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.”  

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.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.