Indigenous Healing, by Christopher Clarke McQueen

November 20, 2020

[Reading List]

Colonialism has created a myriad of social issues for all Indigenous people in Canada.  Among these is the intergenerational trauma caused by the Residential School system, whereby the Canadian government and the Church forcibly removed thousands of Indigenous children away from their families, languages, culture, and land.1  Due to this attempted genocide, thousands of years of traditional knowledge was lost, with only a few people retaining our traditional medicines and healing practices.  Thus, the assimilation that was meant to occur in Residential Schools was nearly successful, which left us, as Indigenous people, with severely poorer health than our Canadian counterparts.2  The removal of our Peoples from the land has created a grave disparity in health due to our removal from many or most traditional foods and medicines, too.3

Indigenous people’s resilience over the past several decades has led to a resurgence in our healing practices, including the use of sweat lodges.  This mode of healing, which is both transformative and restorative,4 uses ceremony to achieve harmony, and sweat therapy leads to the expulsion of bodily toxins.  As with most healing techniques of Indigenous people, ceremony and physical healing are combined by the cleansing of the mind, body, and spirit, all of which are addressed during sweat lodge sessions.5 Although Western medical practitioners have some difficulties with these alternative forms of care, their acceptance continues to increase.Like all forms of alternative treatments, the average Canadian is increasing his/her use, such as chiropractic, massage, and relaxation treatments. Similarly, Indigenous people increasingly prefer to use our traditional healing techniques and sweat lodge access is steadily becoming more common.7

In fact, along with decolonization, Indigenous people are reconnecting with their respective cultural practices across Canada, for example, with the desire to use traditional medicine and healing practices.  As such, decision-makers and health providers realize that the provision of care for Indigenous people needs to use Indigenous knowledge to affect positive health outcomes.8  However, even though traditional healing practices are becoming more common, biomedical health care services are still the primary way in which Indigenous people access health services.Furthermore, ill-health among Indigenous people is exacerbated by mistrust of the Canadian healthcare system. Looking at the death of Joyce Echaquan, one understands the racism that Indigenous people have endured both past and present.  This Indigenous woman was severely berated and belittled by a French nurse in Quebec as she lay dying in her hospital bed, all of which she recorded on her mobile phone prior to her passing.10

That said, it will take a lot of effort on behalf of the government and a significant quantity of time before Indigenous people recover from their treatment in the healthcare sector, among other facets of Canadian society.  As the instigator and propagator of this mistrust and severely reduced health outcomes of Indigenous people, the Canadian government and other similar institutions are responsible for making amends.  Furthermore, it will take a long time for Indigenous people to trust the healthcare system if possible.  As there are many benefits for Indigenous people’s access to traditional healing services, it is prudent that the Canadian government funds Indigenous wellness and healing centres across the country.  Moreover, it should be just as easy for an Indigenous person to access traditional healing practices as the average Canadian to access the biomedical model of care delivered by Indigenous healthcare organizations.  Thus, it is also prudent that architects prepare for a new healthcare building typology, one in which Indigenous culture and modes of healing be the central focus of its design.  This has begun in a limited capacity by the National Committee for the CSA Z8000, which is the Canadian national standard for hospital and healthcare facility design in Canada, and for which I serve as a Member of the Board.

Ceremonial Healing Practice Design

For instance, the programming required to accommodate the sweat lodge into a building design must be determined.  Although there are somewhat more facilities for treating mental illnesses, there is very little in the healthcare milieu.11 Although proper Indigenous consultation is required to determine the materiality and sequencing of design for this ceremonial healing practice, Garrett et. al.12 provide a good description of this culturally significant place of healing.  The sweat lodge is a dome structure typically constructed of bowed and interwoven willows spaced in the cardinal directions and traditionally covered with animal hides. When inside, one is within complete darkness.  The cardinal directions represent the four elements of wind, water, air, and fire, all of which are not only required for the functioning of the sweat but are symbolic as well.  The opening is through a flap, which is low and accessed only by crawling on hands and knees, thus making participants one with the earth.  A firekeeper tends to the grandfathers; the stones are heated in a fire outside the entrance and brought in and covered with water to produce steam.  Ceremonial healing and the physical excretion of toxins occurs within, and always with the direction of a traditional healer who determines the length of time one remains inside.  When the sweat is complete, participants emerge from the low access as though emerging from the womb; reborn.  The sequence is followed by quenching one’s body in a nearby stream to complete the ritual.

