ArticlePDF Available

Nitsiyihkâson: The Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment

  • Nechi Training, Research and Health Promotion Institute


The Nitsiyihkâson project was conceived in order to develop a resource to promote attachment and development in a manner culturally appropriate to the Indigenous (specifically Cree) people of Alberta. Promoting secure attachment between a child and his/her caregivers is crucial to ensuring positive mental health, and improving family well-being. Working collaboratively with the community of Saddle Lake, the process began by launching the project in traditional ceremony. Following this, a talking circle was held with Saddle Lake Elders to share their memories and understanding of child-rearing practices that promote attachment. Using their guidance, we produced the document " awina kiyanaw " , which focuses on Cree stories and teachings, for parents to share with their young children. This document will be shared within the community, and agencies interested in promoting a culturally-appropriate approach to parenting. We then examined the cross-cultural applicability of these practices and produced a Resource Manual for service providers, comparing traditional ways-of-knowing with current neurobiological and epigenetic scientific understanding. We believe this helps those working with Indigenous families better understand their culture, and appreciate the wisdom in its teachings. In this paper, we present those findings and their ramifications.
volume 9 | number 1
Nitsiyihkâson: The Brain Science Behind Cree
Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
Hannah Pazderka,1,2 Brenda Desjarlais,3 Leona Makokis, 4 Carly MacArthur,3,4 Sharon
Steinhauer,4 Carole Anne Hapchyn,6,7 Tara Hanson,1 Nicole Van Kuppeveld,7 Ralph Bodor5
1 Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
2 Department of Psychiatry, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
3 The Family Centre, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
4 Blue Quills First Nations College, St. Paul, Alberta, Canada.
5 University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
6 CASA Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
7 Alberta Health Services, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Corresponding author: Dr. Hannah Pazderka,
The Nitsiyihkâson project was conceived in order to develop a resource to promote attachment and
development in a manner culturally appropriate to the Indigenous (specifically Cree) people of Alberta.
Promoting secure attachment between a child and his/her caregivers is crucial to ensuring positive
mental health, and improving family well-being. Working collaboratively with the community of Saddle
Lake, the process began by launching the project in traditional ceremony. Following this, a talking circle
was held with Saddle Lake Elders to share their memories and understanding of child-rearing practices
that promote attachment. Using their guidance, we produced the document “awina kiyanaw”, which
focuses on Cree stories and teachings, for parents to share with their young children. This document will
be shared within the community, and agencies interested in promoting a culturally-appropriate
approach to parenting. We then examined the cross-cultural applicability of these practices and
produced a Resource Manual for service providers, comparing traditional ways-of-knowing with
current neurobiological and epigenetic scientific understanding. We believe this helps those working
with Indigenous families better understand their culture, and appreciate the wisdom in its teachings. In
this paper, we present those findings and their ramifications.
Keywords: parenting, attachment, early childhood, Indigenous practices
Our goal in the Nitsiyihkâson project was to develop a resource to promote childhood attachment within
Indigenous (specifically Cree) families, in ways that are culturally appropriate, using their teachings to
illustrate principles of early brain development. The project stemmed from the need to develop a resource
for CATCH (Collaborative Assessment and Treatment for Children’s Health), a multi-agency wraparound
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
program for infant mental health. Because one of the two pilot sites for CATCH sees only Indigenous
children - many of whom live off-reserve, some with foster families not of Indigenous descent we saw
the need to develop a parenting resource to help promote traditional practices that are also supported by
neuroscientific evidence.
Translated loosely, Nitsiyihkâson means “my name is”. However, the term encompasses more than the
factual statementit relates to the kinship connections of the child to the network of social relationships
in the community, and indeed the genetic and spiritual connections the child shares with their ancestors.
Therefore, it seeks to understand the child’s connection, linkage, and attachment. The Nitsiyihkâson
parenting resource, awina kiyanaw (“who are we”; in press), was developed to help parents understand
the importance of behaviors that promote attachment with their infants and children, and the traditional
teachings which support these practices.
Out of respect for the community members who helped produce this work, we are attempting to translate
the teachings into western language while being respectful of Indigenous beliefs regarding birth, infancy,
and early childhood development.
The methods used in this community based research (CBR) project were specific to the Indigenous culture
at Saddle Lake, and the traditions of their community; we recognize that they may look different than
what is commonly seen in journals. However, part of the using a CBR approach requires being respectful
of the community, and understanding and incorporating their beliefs and values. The project could not
have been successful without such an approach.
While conceived academically, the project was started in ceremony and shaped by the community. It
began with a traditional pipe ceremony and feast, led by Elders from Saddle Lake, where the proposed
methodology was blessed. It was then shaped via a half-day ethics approval process at the Blue Quills
First Nations College, followed by a full day sharing circle in which stories were told relating to
attachment and child rearing. These teachings were then transcribed from Cree to English. Themes and
important ideas were extracted, and woven into a set of teachings arranged in developmental order. We
clarify and expand upon these methodological steps below and discuss how they differ from similar
western processes.
