[CH1] Enhancing the Wellbeing of Criminalized Indigenous Women:
[CH2] A Contemporary Take on a Traditional Cultural Knowledge Form
Colleen Anne Dell, Jenny Gardipy, Nicki Kirlin, Violet Naytowhow, and Jennifer J. Nicol
Over the past decade academic scholarship and community efforts have increasingly recognized
the association between traditional cultural knowledge and wellbeing for First Nations, Inuit, and
Métis peoples in Canada (Hopkins and Dumont 2009; McCormick and Quantz 2010; Brockman
et al. 2013). This increasing recognition has been facilitated by the awareness raised through the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other Indigenous-led health initiatives addressing
Canada’s colonial history. Situated at the centre of these efforts is a recognition that cultural
knowledge is foundational to individuals’ understandings of their self and relations with their
collective community, land, and ancestors; this knowledge is fundamental to Indigenous
wellbeing (Dell, Hopkins, and Dell 2005; Wilson 2004; Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs,
American Psychological Association 2010). As Indigenous scholar Patricia Monture explains,
her experiences and identity as a Mohawk woman were essential to her own health and healing
(see: Monture-Angus 1995; Monture-Okanee 1995).
The social, economic, and political inequities that are integral elements of colonialism
have become the source of a disproportionate burden of ill health faced by Indigenous peoples
(Adelson 2005; Mitchell and Maracle 2005; Lemstra and Neudorf 2008). The impacts of these
inequities are particularly acute on the health status of Indigenous women. Their lives are
disproportionately affected by family violence, sexual harassment, and addiction — all of which
have directly translated into disproportionate rates of criminalization (see the Introduction to Part
II in this book; Niccols, Dell, and Clarke 2010; Boyer 2006). The urgency of attending to this
issue is prominently illustrated in the matter of violence. As with most health and social
indicators, Indigenous women in Canada are severely affected (Beavon and Cooke 2003). Their
mortality rate due to violence is five times that for non-Indigenous women, depicted most
starkly in the alarming number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada (Native
Women’s Association of Canada 2010). Amnesty International points out that poverty is a key
factor “exposing Aboriginal women to a heightened risk of violence” (2009: 2). Yet, as Colleen
Dell and Jennifer Kilty (2013: 53) note, “State responses to the victimization of Aboriginal
women generally and drug users specifically often fail to recognize them as legitimate …
victims, in spite of their lengthy histories of intersecting trauma and victimization.” Clearly,
strategies for engendering Indigenous women’s wellbeing — including healing from addictions
— must attend to the trauma trails of colonialism (Atkinson 2002; Comack et al. 2013).
[H1] Healing and Decolonization
Western approaches have been dominated by attempts to locate individualized solutions to
healing from addictions. These approaches have generally overlooked the sacred relationships
between Indigenous peoples and their spirit, family, community, nation, and the land. The
majority of the National Native Alcohol and Drug Program centres in Canada, for example, were
founded on individualized Western approaches to treatment in the 1980s, and only later began to
incorporate holistic Indigenous understandings of healing and personal growth. These
understandings continue to develop in their acknowledgement that healing is a way of seeing, a
way of relating, a way of thinking, and a way of being (Assembly of First Nations, Health
Canada, and National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation 2012). The specificity of this
issue for Indigenous women remains a challenge in Canada (Niccols, Dell, and Clarke 2009).
Decolonization — the process whereby Indigenous people reclaim their traditional
culture, redefine themselves as a people, and reassert their distinct identity — can take many
forms. Community development, by which people participate directly or through organizations
that they control in bottom-up planning and community action (Wharf and Clague 1997), is one
decolonization strategy adopted by researchers and community activists alike. Jim Silver and his
colleagues, for instance, report on their work with Indigenous community development workers
in Winnipeg. They note how community development is about community healing, is led
foremost by women, and is holistic; “it focuses on the individual, the community, the creation
and operation of Aboriginal organizations, and an Aboriginal-specific, de-colonized way of
understanding and interpreting the world” (Silver et al. 2006: 3). Others have applied this
intricate connection between decolonization and healing in developing an Indigenous social
work practice (see, for example, Hart 2002; Bruyere, Hart, and Sinclair 2009; Carriere and
Strega 2009; Duran 2006).
