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Restoring Our Roots: Land-Based Community by and for Indigenous Youth

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Abstract

Knowledge gathered about the impacts of land-based teachings on Indigenous youth is limited. Many Indigenous people and government commissions have pointed to targeted assimilation and land theft as central to historical and ongoing collective dissociation of Indigenous Peoples from their ways of being in relation with the land. It is thus paramount that Indigenous youth be given the opportunities to (re)connect with their cultures in safe, accessible spaces/places. Demonstrating the many ways learning from the land is beneficial for Indigenous youth, the Restoring Our Roots participatory action research project contributes to the knowledge base in this area to centre Indigeneity and reclaim our cultures by enacting Indigenous methodologies and pedagogies. An Indigenous youth advisory committee developed a four-day land-based retreat, held in July 2018, that focused on (re)connecting Indigenous youth to land-based teachings and ceremony. In interviews following the retreat, youth participants spoke about positive changes related to identity, belonging, well-being, and feeling free from violence in this space that engaged land-based teachings led by Elders, Knowledge Holders, and youth themselves. Some Indigenous youth who identify as Two-Spirit, non-binary, and/or LGBTQIA+ attended the retreat and shared how important it is to have safe spaces that are inclusive of diverse gender roles and identities. Restoring Our Roots created an inclusive community of support, sharing, and learning for Indigenous youth, extending into participants’ everyday lives in the city. This project has since grown into Land As Our Teacher, a five- year research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, that explores benefits of land-based pedagogies for Indigenous youth.
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Primary Research
Restoring Our Roots: Land-Based Community by and for
Indigenous Youth
Elizabeth Fast, Melanie Lefebvre, Christopher Reid, Brooke Wahsontiiostha Deer, Dakota
Swiftwolfe, Moe Clark, Vicky Boldo, Juliet Mackie, Rupert Mackie, Karen Tutanuak
A R T I C L E I N F O
A B S T R A C T
Keywords:
Indigenous
Youth
Land-based
Urban
Two-Spirit
LGBTQIA+
Trans
Queer
Connection
Cultural safety
https://doi.org/10.32799/ijih.v16i2.33932
Knowledge gathered about the impacts of land-based teachings on Indigenous
youth is limited. Many Indigenous people and government commissions have
pointed to targeted assimilation and land theft as central to historical and ongoing
collective dissociation of Indigenous Peoples from their ways of being in relation
with the land. It is thus paramount that Indigenous youth be given the
opportunities to (re)connect with their cultures in safe, accessible spaces/places.
Demonstrating the many ways learning from the land is beneficial for Indigenous
youth, the Restoring Our Roots participatory action research project contributes
to the knowledge base in this area to centre Indigeneity and reclaim our cultures
by enacting Indigenous methodologies and pedagogies. An Indigenous youth
advisory committee developed a four-day land-based retreat, held in July 2018,
that focused on (re)connecting Indigenous youth to land-based teachings and
ceremony. In interviews following the retreat, youth participants spoke about
positive changes related to identity, belonging, well-being, and feeling free from
violence in this space that engaged land-based teachings led by Elders,
Knowledge Holders, and youth themselves. Some Indigenous youth who identify
as Two-Spirit, non-binary, and/or LGBTQIA+ attended the retreat and shared
how important it is to have safe spaces that are inclusive of diverse gender roles
and identities. Restoring Our Roots created an inclusive community of support,
sharing, and learning for Indigenous youth, extending into participants’ everyday
lives in the city. This project has since grown into Land As Our Teacher, a five-
year research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada, that explores benefits of land-based pedagogies for
Indigenous youth.
A U T H O R I N F O
Elizabeth Fast, Métis, Associate Professor, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Email: Elizabeth.fast@concordia.ca
Melanie Lefebvre, Métis, graduate student, Concordia University
Christopher Reid, graduate student, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, advisor to Restoring our Roots project
Brooke Wahsontiiostha Deer, Kahnien’kahá:ka, youth advisory committee, Restoring our Roots
Dakota Swiftwolfe, Cree, research assistant and youth advisory committee, Restoring our Roots
Moe Clark, Métis, Restoring our Roots project collaborator and interdisciplinary artist
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Vicky Boldo, Métis, cultural advisor, Concordia University, and Restoring our Roots cultural advisor
Juliet Mackie, Métis, youth advisory committee, Restoring our Roots
Rupert Mackie, Métis, youth advisory committee, Restoring our Roots
Karen Tutanuak, Inuk, youth advisory committee, Restoring our Roots
Acknowledgements
We would like to acknowledge the youth participants and their voices, the youth advisory
committee, and the Elders who were a part of this project. Funding for this project was awarded
by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Insight
Development Grant, 2016.
