Indigenous healing is neither monolithic nor static but a contemporary expression of knowledge systems and values reflecting the rich cultural diversity of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. It is a concept that is both diverse and multiple, which mediates particular conceptions of identity, place, culture, empowerment and responsibility. Indeed, each practitioner makes use of various treatment methods that best respond to his or her client’s needs (herbal remedies, sweats, ceremonies, bush retreats, etc.) and operates within specialized fields of practice (involving spiritualists, midwives, healers, medicine women/men, or herbalists).
Healing is invariably described as a transformative and continuous process. It is transformative in the sense that the objective is not necessarily to ‘cure’ the individual in the biomedical sense, but to empower them to make the right choices in life. In other words, healing is
[a] developmental process in which the patient undergoes changes in physical, behavioral, cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, and/or existential functioning
Waldram, 2013, p.193
The cognitive emphasis of healing helps the individual understand his/her past actions and behaviors, to accept the difficult realities of life and tackle them ‘head-on’, and ultimately to take responsibility and commit to a healthy social life. It constitutes a process of learning, developing life-skills and the ability to apply them “in a conscious manner in all that life brings normally and abnormally”(8).
Sometimes described as ‘work’, and because its goal is not curative, healing is understood as a continuous process. On one hand, personal transformation and commitment take individualized time and conscious effort. Change doesn’t happen overnight and as a learning process, new knowledge is internalized in a gradual, cumulative and incremental way. Symbolically, healing is described as a journey (the “Red Road,” the “Sweetgrass Trail,” the “Way of the Pipe”) that is fraught with challenges, as individuals need to remain vigilant throughout their lives.
On the other hand, as much as it is centered on personal responsibility, healing is also a community and collective process. What individuals are healing from (addictions, violence, depression, loss, etc.) is understood as a manifestation of social suffering caused by colonization and contemporary systemic oppression. Adelson (2009) defines social suffering as “the embodied expression of damaging and often long-term and systemic asymmetrical social and political relations” (p. 273). In the context of healing, then, the ‘work’ of individuals consists in understanding the historical as well as the contemporary trauma implicit in social suffering.
From a historical perspective, colonial policy and especially the residential school system, “wrought complex and contradictory understandings of the world that distorted traditional teachings and undermined social foundations from which family structures and child-rearing practices took meaning” (8). From a contemporary perspective, ongoing injustice prevalent in all spheres of Indigenous life (from government negotiations to policy, as well as neoliberal capitalism) creates cycles of oppression – an interplay between biased information that leads to stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice. Thus, systems of advantage, privilege, and disadvantage, created and maintained by social injustice, place Indigenous peoples in a considerably disadvantaged position, evidenced in poorer health outcomes compared to the rest of Canada.
The ‘work’ that healing implies from this perspective calls for concerted community and collective action to acknowledge the history of abuse and to create supportive and safe conditions for individual healing by challenging the systemic oppression present in institutions (both local and governmental) and reflected in contemporary policy. Healing is therefore a collective political and self-empowering intervention.
In Chisasibi, elder Eddie Pash developed in 2012 a land-based healing program that is delivered on his hunting territory. It is the first formal and structured land-based program in Eeyou Istchee. The program promotes personal, family and community wellness from a perspective rooted in iiyiyiu pimaatisiiwin (Cree way of life). Its mission is to strengthen the ability of participants to lead a healthy, fulfilling and resilient life. Ultimately, the program aims to improve the mental health of individuals so that they can effectively participate in the life of their family and community and make positive contributions to the collective development of their Nation.
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2. Adelson, N. (2001). Re-Imagining Aboriginality: An Indigenous People's Response to Social Suffering. In V. Das, A. Kleinman, M. Lock & M. Ramphele (Eds.), Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovering (pp. 76-101). Berkeley: University of California Press.
3. Adelson, N. (2009). Toward a Recuperation of Souls and Bodies: Community Healing and the Complex Interplay of Faith and History. In L. J. Kirmayer & G. G. Valaskakis (Eds.), Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (pp. 272-288). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
4. Waldram, J. B. (2008) Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Meaning and Practice. Ottawa: National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research.
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7. Adelson, N., & Lipinski, A. (2008). The Community Youth Initiative Project. In J. B. Waldram (Ed.), Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Meaning and Practice (pp. 9-30). Ottawa: National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research.
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9. Gone, J. P. (2008) The Pisimweyapiy Counselling Centre: Paving the Red Road to Wellness in Northern Manitoba.In J. B. Waldram (Ed.), Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Meaning and Practice (pp. 131-203). Ottawa: National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research, Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
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12. McGibbon, E. (2012). Oppression: A Social Determinant of Health. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
13. Fletcher, C., & Denham, A. (2008). Moving Towards Healing: A Nunavut Case Study. In J. B. Waldram (Ed.), Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Meaning and Practice (pp. 93-129). Ottawa: National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research and Aboriginal Healing Foundation.