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Back to the land: How one Indigenous community is beating the odds

Indigenous research participants described a connection to the land as fundamental to their physical, social, psychological and spiritual health.

Back to the land: How one Indigenous community is beating the odds

In northern Ontario, surrounding James Bay and Hudson Bay, lie six remote First Nations communities.

They range in size from several hundred members to several thousand. They have no road access linking them to other communities in the region, and with varying degrees of ease, they can be reached by rail, air, boat or winter ice road. Many of these communities struggle with a host of mental health issues including high rates of suicide, substance abuse and depression.

One community stands out, by virtue of its low rates of suicide and mental health services utilization. This community shares a history of oppression, victimization and suffering with its sister communities. It also endured the relatively recent trauma of a natural disaster.

How is it that this one community has produced what appear to be more positive mental health outcomes?

To investigate this question, I developed a research project in collaboration with Dr. Russ Walsh of Duquesne University. We interviewed community leaders and resident mental health service providers about the strengths of their community with respect to mental health. As non-Indigenous psychologists, we used a culturally sensitive method that focused upon listening and that privileged the perspectives of participants.

We avoid mentioning any communities by name, to protect the confidentiality of participants. There are relatively few communities in the James and Hudson Bay region and populations are relatively small. Our research participants included community leaders and elders. Even limited information about these communities would risk identifying individuals.

The strength of community members’ connection to the land emerged as the most striking finding. Participants spoke of this connection as woven through mental, physical, spiritual and emotional dimensions of the self. They described it as foundational to their faith, uniting those with otherwise differing spiritual beliefs and possibly stabilizing the community in the face of other differences.

“Back to the land,” said one community member. “When you’re there, it’s like your spirit, your mind and your physical well-being — everything improves when you’re out there; it’s like you rejuvenate while you’re out there.”

“We have a belief,” said another community member. “I’m not going to give it a word of religion or culture. No, it’s a way of life, you know. It always was in the beginning, and it is today.”

The medicine wheel

A challenge for this study, as for the bulk of research within Indigenous communities, was the “outsider” status of the researchers themselves. Despite our interest in, and concern for, the well-being of Indigenous communities, we remain unavoidably non-Indigenous Western psychologists. This “from the outside in” orientation runs the risk of further oppression and colonization in the name of scientific truth.

Qualitative methodology, despite its focus on the experiences of participants in their own words, still undertakes the task of organizing and interpreting participants’ accounts, and hence also entails the risk of colonizing participants’ experiences.

Community support and collaboration is vital, for research run by non-Indigenous scholars. Author provided

To minimize this risk, we decided to organize and interpret participant narratives using the medicine wheel of traditional healing. Rod McCormick, the B.C. Regional Innovation Chair in Aboriginal Health at Thompson Rivers University and a member of the Mohawk (Kahnienkehake) nation, provides the following overview of the medicine wheel:

“The Aboriginal medicine wheel is perhaps the best representation of an Aboriginal world view related to healing. The medicine wheel describes the separate dimensions of the self — mental, physical, emotional and spiritual — as equal and as parts of a larger whole. The medicine wheel represents the balance that exists between all things. Traditional Aboriginal healing incorporates the physical, social, psychological and spiritual being.”

The medicine wheel identifies four central themes: Physical health, intellectual health, spiritual health and emotional health. Indigenous Canadian healing traditionalists view the person as comprised of these integrated categories. An individual’s health and wellness result when these realms are balanced and integrated. By organizing our qualitative analysis along these lines, we sought to frame the results in culturally appropriate terms, and thereby set the stage for community conversations regarding mental health.

Through my work in northern Ontario, I have developed connections with mental health workers in the region. Over several months, Dr. Walsh and I had a series of conversations with them regarding their interest in community-oriented and strength-based research to inform their mental health interventions. The proposed study was supported by the community’s leadership.

Connection to the land

To our eyes, the most notable finding was the way in which connection to the land was interwoven throughout all aspects of the medicine wheel.

Participants’ comments regarding physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health often referred to attitudes and practices that affirmed a fundamental connection to their land:

“To know the land… you know you’re capable of things other kids aren’t, knowing where I came from, what I’m capable of.”

Distance from outside influence in this community also facilitates greater autonomy and a stronger identity. Author provided

This connection informed individual and community efforts to maintain well-being and also seemed to provide a bridge between different spiritual beliefs. That is, community members of divergent spiritual orientations shared a belief in the land as foundational to their faith. This cohesion was evident in community activities and programs, as well as in acknowledgement of shared culture and history.

It may well be the case that members’ shared connection to the land and ready access to the land was sufficiently strong to tolerate differences that might otherwise polarize a community. And from this shared sense of connection may follow the sense of hope expressed by most of the participants:

“Everybody, even if they disagree… when it comes to a crisis and someone needs help… that’s where your strength is: The whole community comes together.”

This may hold implications for health and healing initiatives both within and beyond this community. If a sense of connection to the land is a central feature of well-being, then it may need to be a central feature of mental health interventions.

Identity and autonomy

Two other themes emerged. One was the community’s relative distance from “outside influence,” facilitating greater identity and autonomy. The other was the rather recent shared trauma of natural disaster and relocation, which required a pulling together of community resources in a way that more diffuse challenges and traumas may not.

To the degree that these factors are foundational to the strengths of this community, there may be implications for more general intervention and prevention programs. Specifically, these findings suggest that when communities can unite to face a set of problems, and have a fair degree of autonomy (or freedom from outsider influence) in responding to those problems, they may be best able to draw upon their shared resilience and communal spirit. For those wishing to facilitate this resilience and spirit, the challenge is to do so in a way that affirms rather than usurps the community’s independence.

We plan to continue our investigation of these issues with a follow up study. This will address the role of land-based interventions in promoting resilience and mental health within a Cree community in northern Ontario in the coming year.