Initial Discussion with Elders
Ceremony is an essential part of Indigenous teaching, as ceremony creates connection between self and
spirit. In traditional ways of knowing, you must first acknowledge the Creator, and ensure that the
research being proposed is fundamentally desirable to, and seen as worthy by, the community.
We met with identified community Elders to share ideas about the project, gather their initial
impressions, inviting them to share their thoughts and/or concerns. This meeting began with smudge and
prayer to ask for guidance and wisdom from the Creator. We discussed the importance of addressing
factors such as the role of oral history in sharing knowledge and beliefs; differing roles of males and
females in child rearing; the role of residential schools in creating attachment difficulties in Indigenous
families; beliefs about what children bring into the world (i.e., the spiritual component of child rearing);
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
and maintaining a strength-based focus to the research.
Pipe Ceremony
The initial discussion helped guide us with our next steps, which included a formal pipe ceremony and
feast, including the offering of tobacco and cloth. This was done through guidance and support of Elders
and pipe holders from the Saddle Lake community. Within that ceremony, we also received the name for
the project, Nitsiyihkâson.
It is noteworthy that this process was followed prior to obtaining ethics approval; while it is acknowledged
within the research community that ethics is an important first step in any research endeavour, we
wanted to ensure we practiced Indigenous research protocols, acknowledging the Creator and receiving
the blessing of the Elders in the community prior to proceeding. Without their approval, the project could
not have advanced.
Ethics Meeting
Our next step was to meet with the Blue Quills College research ethics committee to present the project.
The team travelled to St. Paul, Alberta to meet with them. However, seeking to abide by the principles of
Ownership, Control, Access and Possession (OCAP), the ethics committee also included elders and
interested students, and involved a discussion as to what was best for the community. Thus, the meeting
not only explored issues of ethics, it encompassed a teaching opportunity for students and a discussion of
community values.
As per protocol for sharing traditional stories and facilitating a sharing circle, conversation was focused
on where and when these stories should be shared. The conversation further evolved with the
appropriateness of recording and taping the stories. In this way, the ethics discussion necessarily differed
from those often held in western universities, as it required a greater level of openness and flexibility from
the team, and served the additional purpose of helping solve logistical issues while addressing concerns
regarding community involvement.
Access to Elders
Team members of the research committee that resided in the Saddle Lake First Nation approached the
Elders with traditional protocol of tobacco and cloth, and invited them to participate in the Sharing Circle.
Sharing Circle
Community Elders and the research team came together as a group on the Blue Quills College campus,
and the day began with prayer and a smudge ceremony. The Sharing Circle involved a full-day of meeting,
in which questions were posed to the Elders, and a talking stick (in our case, a microphone used to record
the conversation) was passed around the circle clockwise. The group process involved a team member
(X.X.) facilitating, providing context and encouraging discussion on the questions. Once each individual
had a chance to address a question, the stick was passed around once more to ensure that individuals
were able to express any ideas that occurred to them in listening to the others speak. Elders received
lunch and small honorarium for their participation.
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
Importantly, Elders were encouraged to discuss questions in Cree, in an effort to maximize comfort an
capture the true sentiments shared amongst the community members. While this somewhat complicated
the process (transcription of the full day of conversation had to be done afterward), it was clearly
important to the process – in fact, when one question was discussed (regarding residential schools), the
tone of the conversation changed markedly and most individuals started speaking English. In discussions
afterward, it was posited that this shift reflected their discomfort in reliving the events surrounding
Thanks Giving and Project Completion
As a final step of the process, another gathering occurred in the community at Blue Quills College. This
again was to offer thanks to the Creator, the community, and the Elders that participated and supported
the project. At this meeting, preliminary results were discussed, as were ideas about how best to share the
Section 1: Prebirth
Maternal-attachment with the unborn child. Cree teachings highlight the need for the mother, and
the rest of the family, to connect with the unborn child this can be through song, such as traditional
music, or via storytelling. Modern neuroscience supports the idea that the child is developing sensory
capacities pre-birth. For instance, tastebuds first appear 8-12 weeks after conception, and early taste
perception can influence taste decisions after birth. Sensitivity to light appears around 16 weeks, with
vision continuing to develop after birth. The sense of touch develops between 8-20 weeks, and sense of
smell develops around week 28 (Enfamil, 2012;, n.d.). Infants have been shown to orient to
the sound of their parents’ voice at as little as 16 weeks of age (What to Expect, n.d.).
Science confirms the nature of the prenatal attachment relationship (between the infant’s development in
the womb, and the woman’s development in becoming a mother) is critical. There has been increased
recognition over the past 20 years that the relationship between a mother and child starts before a child is
born; in fact, research demonstrates a correlation between prenatal attachment and postnatal attachment
(Alhusen, 2008). Furthermore, optimal attachment in early infancy has been identified as an integral
component in the future development of a child (Oppenheim, Koren-Karie, and Sagi-Schwartz, 2007).
