When I was approached to write a piece for The Underground about Indigenous health and healing, I was a little apprehensive. I feared being tokenized and portrayed as the knowledge bearer on the subject. This is why, I am prefacing this piece with the following: I am not an expert. I too am on a journey to learning more about Indigenous health and healing.
When thinking about the different ways we may conceptualize health and wellness, it is important to acknowledge the Euro-Western pedagogy rooted in biomedical approaches — a pedagogy that is nearly opposite to traditional Indigenous healing methods. For many of us, being raised in a Western society like Canada, means that most of us can afford things like health care. Hardly ever does one question the care we receive from our healthcare system.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I started to become aware of other forms of health and wellness. Growing up, my Indigenous community came with its set of social barriers such as a lack of funding for education which resulted in high unemployment rates. Another barrier was a lack of basic necessities like water. From a health perspective, these inequities were and still are more visible in the high rates of diabetes and drug and alcohol abuse. It is important to note, however, that these are only a few of the health concerns that plague the community. Many of these issues, if not all, stem from more deeply rooted sources, most of which cannot be cured by a simple visit to the doctor’s office.
As a student in UTSC’s health policy program, I am able to research and learn more about health care systems. After being in the program for a few years, it’s safe to say that the Canadian government has failed Indigenous peoples and communities on all social, political, and economic fronts. Collected data has shown that there is a distinct disparity between non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people in regards to unemployment rates, living conditions, earned income and unsolved cases involving missing and/or murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
As an Indigenous person, I have seen firsthand the effects of colonialism on our people. Alcohol and drug abuse in our communities do not stem from a lack of willpower. Rather, it is the result of a cycle of abuse inflicted by the Canadian government through Indian Residential Schools. To date, boil water advisories tell residents to boil their tap water for at least one minute prior to drinking it. This act, of having to physically boil one’s water just so they do not fall ill is one of many ways that the legacy of a 500 year long history of land dispossession and cultural genocide lives on.
In my time at UTSC, I have spent time with UTSC’s Traditional Aboriginal Leader Elder Cat Criger, who has helped me understand more about the role that elders have and the generational gifts they carry with them from our communities. Simply put, there is a much more holistic understanding of how issues in our life affect the mind, body and spirit. And when I learned more about this, I began to understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a new way. It is not uncommon for our people to have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression because of the systemic racism we continue to face. A report done in 2000 by McGill showed that members of Canada’s Indigenous community have a range of health issues much higher than that of the general Canadian population. There is a lot of healing that our people need to do, and this healing does not always involve going to the doctor and getting a bandage or cast put on. Our healing requires each other, the land, elders, medicines, and healers.
In some nations, for example, a sweat lodge ceremony is done to both release toxins from your body and to maintain a good heart and mind. Another method is smudging, in which sweetgrass, cedar, tobacco, or sage is burned for medicinal purposes and the smoke acts as another method to cleanse one’s mind and body. I’ve been taught that Indigenous peoples typically practiced these ceremonies, which occurred daily, for purification because it is important to have a clear mind, body and spirit. Relative to my own nation, it is taught that strawberries and tobacco are medicines, which derive from the Haudenosaunee creation story. In our culture, we give thanks to the medicines that the earth provides for us through longhouse ceremonies.
As I mentioned previously, I am on a journey to learning more about my nation, identity, and culture. When I think about what moving forward looks like for our people, I envision our youth and children picking up the ways of their nations and reconnecting to the land and culture. I’ve heard it said that sometimes that even that is in fact the best medicine.