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Traditional Healing

Allistair Janvier, deep in thought as he listens to the rapids in Duscharme River, Saskatchewan. Cultures are defined by the traditions of their people. Traditional beliefs and practices shape cultural worldviews and unite people by rooting them in a shared sense of experience. It seems natural, then, that cultures undergoing any form of cultural loss should turn to their traditions and those who have maintained them, for healing and support. This is particularly true of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, who for centuries have felt the threat of cultural assimilation. It is thanks to their Elders and Healers — those who possess the knowledge of traditional customs and practices — that they have been able to resist this assimilation. Elders and Healers continue their work maintaining spiritual and cultural practices because they know that the key to cultural preservation is a shared sense of pride in these traditions – traditions that have guided their Peoples for generations.

With the arrival of the Europeans, the lives of the First Peoples were changed forever. Fatal illnesses such as influenza, tuberculosis, and smallpox, which the First Peoples had never experienced before contact, threatened to wipe out entire communities. As well, the traditions, customs and worldviews of the First Nations were, in many cases, misunderstood and disregarded by the Europeans. The persistent goal of assimilation guided many government policies associated with the “Indians.” The idea that Aboriginal peoples should be assimilated into the cultural traditions of the Europeans was central to the establishment of residential schools. Residential schools saw the compulsory removal of Aboriginal children from their families for placement in church and state-run schools. The residential school system had a tremendous impact on Aboriginal communities, contributing significantly to the loss of their culture through the breaking of traditional family and community bonds.

The abuse suffered by many First Nations at the schools often led to a loss of traditional values and customs – traditions which they were then unable to pass down to their own children. Some turned to harmful substances such as drugs or alcohol as a way of dealing with the pain they had suffered in the residential schools.

When Treaty 6 was signed in 1876, the Elders and Healers at the time were very aware of the fact that their traditional way of life would never be the same again. They understood the importance of passing on the teachings to their apprentices, who took over the responsibility of ensuring the survival of their peoples.

Elders and Healers are skilled in offering the right type of support and healing to those in need, whether it involves guiding a person through a sweat lodge ceremony or simply talking with them about their suffering. The First Nations have faced oppression and the threat of assimilation for centuries. Through the strength of their teachings, the Elders and Healers have continued their vital work to preserve their culture and traditions.

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            For more on the making of treaty 6, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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