Prenatal health and nutrition. Some evidence suggests that positive health behaviours (e.g., visiting a
doctor regularly for prenatal care; maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine) are associated with
improved maternal bonding while the child is still in the womb (Virtual Medical Centre, 2013). Substance
abuse during pregnancy is associated with poor maternal and infant outcomes, as it may make it more
difficult for the woman to do the tasks that are important for bonding with her infant.
However, beyond the necessity of maintaining good health during the pregnancy, Indigenous teachings
tell us that the issue is broader it is about the idea of realizing that actions have consequences, not only
for the individual but for the generations that follow. In Cree teachings for example, it is said that an event
will carry repercussions for 7 generations. It is worthwhile to consider the multi-generational cycles of
FASD, spousal abuse, and alcoholism in this context. Interestingly, the idea that events which cause stress
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
to the parent (whether psychological or physical) directly translate to the child has been borne out by
recent evidence. Epigenetics suggests that poor parenting or neglect actually result in changes of the
genetic structure of the child. This is because the way in which gene transcription and protein
manufacture occurs is actually altered by early stressors (Scott, 2012).
Further, their teachings suggest that negative issues
are caused by an imbalance in mind, body and spirit
(Elders use the word pāstāhowin to describe this
imbalance); this is one of the lessons behind the Cree
circle of life – that there needs to be equilibrium
between the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual
aspects of the self (see Figure 1, left). The expectant
mother in particular needs to try to maintain this
balance. Similarly, a role of the parents and family is
to assist the newborn in finding this equilibrium,
particularly in helping them find a sense of calm
alertness, when they are either understimulated or
upset. Intriguingly, this is also one of observations of
the neurorelational framework (Lillas & Turnbull,
However, despite the potential for stressors to create
imbalance, science also shows that potential damage
can, to some extent, be reversed (Perry & Pollard, 1998). It is only in the last couple decades that modern
science has accepted the concept of neural plasticity, the idea that brains are changeable and can be
altered following long term damage, such as that resulting from abuse or neglect. In fact, Indigenous
teachings suggest that it is through traditional practices and ceremony balance can be restored.
That said, science also shows that trying to change behavior or build skills in circuitry that was miswired
in the first place takes more work and is less effective. The most effective way to produce resilient
behavior is to nurture and protect the developing brain as it evolves (Early Brain & Biological
Development, 2010).
Section message. Professionals working with at-risk families likely bring with them their own belief
system that may support or conflict with the Indigenous teachings described above. That said, science
supports paying attention to the pregnancy, being thoughtful and attempting to be healthy, and making
those first initial efforts to bond with the child (e.g., via singing, story-telling, etc.) prebirth. In fact, it may
be that if prospective parents are not engaged in the process, they will miss opportunities (or critical
periods) for these initial bonding experiences. Nor will they pay attention to healthy habits regarding
nutrition and drug use, essential to a healthy baby. Science is only now exploring concepts such as
epigenetics and plasticity, but Indigenous teachings have suggested these scientific facts for centuries.
Section 2: Birth
Responsivity. Indigenous teachings place great importance on meeting the newborn child’s needs. Their
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
belief is, the infant “always cries for a reason”; in other words, when a child cries it is because they need
something and the parent should tend to them. Rather than following the western custom of feeding a
newborn every two hours around the clock, the Cree believe that the child communicates its needs
through its cries. Thus, they place great importance on being atuned to the infant, and maintaining a
reciprocal relationship with him or her. This reciprocity is now seen as essential to the healthy
development of the newborn, a type of “serve and return” back-and-forth communication between the
parent and child.
Early sensory experiences. The Elders described early sensory experiences, such as “singing the baby
into the world” with a special song (nikamowin); as well as early experiences conveyed through smell and
touch. These processes lay the fundamental groundwork for how the child experiences the world. In
western culture, parents are often left on their own to determine what kind of environment is “best” for
their newborn, but new parents may be confused or challenged, and require guidance. The Cree teachings
place importance on those early days in connecting to the infant in a physical way.
During the earliest stages of development, the baby’s brain is growing and changing extremely rapidly.
One of the important activities occurring during early development is synaptic pruning, in which unused
brain connections are eliminated. This process begins at birth and extends until adolescence (Iglesias,
Eriksson, Grize, Tomassini, and Villa, 2005). Importantly, a major determinant of which connections
remain and which are eliminated is use – a principle jokingly referred to as “use it or lose it”. This means,
however, that the important sensory experiences the child undergoes early on help to determine which
pathways will remain and be strengthened, and which will be eliminated. Thus, developing and
maintaining these early physical connections with the child is key.
Swing. The swing carries with it many teachings for caring for the newborn. Use of the swing continues
to assist the infant with maintaining their spiritual connection. It soothes them and reminds them of the
comfort and safety of the womb. However, while being placed in a swing is seen as an important sensory
experience, the elders caution against keeping the child in the swing overnight or unattended. According
to Cree teachings, this is to ensure that the child remains “grounded” (Gladue, 2002). Thus, the swing is
one of the important sensory experiences early on.
Mossbag. As mentioned above, the Elders placed a lot of importance on holding the child, and actual
skin-to-skin contact. The belief is that children who are carried in a mossbag tend to have calmer spirits.