Introduction
Our Indigenous traditions ask that we locate ourselves in our research, and as authors of
this chapter we would like to begin by acknowledging that this projects preparatory work took
place on the ancestral, unceded territories of the Kanienkehá:ka, people of the flint and keepers
of the eastern door (so-called Eastern Canada), and that the retreat itself took place on the
unceded lands of the Abenaki. Our collaborators are Inuit, First Nations, and Métis, some
identifying as members of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities.
Many urban Indigenous youth are living experiences of disconnection from their
communities due to colonialism and the barriers it presents to reconnection. For them, and for
those who are open to sharing their own experiences of connection with other youth, the benefits
of land-based learning range from centring Indigeneity and confronting settler colonial forms of
education to regenerating intergenerational teachings and increasing the spiritual and cultural
well-being of participants (Fast, 2014; Radu et al., 2014; Tuck et al., 2014). Emerging
scholarship has shown that urban and rural Indigenous youth who may have been distanced from
their cultures and communities due to displacement, family separation, and colonial
constructions of identity, among other reasons, are looking for ways to reconnect to their cultures
and have few opportunities to do so in ways that are connected to the land (Carriere, 2015; Fast,
2014).
Conceptions of “land” and “authentic” Indigenous experience are often relegated to
imaginings of tundra, bodies of water, and acres of woodland (Peters and Andersen, 2013), and
yet, with over 40% of the Indigenous population in Canada living in urban centres (Anderson,
2019), a broadening of how we interact with and understand land would be beneficial. While
taking safety into account, reimagining and interacting with cities as sites of cultural connection
and spiritual practice, where we seek out and honour those pockets of visible “land” and also
remember and revitalize what lies under the asphalt, can bring healing and (re)connection for
many (Simpson, 2014; Peters & Lafond, 2013). Too often, urban Indigenous youth in particular,
and those in the margins especially, feel that teachings and ceremony are out of their reach (Fast,
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2014; Wexler, 2009), when in fact, as urban Indigenous Peoples, we are surrounded by those
things, albeit sometimes hidden, that inspired and informed our ancestors to manifest the
ceremonies and teachings we experience today.
In much of the current literature on land-based education, the definition of land is broad
and inclusive of urban spaces (Tuck et al., 2014; Wildcat et al., 2014). In a special issue on land
education, Tuck et al. (2014) frame land education as including Indigenous cosmologies. They
explain that land education acknowledges land not only in its materiality but also in its spiritual,
emotional, and intellectual dimensions, and that it holds interconnected and interdependent
relationships (Styres et al., 2013; Tuck et al., 2014). Manulani Meyer (2008) writes that “one
does not simply learn about land, we learn best from land” (p. 219).
There has been little knowledge gathered to date about the impacts of land-based
teaching and learning on Indigenous youth, their families, Elders, and Indigenous students,
especially in urban contexts. Despite this lack of formal research, our research team recognizes
that Indigenous land-based experiential living and learning is happening, and that it is being done
outside a research-based context that documents experiences and disseminates findings.
Indigenous youth, Elders, community members, artists, researchers, and government
commissions have all pointed to targeted assimilation and land theft as central to the historical
and ongoing collective dissociation of Indigenous Peoples from their governance structures,
economies, communities, languages, ceremonies, and subsistence practicestheir ways of being
in relation with the land. This is why it is paramount that Indigenous youth be given
opportunities to (re)connect with their cultures.
The overarching goal of the Restoring our Roots research project is to better
understand and formally document the benefits of land-based teachings for Indigenous youth
and their families, particularly those who may not have access to these teachings as a result
of colonial disruptions of identities and relationships, and through calculated assimilation,
urbanization, and displacement. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2014) reminds us that
“Indigenous education is not Indigenous or education from within our intellectual traditions
unless it comes through the land, unless it occurs in an Indigenous context using Indigenous
processes” (p. 9). Through conversational interviews with youth participants, this article
focuses on how the youth experienced the different aspects of the land-based programming in
relation to their sense of identity, well-being, and belonging to community.
Educational research integrating land education should emphasize “acute analyses of
settler colonialism as a structure, a set of relations and conditions” (Tuck et al., 2014, p. 13).
Tuck et al. (2014) explain that land education “puts Indigenous epistemological and
ontological accounts of land at the center, including Indigenous understandings of land,
Indigenous language in relation to land, and Indigenous critiques of settler colonialism,” and
that it “attends to constructions and storying of land and repatriation by Indigenous Peoples,
documenting and advancing Indigenous agency and land rights” (p. 13). A main finding from
one review of the literature on land-based education concluded that decolonization must
involve forms of education that reconnect Indigenous Peoples to land and to the social
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relations, knowledges, and languages that arise from the land (Wildcat et al., 2014).
