Cameron Freeman Internet Marketing, Soci-Cultural Antropology

Cameron Freeman

Recovering Native Identities: From a traumatic ruptured past to a locally driven pan-Native spiritual present for holistic health and well being

"In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, it is define or be defined." -- Thomas Szasz

In some Indigenous communities across Canada, there exists a contemporary mental health crisis that is rooted in a discontinuity of the local cultural. I will argue that Canadian settler-colonial intrusions have disrupted the generational transmission of Native knowledge, values and well being to new generations, fragmenting Indigenous identity. Furthermore, settler colonial impositions have pejoratively redefined "Nativeness" to justify assimilation strategies and eliminate the "Indian". Subsequently, this approach by the Canadian Government has plunged some Canadian Aboriginal communities into a state of anomie—the outcome of which are much higher rates of suicide, domestic and sexual violence, alcoholism and substance abuse among Aboriginals than non-Aboriginal people. I will show that a recuperative, community-driven return to "pan-Native" spiritual values and beliefs of well being is an attempt to redefine what "Native" identity means to both Native and non-Native peoples—that "identity politics" has cultural currency for: 1) alleviating the fallout of historical traumas, 2) restoring transgenerational communications, and 3) facilitating healthier, self-determined Native communities.

Emilé Durkheim's posits that the structure and function of societal institutions underpins group identity, which reinforces personhood. When societal institutions are interrupted or destroyed, such as in settler-colonial settings, the bonds connecting the individual to the collective order are weakened or severed. This reduced existence ultimately fragments the bonds to personhood (Durkheim 1952:213), thus negatively altering an individual's attachment to life itself, such as in the extreme case of suicide. When a society is significantly disrupted by colonial intrusion, and the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, values and well being is dislocated, then family, community and tradition are fragmented. This creates an insecure future with no anchor to the past, and thus, leaves answers to vital questions such as, "who are we" and "who am I" unrequited, disabling the individual to surmount barriers to personal development and find purpose in life.  Subsequently, individuals and groups develop a negation of life perspective which leads to higher incidents of suicide (Niezen 2009:189).

Historically, the aims of land treaties were to sever Aboriginal title and open up the frontier for colonial settlement and resource exploitation (Barkwell 1982: 2). However, it was the creation of the The Indian Act (1876), which not only demarcated Aboriginal Peoples as wards of the Crown, but also made the Federal Government responsible for the care and livelihood of all Aboriginal Peoples within Canada. The wide-ranging scope and application of this federal legislation delivers a myriad of intrusive policies into the identities and cultural activities of Aboriginal Peoples across Canada, including prohibition of cultural activities, establishment status and non-status Indian social categories, alcohol consumption laws, residential schooling, and "pass systems" for restricting Aboriginal movements and enforcing of sedentarization through the reserve system (Kirmayer et al. 2009:11). The fundamental motive to manage the Aboriginal issue is stated succinctly in Captain Richard Henry Pratt's slogan, "Kill the Indian, Save the man" (Gone 2009:419) or in Patrick Wolf's notion, "the logic of elimination" (Wolf 2006:387).

For the Innu People of Labrador-Quebec peninsula, the rapid transition from a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle to forced village living and subjected to bureaucratic surveillance and control has not been easy. Land is inextricably tied to notions of personhood and, as in the case of the Innu, forced resettlement not only cut the vital bond between land and self identification, it also disrupted the normal functioning of their society. 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). As a result of being separated from their land and livelihoods and forced to suffer alien bureaucratic structures in a sedentary village environment, many Aboriginal communities had become subject to idleness, unemployment and subsequent 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).

The ensuing physical, social and economic anomie created by land disposition and forced sedentarization created the perception that Aboriginal living was undisciplined, dirty and disease ridden, and set the stage, from 1900 to 1940, for the justification for forced, Christian-based residential schooling in British Columbia and elsewhere. The concept was positioned as a means to "save Aboriginal children" from their parents, but the furtive goal was to assimilate the "Indian" and achieve cultural conformity for an entire generation. As Margaret Butcher stated in 1917, the day would come, "when Kitamaat elders would die off and the influence of non-Native medicine and religion would hold sway over Aboriginal home life" (Kelm 1998:62). In addition to being subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, Aboriginal children were spiritually assaulted by being separated from their families (who were considered primitive and immoral). They were also forbidden to speak their native languages and their cultural practices were ridiculed and denounced (Fiske 2009:140). Aboriginal children who did not die of tuberculosis, returned home, where some, being reunited with their families, demonstrated resilience and were able find wellness.  Many others became cultural zombies, caught in a liminal space of being neither "Indian" nor "Western" (Kelm 1998:79).