While western culture understands the importance of restraint systems (e.g., booster seats, car seats,
carriers, etc.), the Elders brought attention to the important issue to bonding with the child simply
through holding and carrying it. For instance, there are discrete words in Cree that express the concepts of
“nurturing and showing affection” to a baby (ocemōhkatikawiyan) and “the songs sung while playing with
the child” (nïmihawasowin). Notably, comparable terms do not exist in English. Scientific research
supports the lasting effects of early skin-to-skin contact on an infant’s self-regulation, social relatedness
and capacity to handle stress and frustration (Feldman, 2011). This author hypothesized that the
continuous physical contact soothes the infant and emphasizes the underlying connectedness between
members of the cultural group, while in more individualistic societies mothers prefer more active forms of
touch. Using hundreds of participants, Anderson, Moore, Hepworth, and Bergman (2004) were able to
demonstrate positive effects of early skin-to-skin contact on measures of breastfeeding, maternal touch,
and other maternal attachment behaviors.
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
However, according to the teachings, the mossbag is not simply a carrying device for the child. The
broader idea is that the very construction of the bag is meant to mimic the mother’s womb thus aiding
the child’s transition into the world. For instance, the lacing on the bag can be likened to the mother’s
ribcage. Essentially, this means that the parent can decide and control how much exposure is appropriate
for the child from moment to moment, helping the child build their capacity for self-regulation. The
mossbag assists the process of atunement between the parent and child, as to whether the child is ready
for exposure to the world or requires the safety of parental contact.
Sleeping. Although for awhile it was seen as dangerous or inappropriate, modern science is beginning to
recognize the acceptability of co-sleeping (i.e., sleeping in bed with an infant; Neuroanthropology, 2008).
In fact, some research suggests lower rates of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) among infants who
co-sleep with their parents. Co-sleeping also results in healthier infants, in that that bedsharing increases
rates of breastfeeding while increasing sleep for both mother and baby, potentially reducing infant illness.
Thus, according to the authors,
irrepressible (ancient) neurologically-based infant responses to maternal smells, movements
and touch altogether reduce infant crying while positively regulating infant breathing, body
temperature, absorption of calories, stress hormone levels, immune status, and oxygenation. In
short, and as mentioned above, cosleeping (whether on the same surface or not) facilitates
positive clinical changes including more infant sleep and seems to make, well, babies happy.
(Neuroanthropology, 2008)
As it stands, the authors state that the evidence for co-sleeping remains mixed, with most studies
supporting it except for the case of couch co-sleeping, which can result in suffocation. Parents should also
be advised not to bedshare if inebriated or otherwise desensitized. Similarly, the relationship of the
parents should also be a factor worthy of consideration.
Breastfeeding. Science supports the importance of breastfeeding, both in developing a healthy immune
system, as well as in giving opportunity for the mother and child to bond (the Baby Bond, n.d.). Breast
milk is a complete, easy-to-digest form of nutrition that contains antibodies, protecting the child from
illness. Breastfed babies are better able to fight off infection, and require fewer visits to the doctor. This
also gives mother and child an opportunity to connect, often through eye contact, but also through smell
and taste, engaging all the child’s senses, and bonding mother with child through a multi-sensory process.
Belly button ceremony. The Cree have a practice of making a special ritual of disposing of the
newborn’s belly button. Rather than throwing it away, they will make a special effort to, for example, bury
it in a special place. The belief is that where the belly button is placed helps to define the path the child
will take in the world. Burying it helps to keep the child grounded, so that his or her spirit has a home.
Whether or not one might view this as superstitious, it reflects the Indigenous view that it is important to
give thought to the child’s place and path in the world; that the wishes placed upon the child’s future are
valuable and require conscious attention.
Naming ceremony. There are names given through ceremony that become a child’s spirit name. These
names help them connect to their spirit and the spirit world. They have great meaning, and often follow
the child throughout his or her lifetime.
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
However, it is also common for Cree families to grant the child a nickname, informally. This process
represents an opportunity for family members to bond with the new baby. This may be via seemingly
superficial traits (e.g., “she looks like cousin Shelley; that is how we should refer to her”; “the baby’s cry is
like the squeak of a mouse!”) but no matter how it is determined, this nickname serves the purpose of
outlining a special connection between the child and members of the family. Often, these names are of a
teasing, affectionate nature, and kept personal amongst family or community members.
Section message. Indigenous teachings around birth and early infancy focus on the importance of
developing bonds with and being responsive to the infant, in both physical (e.g., co-sleeping,
breastfeeding, using the moss-bag) and more spiritual ways (e.g., the belly button and naming
Ceremonies). In fact, both are fundamental to the development of positive attachment relationships. All
these practices will be reflected in the growth and development of the child, helping them move to the
next stage of development.
Section 3: Early childhood development
Importance of play and being out in nature. Scientific evidence supports that independent
exploration of nature is vital to learning a number of skills and abilities (Janssen & LeBlanc, 2010; p. 40).
