Researchers have recently theorized that historical trauma and epigenetics may be the source of higher rates of addiction in Native Americans. Though these higher rates are often attributed to either genetic vulnerability or the impact of structural oppression, epigenetics, a science at the crossroads of the nature/nurture debate, shows that it may be both.

Epigenetics, which means “above the gene,” refers to the effect environmental triggers have on heritable genes.

An individual’s DNA is determined at the moment an egg and sperm join and start creating stem cells which start rapidly dividing and differentiating into different cell types. Each cell contains a complete copy of the genetic code, with genes that may be “on” or “off.” Epigenetics has the ability to switch a gene on—for example, stress may leave someone with the “flight or fight” gene permanently activated. The traumatized woman, in this example, will pass the altered gene on to her children, even though she was not born with it in its activated state.

Epigenetics has enormous implications for the descendants of historical trauma, including Native Americans and other indigenous populations. Trauma, rather than confining its impact to a single generation, may become encoded into the DNA of the people who survive it and, therefore, persist as both a genetic and social condition. According to Bonnie Duran, a professor at the University of Washington and the Director for Indigenous Health Research at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, “Many present-day health disparities [between native and non-native populations] can be traced back through epigenetics to a ‘colonial health deficit,’ the result of colonization and its aftermath.” The prevalence of addiction is one of these disparities.

Submitted by Lloyd Fitzsimmons

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