Today, Aboriginal mental health discourse posits that "Residential School Syndrome", a post-traumatic stress disorder that has impacted Aboriginal Peoples on an intergenerational level, can help explain current Aboriginal pyschopathy (Waldram 2004:212). Not only did the original trauma devastate the psyches of the individual Aboriginal children who were separated from significant cultural symbols, the pursuant emotional grief and mental depression was transmitted to their parents, grandparents and to their own children, thus reshaping the future generations of Aboriginal Peoples (Waldram 2004:214). The creation of intergenerational trauma starts with the embedding of individual trauma at the community level, which then becomes part of the local history and culture. Individually, stories are told and retold, and memorable narratives are constructed and reconstructed over time, and the community as a whole comes to share in the traumatic experience which, in turn, creates a public space whereby the trauma becomes a consensual reality—a collective memory passed from one generation to the next (Waldram 2004:232). Moreover, the acculturative stress exacerbates the historical trauma, creating what is referred to as a "soul wound"—a disenfranchised grief that constructs dysfunctional emotions and notions of marginality, alienation, heightened psychosomatic symptoms and identity confusion (Waldram 2004:225).

Aboriginal conceptions of personhood and wellness have been strongly connected to the land and the subsequent disruption of this vital link through land dispossession has been a significant historical contributor to the social suffering of many Aboriginal communities across Canada (Kirmayer et al. 2009:445). Furthermore, the historic assault of the Christian-based residential schooling system on Aboriginal cultural symbols, rituals and language has played a detrimental role in how survivors of residential schools experienced their bodies, selves and others; and the attendant physio-psychosociological effects of such structural violence has been imbued in both past and present generations (Kirmayer et. al 2009:441). Moreover, these historical colonial structures—land disposition and state-control education—are still being utilized by Federal and Provincial Governments today and continue to exacerbate contemporary social suffering in many Aboriginal communities.

Despite the fact that vast majority of Aboriginal Peoples have felt the deleterious nature of imposed colonial structures and policies, not all Indigenous communities are succumbing to their effect. Some 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. The process of reconstructing Native identities necessitates that Aboriginals re-negotiate their identities. One strategy is to a seek a recuperative return to a "pan-Native" identity,  and the other, 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.

It needs to be understood that Aboriginal and Aboriginality are historical social constructions that have been used extensively by both the Native community and the Canadian government as a means of defining and representing a specific group of Native peoples. Defining Indigenous peoples as "cultural others" implies a homogenous category of people that can be socio-politically identified, separated and marginalized from the nation-state (Brass 2009:362). Furthermore, embracing a pan-Indian identity that is a supratribal ideology that transcends tribal boundaries in order to unify Aboriginals under one national identity is enticing, but problematic, with a multitude Indigenous classifications and divergent and overlapping identities such as, status and non-status, reserve and off reserve, rural versus urban, as well as populations segmented into First Nations, Metis and Inuit categories, all with their own set of local social issues (Kirmayer et al. 2009:4).

There has been much evidence to suggest efficacy of "cultural continuity" (Chandler & Lalonde 2009)—a construct that embraces a collective identity for community cohesion through recuperating and reclaiming traditional knowledge and beliefs—has healing potential for many communities suffering from imposed colonial policies. However, the notion of culture as an enduring and bounded ideology, connected by a process of historical events that can be linked to an identifiable past tradition has been challenged by recent scholarship, suggesting culture is more of a local ideology in a state flux—contested, invented and renegotiated continuously by members of the community and with other cultures (Kirmayer et al. 2009:20).