For instance, research from the Arbor Day Foundation (2013) suggests that outdoor play is fundamental
1. Better social and physical development
2. Improved fitness and motor skills
3. Stronger powers of observation, creativity, and imaginative play
4. Improved collaboration, with decreased bullying
5. Reduced stress
6. Feelings of empathy for nature, encouraging environmental stewardship
7. Broad-based development and learning across the curriculum
Just as importantly, the more time spent in physical activity outdoors, the less time spent in sedentary
pursuits (i.e., technology; Flett, Moore, Pfeiffer, Belonga, and Navarre, 2010). The physical benefits of
being outdoors include lower blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. There is also a relationship
between the amount of time spent outdoors and child’s overall level of physical activity, thereby battling
childhood obesity (Munoz, S-A., 2009; p. 9) and type II diabetes. Just as importantly, time spent outdoors
is also related to stress reduction and reduced mental fatigue, potentially reducing the odds of mental
illness such as depression, anxiety and ADHD (McCurdy, Winterbottom, Mehta, and Roberts, 2010).
However, the teachings go beyond the positive health benefits of play. The exploration of nature is also
seen as important to learning survival skills (e.g., which berries are edible; what parts of a slope are most
stable), as well as building respect and love for the environment.
Natural consequences and learning to stand up for oneself. The Elders describe the importance
of letting the child experience the natural consequences of bad behavior. They believe it is vitally
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
important for the child to learn difficult lessons themselves, rather than vicariously.
This idea links strongly to neuroscientific principles of memory development; individual experience with
and learning of a contingency is more powerful than having that event explained to you, or witnessing
someone else go through the event. In fact, procedural memory is by far the strongest type of memory
formed (i.e., as compared to declarative, or fact-based, memory), being resistant to experiences such as
amnesia (Cavaco, Anderson, Allen, Castro-Caldas, and Damasio, 2004). Interestingly, research has
shown that trauma (e.g., post traumatic stress disorder) has the result of shrinking brain structures
responsible for forming memories (the hippocampus; Herrmann et al., 2012). One might ask whether
building procedural memory which is less prone to cell loss in those regions (Kolb & Whishaw, 1990; p.
555) could have a protective effect on children who experience trauma. So, while it is always important
to keep children safe, it is just as important to let them experience the negative things that may happen
when they are out exploring the world - within limits. This is how the child develops confidence and self-
The Elders also spoke strongly about “not taking the part of the child”; in other words, letting children
fight their own battles. The child should be encouraged to find his or her own voice, and to speak up for
themselves. This process, known as individuation, is now known to be crucial to child development. In
some ways, this belief system stands in stark contrast to many modern practices, in which parents
generally, for example, will approach a teacher if they feel their child has been treated unfairly. While
modern thinking appears to be that the child needs an “advocate”, this issue is really related to the idea of
teaching natural consequences; Indigenous teachings place value on learning through direct experience.
The willow teachings. The Cree have a series of teachings referring to the willow stick the child is told
to go and find, which represents the object of their discipline. While modern science does not support the
use of corporal punishment, it is important to understand that what the child is learning here is that there
are consequences for negative behavior, and more importantly, that he or she will be part of the
discussion in determining the severity of those consequences. In this way, the willow teachings actually
empower the child.
Importance of playing together and building relationships. The Elders put an emphasis on
developing good, peaceful peer relationships. One elder describes it as being taught, “to be able to play
and interact with our peers, other children and not to horde our toys but to share it with them.” This
seems like a simple lesson, but nowadays there is a much stronger emphasis on achievement and being
first in the class; competition rather than cooperation. There is an importance placed on socialization. As
one Elder stated:
Today our children are being raised by themselves, they don’t know each other, they don’t
understand each other because there are no gathering places for them, even places where they
can socialize and talk to each other. The only thing they do is text.
Science has recognized the protective effects of interconnection since Emile Durkheim published his
landmark study of suicide in 1897, finding lower rates of suicide among cultures with stronger integration
(Suicide [book], n.d.). Modern theories of brain development also place importance on socialization and
relationship; children raised in isolation show deficits in areas such as mental health, well-being, and
perceived social support (Canetti, Bachar, Galili-Weisstub, De-Nour, and Shalev, 1997). Similarly,
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
youngsters who report social exclusion are 2-3 times more likely to experience depressive symptoms than
their socially-connected peers (Glover, Burns, Butler, and Patton, 1998). Moreover, children of a lower
socio-economic status are more likely to report social exclusion (Davies, Davis, Cook, and Waters, 2008).
It is also noteworthy that some relationship practices differ in Indigenous communities compared to the
western view. For instance, teasing is a common method of bonding amongst community members. It is
not done maliciously, rather acknowledging that the individual is part of the group; that he or she belongs
- that the child is well known, understood, and most importantly accepted among community members.
So, while teasing is a common method of exclusion in western cultures, it carries a different meaning for
the Cree.
Moreover, the types of relationships valued by Indigenous communities are much broader than those
traditionally considered as part of the western definition of “family”. Beyond the parent-child
relationship, they encompass extended family, and even the broader community. This is important,
because one role of the parents it to help teach the children gender-appropriate behaviors and practices,
roles and responsibilities.