A parallel transformation has taken place in developing research practices. Decolonizing
approaches to research, as initially espoused in the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999),
critically reflect on how Western scholarship has perpetuated colonizing practices. At the same
time, authors such as Margaret Kovach (2009) have highlighted how Indigenous research
methodologies can be a source of decolonization when they flow from tribal knowledge and are
undertaken in a good way; that is, with mindfulness to community connection, participation, and
empowerment. Similar to re-conceptualizing healing for Indigenous peoples, it is necessary to
propose alternatives to the generic and individualized Western approach to research. Failing to
do so will result in a perpetuation of the status quo.
Another potentially powerful strategy of decolonization is song and music. Around the
globe, song and music are recognized as traditional and sacred forms of Indigenous knowledge
(Sefa Dei, Hall, and Rosenberg 2002). In Canada, song and music have held a significant place
within Indigenous cultural traditions, rituals, and ceremonies (Cajete 2004). An essential plank
of Canada’s assimilationist policies and practices, however, was to disparage and outlaw
Indigenous knowledge and culture. Colonialism resulted in significant cultural loss for First
Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, including the demise of their languages (Papequash 2011;
Arbogast 1995). Reviving traditional language and culture are, then, essential to decolonization.
The revival of traditional culture among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples is strong
in Canada and is key to increasing health status (Niezen 2007; Papequash 2011). Song and music
have an important place in the contemporary revival of cultural identity. Song writers and
musicians such as Buffy Sainte-Marie,
Tribe Called Red
blend modern-day compositions with powerful lyrics and traditional sounds to
educate, share stories, and connect to cultural pride (Lashua and Fox 2006). While the use of
song and music as therapeutic tools in Western society — such as in cancer care and dementia
clinics (Daykin, McClean, and Blunt 2007; Beard 2012; De Medeiros and Basting 2013) — has
been well documented, there has been little written about their contemporary use as a source for
Indigenous wellbeing and as a form of resistance to colonialism (Iwasaki et al. 2009).
Our interest in the potential for song and music to engender Indigenous wellbeing and
contribute to a process of decolonization emerged from a study our research team undertook to
examine the role of identity and stigma in the healing journeys of criminalized First Nations,
Inuit, and Métis women from drug abuse. Specifically, the study aimed to remedy the limited
research on how women’s healing is impacted by the stigma linked with drug abuse, criminal
involvement, and being an Indigenous woman in Canada (Carter 2002; Razack 2000; Ridlon
1988). To do so, the research team conducted interviews with sixty-five First Nations, Inuit, and
Métis women in treatment for illicit drug abuse at six National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Program (NNADAP) treatment centres across Canada, and with twenty women who had
completed treatment. An additional thirty-eight interviews were conducted with NNADAP
treatment providers, most of whom were First Nations.
Our study affirmed that culture is foundational for women to re-claim — and for some to
claim for the first time — a healthy self-identity as Indigenous women and effectually respond to
the harmful impacts of stigma. Following the guidance of Elder Joyce Paul, our team committed
to sharing this finding in a format that honoured traditional cultural knowledge in a
contemporary form. A combination of song and music was identified as a potentially far-
reaching means to contribute to the cultural wellbeing of criminalized Indigenous women.
