Indigenous Healing

Very brief notes from the book (I was too engaged to extract much, as the book works more as a whole – appropriately enough)

Indigenous Healing – Exploring Traditional Paths by Rupert Ross

Part One Stumbling into a World of Right Relations
Ch 1 Learning to See Relationally
Ch 2 Seeing Justice Relationally
Ch 3 Moving into Right Relations
The Embedded Indigenous Soul
Ethical Responsibilities toward All of Creation
Languages Built on Spiritual Connections
Place, Space and the Medicine Wheel
the Centrality of the Circle and Ceremony
the Fundamental Posture of Thankfulness
the Notion that Humans are Fundamentally Good
Right Relations and True Knowledge

Part Two Colonization
Ch 4 Many Sources of Harm
the Denigration of Women and Their Roles
Legal Descrimination
Relocation of Families and Communities
Ch 5 the Residential School System
the Children Were Prisoners, Not Just Students
They Suffered a Deep Sense of Abandonment
They Lived with Poverty, Disease and Sometimes Death
Everything about Them was Denigrated
Their Relationship with Staff was often Abusive
Their Relationships with Other Students was Often Abusive
Ch 6 Exploring the Psychological Damage
the Phenomenon of Silence
Learned Helplessness
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Emotional Suppression
Socio-Cultural Shame
the Attraction of Alcohol and Drugs
the Damage Done to Aboriginal Society

Part Three Healing from Colonization
Ch 9 How to Begin
Ch 10 Three Healing Programs
Hollow Water’s Community Holistic Circle Healing Program
the National Native Alcohol and Drug Addiction Program (NNADAP)
the RedPath Program
Ch 11 Aboriginal Healing: Twelve Striking Differences
the Special Focus on Spirit
the Definition of a “Healthy Person”
the Reliance on Group Healing
Individual Healing Grounded in Social Healing
Restoration of the Emotional Realm
Ceremonies and Catharsis
the Uniqueness of Aboriginal Healers
Respect for the Worth of Everyone
the Belief That It’s Not Always Necessary to Talk Your Way Back to Health
the Importance fo Land in the Healing Journey
the Adoption of Complementary Western Therapies
Healing as a Lifelong Effort

“Much of what used to be described as ‘healing’ is now viewed as ‘decolonization therapy.'”
–Hollow Water First Nation, Manitoba, 2002


[Cree Grandmother Maria Linklater] pased [in her storytelling], as if an idea had just occurrred to her. She slapped her thigh, chuckled out loud and said something I’ve never forgotten: “You know, I think I finally figured out what it means to live a good life.” That declaration really caught my attention, because “a good life” is a serious concept within aboriginal traditions, and because Elders seldom tell others what they should think, say or do. “Maybe,” Maria told us, “you know you’re living a good life when you get to my age, and you look back maybe five years or so, and you find yourself saying, ‘Boy, I sure didn’t know too much … way back then!'”

the Centrality of the Circle and Ceremony
It seems to me that seeing the world “the four directions way” means that everything is understood to be engaged in a neverending, always re-emerging circle. And that takes us to another fundamental organizing principle of traditional societies: reliance upon the circle in almost everything. Black Elk, a noted Lakota Shaman, describes the significance of the circle:

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round … Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.

Clearly, life as positioned on the medicine wheel is lived in a circle, from birth to youth to adulthood to status as Elder, then death and rebirth. The centrality of the circle extends into virtually every facet of aboriginal life, and every circular aspect strengthens the circular whole.

Deborah Chansonneuve discusses what happens when people lose their conviction of embeddedness within the many circles of life:

Within this worldview, the circle connects the spirits of all beings and things in a great, sacred whole. When connectedness to any part of the whole is lost or interrupted, the sense of sacredness is lost. As the sacred is the most fundamental of all connections, when it is lost, people will destroy others, the environment or themselves.