However, the Elders also pointed out that the entire Indigenous concept of relationship is different, with
the idea being that “you are the relationship”, as your connections with others both reflect who you are
and shape who you are. In other words, there is a focus on interconnectedness. This relates to the Cree
concept of Wahkohtowin, the idea that “we are all related”. In fact, distant relatives are treated like first
degree relatives, with cousins treated as siblings, and great aunts/uncles not referred to as such.
Relationships among kin are, in some ways, closer and more personal than those experienced in the
western culture. In many ways, this point of view reflects the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.
Section message. Indigenous teachings around early development and child rearing focus on teaching
the child independence, respect, responsibility, and relationship. The teachings show the value of
exploring the world, learning through experience, but also respecting boundaries and showing kindness
and charity to others. In so doing, they recognize that cognitive, emotional, and social capacities are
interconnected, which is fundamental to brain development as the brain uses some of these functions to
enrich others. A main goal behind these teachings to help the child learn roles, expectations, and
responsibilities, ultimately preparing them for adulthood, teaching skills to allow children to take their
place in the community.
This publication documents the scientific merit underlying the practices described in the Nitsiyihkâson
parenting resource. The parallels between Cree teachings and current scientific thought are striking.
There are many dichotomies between western and Indigenous world views. Paradoxically, “new” brain
research is now espousing the same parenting practices as Indigenous teachings have been promoting for
centuries. It is the conclusion of our study team that, in some ways, science is catching up with traditional
practices that have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. That is, the
perspectives of the Indigenous community, their traditional practices and techniques, are now being
borne out by modern neuroscience. It is noteworthy that these teachings were practiced pre-contact, and
were passed down through oral tradition, ceremony, and relational concepts, but we in the western world
are only now starting to appreciate their true value. For this reason, Indigenous thought is both relevant
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
and prescient in terms of our understanding of attachment and bonding.
In one sense, the fact that the scientific community might be surprised to hear this underscores the issue
with colonization: until western science has “proven” a phenomenon to be true, it means little and is taken
as curious or hypothetical. In fact, this point of view perpetuates colonialistic attitudes towards
Indigenous populations. Moreover, this document suggests that, ironically, our efforts to restrict or
destroy these practices in the 20th century actually set back child rearing and the promotion of adult-child
attachment in Indigenous communities.
As has been elaborated previously, “it is impossible to understand First Nation community health without
considering the cultural foundation upon which the community is built” (Keith, 2011). It is our hope that
awina kiyanaw and the accompanying Resource Manual provide to readers a better understanding of
Indigenous practices promoting attachment, and help build a platform to better relate with Indigenous
children and families.
The authors would like to dedicate this publication to Community Elder George Bretton,
who passed away in 2013. His kindness and wisdom were appreciated and will be
Alhusen, J.L. (2008). A literature update on maternal-fetal attachment. Journal of Obstetrical and
Gynecological Neonatal Nursing, 37(3): 315–328.
Anderson, G.C., Moore, E., Hepworth, J., and Bergman, N. (2004). Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers
and their healthy newborn infants (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 2, 2004.
Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Arbor Day Foundation. (2013, August 2). Research shows regular time in nature… Retrieved from:
Baby Bond. (n.d.). Nursing: It’s more than breastfeeding and every mother can do it. Retrieved from:
Canetti, L., Bachar, E., Galili-Weisstub, E., De-Nour, A.K., and Shalev, A.Y. (1997). Parental bonding and
mental health in adolescence. Adolescence, 32(126): 381-94.
Cavaco, S., Anderson, S.W., Allen, J.S., Castro-Caldas, A., and Damasio, H. (2004). The scope of
preserved procedural memory in amnesia. Brain, 127 (Pt 8), 1853-67.
Davies, B., Davis, E., Cook, K. and Waters, E. (2008). Getting the complete picture: combining parental
and child data to identify the barriers to social inclusion for children living in low socio-economic
areas. Child: Care, Health & Development, 34(2): 214-22.
Early Brain & Biological Development: A Science in Society Symposium. Summary Report. (2010).
Calgary, AB, Canada: The Norlien Foundation.
Enfamil (2012, May 1). Sensory development [Web log post]. Retrieved from
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
Feldman, R. (2011). Maternal Touch and the Developing Infant in M.J. Hertenstein & S. J. Weiss (Eds),
The Handbook of Touch: Neuroscience, Behavioral and Health Perspectives (p. 373 -407). New
York: Springer Publishing Company.
Flett, R.M., Moore, R.W., Pfeiffer, K.A., Belonga, J. & Navarre, J. (2010). Connecting Children and Family
with Nature-Based Physical Activity. American Journal of Health Education, 41 (5): 292-300.
Gladue, Y.I. (2002).Traditional swing provides therapy for the inner child. Alberta Sweetgrass, 9 (11): 17.
