Research into epigenetic inheritance conducted on Holocaust survivors has demonstrated scientific evidence of the transmission of trauma onto one’s descendants, but this idea is nothing new for Native Americans. The Mount Sinai research team, led by Rachel Yehuda, examined the genes of 32 Jewish individuals who had witnessed torture or experienced torture, been interned in a concentration camp by Nazi forces, or been forced into hiding during the era of the second world war. The team also examined their children’s genes. Children of holocaust survivors are known to have an increased likelihood of suffering from stress disorders, but earlier research into possible epigenetic inheritance led these scientists to look past child-rearing differences at the actual genes of these descendants of holocaust survivors. What they found surprised a lot of people, but apparently came as absolutely no surprise to Native Americans whom still held onto traditional beliefs of their ancestors.
“The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” Yehuda said of the genetic research which was published in Biological Psychiatry.
The team took a look specifically at one region of a gene that is known to be associated with regulating stress hormones.
“It makes sense to look at this gene,” Yehuda said, according to The Guardian. “If there’s a transmitted effect of trauma, it would be in a stress-related gene that shapes the way we cope with our environment.”
The team was right. Epigenetic tags in that region were found in the exact part of the gene in Holocaust survivors and their offspring, but was completely missing in any other control group. Just to make sure that the actual stress from survivors of the Holocaust wasn’t passed along through actual trauma to their children, they conducted further genetic analyses. That possibility was reportedly ruled out through the analyses.
“To our knowledge, this provides the first demonstration of transmission of pre-conception stress effects resulting in epigenetic changes in both the exposed parents and their offspring in humans.”
“Native healers, medicine people and elders have always known this and it is common knowledge in Native oral traditions,” LeManuel Bitsoi, Navajo, Ph.D Research Associate in Genetics at Harvard University, stated at the Gateway to Discovery conference in 2013 when the theory was pushed more into the forefront of scientific research, according to Indian Country Today.
Bonnie Duran is the associate professor in the Department of Health Services at the University of Washington School of Public Health. She is also the Director for Indigenous Health Research at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute. She says that many health disparities found among the Native American people can be traced back through epigenetics to a “colonial health deficit” resulting from the colonization of America.
Native researcher Dr. Teresa Brockie, Research Nurse Specialist at the National Institute of Health, also claims that epigenetic changes might be linked to health disparities among Native Americans including endocrine and immune disorders.
“The persistence of stress associated with discrimination and historical trauma converges to add immeasurably to these challenges,” Brockie and her fellow researchers wrote, according to Indian Country Today.
An earlier study in mice from Emory University found that mice were even able to pass along a learned smell-associated onto their descendants. In response to that epigenetic inheritance research, Professor Marcus Pembrey, a children’s geneticist at University College London said that it is “high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously,” adding, “I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”
“We as individuals cannot be isolated from either the present or past generations of our family,” Ginny Razier wrote in an article for the Manataka American Indian Council. “Families, it seems, transmit across many generations values, expectations, even sentiments and emotions. A fear of falling short of expectations or a feeling that family problems are your own fault can be passed on in a family as surely as brown hair, high cheekbones and broad shoulders.”
Native Americans reportedly believe more than just trauma can be passed along though the generations. In her article, Razier explained that many Native Americans believe that even food habits and awareness of herbs can be unknowingly passed along. Razier claims that “studies have indicated a link between memory of these and Native American ancestry.” Gitxsan writer Shirley Muldon, whose people are indigenous to Canada wrote that, in addition to believing in reincarnation and that dead relatives can visit this world, the Gitxsan people believe that “memory survives from generation to generation.” Professor Joseph Gone, member of the Gros Ventre tribe of Montana and instructor at the University of Michigan pointed out that if people’s trauma can be epigenetically inherited, perhaps Native Americans also hold a hidden gene for resilience given the propensity of the people to maintain culture and beliefs despite the deliberate cultural eradication and traumatic history their ancestors endured.
Discover Magazine author Dan Hurley asked, “And what if we could create a pill potent enough to wipe clean the epigenetic slate of all that history wrote? If such a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?”
Well, would you?
[Photo via U.S. Library of Congress]