Indigenous Healing, by Rachel Law

November 20, 2020

[Reading List]

Indigenous Healing: Strategies of Health and Dissent

The most important thing to remember about ceremony is that it is a way for human to give back to the Creation some of the energy that they are always receiving. The Earth Mother constantly gives us two-leggeds a surface on which to place our two feet; Father Sun warms us, and Grandmother Moon brings dreams. The element of Earth gives us a place to grow food and the ability to make homes and tools. The water keeps us alive. The fire warms our homes and cooks our food. The air gives us the sacred breath of life. Through ceremony, we learn how to give back.

—Sun Bear, Anishinaabe Nation1

If the land is not healthy, how can we be?

—Joseph Masty Sr.2

To understand the importance of ceremonies surrounding the sweat lodge, smudging, tobacco altogether, we must explore the meaning of health through Indigenous thought and a “relational worldview.”3 It is characterized by the harmony and balance of mind, body, and spirit with the natural environment.4

Naomi Adelson notes in “Health and the Politics of Cree Well-being” that there is no word in Cree that directly translates to English as health.5 The term used most often is miyupimaatisiiun, which translates to “living well” or “being alive well.” Among the Anishinaabe people, wellness is expressed in living mino biimadisiwin (the good life).While different tribes describe it with other terms, at its core, it is a philosophy about “being in step with the universe and with its sacred rhythms.”7 It is the idea that living in a balanced way centrally supports healthy living.

Michael Tlanusta Garrett et al. describes the purifying sweat lodge ceremony as a practice of Ayeli or “coming to center.”8 One seeks to remedy any disharmony or “dis-ease”9 by finding our unique place, sense of belonging, and identity in relation to a larger complex system. To do so, one must engage with the spiritual forces of the four essential elements of life, represented by the four compass directions, symbolizing the four dimensions of life.

Fire, Earth, Water, Wind

East                 belonging and spirit through care and connection with others

South               inner mastery and connection with environment and context

West                self-awareness, self-reliance, and self-discipline

North               generosity and openness

In contrast to the normative Western perspective, this process of self-actualization is deeply embedded in geography:10 space, place, and a community network. Within an Indigenous perspective that holds the land and community in the highest esteem, this articulation of wellness draws upon natural relations and cultural values that extend beyond the physical state of the body.11 It challenges the limiting framework of Western biology, where the body is reduced solely to a subject for medical concern and scrutiny.

Health is never simply the absence of disease or illness.[12] Health is complex. Health exists only when one’s relational world is truly in balance or harmony.  It is inseparable from community, history, identity, and ultimately resistance, and thus, cannot be divorced from its sociocultural, political, or historical contexts.

Colonial Presence, Control, Displacement

The connection between land, identity, and health emphasizes how the disruption of Indigenous culture through colonization has had and continues to have negative health implications for Indigenous peoples, as the politics of land become mediated through the treatment of the body.13

It is without a doubt that Canada’s settler-colonial history presently impacts and shapes the realities of Indigenous people in contemporary times. Through severing social connections, displacement of land rights and dispossession of land ownership, assimilation through education, and eradicating social, cultural and spiritual practices,14 a systematic restructuring has created an environment of inequality for Indigenous peoples. Oscillating between elimination and exploitation, this ongoing structure of domination has resulted in numerous sustained inequities and disparities in almost every domain of Indigenous life.

In “Indigenous Ecohumanist Architecture for Health in Canada’s Far North”, Stephen Verderber et. al. translate these disparities into an observation of healthcare facilities in Indigenous communities of Canada’s northern regions:15 Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Government-imposed policies that control and dictate the dissemination of healthcare highlight the biopolitics of health perpetuated by the legacy of colonization.

At a foundational level, the Western colonial project that upholds the biomedical interpretation of health suppresses, erodes and delegitimizes the healing benefits of ceremony, access to land, social relationships, and Indigenous knowledge. Consequently, Indigenous communities are coerced into assimilating into a culturally foreign worldview in order to receive basic treatments.

The pivotal 2002 Romanow Report on the future of Canada’s health system highlighted the significant inequity in the management and facilitation of aboriginal health, suggesting an opportunity for inclusion: “The health system must (now) reflect the values, needs and expectations of all Canadians, including Canada’s aboriginal peoples.”16 Ongoing reconciliation discussions and partnerships were suggested to address the cultural disconnect between colonial healthcare environments and the necessity for Indigenous, decolonial health and healing strategies.17

The result has been a wide recognition among Indigenous peoples and scholars that strategies of health can be strategies of dissent. For Adelson and the Whapmagoostui Cree, “being alive well” connects individual bodies to a dynamic balancing of power between the sovereign, the disenfranchised group, and the individual.18 Links are being formed between health, land, cultural assertion, and resistance in the face of continued colonial presence.

