Supporting Traditional Health Practices in Urban Areas: Indigenous Theory for First Nations Health in Canada

The dissertation project “Indigenous Theory for Health: Enhancing Traditional-Based Indigenous Health Services in Vancouver”, completed in 2005, was supported by the University of British Columbia and by grants from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR)-funded BC Aboriginal Capacity and Developmental Research Environment (BC ACADRE). It was developed from the informal recommendations of traditional Indigenous practitioners. It aimed to address the health impacts of colonization and subsequent discontinuity between migrating Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, by raising the idea of supporting traditional health practices in urban areas. A team of 22 traditional-based practitioners, facilitators and clients explored the challenges, opportunities and recommendations for revitalizing traditional health teachings and practices among urban Indigenous populations in Vancouver, British Columbia. This study was unique in its exploration and application of Indigenous theories, methodologies and methods (holism, Indigenous protocols, dreaming, prayer, and talking circles) to health service research. As a member of the traditional research group stated in 2004: ‘We not only need to have our own health care, our own dental clinics, we need to have a place where our people can possibly be treated respectfully. But we don’t have that. We don’t have our medicines, we don’t have our Elders, and …we need to have a gentle place to heal.’

The results of this study can be summarized as a collective determination to establish an inter-Nation council of practitioners, under the umbrella of local land-based Nations, for the development of ethical guidelines and standards for practice, apprenticeship, communal resources, professional development, referral and community outreach; and to raise the status of traditional practices, while reducing racism and negotiating for traditional health services with provincial and federal governments. These recommendations called for protection of local traditional medicine harvesting sites and sacred practice sites, and the development of appropriate environmental space for holistic healing, with essential inclusion of clean water, fire, earth and air.

An underlying principle of this project was that revitalizing lifestyles based on a deep reverence for the interconnectedness between humans and the environment will foster balanced living, thus influencing a societal shift toward more sustainable practices. One focus of this study was the transmission of Indigenous worldviews, which are seen to arise from multi-millennial sustainable relationships between specific humans, plants, animals, waters and lands. These worldviews contain whole knowledge systems, embedded in language, values, practices and material goods, which – when intact – produce ecological and socio-cultural resilience to continue reading–>

Recovering the Connection between People and the Environment through Ancestral Law in British Columbia, Canada

Project Contributor: Patricia Vickers

The Nisga’a People of the Nass River have lived on the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada for generations – long enough for a culture to thrive, adapt, and endure. For the Nisga’a Nation, the meaning of the relationship between people and the environment is found in metaphor and stories. This long-held connection has been undermined by the long-term effects of colonization (in which residential schools played an enormous role) and unsustainable development choices such as fish farming and clear-cut logging, because of the immediate need to alleviate poverty. This has tended to undermine the development of initiatives that honour and revitalize culture, such as cultural centres and retreats and programs for children, community members, and tourists.

The project “Transforming the Cage”, supported by the Laxgalts’ap Village Government, aimed to identify the roots of an internalized sense of inferiority that affects the Nisga’a, due to the history of oppression from colonization, and the impact that this has on daily living. Ayuuk (ancestral law) is promoted to deal with conflicts in family and business relationships. The Ayuuk holds the knowledge of rites of passage, protocol for marriage, birth and death, and resolving conflict, and guides the Nisga’a in creating spiritual balance in a reciprocal relationship with the environment at both the individual and the collective levels. The Nisga’a Lisims Government—a modern administration that draws from traditional culture and values—has worked with the Nisga’a Nation to build a culture and economy that respect and protect the Nisga’a natural and cultural heritage. In the words of the Nisga’a Lisims Government (, today the Nisga’a Nation is a place where ‘our Ayuuk, language, and culture are the foundation of our identity; learning is a way of life; [and] we strive for sustainable prosperity and self-reliance.’

Traditional Knowledge for Sustainability: Land use Planning among the Gitxaala of British Columbia, Canada

Traditional fishing site in Gitxaala territory showing beach at low tide, with ancient stone fish traps (semi-circular) visible in the intertidal zone.  Credit: Tristan Menzies

Project Contributor: Charles Menzies

Traditional fishing site in Gitxaala territory showing beach at low tide, with ancient stone fish traps (semi-circular) visible in the intertidal zone. Credit: Tristan Menzies

For many generations, the Gitxaala people have lived in their territories along the north coast of what is now British Columbia, Canada. Gitxaala laws (Ayawwk) and history (Adaawk) describe in precise detail the relationships of trust, honour and respect that are appropriate for the well-being and continuance of the people, and also define the rights of ownership over land, sea and resources within the territory. However, with the arrival of the first K’mksiwah (Europeans) in Gitxaala territory in the late 1780s, new forms of resource extraction appeared that ignored, demeaned and displaced the importance of the Ayaawk and Adaawk in managing the Gitxaala territories. The new industries (such as forestry, fishing, mining) have relied almost completely upon European science for management and regulation. During the last two decades, there has been a turn-around, and the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), such as that reflected in the Gitxaala Adaawk and Ayaawk, has been increasingly recognized.