As I said earlier, when that happens with individuals, it is understood that they have become out of balance.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
[Note: the author later makes an important distinction, that although complex PTSD explains most clearly to us the effects of colonization through the generations, it is a Western psychological model. Aboriginal healing practices use a different perspective, and so different approaches to healing – I couldn’t find the exact quotation, and I hope this approximates his disclaimer]

In [Dr Lori Haskell’s] presentation, she introduced the theory of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis I had never head of. This disorder was first described by American psychologist Dr. Judith Herman, in her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. As Dr. Haskell explained it, what made spousal violence different from “normal” PTSD was that it involved repeated acts of violence, and the victim was substantially helpless throughout. … [Dr Herman] explained it this way:

The diagnosis of “post-traumatic stress disorder,” as it is presently defined, does not fit accurately enough. The existing diagnostic criteria for this disorder … are based on prototypes of combat, disaster, and rape. In survivors of prolonged, repeated trauma, the symptom picture is far more complex. Survivors of prolonged abuse develop characteristic personality changes, including deformations of relatedness and identity. Survivors of childhood abuse develop similar problems with relationship and identity; in addition, they are particularly vulnerable to repeated harm, both self-inflicted and at the hands of others.

As Dr. Haskell Began to list the symptoms of complex PTSD, I noticed that almost everyone one matched what I routinely saw in the most troubled aboriginal communities. …the major symptoms of complex PTSD:

  • substance abuse in a vain attempt to regulate emotional states;
  • significantly greater suicidality, self-harm, insomnia and sexual dysfunction;
  • chronic, low-grade depression, which the victims considered a “normal” way to feel;
  • disruptions in consciousness, memory, sense of self, attachment to others and the
  • establishment of sound and durable boundaries within relationships;
  • reduced ability to trust one’s own judgment, assert needs or cope with others;
  • uncontrolled vacillation between pronounced dissociation and extreme fear;
  • a sense of emotional numbness and a retreat into silence; and
  • a smouldering anger.

When Dr. Haskell listed the causes of complex PTSD … every single one of them gave an accurate description of life within many residential schools and many of today’s communities:

  • growing up in an environment of neglect and deprivation;
  • having a sense of powerlessness and helplessness;
  • experiencing social, psychological and legal subordination;
  • being a target of sexism and racism;
  • living with homelessness and/or extreme poverty; and
  • having a sense of repeated interpersonal victimization, including childhood abuse and other physical violence.

re: intergenerational transfer of trauma. … [W]hen the parents and grandparents brought their residential school trauma home and had children of their own, they could not model strong, healthy behaviour. When they retreated into alcohol, refused to discuss or honour feelings, let their smouldering anger explode into violence, and built relations based on fear, mistrust and force, their children took those behaviours as “just the way people live” and began to live the same way. Growing up within that chain of dysfunctional, often violent behaviour, they could not help but perpetuate.

In my view, however, it no longer matters who intended what result. What does matter is the need to recognize that policies put in place forty or sixty or a hundred years ago remain tragically powerful today, and we all have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to get things back on a respectful path again.

source: “Cultural Healing Practices within National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program/Youth Solven Addiction Program Services” by James Dumont and Carol Hopkins.

The following statement expresses the founding vision for all healing:

In the Indigenous mind, though humankind is a “special creation event,” the human person is of the earth and from the earth. Like all of the created world, the human being is part of the balance of nature. It must find a special yet interconnected place within the created whole. The human person is a relative to all other persons of the Earth, and, along with all creatures, calls the Earth Mother.

The final renewal document set out ten principles to guide treatment, seven of which spoke directly about the importance of Teachings.

  • Spirit-Centred: Culture is understood as the outward expression of spirit, and revitalization of spirit is central to promoting health and well-being among First Nations people. System-wide recognition that ceremony, language and traditions are important in helping to focus on strengths and reconnecting people with themselves, the past, family, community and land.
  • Connected: Strong connectons are the basis for holistic and integrated services and supports. Healthy family, community, and systems are built on strong and lasting relationships. These connections exist between Indigenous people, the land, and their culture, as well as relationships between various sectors and jurisdictions responsible for care delivery.
  • Holistic Support: Services and supports that are holistic consider all potential factors contributing to well-being (e.g., physical, spiritual, mental, cultural, emotional, and social) over the lifespan, and seek to achieve balance within and across these areas.
  • Community-Focused: Adopting a community-focused lens will help to both ensure that diversity within and across communities is respected, and enhance overall system responsiveness to factors that make each community unique.
  • Balanced: Inclusion of both Indigenous and Western forms of evidence and approaches to all aspects of care (e.g. service delivery, administration, planning and evaluation) demonstrates respect and balance. it is also important to maintain awareness that each is informed by unique assumptions about health and well-being and unique worldviews.
  • Culturally Competent: Cultural competence requires that service providers, both on- and off-reserve, are aware of their own worldviews and attitudes towards cultural differences; and include both knowledge of, and openness to, the cultural realities and environments of the clients they serve. To achieve this, it is also necessary for indigenous knowledge to be translated into current realities to meaningfully inform and guide direction and delivery of health services and supports on an ongoing basis.
  • Culturally Safe: Cultural safety extends beyond cultural awareness and sensitivity within services and includes reflecting upon cultural, historical, and structural differences and power relationships within the care that is provided. It involves a process of ongoing self-reflection and organizational growth for service providers and the system as a whole to respond effectively to First Nations people.