Towards Decolonization

How do we, as citizen architects, begin to implement these strategies of health? How do we support this movement of “environmental repossession”?19 How do we facilitate these steps towards decolonization?

As Garrett et al. clearly show through the telling of the sweat lodge ceremony’s origins, Indigenous health and healing have traditionally been promoted through land-based ceremony, rooted in the symbiotic relations between Indigenous peoples and their ecosystems. Verderber et. al. reframe this environmental reverence into the contemporary notion of “ecohumanism” — a movement that recognizes environments as simultaneously supporting and fostering behavioural, sociocultural, and ecological sustainability.20

Verderber et. al. also introduce the concept of “salutogenic” design. Salutogenesis, defined by medical sociologist Anton Antonovsky, links physical and cognitive human health and well-being to supportive, meaningful environments.21 In this context, the idea of salutogenesis cleverly legitimizes the cyclical relationship between Indigenous peoples, land, and community with health. Verderber et al. assert that addressing and rethinking strategies of health in the circumpolar north proves valuable as a potential venue for decolonization and resistance through the application of both these principles.

The two case studies are positioned as holistic definitions of ecohumanist design and salutogenic architecture,22  in contrast to the current colonial healthcare model.

The design approach accepts that these places and their ensuing practices are meaningful, enduring, and fundamental to one’s well-being as an active participant in the community. The spiritual dimension and ceremony still function as the baseline. The designs of both the behavioural health rehabilitation centre and the elderly housing prototypes illustrate the grounding of long-standing First Nations’ healing norms in contemporary conditions, subtly negotiating colonial interventions and ambitions of resistance.

Local methods and vernacular building traditions play a core role in the broader ecohumanist concerns of the designs such as  “placemaking, attainment of genuine cultural resonance, and the maintenance (or reestablishment) of harmonious ecological relationships.”23 The harsh climatic realities demand this level of contextual and environmental rigour for these facilities to endure as key supports in the communities.


Indigenous peoples’ sense of self is truly spatial. Their centre is not positioned within a linear worldview but is relational, cyclical, and constantly fluctuating with ebbs and flows. As a result, Indigenous health must be considered within that relational worldview, transcending the physical body and encompassing land, identity, and community.

The poor health status of Canada’s Indigenous peoples directly correlates with the historical and present trauma of the colonial project, which focused on elimination and exploitation, specifically through the control of the land. The current landscape of inadequate healthcare facilities in the far north is just an example of continued dominance and neglect.

However, we are seeing a movement of resistance among Indigenous scholars, designers, and communities embracing the challenge of decolonization and using the topic of health to reassert their political presence. The case studies presented as alternatives by Verderber et. al. showcased the possibilities of agency and dissent manifested in evidence-based environmental design research. Although the evidence-based research is limited with regards to the effectiveness of sweat lodges in contemporary settings, the few existing studies indicate the significant impact of this community-based practice on participants, both Native and non-Native alike.24

Ultimately, it is clear that Indigenous health cannot be healed within a system of aggressive assimilation. New research empowers Indigenous land-based healing through revitalizing knowledge systems, strengthening community connections, and “repossessing” their environments. These acts of environmental repossession live within the greater objective of supporting Indigenous rights, community self-determination, and improved health.


1 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), 318.

2 Naomi Adelson, “Being Alive Well”: Health and the Politics of Cree Well-Being. Anthropological Horizons 16. (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 1.

3 Terry L. Cross, “Relational Worldview Model.” Pathways Practice Digest 12, no. 4 (June 1997). 1.

4 Garrett et. al., “Crying for a Vision,” 318.

Naomi Adelson, “Health Beliefs and the Politics of Cree Well-Being.” Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 2, no. 1 (January 1998), 10

6 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), 28.

7 Garrett et. al., “Crying for a Vision,” 319.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ambtman-Smith and Richmond, “Reimagining Indigenous Spaces of Healing: Institutional Environmental Repossession.”  29.

11 Adelson, “Health Beliefs and the Politics of Cree Well-Being,” 6.

12 Ibid.

13 Adelson, “Being Alive Well,” 113.

14 Ambtman-Smith and Richmond, “Reimagining Indigenous Spaces of Healing: Institutional Environmental Repossession.” 28.

15 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). 2.

