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 adversity and conservation of biological diversity. The transmission of such traditional knowledge systems is seen as vital to the maintenance of sustainable cultural continuity and bioregional management systems. These systems are renewed throughout the lifecycle, through health-related spiritual teachings and ceremonies (e.g. birthing, coming of age, dying) that reinforce indigenous identification with Mother Earth and all the beings living upon her.

The main challenge following this study has been that its recommendations are at risk of being forgotten. While any efforts to implement the recommendations can be facilitated by others, the development of an inter-Nation council must be led by traditional Indigenous practitioners. In support of this process, the project contributor has applied some of the concepts to current First Nations health issues through a CIHR-funded postdoctoral fellowship, contract research with an Aboriginal women’s research group, and research with a national-level First Nations health organization in Canada. Various community pilot studies and knowledge translation exercises have been conducted in the areas of visioning, food security, injury prevention, violence prevention, practitioner recruitment, retention and remuneration, strengthening families, gender-based analysis, mentoring and research methodologies. At the same time, the integration of traditional Indigenous principles and practices has been intensified through activities across Canada to develop cultural competency and cultural inclusion in health services, through consultations with, and employment of, Indigenous peoples.

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