Although pan-Indianism seeks to restore Native identity, values and beliefs, its shortcoming relies on a static notion of tradition and culture (Adelson 2009:274). The assumption that one form of Aboriginal spirituality and healing or program of Native restoration is shared by all Indigenous people must be discarded in favour of recognizing that community recovery from past and present trauma occurs in a specific historical and social context (Adelson 2009:275). For example, in the Whapmagoostui First Nation community, there are two dominant factions, those who embrace Christianity and those who seek a return to Native spirituality. The James Bay Cree have a long history with Christian missionaries. Today, in a postcolonial context, Christianity is deeply embedded in many of the Cree Elders making the recuperative process in the Whapmagoostui community complex since many of the younger generation, exposed to multi-media, television and the internet, are embracing a wide range of pan-Indian spiritual beliefs, values and practices not necessarily tied to the land (Adelson 2009:285). Additionally, Whapmagoostui Cree women were experiencing high levels of stress due to significant imbalances between gender obligations and responsibilities, which, according to the women, originated from Anglican Church directives and reinforced by the Christian Elders (Gone 2008:312). Thus, Native healing requires that the Whapmagoostui recognize a pluralistic approach, based on local context and history, if potential conflicts and confusion are to be reconciled amongst the Christian Elders, Cree Women and the emerging "pan-Native" spiritualists of the younger generation.

Aboriginal research suggests that forging a locally negotiated identities and implementing a community-driven return to "pan-Native" values, beliefs and practices—linking the historical context with the present social suffering—suggests an effective path. The Innu of northern Labrador have demonstrated a degree of cultural resilience to forced sedentarization and have retained many Innu norms and values such as, sharing circles, story-telling, hunting skills, respect for the environment and a command of their Innu-aimun language. Despite systematic attacks on Innu medicine and spirituality by missionaries, non-Native educators and biomedical experts, Inuit communities have embraced pan-Native healing techniques to combat gas sniffing, substance abuse, and sexual and domestic violence (Samson 2009:130). Tshiskutamashu is an alternative Innu school, where, with the help of hunting families, young Innu were taught the history and geography of their land as well as practical skills for living off the country. Those Innu who participated in the program were considered some of the healthiest and strongest members of their communities. Furthermore, it was reported that youths who suffered from gas-sniffing demonstrated abstinence when placed in a different environment (Samson 2009:133). This example demonstrates that the vitality of Innu communities is predicated on local Inuit identity, values and beliefs, and that alternative schools such as Tshiskutamashu are needed, not only as a defense against nation-state assimilation, but as a means of facilitating community cohesion and social functioning.

Another example of a locally negotiated approach to Aboriginal identity, healing and well being was established in 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) For the Anishinabek, Noojinowin teg facilitates a rebirth of traditional mental, spiritual, emotional and physical elements of well being—a holistic approach to recovering one's Native identity, healing the hurt, despair and shame incurred from colonial intrusions of the past.

Aboriginal spirituality programs, implemented and retained by Aboriginal Elders, have had a therapeutic mental health and well being effect on incarcerated Indigenous peoples, many of whom have little knowledge or practice with their own culture and language due to forced residential schools or home removal by child welfare institutions. Aboriginal Elders provide not only cultural education and spiritual guidance, but also facilitate healing services with the use of sweat lodges and fasting within the prison walls (Waldram 1994:198). This approach has yielded four major benefits. First, victimized by racism and ostracization, incarcerated Aboriginals find themselves shunned by other Aboriginals for following "White" ways or rejected by Euro Canadians for being visibly Aboriginal (Waldram 1994:201). Elders have addressed this issue with the benefit of workshops on Aboriginal culture and history to alleviate and resolve identity conflicts and instill Indigenous pride. Secondly, prison life is highly stressful, therefore Elder run spiritual programs, such as the sweat lodge, provide strategies and experiences for stress reduction, conflict resolution between other inmates and staff, with an intent to improve prison behaviour and open further opportunities to other programs. Third, in the role of therapist, an Elder provides a more culturally appropriate confidant. Inmates were more likely to trust and open up about their lives to an Elder because they were more likely to understand reserve-context issues like substance abuse, and domestic and sexual violence. Lastly, some Aboriginal inmates who retain strong notions of traditional ways felt their "hard luck" was a result of "bad medicine" (ability of an individual to inflict harm, illness or misfortune on another). In such cases, only an Elder could administer the culturally appropriate remedy and provide protection against the bad medicine (Waldram 1994:200-201).