[H1] Traditional Indigenous Knowledge, Cultural Identity, and Song
Traditional Indigenous knowledge is generally described as “the expression of the vibrant
relationships between the people, their ecosystems, and the other living beings and spirits that
share their lands” (Battiste and Henderson 2000: 42). It is identified as an “extensive and
valuable knowledge system” that is vital, dynamic, and capable of helping to solve contemporary
problems (Battiste 2002: 7). Central to Indigenous knowledge is recognition of the historical
foundation of current understanding. This is found in ceremonies, teachings, traditions, and
values — many of which contain song and music (Bicker, Pottier, and Sillitoe 2002; Larry
LaLiberte, traditional cultural practitioner, personal communication, December 14, 2013). It
follows that the sharing of traditional Indigenous knowledge inherently revitalizes and honours
Indigenous language, culture, systems, and ways of knowing at both the individual and
communal levels (Smith 1999; McMaster and Martin 1992; Graveline 2000). To illustrate, in a
recent study a First Nation woman recovering from substance abuse shared how language,
through her grandfather’s gift of song, was central to her eventual healing:
It’s a good thing that someone … refreshed my thoughts in my memory in regards to
where I come from, what I used to see my grandfather do when he used to pray on his
own, when my mother’s dad used to go to stretch on the lake, [location], and refresh my
memory, because I remember my grandfather sitting in that tipi singing the songs that
our Elder sang this morning. But I didn’t get it, I didn’t get it. …When my grandfather
used to do ceremonies in sweat lodges… (SPEAKING Cree) … I learned how to speak my
language. (Cited in Tempier et al. 2011: 10-12)
The origins of Indigenous knowledge are situated within an oral tradition that has been
transferred from generation to generation in cultural teachings and practices. Indigenous
educators are recognized as “family members, community members, and leaders who share what
they know about living a good life through their actions, through apprenticeship, through
spiritual guidance, and through their words” (Kaplan-Myrth and Smylie 2006: 23). Wisdom is
shared by Elders, the keepers of much sacred and traditional knowledge. Historically, in some
communities, women had a central role as keepers and imparters of traditional knowledge but
this drastically deteriorated with colonization.
The relationship between traditional Indigenous knowledge and cultural identity is
intricate. Pride in cultural identity is a recognized factor for wellbeing and is associated with
traditional culture, way of life, and language (Assembly of First Nations, Health Canada and
National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation 2012). According to a national framework
published by the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation (NNAPF) and the
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in partnership with Health Canada, identity for First Nations
people comes “from family and, by extension, community and traditional land and clan systems”
(p. 12). The loss of cultural identity has been particularly destructive to the health of Indigenous
women in Canada (Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, American Psychological Association
2010). Rooted in attempts at colonization, stereotypes of Indigenous women as substance abusers
are rampant and the associated stigma has had a devastating impact on their lives and the erosion
of their cultural-identity (Dell and Kilty 2013). These stereotypes, unless countered, are
absorbed, internalized, and reproduced. As one woman in our study shared:
When I came here [to the treatment centre], you know, I found my culture. ‘Cause I didn’t
know nothing about who I was as a Micmac woman. I thought being Native was drinking,
drugging, being in trouble. That’s what I thought, you know, what Natives were.
We know that interventions are needed to assist women in re-claiming their Indigenous identity
by offering culturally significant healing experiences, such as the medicine wheel approach,
sweat lodge, and other cultural ceremonies, as well as Aboriginal food, art, language, and
traditional teachings (Wilson 2004; Poole 2000; Vinding 1998). Fostering cultural identity
through traditional Indigenous knowledge offers empowering stories and discourses that can
cultivate cultural identity, community connectedness, and pride (Assembly of First Nations,
Health Canada & National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation 2012).
Although Western science had been slow to recognize non-written forms of knowledge
— as well as their linkage to cultural identity and its role in wellbeing — there is a strong oral
tradition in Indigenous culture in Canada. Music and song are a near universal means for sharing
traditional Indigenous knowledge. For example, the Plains Cree (Nehiyawak) sing ceremonial
songs in the traditional sweat lodge to pray, connect with the Creator, and share their values and
beliefs in stories. Songs were traditionally treasured, sacred, and purposeful, and they belonged
to individuals, families, or tribes, only being shared with others if given away in ceremony or
purchased (Kingman 2003). For Indigenous people, storytelling has traditionally been
understood as “a means to connect the listener to the universe, to the past, to the present, and to
the future; it establishes a relationship to the souls and minds of human beings, animals, and the
land” (Williamson 2000: 142). Song and music are a traditional form of storytelling, and also
bring with them specific duties, such as their role in healing ceremonies (The Aboriginal Healing
Foundation Research Series 2012: 2 and 30).
