Native American communities suffer disproportionately from drug and alcohol abuse, violence and suicide. Addressing this problem has forced scientists to examine how trauma, history and poverty affect health—and how culture could restore it.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that there is an association with cultural conflict, and what’s at the root of the cultural conflict is what’s known as historical trauma,” says Dr. Tommy K. Begay, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Arizona College of Medicine department of psychiatry, in a roundtable discussion on Tuesday's AZ Illustrated Science.

Begay studies the impact of that historical trauma—the legacy of the Indian boarding school system, forced relocations and other historical attempts to control Native American tribes—on health in Native American communities by measuring how chronic intergenerational stress affects biological markers of disease and wellness.

This stress and cultural disconnection don’t just lead to chemical dependency and violence, he says, but also to a potentially higher risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Studies have shown that reconnecting to cultural practices can aid in recovery and healing, but researchers are still trying to understand exactly why. Part of it has to do with a recovered sense of self, says Natividad Cano, a counselor in the Native Ways program, a Native American culture-based substance abuse treatment program at The Haven treatment facility for women.

“In addiction, the individual has a loss of sense of self,” Cano says. “But when the women begin to acknowledge and recognize and honor the traditional ways, it’s a sense of finding self as well ... it’s a beautiful thing that happens.”

In order to understand how cultural connection heals, scientists will have to challenge and expand their perception of healing, says Dr. Patrisia Gonzales, UA assistant professor of Mexican American studies and author of Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing.

“There’s very ancient knowledge that predates the evolution of Western science as we know it today. There’s Native knowledge ... that has a totally different understanding of the impact of being able to change the very lives of people,” Gonzales says. When dealing with the impacts of trauma on a person’s wellbeing, “that system of knowledge can be used with other systems of knowledge to help that person continue on.”