Another example of how Aboriginal culture can successfully solve its own internal strife can be shown in the problem of Aboriginal suicide rates, which are 3 to 6 times higher than the general Canadian population (Kirmayer et. al 2009:6). In a study conducted in the 1990s, found that 90% of suicides occurred in 10% of the First Nation bands in British Columbia. Interestingly, those bands that successfully took measures to connect present day living to their cultural past, with an eye on an imagined Aboriginal future, showed an absence of suicide, whereas bands that failed to achieve a cultural continuity were prone to elevated rates of youth suicide (Chandler & Lalonde 2009:221). Chandler and Lalonde (2009) recognized six identity-preserving practices to securing the past with a commitment to a hopeful future were strongly correlated to a significant reduction suicide rates: in some cases it was nil (Chandler & Lalonde 2009:228). Those bands that were able to show evidence of, 1) steps to secure Aboriginal title to traditional lands, 2) taking back rights of self-government, 3) community control over social institutions such as schools, police, fire and health-delivery, 4) "cultural facilities" designed to preserve and enhance the cultural lives of community members, 5) participation of Aboriginal women in local government, and 6) the implementation of community child-care and family services, were indicative of lower to no incidents of suicide (Chandler & Lalonde 2009:229). These findings not only help to dispel the "myth of the monolithic Indigene" and that Aboriginal peoples are capable of solving their own social suffering, they also underscore the inadequacy Federal and Provincial top-down policy making, illuminating an alternative lateral approach—a community-to-community exchange of ideas and experiences that have greater efficacy at dispelling the number of lethal self-harm cases (Chandler & Lalonde 2009:243-244).

In summary, restoring Native identity and achieving a self-determined, functional Indigenous society will require a participatory community-driven approach to defining who and what "Native" means, in both local and national socio-political contexts. Furthermore, achieving identity-preserving practices, and implementing successful mental health services in Native communities will require doctorate-trained Native psychologists and applied medical anthropologists. These Native professionals, recognized by Euro-Canadian establishment, can assert greater political and bureaucratic power by assisting their communities to provide effective bridging between Provincial and Federal Governments services, conceptualizing culturally appropriate mental health programs and services adapted for Native experiences, legitimizing Native organizational structures, and serving as creative administrators, program developers, local researchers, and clinical supervisors (Gone 2009:424). However, this approach can have a "double-bind" result (Samson 2009:132). Natives who learn to think like "White" people, risk losing their identity or at least, forever altering it, placing them liminally between two worlds—neither "White" nor Aboriginal. Regardless of the potential trappings of Euro-Canadian academia, Aboriginal leaders who cleave to their Indigenous identity and apply locally constructed cultural interventions to their community problems, suggests, based on the presented scholarly evidence, is the best course of treatment in alleviating Aboriginal social suffering (Gone 2008:314).


Adelson, Naomi (2009) "Toward a Recuperation of Souls and Bodies." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 272-288. Barkwell, P. A. (1982). The Medicine Chest Clause in Treaty No. 6. Canadian Native Law Reporter, 4, 1-23

Brass, Gregory M. (2009). "Respecting the Medicines: Narrating an Aboriginal Identity." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 355-380.

Chandler, Michael J., and Lalonde, Christopher E. (2009) Resilience: Transformations of Identity and Community Cultural Continuity as a Moderator of Suicide Risk among Canada's First Nations. Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press. pp. 221-248

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.

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.

Gone, Joseph P. (2008). "Introduction: Mental Health Discourse as estern Cultural Proselytization". Ethos by the American Anthropological Association. Vol. 36, Issue 3 pp. 310-315.

Kirmayer, Laurence J., Brass, Gregory M., Valaskakis, Gail G. (2009). "Conclusion: Healing / Invention / Tradition." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 440-472.

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.

Niezen, Ronald (2009) "Suicide as a Way of Belonging: Causes and Consequences of Cluster Suicides in Aboriginal Communities." Healing Traditions. The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Vancouver & Toronto: UBC Press 109-139

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

Waldram, James B. (2004) The Traumatized Aboriginal. In Revenge of the Windigo. The Construction of the Mind and Mental Health of North American Aboriginal Peoples. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 212-236.

Waldram, James B. (1994) Aboriginal Spirituality in Corrections: A Canadian Case Study in Religion and Therapy. American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 18, No. 2. University of Nebraska Press pp. 197-214

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