To design a facility that incorporates one or more sweat lodges into a contemporary building, the cultural elements and ceremonial procession of the lodge must be understood.  Once this is complete, one can begin to conceptualize those spaces required and the sequencing thereof.  Firstly, space is necessary to grow cleansing plants13 or for the equipment needed to seek out and harvest them.  Once harvested, processing space is required to dry those plants, along with preparation space for the healer and firekeeper.  The participants must have space for waiting and changing, and all would lead to an antechamber which would contain the fire for heating of the stones and a pool of water beyond for quenching to complete the ritual.  Thus, all these spaces are meant to serve the most sacred of them; the lodge itself.  Finally, the architect must determine if this can be done inside a public building by reviewing building and fire codes, and consultation with the engineering disciplines, amongst others.  Ultimately, this must be completed through the direction of Indigenous elders, healers, and medicine people, which will ensure the suitability for using the sweat lodge in proper ceremonial protocols.


Vanessa Ambtman-Smith and Chantelle Richmond, “Reimagining Indigenous Spaces of Healing: Institutional Environmental Repossession.” Turtle Island Journal of Indigenous Health 1, no. 1 (October 12, 2020),

James B. Waldram, “Transformative and Restorative Processes: Revisiting The Question Of Efficacy Of Indigenous Healing,” Medical Anthropology 32 (3) (2013).

Vanessa Ambtman-Smith and Chantelle Richmond, “Reimagining Indigenous Spaces of Healing: Institutional Environmental Repossession.”

James B. Waldram, “Transformative and Restorative Processes: Revisiting The Question Of Efficacy Of Indigenous Healing.”

Michael Garrett, et. al., “Crying for a Vision: The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony as Therapeutic Intervention.” Journal of Counselling & Development 89, no. 3 (2011).

Elizabeth M. Zubek, “Traditional Native healing. Alternative or adjunct to modern medicine?” Canadian Family Physician 40 (1923).

National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO). 2008. “An Overview Of Traditional Knowledge And Medicine And Public Health In Canada.” 


Virgil D. Moorehead et. al., “A gathering of Native American healers: Exploring the interface of indigenous tradition and professional practice,” American Journal of Community Psychology 56 (3-4) (December 2015).

10 Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) National News. 2020. “Remembering Joyce Echaquan: Frequently asked questions and the facts so far.” October 7. (Accessed November 17, 2020).

11 Stephen Verderber et. al., “Indigenous Ecohumanist Architecture for Health in Canada’s Far North.” HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal 13, no. 4 (October 2020):

12 Michael Garrett et. al., “Crying for a Vision: The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony as Therapeutic Intervention.”

13 Michael Garrett et. al., “Crying for a Vision: The Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony as Therapeutic Intervention.”  

5 responses to “Indigenous Healing, by Christopher Clarke McQueen”

  1. Olivera Neskovic says:

    In contemporary medicine and mental health science today, we are often surprised by discoveries which reveal the increasing interconnectedness of our organs and bodies to exterior stressors and environments. Somewhere within our history of colonization, attempted genocide, and racism towards Indigenous people, we forgot to acknowledge the ethnobotanical and spiritual practices that we borrow from and which inform contemporary medecine practices.

    It is hard to believe that we continue to place less importance on healing traditions outside of the accepted Eurocentric practices, when really all that matters is that healing takes place, and that those who are suffering find relief. Mary Siisip Geniusz says it all in “Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask”, when she relays the words of Keewaydinquay, a traditional Anishinaabe medicine and ethnobotany professor: “When you are ill, use any and all means available to get well.” As designers, need to shift our focus from providing culturally-insensitive, band-aid solutions, to an approach that values long-term, community-based healing.

    This week’s readings demonstrate the resilience of Indigenous practices such as sweat lodges and ethnobotany despite the harmful impacts of the Indian Act and residential schools, which efficiently severed cultural ties between Indigenous nations and land. The Verderber readings offers a glimpse of how informed, collaborative design with Indigenous communities can begin to successfully integrate culture and traditions into every aspect of design, to better serve Indigenous communities in need of healing. Through the acknowledgement, acceptance, and respectful integration of traditional healing practices, we can rebuild the cultural ties and identities that were forcibly removed from Indigenous peoples since the arrival of European settlers.