16 Roy J. Romanow, Buildings on Values: The Future of Health Care in Canada: Final Report. Saskatoon: Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada, (2002), 12.

17 Verderber et. al., “Indigenous Ecohumanist Architecture for Health in Canada’s Far North.” 12.

18 Adelson, “Health Beliefs and the Politics of Cree Well-Being,” 17.

19 Ambtman-Smith and Richmond, “Reimagining Indigenous Spaces of Healing: Institutional Environmental Repossession.” 29.

20 Verderber et. al., “Indigenous Ecohumanist Architecture for Health in Canada’s Far North.”  3.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Verderber et. al., “Indigenous Ecohumanist Architecture for Health in Canada’s Far North.”  13.

24 Garrett et. al., “Crying for a Vision,” 322.

6 responses to “Indigenous Healing, by Rachel Law”

  1. michellebrais says:

    These reading and your essay bring about a few reflections on my end. I am reminded of our discussion of biopolitics and the health inequities among people of colour. First, it reminds me of the discussion we had on the homo sacer last week, and you named it as well, the biopolitical lens by which we can interpret the power dynamics in Canada. By regulating health narrowly defined by the biological/physical state of people are we doing the minimum requirement for residents of Canada to stay alive. Are Indigenous people particularly touched by a biopolitical agenda that does not seek to provide social and economic well-being through meaningful and culturally appropriate way. The Indian Act puts ridiculous limits on what is permitted in social and economic spheres. The Indigenous and Metis status can too easily be revoked and the rights to land and to certain practices taken away. I wonder, can the spaces in which they live be compared to camps from last weeks’ readings? What about the physical space is limiting them most? Is it the space of the regulations that govern the space that limit their well-being?
    Second, I was reminded of the COVID-19 crisis and the numbers emerging on the higher vulnerability of racialized people compared to non-racialized people. Part of this vulnerability is the lack of space in a household, overcrowding in housing due to low-incomes (and expensive housing these days) and the need to exit the house to work due to the nature of the work that is more often in the service sector. Even when examining the basics of physical and biological health, there are huge inequalities. The health inequities are clear in the current crisis, but they are apparent at all moments when considering that there is poor or scant health infrastructure accessible particularly for Indigenous people. Also, as explored in the study of environmental justice, racialized and low-income people are more often exposed to health hazards such as, pollution, sewage, landfills, etc.
    It is time to examine what other types of healthcare can be legitimized, be it Indigenous and Eastern medicine. Also, I am all for a more holistic understanding of health and well-being and for spaces that allow to feed the soul, create a sense of belonging and agency as well as tend to our physical health.

  2. Aamirah says:

    The readings this week introduced me to many aspects of Indigenous practice which I was unaware of before, especially by highlighting the need to decolonize healthcare practices. It is easy to become accustomed to quick fixes and linear solutions to the point that we forget about what happens in between the stages of being sick and being healthy. To think of healing in a similar way as in Native traditions really sees the inherent power of the process. Each stage of cleansing the mind, body, and spirit is just as important as the result. Involving Native healing traditions in healthcare such as sweat therapy, not only maintains existing practices, but can also revive those that are lost and sustain those on the brink of extinction. These may be the very practices that faced the threat of disappearing due to the forcible separation of the Indigenous from their cultures and identities by the Indian Act and residential schools, as mentioned in the readings.

    I am further reminded of discussions in another class surrounding the reality that many policies engender inequality. Curtailing freedom, prohibiting shared practices, and forcing assimilation are just a few examples of how far policy can go to strip a people of their history and identity. If we take a closer look at our current patterns and methods of creating policy we will begin to see how much they are colonized. This paves the way to change practices and thus introduce design methods that address the importance of culturally appropriate systems which strive for equity rather than sustaining the opposite.

  3. Ke Yan Ye says:

    This week’s readings are addressing an ongoing issue of the failures of the colonial healthcare system to respond properly to the needs of the Indigenous people. In my opinion, two key events from this year (the murder of Joyce Echaquan and the Covid pandemic) have proven that we need to keep this discussion alive more than ever. From my perspective, the intergenerational trauma caused by the Canadian government have severely affected the transmission of traditional knowledge that, above all, is synonym of a lost of identity. Architects and design practitioners cannot limit themselves to the code regulations of the piece of architecture itself but have to understand the process that originates it. The sweat lodges really exemplify the incompatibility of the Indigenous healing practices and the Canadian healthcare system as the very definition of care and health do not translate the same meaning (‘health’ vs miyupimaatisiiun ‘living well’). Those readings have also triggered reflections on my end on other governmental entities such as the justice system where the mandatory integration of spaces for the Indigenous people are often misunderstood and misinterpreted.

