From the Magazine

HONOURING OUR STRENGTHS: RELYING ON INDIGENOUS CULTURE TO PROMOTE WELLNESS

Carol Hopkins

Good morning everyone. I want to say chi miigwetch for the prayer this morning. As well, thanks to the Dettah people and their great welcoming of us as we’ve been here on their land and sharing incredible food and laughter and good company and knowledge throughout the days that we’ve spent with each other.

I come from the Lenape people, otherwise known as the Delaware, and we’re located in southwestern Ontario. There’s only two Lenape communities in all of Canada and they’re in southwestern Ontario along the Thames River just outside of London. My father was from the Munsee Delaware First Nation and my mother is from the Lenape community that’s known as Moraviantown, named after the Moravian missionaries that settled there with us. Our people originated on the East Coast from the state of Delaware all the way to Manhattan, Staten Island, along that coast, and then we migrated inland as the coming of the light skinned race pushed us westward. My ancestors ended up in Ohio and there was a big battle there. Some went south around to Oklahoma and then continued west and others came up around the Great Lakes, and so that’s where my ancestors come from, they live around the Great Lakes area, and specifically my parents come from southwestern Ontario. I’m a mother of four adult children, blessed with nine beautiful grandchildren. Very, very thankful for all of the life that they’ve given to me and help me, teach me about how to be a helper in life. I also want to acknowledge my teachers and Elders from the three fires Midewiwin lodge, a sacred medicine society, which is the source of my culture-based knowledge and that sanctions my right to teach and share this knowledge.

I am the executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, and our mandate is to support Indigenous People in Canada to address mental health and substance use issues. I’m going to talk to you a little bit about why we talk about wellness rather than mental health and addictions. Typically, whenever we talk about the needs of Indigenous People specifically around our discussions of mental health and substance use issues, the stories are laden with the deficits, what’s wrong with us, and everything we do, then, starting from that point, is focused on what’s wrong with us. And while it’s necessary to understand the issues that we face, we impede our ability, we cut ourselves short, we make it difficult for ourselves when our conversations only focus on the deficits.

So, without a vision, then, beyond the deficits, we never know when we actually get to a state of wellness because we’re just focused on addressing the mental health issue or just focusing on the substance use issue. Then we see people from that hurt and that pain only, and it narrows our vision and blinds us from seeing the strength of who we are as Indigenous People, no matter what issues we’re facing in life.

We know that we have a story that’s much greater than the ‘what’s wrong with us’ story, and that story is based on our story of creation. Our creation stories, they differ across the land because they come from the people, our language, and our connection to the Earth and creation. And although they’re different, each one of those stories is true. Those creation stories – a story of how life came to be before there was anything physical in this world – are all true stories and they’re the foundation of our evidence. Oftentimes funders want to know what’s the evidence for your approach, what’s the evidence behind what you’re doing, to demonstrate that it actually works, that it’s achieving what you would intend. So, if we go back to our creation story, the creation story tells us that the Creator at the very beginning, before there was anything even such as time, ensured good life for us, and that what was placed in creation was placed forever and all time. So then for every stage of life, every stage of our life span for every generation of people on this Earth, there are answers. Even though what the Creator gave to us before there was anything physical in this world, it’s still applicable no matter the generation of time; no matter the generation or the point in our own life span.

I love to think about our grandmother the moon as a teacher about change, because she shows us the pattern of change and she helps us as people to experience and to live through and to know how to navigate through change. So what the Creator gave to us, the Creator gave us forever and all time, but how we practice it in our lifespan or in our time on this Earth as a people is different depending on the life that’s around us. If we use our knowledge, then, as the foundation for supporting wellness then we cannot start the conversation from the what’s wrong with us, because the beginning of our creation story does not start from what’s wrong with us. Our story begins with: the Creator loved us and the Creator thought about everything that was going to be needed, and in all of those thoughts that were sent out from the very centre of the universe where it was just all dark, the darkness is talked about with great love and beauty because the Creator sat at the centre of that darkness, and so there could only be love because it was the Creator that was there. As Creator sent out all of those thoughts about how life would emerge forever and all time, they say that where those thoughts touched upon the darkness they left an imprint for us and we can still see those today, and that’s the star realm.

So that’s the foundation of our evidence, but as we’ve been talking about through the keynote addresses and our beautiful experience out there in the tents or sitting around the fire, we know that there have been blockages to the use of our knowledge. Many of you have shared about the disruption in your connection to your own knowledge because of residential schools, and yet beyond the experience of residential schools I’ve heard many of you talk about your grandparents with such love and reverence for the memories of what they left and the knowledge that is still accessible. But we have to think about what is it that blocks our own thinking from appreciating the evidence and the science within Indigenous knowledge – all of the things that we need to live today. And then where do we access that?

