Cameron Freeman Internet Marketing, Soci-Cultural Antropology

Cameron Freeman

The Legacy of Colonial Intrusions and Native Women’s Health

In response to reading Colonial interventions and legacies, Farley et al.'s quantitative study of Vancouver, Canada prostitutes illustrates the devastating health effects of Colonial intrusions into native culture. I will argue that Farley et al.'s paper highlights the colonial legacy of a fractured native identity that subsequently manifests in a continual barrage of structural violence on Native women. In contrast, Nancy Hunt's qualitative study (1988) of birth spacing and breast feeding in the Belgian Congo aptly shows not only the efficacy of the biomedical approach to reproduction and child rearing, but also illustrates where cultural negotiations are permitted in specific areas of a colonialized people, the result can prove positive.

Cited as a gendered survival strategy, prostitution is seen as a way of escaping aboriginal households where a history incessant domestic violence, including childhood sexual assault and childhood physical assault were normative experiences. (Farley et al. 2005:252). Fifty-two percent of Vancouver's prostitutes are First Nations women (Farley et al. 2005:242). Many Native women leave their home communities where family violence is a major social problem as adolescents and make their way to the large urban centers where they become extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation (Farley et al. 2005:257). Once recruited into prostitution, Native women are subjected to further violence such as rape and physical assault and subsequently experience myriad of mental and physical health problems, including hepatitis C and PSTD. The deleterious effects of such as oppressive lifestyle leads many prostitutes to seek relief by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol (Farley et al. 2005:259).

Farley et al. posits that prostitution is a result of the historical trauma of settler colonization, which imposed a sexist and racist regime upon First Nations People (Farley et al. 2005:258). The resulting trauma of past generations is passed on to future generation thus perpetuating the traumatic effects. Emilé Durkheim theorized that the structure and function of societal institutions underpins group identity, which reinforces personhood. When societal institutions are interrupted or destroyed by colonial intrusion, the bonds connecting the individual to the collective order are weakened or severed. This reduced existence ultimately fragments the bonds to personhood, thus negatively altering an individual's attachment to life itself, such as in the extreme case of suicide (Durkheim 1952:213). When a society is significantly disrupted by colonial intrusion, and the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, values and well being is dislocated, thus family, community and tradition are fragmented. Land is inextricably tied to notions of Native personhood. The resulting psychic destabilization, as predicted in Durkheim's theory of suicide (Durkheim 1952), weakened family bonds, created factionalism, shifted gender roles, and undermined interpersonal communications and community leadership (Samson 2009:117, Farley et al. 2005:258). As a result of being separated from their land and forced to suffer alien bureaucratic structures in a sedentary village environment, many Aboriginal communities became subject to idleness, unemployment and ensuing material poverty and disease. This in turn led to an increase in deviant moral behaviour producing higher than non-Aboriginal rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicides, as well as domestic and sexual violence (Kirmayer et al. 2009:6).

Farley et al. cites an RCAP report that suggests a four point strategy for healing First Nations women: 1) equitable access to health services, holistic approaches to treatment, Aboriginal control of services and a responsive approach to negotiating cultural priorities and community needs (Farley et al. 2005:258). An example of a locally negotiated approach to Aboriginal identity, healing and wellbeing occurred 1998 when the Province of Ontario and the Anishinabek of Manitoulin Island incorporated both biomedicine and Aboriginal healing practices into a provincially funded health program at Noojinowin teg ("place of healing"). The Anishinabek recognize that they cohabit in a bicultural world. Noojinowin Teg is a prime example of cultural mediation that successfully balances clinical accountability such as, access to biomedically trained nurses for allopathic care, while maintaining the integrity of Anishinabek healing practices through a traditional advisory committee comprised of Elders and community members (Manitowabi & Shawande 2011:448). Noojinowin teg policy states that it intends "to solidify cultural revivalism through Aboriginal healing ways while maintaining an integrated health model" (Manitowabi & Shawande 2011:447) Thus, for the Anishinabek, Noojinowin teg is a place of rebirth of traditional mental, spiritual, emotional and physical elements of well being and delivers a holistic approach to recovering one's Native identity, healing the pain, despair and shame incurred from colonial intrusions of the past. Despite the vast majority of Aboriginal Peoples of Canada who have felt the deleterious nature of imposed colonial structures and policies, not all Indigenous communities are succumbing to their effect. Those Aboriginal communities have exhibited agency and efficacy with a high degree of resilience and resistance to colonial intrusions by "taking back" their culture and identity and implementing a process of reconstructing Native identities necessitates that Aboriginals re-negotiate their identities and seek a recuperative return to a "pan-Native" identity, or more specifically, an ethno-national identity grounded in local knowledge and practice. This is critical not only to heal the past, but also to navigate the myriad of contemporary Aboriginal social issues.

