In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) identified significant gaps in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. These pervasive gaps are evidenced by numerous indicators, including infant mortality, maternal health, suicide rates, incidence of mental illness, addictions, chronic diseases, and accessibility to appropriate health services. For Indigenous people, this has been a painful lived reality for generations, but Canada is only slowly beginning to recognize the impact of a history of violent policies on Indigenous health.
Canada’s Indigenous policies, including the Indian Act, disconnected people from their land, identities, and families; facilitated forced assimilation, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; and outlawed Indigenous medicine and ceremony.
Two of the TRC Calls to Action address the need for Indigenous healing practices within the Canadian healthcare system, as well as the need for Indigenous healing centres to support those who’ve been physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually harmed by residential schools. Promoting the practice of Indigenous healing is not only essential for the wellbeing of patients, it is also a critical part of ensuring that the body of Indigenous medicinal knowledge survives, develops, and flourishes.
What is Indigenous medicine?
Indigenous healing practices vary from region to region, and from Nation to Nation. However, the concept that wellness encompasses mind, body, heart, spirit, and connection to land, is common to many Indigenous cultures. From this perspective, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components of the natural world are all equally important. Health extends beyond the patient and into relationships with other people, with animals, plants, rocks, water, stars, and ancestors.
The role of a healer in my Ininew (Cree) culture is to assist the patient in restoring good relationships and increasing their awareness of the desired state of equilibrium. Practices that help us understand and achieve equilibrium may be physical (eg. ingesting a plant), mental (eg. assessing our needs and communicating them), emotional (eg. social relationships or taking appropriate measures to grieve), and spiritual (eg. understanding all these interactions, which may involve dreaming or praying). Many of our Ininew ceremonies facilitate all four types of healing at once. The way we pray, for instance, is usually accompanied by a physical experience, such as burning a plant medicine, entering a sweat lodge, smoking a sacred pipe, piercing our skin, or sounding a drum.
The relationship between the material and spiritual realms is intricate and deep. We need to spend physical time on the land to learn which plants to use, when to use them, and how to prepare them. Much knowledge is also stored in the wisdom of our family and community members. We have to learn the landscape and its rhythms like the back of our hand in order to gain medicinal knowledge. The way other animals, plants, seasons, and planets interact informs our healing practices. We have to watch them for a long time. There is a subtle enlightenment and inspiration which results from long-term exposure to the intricacy and interdependence that shapes the material world. This inspiration is spiritual in nature.
It is simpler to explain spiritual inspiration as a byproduct of physical experience, but physical experience is also a byproduct of spiritual inspiration. Neither comes before the other. This is one of several fundamental concepts of Indigenous health that can be expressed in hoop symbolism. The hoop as a conceptual framework is popularly represented by the Medicine Wheel image. The Medicine Wheel is a circle with a centre and lines extending in all four cardinal directions. The four directions also represent the four aspects of being (body, mind, heart, spirit). When we look out at life from the centre of our circle, we acknowledge the way in which we are situated relative to other people, to our environment, to the past and to the future. Understanding and respect for those relationships brings us to equilibrium.
In 1875, my nation, Pimicikamak, signed a treaty with the British Crown. Thereafter, the physical, intellectual, and religious influence of the settler people grew until it overpowered our traditional healing ways. This was often accomplished by force. Indian Agents were hired to monitor compliance with new Canadian (foreign) policies across Ininew territory. The land-based spirituality of our ancestors was banned and we underwent a systematic process of Christian conversion. Children were placed in an education system which removed them from their families and from the land. They were penalized, sometimes brutally, for speaking their language. Our language holds a wealth of information that is necessary for Ininew wellbeing. The intricate relationships I have described are embedded in it and cannot be expressed in English. The plants, meats and fats that once precisely regulated our physical systems were replaced by rations of refined flours and sugars. We fried bread, wrote, read, and drank until we largely forgot who we once were.
When our identity was stolen, we became sick with ailments that had never afflicted us before, such as cancer, diabetes, alcohol addiction and suicide. We were given medicines that had no life, no roots, no leaves. We were given clothing we did not need to make ourselves. We were given food that we did not need to harvest ourselves. We did not need to know what creature gave its life for it, and what ecological systems support that creature. We were shown European ‘civilization’ and had little choice but to embrace its psychology and technology. As our relationships to land and family continue to be systematically severed through policy, economic imperialism, and environmental destruction, we lose touch with our ancient understanding of health. This greatly inhibits our ability to heal ourselves.
Sickness in Canada’s Indigenous communities can be described as a disconnection. But this disconnection has affected non-Indigenous society as well, and for much longer. It has been there for so long that it is scarcely recognized in the Canadian health care system. Allowing, including, and promoting Indigenous healing practices is essential for re-establishing connection and wellness in Indigenous patients. But it can also help to inform the direction of inevitable change as we enter a time of great instability in our global health and environmental systems.