We have our sacred lodges and our ceremonial structures and our memories and our stories from our communities and from being on the land that are still firmly planted in creation. They are still accessible, and you’ve talked about those; I’ve listened with great appreciation for the stories that were shared this week, for the beautiful knowledge and the incredible knowledge, the important knowledge for living on the land. But today our knowledge and our practices often live on the periphery of our communities. They’re not the first conversation we have when we’re talking about how are we going to govern our community towards wellness. How are we going to ensure something for our people as a program director, a decision maker? What are the policies that you need to have in place from your culture? What is it that you know from your grandparents that tells you about how people relate to each other to get something done? What is it that we know from our teachings about wellness that we want to ensure is in our programs and services? And so it’s bringing what we know from the periphery forward to be central in designing programs and policies and delivering services, but more importantly, thinking about wellness. Where is it going to take us? Because if we don’t start there and we continue the same old way we’ve been doing things – we’ve got a problem in the community, create a new program for that problem, hire the experts from outside the community to come in and fix that problem for us, and then tell the stories about how everybody feels good at the end of the day – we are just wasting our resources. Because we never know when we actually get to a state of wellness. If we are just focusing on our problems, how do we know things are actually getting better in our community?

We cut out the greatness and the strength of who we are as a people and we don’t ever get to a state of equity that way. Sometimes it’s our fear that blocks us from thinking about how we translate our Indigenous knowledge, the knowledge that you have from your grandparents and your ancestors, to make it usable in the structures that we have in our communities today. Because that knowledge, it belongs on the land, it belongs to the people. But we have to find a way to bring it forward to make it central in our life in the way that we support people to achieve the right outcomes.

So we as an organization got involved in a conversation called research, and we went across the country and we talked to different Indigenous knowledge keepers, holders, Elders, cultural practitioners from coast to coast, and we had an Elder as our primary researcher who was facilitating that conversation because we wanted to make sure that what we were hearing from Elders and cultural practitioners could be understood by the person listening. The story that I often tell about how important that is comes from Rupert Ross, who is a Crown attorney in northwestern Ontario, and he talks about how he flew into communities to hold court. His court staff knew that it was important to develop relationships with the people and that the grandmothers held a very important role. So one of his court staff was talking to a grandmother and trying to develop a relationship with her and he asked her, “How are the berries this year?” And her response to him was, “There’s lots of bears at the dump.” And from his non-native worldview he assumes that she doesn’t understand the question, so he rephrases it and asks her again. And she responds again about the bears being at the dump. On goes the conversation where he continually assumes that she doesn’t understand him – maybe she doesn’t speak English very well, I have to ask it another way – and his assumption is that the problem lies with her. Her feeling is, “Why does this white man keep badgering me, why doesn’t he just stop? I already answered him.” There’s lots of bears at the dump because the berries are not so good in the bush. She answered him directly when he asked the question the first time, but he didn’t understand the answer so he assumed that she didn’t know and he kept asking her over and over again. So as we were conducting this conversation we wanted to make sure that when Elders were talking to us we could receive what they were sharing in a way that was understandable without badgering them over and over again.

These are the three primary questions that we asked: From your Indigenous knowledge, from what your ancestors tell you, the stories that you’ve handed down from generation to generation, from your sacred societies, from your ceremonial practices, what does all of that tell you about who is a whole and healthy person? What do you know about being a whole and healthy person? And so we got lots of stories and descriptions of a whole and healthy person, but consistently people said a whole and healthy person is somebody who has balance in their spirit, emotions, mind, and body. There’s got to be some balance from that whole person perspective. That’s a whole and healthy person. And then we said: How do you use culture? What are the things that you do to support the development of achieving some sense of balance of this whole and healthy person? What are the things that you do? Across the country people described their cultural practices – and we didn’t write down any recipes – this is how you conduct a sweat lodge ceremony or this is how you conduct the pipe ceremony or this is how you pray for the water – but we recorded these different things that they do. And then we said again: From your Indigenous knowledge, from what your grandparents told you, from what your ceremonial teachers talk about, when you use culture to support the development of a whole and healthy person, what are the results that we should expect? The “so what” question: What difference is it going to make? How does it make a difference for people? So those were the questions that we asked.