Dr. Kirmayer has identified the same challenge in dealing with government [i.e. programs serving one community have to name themselves differently to qualify for various government funding sources], but takes the impact of that structural failure even further:

Some of the structural problems faced by communities result from government policies and administrative practices, notably the segmentation of policies, programs and services that aim to address issues of mental health, substance abuse, social services, corrections and other social problems that are all aspects of the same underlying social problem. This artificial separation of practices and professions, aggravated by conflicts over jurisdictions, has wreaked havoc with Aboriginal communities.

In fact, it might not be unfair to call those government structures another form of colonization. The western determination to consistently break things down into their ever-more-specialized areas of expertise means that funding structures follow the same specialist preference. As a result, holistic aboriginal visions must also be broken down into smaller segments, even though it is holistic healing that is seen as essential.

The Definition of a “Healthy Person”

Following from that spiritual connection with all aspects of Creation, human beings are recognized as, fundamentally, the sum of all their relationships within Creation, whether with other people, birds, animals, trees, rocks or rivers. A healthy person is thus someone who understands that he is a nested component of that complex web of interconnections, who acknowledges fundamental dependence upon them, who is aware that he has been given significant responsibilities within those responsibilities and who is determined to fulfill them as best he can. his “self” interest is perhaps better understood as his “other” or “all” interest. That vision is deeply embedded in aboriginal languages, practices, ceremonies and psyches. Western therapies promoting individual self-definition, self-assertion and self-promotion will feel improper to aboriginal people, and may be met with pronounced resistance.
Carol Hopkins spoke to that issue at one of the NNADAP renewal forums, stressing that, in aboriginal understandings of healing, “the client is the individual plus his or her family and community.” She also identified a treatment goal as seeking “reconnection to family and others.”

In contrast this is how Judith Herman sees the goal of western therapy:

The community activists Evan Stark and Anne Flitcraft state as their therapeutic goal with battered women the restoration of autonomy and empowerment. They define autonomy as “a sense of separateness, flexibility, and self-possession sufficient to define one’s self-interest … and make significant choices,” while empowerment is “the convergence of mutual support with individual autonomy.”

In my view, aboriginal healers would not support “a sense of separateness…sufficient to define one’s self-interest” as a successful healing outcome. In fact, the opposite is more likely.

Nadia Ferrara is an adjunct professor of anthropology at McGill University and a senior policy manager at Indian and Northern Affairs Canda who has worked with the Cree and Naskapi people of northern Quebec. She makes this observation:

In 1895, Freud’s doctrine was that a patient must talk, remember and verbally express important, emotionally-filled early childhood experiences. From this point on, expressive verbal psychotherapies became the dominant treatment modality in our Western-cosmopolitain society. Expressive psychotherapies have not been widely adopted by cultures outside of the Western world…. Every culture provides a creative forum in which people can express their thoughts, feelings, fantasies, or dreams. The Cree and Naskapi Indians, for instance, are encouraged to engage in the art-making creative process after receiving a vision or experiencing a dream … in Native American societies, “art is not viewed as marginal, unessential or extracurricular. Instead art is viewed as a way of seeing the world, and a way of being in the world.”

Deborah Chansonneuve sees this in terms of the aboriginal preference for what is known as experiential learning:

“”Another core belief shared by Inuit, Métis, and First Nation cultures is the value and importance of experiential learning. In an Aboriginal belief system, knowledge is considered a reflection not of what people say but of how people live. … Examples of culturally relevant experiential learning include storytelling, art therapy, talking circles, or performance art where participants have the opportunity to express powerful feelings indirectly through stories. Sharing their own stories, and having those stories validated by others who have lived through similar experience, is a powerful form of affirmation and healing. Treatment models based on creative self-expression have proven to be more effective with Aboriginal clients than talk therapy and instructional learning.



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