Music and song have historically preserved Indigenous culture, identity, language,
memory, and values. Indigenous ceremonies are most often sung in a traditional language, which
communicates the intended meaning of the ceremony and assists in maintaining and learning the
language. The importance of this practice is emphasized by Neal McLeod: “Language is our own
vehicle for the transmission of ideas and worldviews…. Language guides a people and helps to
create space wherein tribal memories linger” (2000: 29). The importance of language and song is
also reflected in the words of a woman on her healing journey:
I knew who I was but it wasn’t until much later, probably into my sobriety, that I actually
learned about who I was and where I come from and how important that is to me now,
you know, like knowing my culture, learning my language, the songs; it means so much to
me now .… Well, I come from a matrilineal society and, you know, they always talk about
the strengths of — the women are always the backbone of the community and we don’t
need to be out in the front but we’re always behind supporting and we’re the ones who
are nurturing. Yeah, I’m really proud of who I am and where I come from and, you know,
I have a responsibility as an Aboriginal woman; as a mother; as a daughter; as a sister.
Song and music offer a means of engendering the healing process. As a study by the
Aboriginal Healing Foundation concluded, “Any of the music-making processes bring healing to
both the listeners and the players. It is long known in our culture that drumming and traditional
songs are intended to be healing. They allow clients to feel a sense of belonging and/or identity.
The songs are often ways to shift energy; to wrap clients in culture; to allow them to cry
sometimes; and to bring joy others” (The Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series 2012:
Song and music are also recognized for their ability to inspire social change. For
example, a song titled “Angel Street,” by Inuk musician Lucy Idlout, inspired the city of Iqaluit
to recognize the role of domestic violence in their community by renaming the street their local
women’s shelter is on to Angel Street. The Mayor of Fredericton, New Brunswick did the same
and would like to see an Angel Street in every capital city of Canada (The Aboriginal Healing
Foundation Research Series 2012).
[H1] From Stilettos to Moccasins
As a decolonizing strategy, cultural identity is crucial to the healing process of criminalized
Indigenous women. Healing from drug abuse must address the need for women to (re)claim a
healthy self-identity as an Indigenous woman. This includes understanding the negative impacts
of stigma. Our team was challenged with sharing what we learned in a way that honoured
traditional cultural knowledge in an accessible and contemporary form. The imagined solution,
guided by the wisdom and confidence of our Elder Joyce Paul, was to produce a song and
accompanying music video. It was our team’s intent that “the knowledge gained in the study …
be translated through a culturally-relevant technique that would recognize, legitimize and
celebrate Indigenous women’s historically-silenced voices” (Dell 2012: 11). Prioritizing the often
silenced voices of women with lived experience, the song and video are intended to convey the
interconnection between the negative impacts of stigma and the resilient benefits of a cultural
identity. What we did not fully anticipate was the positive impact that developing and
distributing the song and video would have in terms of serving as a means for wellbeing and
empowerment, thereby contributing to a process of decolonization.
Our research team gathered in February, 2009 to develop the song based on the key
findings of the study in relation to stigma, identity, and healing. The team collaborated with
Woodland Cree singer and songwriter Violet Naytowhow. Approximately thirty individuals
attended the gathering, including the women we had interviewed, researchers, treatment
providers, Elders, policy makers, and government and non-government decision makers. This
compilation of individuals represented the diversity of the members of our original research
team. The goal was to collaboratively create a song portraying the healing experiences of
Indigenous women who have struggled with criminalization and drug abuse. The song served as
a neutral means by which all our team members could work together since the vast majority were
Violet initiated the song development process by introducing song writing to our group.
She started off by sharing several different genres of music and then explained song writing to
be analogous to storytelling. The song writing process involved dividing into four groups to
brainstorm lyrics for the song, which included two sets of lyrics plus the bridge/chorus. Each
group was facilitated by an individual familiar with the song writing process: Violet Naytowhow,
Talla Tootoosis, Jonothon Couchman, and Douglas Purcell. Lyrics were constructed based on the
themes from the study produced by the team alongside individuals’ personal contributions to the
lyrics. The writing took each of the groups approximately three hours. All four groups then met
together with Violet to review and combine the lyrics. Still surprising to this day, the group
consensus was to change only one word. This large group also discussed different ways to frame
the song; for example, having the song begin with drumming and an Elder speaking, and ending
with children’s laughter. In the end, not only is the song a means of wellbeing and
empowerment, as the feedback suggests, but so too is the process of its development and
Given Violet’s background in traditional Indigenous song and singing, alongside her
contemporary work, following the gathering she and guitarist Kevin Joseph worked with the
song to add a melody. The draft of the song was distributed to all team members (including those
not able to attend the gathering) for feedback. It was at this point also that Mae Star Productions
began to work on developing an accompanying music video. They attended the original
songwriting gathering and went through several edits of the video based on team feedback until
it was formally released in May, 2009. The song is titled “From Stilettos to Moccasins.”