And this is what people said: That if you pay attention to someone’s spirit, to their emotions, to their mind, to their body, then the outcomes you are going to achieve are hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose. To achieve a sense of hope, what’s required is that you invest in identity. You can have no hope if you have no connection to identity and who you are. So identity is important. Your belief, your worldview is critically important for having hope. Go back to the story that I showed you in the beginning with the man with all of the lifelines on him. If you’re relying on wellness for that man, you’re relying on somebody else, and I’ve heard over and over again in the stories that have been shared, that the land is what heals us. That if we trust in who we are and we have relationship with the land, there can be healing. I heard somebody even say, you never cut open your body for surgery because the land can give us everything we need, but that requires belief. I heard somebody else say that we have to believe it first for it to happen. So values, belief, and identity are what create hope for people. Now think about residential school, what happened for us as a people as a result of residential school; we lost our identity, we lost our language, we lost our connection to land, and then what happened to our life? Think about that. To create a sense of belonging you have to have relationship with family and community, but you also have to have a relationship with creation, to know the land as our mother, to know the moon as our grandmother, the sun as our grandfather, to know the sky, to know all of the living beings on the Earth. Human beings are always trying to sound like creation. We sound really funny. So relationship is critically important, not just with people, but with the land and the beings of creation. Critically important for our wellness is to have relationship with them, to be in relationship with them, to have that feeling of love like family. The last one is attitude – and it’s not like attitude, you know, like “talk to the hand” or whatever that saying is. Not that kind of attitude. It’s an attitude towards living life. So go back to the creation story that whenever something happens in life, we are sure the Creator created the possibility for the answer, for the solution, for the way forward. And if we have that attitude, that there’s always an answer, then we have a sense of belonging. When we don’t have connection to land, to people, and we don’t know that there is an answer, then our vision narrows even further and that’s when we are most at risk for suicide. Because we don’t have our identity, our worldview, we don’t have experience with our value system, we don’t have connection to people, to land, and we don’t know that there are solutions, the risk for suicide gets greater.

The First Nations Mental Wellness Continum Framework centers hope, belonging, meaning,
and purpose at the core of wellness. Image Credit: Thunderbird Partnership Foundation

Every human being wants to know what’s the meaning of life, and our ancestors ensured that we would know what is the meaning of life – why am I here and how should I understand life? The beautiful stories of what was taught about living on the land and what came from living on the land, being in relationship with the land, knowing who you are and how to believe about life – all of that informs the meaning of life. So our education, whether it’s education on the land or education in a school system, is that rational knowledge. But our people also knew that it’s critically important to learn from the spirit too, through our relationship on the land, through fasting, being in ceremony, listening to your own spirit. In Western society, intuition is discounted. It’s not meaningful. It’s not valued. For us as Indigenous People, our intuition is the voice of our spirit and it’s critically important to pay attention to what your spirit is telling you. When we put the two together, what we learn from creation and the spirit with what we learn in this physical world, only then can we have an understanding about the meaning of life. I love the story about changing the way we think about risk management to thinking about how to be in relationship with the land as what ensures safety. When you are in relationship with the land, then you have a greater understanding about how to live in a safe way on the land. So rational knowledge and intuitive knowledge together create understanding and it’s only when you put the two together that you understand the meaning of life or can have some sense about the meaning of your life. Finally, purpose is created through understanding that we as a people have a unique way of doing things and we don’t have to be equal to or the same as the other. We can be who we are in all of our uniqueness and celebrate that for its value in our life. So we have a unique way of being and we have a unique way of doing things, and when we put all of that together only then do we have wholeness, and then we understand what our purpose is in life.

Yesterday there was lots of discussion about belonging and about purpose. So if you think about these four directions, they always balance each other – east and west, north and south – they always give balance to each other. And so if we have hope it’s possible to have meaning in our life, because our worldview and our value system is what informs our understanding about the meaning of life. And when we are connected to the land and we know where we come from and we have relationship with creation, then we know how to live on the land in a safe way – our way of doing things, our way of being in the world.

We called this the Indigenous Wellness Framework and it’s founded and based on Indigenous knowledge – common stories, the common threads of stories of the people across the land. And the 13 things that I talked about [which include] values, belief, identity, family, community, relationship, attitude, those are indicators for those outcomes, and so if you want to achieve those outcomes you have to invest in those 13 things.

Next are the common cultural practices. We call them common interventions but they’re common cultural practices across the land. People said the number one thing that’s critically important to wellness in facilitating that whole and healthy person is language. Language is the foundation. Theoretical knowledge, for us, is held in our language. Our language teaches us everything we need to know. If we spend time learning the meaning that is held within our language – and not just word lists and vocabulary and spelling systems, but in the retention of the sound – we have wellness. Every being in creation has sound. You would never go to the wolf or to the frog or to the winds and say, “That sound is not right. You have to do it this way.” Every being in creation has a sound that the Creator gave, and our sound is our language, and our sound is what helps us to connect to all of creation. Knowing your story of creation and where you come from, all of your traditional teachings, these are cultural practices that are critically important for facilitating the outcomes of hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose.

With hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose there are cultural practices at every stage of life across the lifespan that were critically important for facilitating wellness. [Erik] Erikson talks about psychological developmental stages of life – the key milestones, the key things that you’re learning about at every stage of life. Our people had the same kind of understanding – and this is just one model – but I’ve heard people say [that] by the time we were 13 these were the things that we needed to know: We had to read all of the different types of skies. By the time we were 13 this is how we knew how to live on the land. For us we knew that there were cultural practices that were absolutely, absolutely necessary to support pregnancy and the delivery of a healthy baby. And then at birth there were other activities that we did. And then as we were breastfeeding our children or taking care of them, dressing them up, and caring for them in moss bags. And then when they began to walk, there was something else that we did. And when they got to the adolescent stage of life we talked to them about instant and delayed gratification and how to achieve skills now for a long-term payoff, and that’s when it was absolutely necessary for fasting, at the adolescent stage of life.

Throughout this life cycle it was understood that there are spiritual openings that happen at every stage of life, and if we practiced our culture that aligned with those spiritual openings we would assure hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose. We would assure a healthy individual.

And if we were taking care of our children that way and raising them up as a community, as a family, in those ways then we would ensure a whole and healthy community.

Without culture this is our story: Pre-birth we’re dealing with addictions, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, opiate addiction from pregnant moms who are addicted to opiates. We have children who are born with intergenerational trauma. And by the adolescent stage of life our young people are starting to talk about their experiences of sexual abuse. And then instead of wandering and wondering about how am I going to exercise my gift and live out my purpose in life, people are taking their own life. At this true stage of life when I’m supposed to understand the meaning of my life and my purpose, instead my truth is replaced by some other education system that doesn’t ground me in my own knowing of my people and my ancestors, and so the cycle goes on. We don’t take care of our family when they’re ready to go on to the spirit world. Our jobs get in our way. I can’t go and take care of that. You know some of our funeral ceremonies, they take a week long. But our employment policy says, well if it’s your cousin you can only have one day. That way of thinking doesn’t match our cultural practices. Or when our relatives pass on, the coroner takes them away for an autopsy and we don’t get our people back in time to bury them and take care of their spirit in a good way. That affects the community. I’ve heard grandmothers say that since we stopped giving birth in our communities, all we hear is the cry of death, and then the cry of death changes the fabric of the community in such a way that all we’re focused on is death. And if we’re going to balance the life cycle then we need to ensure that that cry of new life is also anchored in our community, and that when our aunties and our grandmothers helped to birth our children in our community, everybody was involved. The full span of life – there was a role for the children for the cousins, the aunties, the brothers, the sisters, the men. Everybody was involved in bringing new life into this world. That ensured a whole and healthy community.

So we developed the Indigenous Wellness Framework into an assessment and we have questions in a self assessment and an observer rating form. Here are some examples of some of the questions: Do you feed your ancestors? That’s the very first thing we did when we got here. We fed the fire. Why did we feed the fire? We were feeding our ancestors. And all week you’ve been talking about all of the ancestors gathered here in this room with us. These questions are not deficit-focused questions. They’re based on our strengths as a people and they come from our knowledge as a people. So if we want to be well, then we have to focus on what is going to create wellness for us and how we know when we get there. ◉

Carol Hopkins, Nozhem (“Mother Wolf”), of the Wolf Clan, is from the Delaware First Nation of Moraviantown, Ontario. She is the mother of four and grandmother of nine. Carol is the Executive Director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, an organization whose mandate is drawn from the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework and the Honouring Our Strengths: A Renewed Framework to Address Substance Use Issues Among First Nations In Canada. Carol Hopkins has spent over 20 years in the field of First Nations addictions and mental health. She holds both a Masters of Social Work from the University of Toronto and a degree in sacred Indigenous Knowledge, equivalent to a PhD in Western based education systems. Carol also holds a sessional faculty position in the school of social work at Kings University College at Western University.

Want to use the Native Wellness Assessment? You can register online, download it and administer it as a paper and pencil copy and then input the data online. The outcome will be a report that tells a story about your own wellness. Doing the assessment with a number of people in your community over time can generate a report that shows what wellness looks like for this group of people in your community, providing a story about your community’s wellness in terms of hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose.
Find the Assessment online here: http://thunderbirdpf.org/about-tpf/scope-of-work/native-wellness-assessment/


Featured image: Carol Hopkins, executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, explains the key elements of the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework, under which Indigenous wellness is found to hinge upon the key elements of hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose. Photo Credit: Pat Kane

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