  2. Zoe Goodman says:

    Thank you Chris and Rachel for the wonderful essays and informative readings, I am looking forward to our discussion. Chris mentions the responsibility “the Canadian government and other similar institutions” have in reconciling a tumultuous past with the Canadian healthcare system. If the Canadian government is going to make valiant efforts in reconciliation, it becomes obvious that there needs to be increased awareness of the issues and possible paths to reconciliation in institutions across the country.

    Chris also asserts that architects must prepare for a new healthcare building typology, with focus on “indigenous culture and modes of healing”. In my mind Chris and Rachel’s essays reinforce the need for the inclusion of Indigenous history and architecture courses in Canadian Architecture Education. All Canadian schools of architecture sit on traditional First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit territories. There are valuable lessons to be learned from indigenous history and indigenous building practice, including ecohumanist and salutogenic design approaches mentioned by Stephen Verderber et. al. In Canada we have a long way to go when it comes to reconciling our colonial past and the damage done to indigenous communities across the country, inclusion of indigenous courses in our education strikes me as an crucial start.

  3. Andrew Ashbury says:

    Thank you Chris and Rachel for these thought-provoking readings on Indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies and ecohumanist architecture. It is devastating to read about the ongoing healthcare inequalities perpetuated by systemic forces of racist settler colonialism, both through the staggering statistics and through recent events such as the death of Joyce Echaquan. Amidst these ongoing failures of the Canadian healthcare system, it is especially inspiring to read about Indigenous traditions and approaches to healthcare that center on healing ceremonies and vivid engagement with landscape.

    It would be fascinating to read more about Verderber’s case study projects–there is certainly an urgent need for small scale elderhousing and treatment centers that can gradually expand and avoid relocating residents and patients. The case studies prioritize of ecology, salutogenic healthcare and theraserialization and it would be fascinating to see how that informs their landscape design, such as how the sequenced encounters would emphasize traditional landscape practices, particular planting, and the grounding of foundations within melting permafrost.

    I was also inspired by how this week’s readings emphasize the reciprocal relationship between nature and our health, such as the opening quote from Garrett et al. from Sun Bear “The most important thing to remember about ceremony is that it is a way for humans to give back to the Creation some of the energy that they are always receiving. …Through ceremony, we learn how to give back.” This understanding of “keeping oneself in good relations”, and this emphasis on vivid experience of nature, resonates with another recent reading I encountered from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and scholar of traditional ecological knowledge: “The circle of ecological compassion we feel is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack. …In learning reciprocity, the hands can lead the heart.”

  4. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    Thank you Chris and Rachel for these readings leading into today’s discussion. Reading your words Chris, “ill-health among Indigenous people is exacerbated by mistrust of the Canadian healthcare system”, I am struck by the seriousness of this reality. Design solutions are not without context and background, and assuming healthcare systems are any different is a gross miscarriage of justice. Verderber outlines basic and fundamental salutogenic design concepts that provide a step by step approach to beginning this work. As designers, it is our responsibility to understand the boundaries of our own perspectives and the dangers of designing without reaching beyond them.

    Colonialism is too often relegated as a wrong of the past. The current systems often uphold practices of oppression and racism. The simple concept of non-scalability is imperative to realize when it comes to designing in Canada’s indigenous communities, especially those communities in the circumpolar regions. What works in southern, non-native communities is not a practice that necessarily can or should be replicated everywhere. This is a cop-out that negates meaningful partnership (if not leadership by) the communities in the north. I found this incredibly clear in Verderber’s article, where he identifies the values shared by far north communities to include “mutual respect, cultural responsiveness, kinship and holism” (amoung others). The needs, stories, and practices of these communities need to be heard, honoured, valued, and brought to the forefront of every system and design.

  5. Michael Nugent says:

    Thank you Chris and Rachel for this week’s insightful essays and readings. While reading about indigenous healing and the impact which its loss had, I couldn’t help but think about the placebo effect, and particularly the coloration between its ‘discovery’ and the creation of residential schools. Not to say that indigenous healing is in any way a placebo.

    Since the early 19th century, western medicine understood that there a relationship between physical health and spiritual and mental health. Despite this awareness, the Canadian government sought to eradicate indigenous customs. For me, the fact that early psychology had already been established, with the placebo effect predated the creation of the residential schools by 77 years solidifies the actions of the Canadian government as a cultural genocide. It was program put into place with at least a foundational understanding of the psychological and health impacts which it would cause. For me at least, this realization brought a deeper dimension to the importance of Canada’s need for indigenous healing.

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