From Stilettos to Moccasins
I survived through the pain
Many emotions like waves
Laughing and crying again and again
Honesty, strength, friends, and devotion
Showering gifts of hope to reclaim
Walking the streets dragging my heart
Wandering with my head held down in shame
When and how did my family fall apart
Who am I, what is my name?
Surviving the street lost and alone
I started a journey to find my way home
From stilettos to moccasins
Our spirit dances within
On our way to resolution
We find our peace
And this is who I am
Broken barriers and new discoveries
My spirit I now reclaim
Coming home to who I am
Taking honour in my name
No longer a prisoner lost in this world
Look within my shell
To find that pearl
From stilettos to moccasins
Our spirit dances within
On our way to resolution
We find our peace
And this is who I am
The development of the song led to the creation of a half-day health intervention
workshop titled From Stilettos to Moccasins: A Guide for Group Discussion by our research
team. It is an interactive workshop intended for Indigenous women in addictions treatment
centres, community-based agencies, and correctional facilities across Canada. The goals of the
workshop are: to discuss the role of identity and stigma in the healing journeys of Indigenous
women in treatment for drug abuse; to offer hope and inspiration, gathered from over 100
Indigenous women in substance abuse treatment who shared their healing journeys; and to
reflect on participants’ understandings of identity, stigma, and the healing journey and to learn
from one another. The workshop, currently available at no cost to communities, is designed to
be facilitated by community members with community members.
[H1] Responses to the Song
The From Stilettos to Moccasins song and music video was posted on YouTube in November
2011 (see: youtube.com/watch?v=1QRb8wA2iHs) and generated thousands of views. In addition
to comments posted online, feedback on the impact of the song and video was collected
following the delivery of service provider workshops and treatment client workshops. Our
analysis of the comments posted on YouTube and the feedback from treatment clients and
service providers who participated in the intervention workshops confirms that the song and
music video have had a lasting impact. The YouTube comments specifically mentioned the
beauty and inspirational power of the lyrics, as well as their linkage to cultural identity and
healing. Overall, seven themes were identified in the feedback we received.
First, women and service providers identified being able to relate to the song. When
relaying what they enjoyed the most about the workshop, the majority of participants noted the
song and music video. One of the women said, “The song and video was great. There was so
many things I could relate to and I felt like it was written about me (I’ve worked the streets since
I was 16).” The song resonated with other people’s lives. One woman described the music video
as “singing my song.” Another wrote, “It reminded me of my healing journey. I could put myself
in her place.” And yet one more said: “This song is real. It touches your soul when you’ve
‘walked the walk’ and I made good and walked that path. I am one of the lucky ones.” These
individual stories were also understood as part of a larger fabric. Although the journey as an
individual was solitary and lonely — “I remember the song goes from feeling very lonely and
lost and feeling more inspired as the journey progresses” — continuing on one’s journey meant
looking to culture and a common identity as Indigenous people, and as women. One participant
shared: “Stay strong, continue the healing journey. Strong message about what Aboriginal
women have and continue to go through. To keep going.”
Second, the workshop participants were specifically able to relate to the song’s message
of transformation and change as a journey, as evident in the simple statement of one woman,
“She [woman in music video] was on a healing journey, you know.” They also appreciated that
hope is an important part of the journey. The journey was solitary yet shared, and the journey
was one of transitions, a journey that required strength and hope. A service provider commented:
“Well my interpretation of the whole things was one of hope. There’s hope for women in our
community to change their lifestyle, to go specifically from a dangerous lifestyle to one of
healing and productivity.”
