sherilee harper

EcoHealth Research with Indigenous Communities

Reflections from “Creating a New Legacy”

Written by Alexandra Sawatzky, PhD student

This week I had the honour of attending the 2015 Aboriginal Mental Health and Wellness Conference, “Creating a New Legacy,” in Brandon, Manitoba. The overall purpose of this two-day gathering was to promote and create culturally-safe services with and for Indigenous peoples, while encouraging Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to work together with their heads, hearts, and hands. The tree from their logo represents what happens when Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples come together as one to create a new legacy for the betterment of all. It implies that by establishing strong roots and a commitment to growing in our understanding, empathy, and respect for each other, the tree – and humanity – will flourish1. The core values of this conference were reflectiveness, responsiveness, relationships, and restoration, which resonated throughout the various presentations and sessions.

In the keynote address by Dr. Brenda Restoule, from Dokis First Nation and the Eagle Clan, emphasis was placed on the need to move towards proactive, strengths-based health programming models in Indigenous communities that focus on the gifts people already have – and help them use these gifts to move forward independently. Underlying these strengths-based models is the need for holistic approaches to healthcare that are developed, owned, and operated by Indigenous peoples. In order to do so, culture must be foundational.

In addition to strengths-based programming, Dr. Chandrakant Shah, Project Director of the Aboriginal Cultural Safety Initiative at Anishnawbe Health Toronto, stressed the importance of training healthcare providers in providing these programmes in culturally-safe way. Cultural safety is essentially the intentional act to recognize, respect, and nurture unique cultural identities. To be culturally safe, we must first prioritize empathy over compassion. Dr. Shah described compassion as infatuation, sympathy, or pity. Empathy, on the other hand, he described as the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. Only after you’ve done this will you truly understand another person’s world and associated worldviews. Cultural safety also requires a deep understanding of the historical contexts, ongoing colonial processes, and racism that continue to impact Indigenous peoples today. Particularly for non-Indigenous individuals involved in various aspects of healthcare, this means engaging with decolonization processes in all work that is done alongside Indigenous partners.

Following Dr. Shah’s presentation, Dr. Michael Hart, who is from Fisher River Cree Nation and is the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledge and Social Work, provided further elaboration on cultural safety and decolonization. Dr. Hart began his presentation by unpacking the themes and processes of colonialism, stressing that colonial processes are two-way streets; while one party suffers, the other benefits. Those who benefit often have an internalized sense of power, and most aren’t able to recognize this, or else are too uncomfortable to do so. Culturally-safe approaches to healthcare services seek to break down these power imbalances, and recognize that there is more than one way of looking at the world. Such approaches require new skill sets and a new theoretical base – a move from “Indigenous” to “Indigenist” services. Dr. Hart explained that Indigenist services are centred around cultural revitalization for the political, social, and economic transformation of Indigenous peoples. This involves the re-setting of traditions and continued re-affirmation of the power they hold, can hold, and will hold. He ended with words that are shared by many Elders, which get at the very heart of Indigenous ways of being: “take what will help you go forward in a good way. Please leave the rest.”

I also had the pleasure of meeting with artist Eugene Ross, a descendant of the Sante Dakota Tribe, who has the largest Dakota collection in Manitoba. Mr. Ross took the time to show me how Dakota people made pemmican – a mixture of dried meat, fruits, and nuts pounded into a coarse powder and mixed with melted fat. [see photo below]

Although I learned so much from my brief time here, I recognize learning is never-ending and I have a long road ahead of me. Learning, to me, is about becoming. Becoming a better, wiser, more empathetic person. Becoming who you need to be. Learning can – and should be – an uncomfortable, challenging process. I find that it is when I am most uncomfortable with what I’m learning that I truly become more knowledgeable – about the worlds around me, and about myself. This knowledge, put into practice, can grow into wisdom. As Barry French, one of the planning committee members, so eloquently stated in his closing address: “with this knowledge, with these teachings, comes an obligation to do something with them. Take what you’ve learned here, put it into your heart, and use it. Share it with others. Create a new legacy.”

References:

  1. Creating a New Legacy. (2015). Conference Program. Retrieved October 8, 2015 from: http://creatinganewlegacy2015.ca/conference-program/

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