore be both paradigmatic and programmatic. They can explain the world and provide directions for how to act. Indians need to be telling their sacred stories.

Along with sacred stories, research can also support the effort to revitalize Native rituals. In this regard, the work of John Wilson is very encouraging. Examining the biological affects of the sweat lodge, he has demonstrated the manner in which the ritual can help individuals overcome the posttraumatic stress disorder ( Wilson , 38-71). Other aspects of the sweat lodge should be examined as well to give a complete accounting of the effectiveness of the ritual in treating this disorder. In addition to the biological aspects, the general therapeutic effect of working with others needs to be considered. From a religious studies point of view, such rituals can be powerful because they frame the sacred and put it on display (Paden, 95-100). Having a direct encounter with the core of one's religious world can have a tremendously healing effect. So, along with myths, participation by individuals in traditional religious rituals can help Indian societies deal with PASS.

A challenge for Indian societies is to figure out ways to incorporate the values and morals taught in the myths and rituals of the given culture in a meaningful way into society as a whole. The Native approach to life should inform government, business, health, and educational institutions to help resist the heavy pressure from mainstream society to conform to Euro-American visions, especially in regard to bottom-line capitalism. Indian societies may be better fit for communalist structures, because capitalist institutions will crush any alternatives. The degree to which Indian values can penetrate every aspect of Indian life is uncertain.

Although the prospects for using the theory of PASS are not entirely optimistic, this theory has potential to help Indian communities. According to PASS theory, it takes about 100-150 years for a society to fully recover. If the date for the beginning of PASS for most Indian societies is taken to be the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, the time is ripe for healing. As I look around Indian country, I see many signs that Indian people are starting to rebuild healthy societies. In the end, the Indians will have to do the hard work themselves. However, as scholars, we can help in the process. Hopefully, by pointing to the underlying dynamic that led Indian societies to their current dilemmas, the theory of postapocalypse stress syndrome can assist in the recovery.

Works Cited

Brewin, Chris R. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Malady or Myth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1967.

Cantor, Norman F. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. New York: The Free Press, 2001.

Gist, Richard and Bernard Lubin, eds. Psychological Aspects of Disaster. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989.

Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art . 3rd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Larson, Sidner. Captured in the Middle: Tradition and Experience in Contemporary Native American Writing. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Kendrick, T.D. The Lisbon Earthquake. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1957.

Paden, William E. Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Saigh, Philip A. "History, Current Nosology, and Epidemiology." In Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Behavioral Approach to Assessment and Treatment, ed. Philip A. Saigh, 1-27. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1992.

Ursano, Robert J., Carol S. Fullerton, and Brian G. McCaughey. "Trauma and Disaster." In Individual and Community Responses to Trauma and Disaster: The Structure of Human Chaos, ed. Robert J. Ursano, Brian G. McCaughey, and Carol S. Fullerton, 3-27. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Wilson, John P. Trauma, Transformation, and Healing: An Integrative Approach to Theory, Research, and Post-Traumatic Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1989.

Zinner, Ellen S. and Mary Beth Williams, eds. When a Community Weeps: Case Studies in Group Survivorship. Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel, 1998.

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