Next, the metaphor of shoes was interpreted both literally and symbolically as a journey.
One woman said, “I like the part about where you come from — talking about walking the
journey. I literally walk in stilettos and moccasins because that is how my life is. I thought the
song was pretty cool.” Others reported metaphorical meanings such as “Being in your own shoes
and being yourself” or “Finding the shoe that represented you, thinking about who you are and
what you want to become.” Another woman simply said, “Loved the shoe identity and self-
esteem.” A person who posted on YouTube was inspired to extend the metaphor:
Stilettos have no places on Mother Earth. They are only meant for hard places where we
don’t belong. They jolt and jar the entire body. Only sink into the dirt, poking holes in
our Mother. Always Walk Softly on Mother Earth.... Leave the stilettos for those who
must wear them.... Welcome home beautiful First Nations women! Ahneen!
Fourth, service providers commented that they used the song for inspirational and
educational purposes, with one saying that, “the song is inspiring and something that I can use.”
Another said, “[I] remember the song because it was so different. I have never heard a song like
that before. I found it was very empowering. The whole workshop was empowering.” A service
provider spoke of sharing the song and video with colleagues and individuals from other
organizations, “we always show the song and video [to practicum students that come here]. It’s
always in our waiting area room for anyone that wants to see it.” Similarly, a service provider
talked about extending the use of the song to ceremonial occasions such as graduations and to
spiritual gatherings as part of healing circles and prayer: “We used the song in one of our
women’s groups — we used it as our graduation song. Used it in a healing circle. We had prayer
and then listened to the song…. It’s good to wake emotion up to that song.”
Fifth, specifically notable about the song, and most repeated in the YouTube comments,
is the song’s beauty, power, and inspiration: “Beautiful and Powerful song”; “Beautifully Done”;
“beautiful song and video”; “very beautiful and had a lot of emotion in it”; “it is inspirational!”;
“Inspirational, moving. I loved it”; and “This song really inspires me to stay sober and clean.”
The journey of the women in the music video was touching and roused feelings; some women
and service providers were moved to tears.
Three women who provided feedback three months after the workshop shared that they
used the song and music video to keep inspiration alive in their daily lives. One said, “I still
listen to that song on YouTube. When I’m feeling low, I just sit there and go on the computer and
that is when I play that song. It is a beautiful song.” Another woman commented, “I have a CD
of the song. It’s over at my sister’s and the book with the story in it [from the workshop]. I loved
it; it was so close to home. It was really good. I’m glad whoever initiated it, initiated it.” And a
third woman talked about repeatedly listening to the CD in the first few months following the
I don’t remember the lyrics specifically but I still remember the emotions. What I took
from it — it was in my car and CD player for days and days and days. It kept me going
when I was feeling down. It made me cry but it also gave me strength. For the first couple
of months I always had it in my head. It was very encouraging. I related to it very well
and it helped me see where I wanted to be.
Sixth, the shoe metaphor was a powerful way to evoke cultural identity. As one woman
said, “Cultural part is the key factor for me. And that is the whole idea from the fancy high heels
to moccasins.” A metaphor’s strength comes from its subjectivity; its use of one thing to
symbolize something else. But as evidenced by one service provider’s literal interpretation,
metaphors can also be problematic:
To me, it gives an inappropriate message to Aboriginal people about what health looks
like. We already have a distorted perspective. Traditional Indian is really hard to attain
— particularly for Urban Aboriginals. It seemed like that was the ultimate goal, and that
it is set up to fail. It can give a message that you haven’t reached your full potential.
Seems the message is “Well, you aren’t a real Indian if you don’t wear Moccasins.” To
me, being Aboriginal means being healthy and happy — it doesn’t mean to wear feathers
and moccasins. [The song] suggests one extreme to another.
On the other hand, the song and music video prompted many expressions of positive
cultural identification and a belief that culture was a way to change and a way of healing. One
woman commented: “Recovery can happen … just go to culture. Things can change. They don’t
have to stay the same … it really validates the human power of women.” And another said, “To
see that women are very special and that we have a uniqueness about us. To see that I wasn’t
alone. Find my roots and spirituality.”
