Back to the Land: How One Indigenous Community Is Beating the Odds

By Danto, David; Program Head of Psychology et al. | The Canadian Press, August 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

Back to the Land: How One Indigenous Community Is Beating the Odds


Danto, David, Program Head of Psychology, Guelph, University of, The Canadian Press


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

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: David Danto, Program Head of Psychology, University of Guelph

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.

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. …

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