  4. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Rachel and Christopher for your compelling essays and for the reading recommendations. I first and foremost am so grateful for the inclusion of the relationship between our environment and our health, quoted as the top of Rachel’s essay: “If the land is not healthy, how can we be?”. I feel that generally, in our Western perspective, these two become so often dissociated and are typically thought of separately. Within a capitalist system, we are important polluters: industry and technology are prioritized before the planet. Within this capitalist perspective is also an important investment in medicine, biomedical technologies, funding of research,… And yet, an important source and cause of our poor health, mental and physical, of crisis and emergency, is because of our degenerating climate and environment, causing increasing numbers of viruses, natural disasters injuring and displacing people, and general health issues due to polluted/contaminated air/water/land, etc. The reciprocities that can be achieved if these two scopes were considered together would be much more beneficial to our general population.
    Another important element these essays and readings made me think about is interculturalism. While, Canadian multiculturalism acknowledges the diversity of those living within the country, it does not integrate it to its culture, or transform its policies through it. Accepting diversity is not enough. People should see their culture, live their culture, and have access to the their cultural practices, on all levels within the communities they live in, including design, health and environmental practices. Interculturalism, while a challenge, should be strived for, especially as so much innovation can be achieved through diversity. Aggressive assimilation should not be part of the healthcare system.

  5. Muhammad Awan says:

    In Garrett et al., most noteworthy is the deep symbolism of every element of the sweat lodge, from the ceremony and how it came to be, to the physical form of the sweat lodge itself, and even every step of the process of putting together this physical form. The natural inclination I had was that this should be a part of mainstream healthcare. However, who conducts the ceremony and where it is conducted are vital to consider in respect of the sacredness of this practice. Verderber et al fittingly then discusses how such traditional healing practices can be thoughtfully immersed into contemporary settings. The design of the behavioral health facility seems to be a good example of incorporating the sweat lodge as a baseline spiritual dimension that supports therapy. The authors also importantly conclude that decolonizing healthcare design and bringing in Indigenous peoples’ time-honored, spiritually based, nature-land design traditions is key. So, is government’s public health policy the main way to achieve this? If a deep reverence for the land and its healing affordances is the aim, then is there need for more allyship with the healthcare community? One unavoidable fact is that if this is not thoughtfully considered, we are clearly depriving people of deeply therapeutic experiences in healthcare, especially First Nations communities in the far north. We seem to be performing well below our capacity for therapeutic intervention, unless we begin to incorporate the practices discussed by Garrett et al and Verderber et al.

  6. Jugal Patel says:

    Thank you, Rachel and Chris, for organizing such an engaging and interactive session! While I’m catching up on blog posts, I can’t help but wonder what our sessions would have been like if you had set this precedent in one of the first sessions! Maybe I could have asked you all to draw a non-liminal airport (if it is even possible // does that make sense?!?!)!

    I learned so much about things I unfortunately know so little about. The symbolism in the construction and design of sweat-lodges was very interesting to first read about, then hear on from Chris, and finally actually play with in our breakout groups.

    Something that does sort of flutter around in the back of my head: this is a behavioural health intervention! We shouldn’t downplay the evidence of sweat-lodges (and that of any community practice) by focusing on biology. That is, this is not so much about Western or Eastern ways of interpreting health (although obviously indigenous conceptualizations are more in line with Eastern philosophies). Instead the focus is on community health, self-determination, and practically living up to our espoused messages of multi-culturalism. And because of this, I would refrain from saying that we should ‘open-up’ our health care system to alternative medicines. I think this is far from what will be good for people, and is also divorced from evidence we do have on behavioural interventions to community level health crises. We need sweat-lodges not because inhaling smoke or being around it is a good thing; but because communities who are embedded in this culture are in crises – in no small part due to the medical interventions (not) availed to them in the past.

    I absolutely loved designing a sweat-lodge in an ‘abandoned’ church for our group session – for all the reasons listed above and here: celebrating Montreal’s legacy of converted churches; the pragmatic benefit of a needed new space; and the symbolism of decolonization*. A term mildly mis-used by careerist academics. Did I say mildly? W**

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