And last, extending the theme of cultural identity, the respondents articulated a voice of
connection and sisterhood. Words and phrases such as “Mother,” “Mother Earth,” “Sisters,”
“Blessings,” and “Female Spirits” were used. The song was described as “an honour to our
sisters” and as something that “beautifully expressed the strength of the female spirit.” YouTube
was described as “a fantastic venue to showcase our talent and tell our stories.” Stigma was
challenged and cultural pride promoted.
[H1] Resisting Colonialism
A wealth of Indigenous culture was lost in the Canadian state’s attempts at colonization, as
evidenced by the lack of wellbeing among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples today. Not lost,
however, was understanding about the importance of carrying cultural knowledge forward for
future generations (Mitchell and Maracle 2005; Mundel and Chapman 2010). Equally recognized
is the need to address specifically the impacts of colonization for Indigenous women. The From
Stilettos to Moccasins song and music video attempt to honour the role of traditional cultural
knowledge in wellbeing in a contemporary form, especially within the context of Indigenous
women’s efforts to (re)claim their culture and self-identity. This is particularly the case in the
lives of criminalized Indigenous women healing from drug addiction. Empowerment is
fundamental to an individual’s cultural identity and thus protects against the destructive stigma
overshadowing the strengths of Indigenous culture. As the From Stilettos to Moccasins song
says, “My spirit I now reclaim. Coming home to who I am. Taking honour in my name.”
Traditional Indigenous knowledge and its oral origin were honoured in our team’s
identification of song and music as the means by which we could share knowledge. As Katherine
Gordon says, in We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People
in British Columbia, traditional cultural knowledge is inherent to Indigenous people. Music is a
keeper of Indigenous knowledge; it is used to share oral traditions and preserve memory. “For
many First Nations family wealth is not held or measured in the form of material items, but in
their family’s own dances, songs, and stories” (Aboriginal Tourism BC, n.d.). Choosing to bring
about change through a traditional cultural form — song and music — recognizes this. Music has
been described as “speaking to the heart of Indigenous peoples” and “the soundtrack of
humanity. Music is the soundtrack to culture. Music is to help us remember the story”
(Educational CyberPlayGround 2014).
The experiences of From Stiletto to Moccasins shows that healing also requires giving
voice to Indigenous women’s stories, which colonization has tried to silence. As one of our team
members commented, “When the Indian agents left our communities, ‘brown patriarchy’ took its
place.… Our own people learned to lead by domination and power and control relationships. The
power of the church also continued to dominate our communities and a very powerful teaching
was that men had to control women and children in order to be men.” Smith (1999) maintains
that singing is one way that Indigenous people, including women, can have a voice. The song
and music video, as an act of decolonization, gives voice to the women’s stories. Although all
women who participated in the study did not participate in the song’s development, ceremony
was held to ensure their words were honoured. Further, not all members of the song making team
were Indigenous, but they were recognized as allies (Kovach 2009; Bishop 2002). The stories of
women in our study were developed as a collective narrative and shared with the guidance of a
contemporary, inspirational Indigenous female artist. During the song writing process itself, our
Indigenous team members’ voices were given priority. In the end, not only is the song a means
of wellbeing and empowerment, as the feedback suggests, but so too is the process of its
development and distribution. It also helps to address the diminished role of women in their
communities as keepers and imparters of traditional knowledge due to colonization.
There was richness in the breadth of feedback received on the From Stilettos to
Moccasins song and music video. When considered in its entirety, the feedback received was
congruent with our team’s goal of creating a song that offered hope and inspiration, revitalizes
and honours Indigenous culture (Smith 1999), and validates Indigenous knowledge systems and
philosophies (McMaster and Martin 1992; Iwasaki et al. 2009; Daykin 2004). Specifically,
individuals were able to relate to the song and video and their message of cultural identity in the
journey of healing. We were also influenced by the understanding that with a loss of traditional
Indigenous knowledge and cultural identity among the participants in our study, we needed to
develop a form of knowledge dissemination that would be meaningful to them in a contemporary
sense but still drew upon traditional cultural knowledge. We attempted to bring back ceremony
in a contemporary way to Indigenous women who are often far removed from it. Ultimately our
team did not use traditional language in the song, but we do recognize that language is “one of
the most tangible symbols of culture and group identity” and also “a link which connects people
with their pasts and grounds their social, emotional and spiritual vitality” (Norris 1998: 8). The
music for the song, however, does have the traditional drum beat throughout.
