Focus Topics

topic 2 | Activity 9: Historical trauma

For Australian Indigenous peoples, the historical legacy of dislocation and displacement resulting from colonisation, has many significant impacts on their experience of living in Australian society today.


It is important to have an awareness of both the historical trauma and its ongoing effects (particularly the impact of intergenerational trauma), as well as the impacts of living with significant inequalities in education, employment and health, and institutional racism in mainstream services.

Healthcare professionals, especially those involved in palliative care, need to be aware of the impact that this experience has on Australian Indigenous peoples’ trust in mainstream or non-Indigenous health services. The need for provision of trauma-aware, healing-informed care and a focus on healing programs is of key importance. It is also important to understand the protective factors and healing properties associated with cultural connection and expression.


Many non-Indigenous Australians have not learned the truth about the history of Australian Indigenous peoples since colonisation.

A brief overview of historical events and their impact is provided here:

Timeline of Australian History and the impacts on Aboriginal peoples

Timeline of Australian History and the impacts on Torres Strait Islander peoples

Students are encouraged to engage in more in-depth exploration of this content through accessing the further resources provided throughout the toolkit.

Impacts of historical trauma

Traditional cultures throughout Australia were significantly impacted by colonisation. Traditional peoples and cultures were systematically supressed as European lifestyles and religions (Christianity) were imposed. Almost all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures were forbidden or discouraged, including practices associated with dying and death and the passing on of such sacred ceremonial knowledge.

Government policies of dispossession, dislocation, segregation, assimilation, removal and integration greatly impacted traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and customs.6 The lack of acknowledgement of the historical trauma invalidates the experiences and suffering of many Australian Indigenous peoples and is a source of ongoing pain and suffering.1

All over the world, when communities have traumatic experiences, there are long term consequences. Their children and grandchildren are affected and, depending on whether and how wrongdoings are acknowledged, and continuing problems are addressed, the trauma tracks down the generations.

Australians of today are not directly responsible for what happened in the past. But it is part of our shared history as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and, together, we are responsible for what happens in the future.

Royal Commission Indigenous Deaths in Custody 1989-1996.4

The impacts of historical trauma can be seen in a number of areas:1

Social exclusion:
Since colonisation, Australian Indigenous peoples have been marginalised in all aspects of life. Being denied participation in the mainstream social system meant being denied the rights and privileges of that system. The current impact of this can be seen in the high rates of poverty, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, poor health, suicide and lack of educational outcomes.
Institutionalised racism and discrimination:
Institutional discrimination occurs when a society’s institutions discriminate against a group of people. This occurred at the beginning of colonisation when both Australian Indigenous peoples were ‘legally’ dispossessed and exploited. However, this also set up a legacy of discrimination against Australian Indigenous peoples. For example, our health, education, legal and political systems are based on non-Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing, which fail to acknowledge traditional cultural value systems. This helps to explain the lack of trust many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people have in Western medicine and the health system, especially around end-of-life care, when spiritual and cultural aspects of care are often especially significant.
Undermining law, society, culture and belief systems:
Colonisation undermined both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander laws, society, culture and belief systems with the view that European culture was superior to all others. This has impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, societies and languages, which has had a strong impact on people’s sense of identity and belonging. Cultural disconnection and the weakening of identity are the underlying causes of many of the struggles faced by Australian Indigenous peoples today.
Intergenerational trauma:
The social and economic impact of invasion and control of Australian Indigenous peoples has accumulated across generations and has been amplified by policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged them. For many, this has resulted in the transmission of trauma, poverty and other forms of disadvantage from generation to generation. It is important to view the challenges faced by many families and communities today in the context of this history.
  1. Reflect on the impacts of historical trauma outlined in this activity.
    • Outline how your understanding of either Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health has changed as you have spent time focusing on historical events and their impact.
    • How will this newly recognised understanding impact the way that you practise and deliver care to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?
  1. Australians Together. Our History. 2020; Available from:
  2. Walking Together Reconciliation Committee. Working with Indigenous Australians First Nations People: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities. 2020; Available from:
  3. Healing Foundations, Working with the Stolen Generations: understanding trauma. 2019.
  4. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Indigenous Deaths in Custody 1989-1996. 1996, Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
  5. Referendum Council. The Uluru Statement from the Heart. Available from:
  6. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Capability Team: Queensland Health, Sad News Sorry Business: Guidelines for caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through death and dying. 2015.