Additionally, there needs to be greater space given to reflections on the intersections between
gender, spirituality, and decolonizing approaches to land-based learning, as well as to
identifying and creating sources of funding for such initiatives (Wildcat et al., 2014).
Land-based education also provides a platform for more holistic understandings of
physical and mental health. The World Health Organization (WHO) reflects a more holistic
understanding of health and “extends beyond the traditional Western biomedical paradigm and
defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the
absence of disease or infirmity (WHO, 2007).
In An Introduction to the Health of Two-Spirit People, Hunt (2016) notes that Indigenous
people’s “social determinants of health are rooted in colonialism which has disrupted
[Indigenous] cultures, languages, land rights, and self-determination” (p. 11). With this in mind,
Indigenous youth have identified relationships to land, culture, and community as key social
determinants of their own health (Lines et al., 2019). Furthermore, relationship to land as a
determinant of health and well-being is not restricted to rural- or reserve-based Indigenous youth.
Urban Indigenous youth have also identified relationship to land, even in the context of a city, as
a source of resilience, strength, and well-being (Hatala et al., 2020). Land-based education and
research grounded in Indigenous ethics provide an opportunity to directly challenge the root
causes of health inequitiesnamely, the historical and ongoing violence of colonialismwhich
has been identified as a necessary component of any effective approach to health promotion
(McPhail-Bell et al., 2015; Mundel & Chapman, 2010; Stanley et al., 2020). This highlights
land-based education and methods as an important avenue to be investigated within health
research and beyond.
There are distinct needs in terms of reconnecting and finding safe spaces for Two-
Spirit, non-binary, and LGBTQIA+ Indigenous youth, urban Indigenous youth, and
Indigenous youth who have been disconnected from their families and communities through
processes of assimilation and separation, such as the child welfare system, often experienced
over multiple generations (Fast, 2014; Fast et al., 2019; Hunt, 2016). 2SLGBTQIA+
Indigenous people specifically are at a much higher risk of facing violence and trauma
throughout their lives, and they also experience more negative health outcomes than non-
2SLGBTQIA+ Indigenous people (Balsam et al., 2004; Chae & Walters, 2009; Fraser Health
Authority, 2015). The suicide rate of 2SLGBTQIA+ Indigenous youth is not decreasing, and
there is a need to create safer spaces, especially with the shift to conservatism in many
Indigenous communities, including tendencies to make traditional teachings and ceremonies
binary rather than inclusive (Wilson & Laing, 2018).
While “oral histories reflect widespread respect and honour for Two-Spirit people,
the present situation is one where Two-Spirit people are often met with “targeted violence in
their communities” (Hunt, 2016, pp. 7, 9), as well as exclusion from ceremony and
community as a whole (Hunt, 2016; Meyercook & Labelle, 2004). Two-Spirit youth in
particular might feel the need to move to cities because of hostile heteronormativity imposed
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by colonial influences. As a result, they require spaces of belonging that understand their
cultural and other identities (Fast, 2014). However, Two-Spirit youth who relocate to cities
still face violence and discrimination, highlighting the need for urban Indigenous
programming that is created in partnership with Two-Spirit youth (Depelteau & Giroux,
2015). The importance of Two-Spirit inclusive and specific programming has been
highlighted in Meyercook & Labelles (2004) interviews with Two-Spirit youth:
Part of the importance of [Two-Spirit inclusive and specific programming] is to
reverse isolation. By sharing and meeting more people, we are able to gain strength in
our individual lives. These gatherings also provide us with an opportunity to come
together and mirror the kind of balance keeping and inclusive values we are calling on
our communities to demonstrate. If we cant begin within ourselves, how can we
expect any other outside entity to “get it together”? (p. 46)
In interviews with Two-Spirit people, Brotman et al. (2002) found that people exploring their
Two-Spirit identity created the positive effect of an “understand[ing] [that they] have roles
within [their] community” (p. 76). Having a strong sense of identity and history has been
shown to be “an important factor in supporting resilience and well-being” in Indigenous youth
(Wexler, 2009, p. 272). Chae and Walters (2009) have shown that among 2SLGBTQIA+
Indigenous people, high levels of positive identity actualization serve as a protective factor
against the negative health outcomes exacerbated by discrimination. Land-based education
could offer an important resource to these youth, who may struggle the most to find places of
belonging and cultural connection grounded in decolonized notions of gender and sexual
identity. Furthermore, by bringing together queer and Indigenous scholarship, research can
move into actions that challenge ways of knowing and being that are entrenched in colonial
social relations. The praxis of decolonization and queering is active, interconnected, critical,
and everyday practices that take place within and across diverse spaces and times (Hunt &
Holmes, 2015, p. 156), such as land-based, experiential learning.