Traditionally, Indigenous women have been honoured as the teachers, observers, life-
givers, and caregivers for their children, families, and Elders in their communities. Attention
needs to be refocused on these roles and their application in women’s present-day lives. As Kim
Anderson (2006: 23) states:
As Aboriginal peoples, we can move forward by building on traditions that kept our
people healthy in the past…. Our women were traditionally granted significant authority
in recognition of their power as creators and nurturers. These core values and principles
are built into our various and multiple creation stories, our traditional political and
economic structures, our extended family structures, and our spiritual practices. It is up to
us to retrieve these concepts and to plant them like seeds in our new world.
Decolonization is a specific process for women. Song and music video creation offers
one strategy for contributing to this decolonization process. Other strategies include storytelling
(Mehl-Madrona 2005), working with the land (Mundel and Chapman 2010), dance and art
(Iwasaki et al. 2009), as well as ceremonies such as sweat lodges and smudging (Aboriginal
Healing Foundation 2006). Such strategies support the importance of traditional cultural
knowledge, which contributes to self-identity and is foundational to wellbeing. This, in turn,
combats stigma and the overwhelming stereotypes Indigenous people, and especially women, are
subject to (Salmon 2005; Currie 2001; Poole and Isaac 2001; Padayachee 1998; Copeland 1997).
The crafting of the song “From Stilettos to Moccasins” was a powerful and far-reaching
way for the women to connect with the transformative stories of cultural identity, many similar
to their own, and it served as a reminder of hope and inspiration for women’s own personal
healing journeys. It was also a reminder for many that they are not alone. An unsolicited email to
one of our team members, after the song was played at a conference for addictions service
providers, captures the potential of this cultural knowledge form:
It [the music video] was a dramatic punctuation to the end of the conference. To say that
it was well received would be an understatement. It evoked a visceral response in many
people. Dare I say that people left energized and centred, knowing why they are here,
and who we serve. With much appreciation.
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This chapter is dedicated to our team Elder, the late Joyce Paul. We also acknowledge the
From Stilettos to Moccasins research and song team members, as well as the research
assistance of Jennifer McAllister in analyzing the data for this chapter. The study was
funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Institute of Aboriginal Peoples
Health. The authors’ names are listed alphabetically. The idea for this chapter originated
from a paper JGS wrote on the traditional role of music in Aboriginal peoples’ health for
a graduate class in public health. CAD and JJN extended JGS’s paper, including further
literature, incorporating data analysis, and crafting the chapter. NK, JGS, and VN
critically reviewed and suggested revisions for the chapter and approved the final version.
Correspondence concerning the chapter should be addressed to Colleen Anne Dell,
Department of Sociology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, S7N
5A8. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on this artist, please visit her website at: creative-native.com/
For more information on this artist, please visit her website at: susanaglukark.com/
For more information on this artist, please visit her website at: myspace.com/eekwol
For more information on this artist, please visit her website at: myspace.com/violetnaytowhow
For more information on this group, please visit their website at: atribecalledred.com/
The song is available on online at: addictionresearchchair.com/creating-
© Violet Naytowhow & the CIHR Project Research Team – Aboriginal Women Drug Users in
Conflict with the Law: A Study of the Role of Self-identity in the Healing Journey.
The workshop is available on-line at: addictionresearchchair.ca/wp-
content/uploads/2011/10/On-Line-workshop-now-available-December2012.pdf. It comes with a
thirty-minute training video and all required materials, a CD of the song, and feedback forms to
be returned to our project team.
Our team’s production of a second song, Step By Step, under the leadership of Eekwol and
Joseph Naytowhow, has blended traditional Indigenous and English language and cultural and
contemporary Western music (tinyurl.com/StepByStepSong-Watch).