Indigenous Peoples Health Day

Posted on August 9, 2017 by kerri

August 9 is Indigenous Peoples Health Day. Indigenous communities are diverse around the world, and diverse within the countries they live in. Due to the wide variety of cultures, languages, customs and systems of governance in indigenous communities, the United Nations has not settled on a concrete definition of what it means to be Indigenous. [1] Indigenous communities may have preferred terminology that is not “indigenous”—these include First Nations or First Peoples, Aboriginal Peoples, and other specific terminology adopted by groups. [1] For the purpose of this post, I will be using the term Indigenous.

Drawing of a dreamcatcher with 3 feathers hanging from its base, the circle is divided into quarters, each drawn string (to centre) represents the colors of the medicine wheel--Black to the north, White to the East, Yellow to the South and Red to the West.
Image from Mikmaw Spirit. Used under Creative Commons attribution.

What are some common characteristics of indigenous peoples of the world? [1]

  • Indigenous peoples identify themselves as such, and are recognized within the greater community as indigenous.
  • These communities are “pre-settler” communities—hence reference to First Peoples or First Nations. If Christopher Columbus was said to have “discovered” America, Indigenous communities did not have to discover this mass of land—they were already here long before the discovery of what we now know as America.
  • Indigenous peoples have maintained their culture, languages, beliefs and systems of governance despite influence from societies who formed after Indigenous communities. This results in maintenance of the environments as were similar to their ancestors and governing systems, as distinct from other populations.
  • Communities demonstrate strong influence of and by natural resources in surrounding areas.
  • Indigenous communities are non-dominant societal groups.

Health of Indigenous Peoples

The Indigenous Peoples have a traditional view of health which jives with the Western perception of health—the World Health Organization’s definition focuses on a conceptual sense of physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not simply the absence of disease [1]. Most Indigenous communities see health and wellbeing “as a harmony that exists between individuals, communities and the universe”. [1] The Indigenous definition of health is much more interconnected than what Western culture perceives.

This definition of health is reflected in the traditional healing practices of Indigenous peoples and communities (although sometimes in conjunction with “modern medicine”).

Health issues of Indigenous Peoples

Barriers and obstacles to health care

Of course, the health issues of indigenous peoples are no different than the health issues of other populations, however, the incidence of certain conditions or diseases may be higher because of geography or socioeconomic reasons. Indigenous families often live in remote areas, both on and off reservation land, also known as the Reserve. A combination of investment of federal funds from governments as well as preservation of self-government by community can lead to decreased access to health and social services, including education and justice. [1] Often, communities are remotely located, and people must travel long distances for care. As well, for those in the most remote communities, healthy food may be more expensive—socioeconomic issues and poverty may make buying healthy food, accessing medical care, stable and healthy housing (ie. in good repair, without mold or ventilation issues) [2], and receiving social support difficult or impossible for some. Sometimes these barriers to care make chronic diseases more prevalent, or lead to worsening states of disease control from a variety of factors including lack of treatment resources. As well, many off-reserve Indigenous peoples live in urban centres, and can face different obstacles to health and social wellbeing. [3] However, health is often better among those living in urban centres. [4]

An upcoming post on this blog will share facts about how health issues disproportionately affect indigenous populations worldwide.

Indigenous healing practices

Indigenous healing practices might look very different to what non-Indigenous people consider medicine. These healing practices and medicines are very important to many Indigenous communities, although many do use them in conjunction with modern forms of medicine. As interconnection of spirit, body, mind, and community are of importance, healing and medicine often take place in groups. Some forms of traditional healing practices may include:

  • Four sacred medicines: Tobacco, cedar, sage and sweetgrass.
  • Community ceremonies such as smudges and sweat lodges (also known as purification lodges or “sweats”), sun dances and pipe ceremonies [5]
  • Healing takes place through more talking than in Western medicine—some ways people may express themselves include talking, crying, dancing, laughing, sweating, giving, yawning, and yelling (venting) [5]
  • Group prayers and feasts [5]
  • Herbal treatment long practiced in Indigenous communities, many of which have formed the roots of much of Western medicine [6]

Of note, while those of us who use Western models of medicine may feel there is no evidence for many of the treatments, medicines, and healing practices used by Indigenous peoples, articles remind us that simply because there is not evidence yet, does not mean a treatment does not work. Remember, the basis of many of Western medicine’s antibiotics comes from soil, after all, and we treat many vitamin and mineral deficiencies with natural elements and don’t think twice. While some Indigenous peoples rely on cultural healing and medicine, many participate in both the healing practices of their people, as well as with Western medicine.

More to come

In our next post, we will discuss the impact of health conditions in Indigenous communities worldwide, and the role community and connection may have in helping to improve health in Indigenous communities.

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