Retrieved from:
Glover, S., Burns, J., Butler, H. & Patton, G. (1998). Social environs and the emotional well-being of young
people. Family Matters, 49: 11–16.
Herrmann, L. Ionescu, I.A., Henes, K., Golub, Y., Wang, N., Xin, R., Buell, D.R., Holsboer, F., Wotjak, C.T.
and Schmidt, U. (2012). Long-lasting hippocampal synaptic protein loss in a mouse model of
posttraumatic stress disorder. PLoS ONE [Electronic Resource]. 7(8):e42603.
Iglesias, J., Eriksson, J., Grize, F., Tomassini, M., and Villa, A. (2005). Dynamics of pruning in simulated
large-scale spiking neural networks. BioSystems 79 (9): 11-20.
Janssen I. and LeBlanc A. (2010). Systematic review of the health benefits of physical activity and fitness
in school-aged children and youth. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical
Activity. Vol. 7: p 40.
Keith, L. (2011). First Nation community health – linking culture and quality care. Qmentum Quarterly,
Quality in Health Care, 3(2): 1013.
Kolb, B. and Whishaw, I.Q. (1990). Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, 3rd Ed. McCurdy, L.E.,
Winterbottom, K.E., Mehta, S.S., & Roberts, J.R. (2010). Using nature and outdoor activity to
improve children’s health. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 40: 102-
Lillas, C. and Turnbull, J. (2009). Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-
Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice. New York: W.
W. Norton. Part of the Interpersonal Neurobiology Series wherein Dan Siegel, MD original Series
Editor; Allan Schore, PhD, current Series Editor.
Munoz, S-A. (2009). Children in the Outdoors: A Literature Review. In: Sustainable Development
Research. Scotland: Horizon.
Neuroanthropology. (2008, December 21). Co-sleeping and biological imperatives: Why human babies do
not and should not sleep alone. Retrieved from:
Oppenheim, D., Koren-Karie, N., & Sagi-Schwartz, A. (2007). Emotion dialogues between mothers and
First Peoples Child & Family Review | v9 | n1 | 2014
Nitsiyihkâson: The
Brain Science Behind Cree Teachings of Early Childhood Attachment
© Pazderka, et al.
children at 4.5 and 7.5 years: Relations with children's attachment at 1 year. Child Development,
78(1): 38-52.
Perry, B. D. and Pollard, R. (1998). Homeostasis, stress, trauma, and adaptation: A neurodevelopmental
view of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 7[1], 33-51. (n.d.). Fetal development. Retrieved from:
Scott, S. (2012). Parenting quality and children’s mental health: Biological mechanisms and psychological
interventions. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 25: 301-306.
Suicide (book) (n.d.) Retrieved from Wikipedia: Virtual
Medical Centre (2013, August 27). Bonding with your baby during pregnancy. Retrieved from:
What to Expect (n.d.). Week 16 of pregnancy: Baby's hearing develops. Retrieved from:
... The principles we have described are discourses from various First Nation authors (Little Bear, 2000;Steinhauer, 2002;Ungunmerr-Baumann, 2002;Martin, 2007;Moreton-Robinson and Walter, 2009;Anderson, 2011;Ryan, 2011;Cameron et al., 2013;Muir and Bohr, 2019;Pazderka et al., 2014). These principles shift a student's thinking into relationality with the whole lifeworld. ...
Unprecedented trends of complex humanitarian contexts are unfolding globally, and they are driven by numerous humanitarian crisis drivers. Two of the more recent and ongoing crisis drivers are the Coronavirus Pandemic 2019 and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. While the pandemic has already caused a direct impact on unprepared health systems and caused secondary havoc on already fragile countries, the BLM movement has exposed the deeply held structural inequalities experienced by populations who do not identify as Western European. Both crisis drivers have also exposed the structural problems that have long underpinned humanitarian responses. To prepare for these complexities in humanitarian contexts, social work educators need to respond to the loud outcry for holistically educated and critically reflective social work practitioners. We argue this can be achieved through an Intercultural Social Work Curriculum informed by First Nations world views to enable a shift in student mindset from Western thought, setting the foundations for professional intercultural practice in complex humanitarian contexts.
Full-text available
Despite intensive research efforts, the molecular pathogenesis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and especially of the hippocampal volume loss found in the majority of patients suffering from this anxiety disease still remains elusive. We demonstrated before that trauma-induced hippocampal shrinkage can also be observed in mice exhibiting a PTSD-like syndrome. Aiming to decipher the molecular correlates of these trans-species posttraumatic hippocampal alterations, we compared the expression levels of a set of neurostructural marker proteins between traumatized and control mice at different time points after their subjection to either an electric footshock or mock treatment which was followed by stressful re-exposure in several experimental groups. To our knowledge, this is the first systematic in vivo study analyzing the long-term neuromolecular sequelae of acute traumatic stress combined with re-exposure. We show here that a PTSD-like syndrome in mice is accompanied by a long-lasting reduction of hippocampal synaptic proteins which interestingly correlates with the strength of the generalized and conditioned fear response but not with the intensity of hyperarousal symptoms. Furthermore, we demonstrate that treatment with the serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluoxetine is able to counteract both the PTSD-like syndrome and the posttraumatic synaptic protein loss. Taken together, this study demonstrates for the first time that a loss of hippocampal synaptic proteins is associated with a PTSD-like syndrome in mice. Further studies will have to reveal whether these findings are transferable to PTSD patients.