Unlike the settle-colonial intrusions in North America, where the fundamental motive was to manage the Aboriginal issue, as Captain Richard Henry Pratt suggested, "Kill the Indian, Save the man" (Gone 2009:419) or in Patrick Wolf's notion, "the logic of elimination" (Wolf 2006:387), the Zairians in Hunt's qualitative paper (1988) on birth spacing and breast feeding in the Belgian Congo illustrates a negotiated and reciprocal approach to colonial intrusion. The Belgian colonials were not interested in assimilating the Zairians; their motive was one of industrial labour requirements, which was brought to a crisis in the 1920 due to the Zairian low fertility and birth rates (Hunt 1988:403). Colonial puericulture strategies included, rewards for participation in the programs (Hunt 1988:422), surveillance of weaning through maternity wards and infant medical clinics (Hunt 1988:417), incentive rations to influence use of time and foster disciple (Hunt 1988:418), and feeding infant children directly by the company in mess halls (Hunt 1988:417) was a concentrated effort by the colonials to "breed" their own labour force (Hunt 1988:420). In addition, the implementation of infant welfare programs and the emphasis on the use of milk products and substitutes such as soya milk literally placed the colonial powers into the role of "wet nurse". The success of the programs to increase birth rates, socialize Africans into monogamous relationships, and enhance African women as biological reproducers and mothers was positive—population growth, higher fertility rates coupled with colonial biomedicine such as penicillin made its impact (Hunt 1988:432). The successful negotiations of some 50 years earlier has proven to be problematic today with Zaire's population growth threatening to double in the next 25 years (Hunt 1988:401).Ironically, with the advent of modernization and neo-liberal policies and financial restructuring of post-colonial regimes, the negotiated colonial social reforms of the past have placed the Zairians into a precarious situation of rapidly growing poplulation forcing the post-colonial regime into negotiating new ways to wean Zairians off the colonial "teat".


Durkheim, Emile. (1952) Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson; edited with an introd. by George Simpson. Suicide: A Study in Sociology (electronic resource). London: Routledge & K. pp. 432

Farley, Melissa; Lynne, Jacqueline,; Cotton, Ann J. 2005. Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the Colonization of First Nations Women. Transcultural Pyschiatry. Vol. 42(2). pp. 242-271.

Hunt, Nancy Rose. 1988. "Le Bebe en Brousse": European Women, African Birth Spacing and Colonial Intervention in Breast Feeding in the Belgian Congo. International Journal of African Historical Studies. Vol 21, No. 3. pp. 401-432

Gone, Joseph P. (2009). "Encountering Profesional Psychology: Re-Envisioning Mental Health Services for Native North America." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 419-439

Kirmayer, Laurence J., Tait, Caroline L., Simpson, Cori (2009). "The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Transformation of Identity and Community." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 3-35.

Manitowabi, Darrell and Shawande, Marjory (2011) “The Meaning of Anishinabe Healing and Wellbeing on Manitoulin Island.” Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health, 9(2): 441-458

Samson, Colin. (2009) "A Colonial Double-Bind: Social and Historical Contexts of Innu Mental Health." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 109-139

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide
Research, 8(4), 387-409