The project “Forests and Oceans for the Future”  is a collaboration between community members from the Gitxaala Nation, a Tsimshian First Nation in British Columbia, and anthropological researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC). The principal focus of the project is the use of Gitxaala traditional ecological knowledge for provincial government land use planning. From conception through implementation, revision, and reporting back to the whole community, collaboration and respectful research practices are the central and fundamental principle of the work, where research is viewed as a long-term relationship. Implementing this approach is not a straightforward application of rules of conduct, but instead is built upon a conception of research as a long-term relationship – which requires goodwill, commitment, and compromise.

A key component of this project is to document and facilitate the deployment of customary forms of governance among the Gitxaala that regulate human action within the environment, acting to conserve and enhance biodiversity and leading to long-term sustainability within the Gitxaala traditional territory. Policy development and evaluation is another key component of the project and involves research designed for use within the provincial government’s Land Resource Planning Process (LRMP). Project team members contributed to preparing and presenting reports on the Gitxaala informal economy and TEK for use in the North Coast LRMP. continue reading–>

Combining Environmental Stewardship and Economic Renewal in Northern Canada: The Whitefeather Forest Initiative

Credit: Whitefeather Forest Initiative

Project Contributors: Alex Peters, Andrew Chapeskie website:

Preparing fish in Pikangikum: people are moulded by the land and everything they draw from it, say the Elders Credit: Whitefeather Forest Initiative

The Whitefeather Forest planning area, located in the boreal region of Ontario and Manitoba, Canada, is a holistic network of both natural and cultural features that results from the relationship between Pikangikum (Ojibwa) people and their ancestral lands. This relationship expresses a closeness that comes not only from their knowledge of using the land, but also from a spiritual and emotional connection to the land. Elders’ teachings stress the importance for the Pikangikum First Nation to continue to follow the customs of cherishing the land and all living creatures, and to carry on with the responsibility of “keeping the land”. As Pikangikum Elder Whitehead Moose puts it: ‘Everything that you see in me, it is the land that has moulded me. The fish have moulded me. The animals and everything that I have eaten from the land has moulded me, it has shaped me. I believe every Aboriginal person has been moulded this way.’ For the Pikangikum, the land and people are inseparable. Their territory is not merely a landscape modified by human activities, but a way of relating to the land, and a way of being on the land (Pikangikum First Nation and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 2006).

The “Whitefeather Forest Initiative” combines environmental stewardship with economic renewal strategies to enable the Pikangikum First Nation to develop new resource uses, with the aim to provide urgently needed tribal enterprise opportunities for the youth within their Traditional Territories. The ecological richness of these territories forms a cultural landscape that is of international ecological significance – from vast tracts of jack pine to the wild rice (manomin) stands planted long ago by the Pikangikum people to increase food for fur-bearing and aquatic animals, to the numerous pristine waterways that flow through the forest. The cultural heritage also includes features such as pictographs, traditional campgrounds, portages, and waterway channels.

The Whitefeather Forest Initiative applies a community-based land use planning approach, in which the elders of the community take a leading role in planning through a steering group. The knowledge tradition, language, and stewardship values of the community guide the development of the initiative. The elders, whose knowledge and wisdom are highly valued, work with the community research team continue reading–>

Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and Assessment of Species at Risk: A Case Study from Northern Canada

Project Contributor: Nathan Cardinal

In Canada, both the inherent value and the lawful recognition of Aboriginal people’s traditional knowledge (ATK) are written into the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the organization responsible for evaluating the status of species in Canada and is now required by legislation to base their species assessments on the best available knowledge, including both science and traditional or local knowledge. Such information has rarely been used in species conservation and the assessment of wildlife. A 2002 study of 190 reports that summarize the status of a given species at risk revealed that only one report referenced Aboriginal use, and none incorporated ATK (Ellis, 2001). COSEWIC works closely with Aboriginal Peoples to decide how ATK will be incorporated into the process of assessing species at risk through the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee. Incorporating ATK into the assessment of species at risk improves the process, and therefore the quality of designations made by COSEWIC, by bringing information and perspectives on wildlife species that are not available in published scientific literature. While extremely beneficial for species, the inclusion of ATK can more importantly signal meaningful involvement of Aboriginal people in species conservation, which may ultimately improve local-level acceptance of a species’ status and associated recovery programs.

The focus of the project “The Use of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in Species Assessment: A Case Study of Northern Canada Wolverines”  is on the importance of understanding ATK to assist the scientific community in protecting species, in this case, the threatened wolverine, Gulo gulo, one of the least studied of the large carnivores. This project was completed as part of a Masters’ thesis, and is a research case study that investigated how ATK can be documented, described, and utilized in COSEWIC’s species assessment process. The study provided recommendations to COSEWIC regarding how such traditional knowledge can be gathered and utilized for future species assessments.

Wolverines are considered very important by local people, from both a cultural and a subsistence standpoint. The research found that ATK contributes invaluable information regarding the status of wolverines in northern Canada, including the special significance of the wolverine to Aboriginal people, the biological characteristics of the species, relative trends in abundance, and information regarding any significant threats. ATK proved to be very beneficial for improving the validity and acceptability of species assessments. ATK from the study continue reading–>