Full-text available
The purpose was to: 1) perform a systematic review of studies examining the relation between physical activity, fitness, and health in school-aged children and youth, and 2) make recommendations based on the findings. The systematic review was limited to 7 health indicators: high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, the metabolic syndrome, obesity, low bone density, depression, and injuries. Literature searches were conducted using predefined keywords in 6 key databases. A total of 11,088 potential papers were identified. The abstracts and full-text articles of potentially relevant papers were screened to determine eligibility. Data was abstracted for 113 outcomes from the 86 eligible papers. The evidence was graded for each health outcome using established criteria based on the quantity and quality of studies and strength of effect. The volume, intensity, and type of physical activity were considered. Physical activity was associated with numerous health benefits. The dose-response relations observed in observational studies indicate that the more physical activity, the greater the health benefit. Results from experimental studies indicate that even modest amounts of physical activity can have health benefits in high-risk youngsters (e.g., obese). To achieve substantive health benefits, the physical activity should be of at least a moderate intensity. Vigorous intensity activities may provide even greater benefit. Aerobic-based activities had the greatest health benefit, other than for bone health, in which case high-impact weight bearing activities were required. The following recommendations were made: 1) Children and youth 5-17 years of age should accumulate an average of at least 60 minutes per day and up to several hours of at least moderate intensity physical activity. Some of the health benefits can be achieved through an average of 30 minutes per day. [Level 2, Grade A]. 2) More vigorous intensity activities should be incorporated or added when possible, including activities that strengthen muscle and bone [Level 3, Grade B]. 3) Aerobic activities should make up the majority of the physical activity. Muscle and bone strengthening activities should be incorporated on at least 3 days of the week [Level 2, Grade A].
When early interventions with children fail, clinicians wonder: How could things have been different? The answers seem obvious at first, but a little reflection begins to unveil just how complicated this question really is. Who should have been included in the treatment? With what professionals and using what approaches? When should intervention have occurred? Each question involves a spectrum of both personal and societal issues, which is perhaps why problems that are so widely acknowledged remain so widely ignored. Often, a family is not aware that their story could have had a different ending. So, in response to the critical need for a more cohesive system of care for our youngest patients, this book presents a conceptual framework for interdisciplinary collaboration. Examining the issues of infant mental health and early intervention from a brain-based perspective-one that cuts across all domains-addresses the need for individual practitioners to incorporate the whole picture in relation to their part in assessing and intervening with each individual child and parent, and provides a global framework for team collaboration.
Background: As the obesity epidemic expands to include younger Americans, there is greater need to understand youth experiences and to identify innovative strategies to promote physical activity in children and adolescents. Connecting children and families with nature-based activities is an example of a strategy that may promote physical activity and other aspects of health and well-being in children and youth. Purpose: It is important to determine which aspects of activity in nature youth (and families) find most and least appealing, as well as characteristics of an ideal program. This study is intended to provide a needs assessment and recommended design for a community outreach program. Methods: Six focus groups were conducted with parents and youth in rural Michigan. Thirty-eight of the 42 participants were female. Results: Content analysis generated three major results: (1) Youth enjoy nature, but could be more active and engaged; (2) Adults appreciate restorative aspects of nature; youth prefer competitive and challenging experiences; and (3) Programs should promote, educate, train and create opportunities for youth to engage in healthy lifelong activities. Discussion: Participants showed interest in outdoor activity, but activities must be provided that are compelling and that address the barriers preventing populations from being more active. Translation to Health Education Practice: More effective programs must have clear objectives, build the confidence of participants, be challenging, and above all, fun. Ideal programs should offer both physical activity and ecologically meaningful nature experiences.
The quality of parenting that children receive can have a profound influence on their development and mental health. This article reviews articles published from late 2010 onwards that address the effects of parenting on the child's physiological and genetic systems, and how interventions can improve children's security of attachments, antisocial behaviour and other outcomes across a range of settings. Biological indices of stress, such as C-reactive protein, show that prenatal anxiety is a significant determinant of later outcomes for children, and abusive parenting of young children has lasting biological effects into adulthood. Increasingly, specific genes, especially those that code for neurotransmitter synthesis and functions, are being identified that moderate parenting effects. Furthermore, animal studies suggest that harsh parenting affects the expression of genes by epigenetic processes.Parenting programmes are effective in increasing the security of infant children's attachments, and reducing conduct problems/antisocial behaviour in childhood, and they can be effective at a population level in preventing abuse. These programmes are now widening their reach to cover a broader range of children's outcomes such as literacy and obesity. We are learning much more about the biological impact of poor parenting and the need for interventions that are crafted to improve the quality of parent-child relationships in many settings. Hopefully, they will also ameliorate the biological effects of poor parenting.