A Comeback of the Indigenous: Social Psychiatric Prediction #6


Indigenous individuals: original discoverers of the world, and potentially its saviors.


Fotos 593/AdobeStock


Although there has been much movement of humans out of our origins in the south of Africa, whoever settled for long times in a given land were later called the indigenous, or natives, or even primitives, and perhaps the worst of all, savages, by the colonial powers from Europe who explored and conquered their lands. In the United States, from the mid 17th century through the 19th century, many of the numerous Indigenous Indian tribes were decimated or displaced from the East Coast westward. The worse they were called, the more psychological justification was used by the conquerors.

That has left the Indigenous in the United States with probably the highest psychiatric morbidity of any cultural group. Much external trauma is still added to the intergenerational transmission of prior trauma. However, to date, the American Psychiatric Association’s focus on racism has not included a corresponding focus on the Indigenous.

Because much of the history of the Indigenous around the world is similar, eventually an International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs emerged, headquartered in Copenhagen.1 Although exactly what counts as Indigenous is unclear, it seems like there is somewhere around a half billion worldwide.

In the United States, although scores of Indigenous tribes and perhaps 10 million people existed when the Europeans came, the population dipped to the hundreds of thousands, but has increased once again into the millions, depending on whether and how those with mixed backgrounds are counted. Moreover, various strategies have emerged for their resilience and recovery. There was a Red Power movement in the United States at the same times as Black Power. Legal gambling casinos came to be thought of as the Natives financial revenge. There have been some restorative justice processes. Respect for using the prior Indigenous lands became routine, though little has been given back.

Recognition is emerging that the values and knowledge of the Indigenous may be a key to the future well-being of the world. Goodness knows, that may be the collective key to their resurgence. So many of our social psychiatric problems lend themselves to Indigenous expertise: sustainability of the land; cooperation for collective well-being; their value of transgender identification and vision; and therapeutic use of sweat lodges and the permissible religious ceremonial use of the psychedelic peyote.

There is even an increase in Indigenous psychiatrists and those who serve in our federal government.

The Indigenous could be thought of as the original discoverers of our world; they can also become its saviors.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. Singh M. It’s Time to Rethink the Idea of the “Indigenous.” The New Yorker. February 20, 2023. Accessed March 28, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/02/27/its-time-to-rethink-the-idea-of-the-indigenous

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