Methods
This study is grounded in Indigenous research methodologies (Kovach, 2009; Smith,
1999; S. Wilson, 2008). Briefly, Indigenous methodologies and pedagogies are located within
Indigenous worldviews and community ethics, where researchers are guided by core values of
respect, reciprocity, and relationality (S. Wilson, 2008). These frameworks ensure that research
is done responsibly in partnership with community, and that it results in relevant and concrete
benefits for the community in question (Kovach, 2015; S. Wilson, 2008). Principal investigator
Elizabeth Fast was awarded a SSHRC Insight Development Grant in 2016. An Indigenous
youth and community advisory committee was recruited to oversee the grant and worked for
two years to conceive and implement the inaugural Restoring Our Roots: Land-Based Retreat
for Indigenous Youth, held in July 2018. Ethics approval was received from Concordia
University.
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Youth on the advisory committee not only participated in programming, but also played
an integral role in collaboratively shaping pedagogical content; examining intentions and actions
surrounding research; creating ethical best practices for inclusivity and safe spaces, solidarity,
and safety; overseeing grants; and leading projects based on the needs of their communities.
Youth committee involvement in the research process embodies the required community ethics
in Indigenous and decolonizing pedagogies and methodologies (Simpson, 2014; S. Wilson,
2008). Over the course of four days, the retreat provided urban Indigenous youth the opportunity
to connect, learn, and grow on the land in a culturally supportive and empowering environment.
Participants were selected to participate through an open call to urban Indigenous not-for-profit
organizations, college and university Indigenous student centres, and our kinship networks. They
were asked to write a short description of where they were from, including their relationship to
their communities of origin, and why they felt they could benefit from the retreat.
The research aspect of the gathering was meant to assess the impact of teaching histories
of colonialism to Indigenous youth in a way that supported them in responding with their own
stories of resilience, ultimately leading to a strengthening of cultural identity(ies). The goal of
this portion of the project was to better understand how taking part in land-based teachings with
other Indigenous youth impacts those involved, and particularly to see if it helped them feel
more comfortable continuing on their personal journeys of cultural reconnection.
The advisory committee wanted the research component to feel connected to the retreat
and devised several methods for gathering data on how the participants were experiencing the
teachings and activities. During the course of the gathering, a video camera (i.e., a speakers
corner) was set up on site, and youth were invited to answer open-ended questions that were on
display near the camera. On day two of the retreat there was an arts-based session where youth
participants were invited to make a mixed-media collage in response to their experiences with
the blanket exercise,” and to speak about their collage on camera if they wished.
Post-retreat, youth were invited to take part in a longer discussion, through a
conversational method using a semi-structured interview guide, about how they experienced the
teachings. These conversations were audiotaped, and youth were compensated $50 each for
their participation. We also held a sharing circle with members of the youth advisory committee
to hear their experiences as collaborators in the co-creation of the programming and research
design, as well as how they experienced the programming as participants with dual roles.
Led by Elders and in collaboration with artists, community leaders, storytellers, and
other youth, the retreat involved several components, including cultural workshops, ceremony,
and arts-based activities. Some of these activities were teachings about fire and the four sacred
medicines, Sweat Lodge teachings and building with two separate ceremonies, a Sunrise
ceremony each day, a fancy-shawl (powwow) dancing workshop, storytelling with Elders, a
medicine walk, and the blanket exercise followed by sharing circles. These activities were
meant to inspire the celebration and continuum of cultural transmission, land-based teachings,
creative exchange, and ceremony. One Elder came from the local Abenaki territory, and there
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were a number of other participating Elders who were connected to the primary researcher and
collaborators (mainly Plains Cree and Métis). Many of the teachings were from a Nêhiyaw
(Plains Cree) perspective.
While the retreat had an overall structure and agenda, participants could pick and choose
which workshops they wanted to attend, while taking their own capabilities into account, and
could spend their free time however they saw fit (e.g., swimming, mingling with the other
youth, hiking, or spending time on their own). Over and above this, many invited Elders chose
to spend more time with the participants/group and were invited to participate in whatever
activities they wanted, supporting youth to learn from and connect with the Elders in a genuine
and natural way. Throughout the retreat, tobacco and cloth were always available to the youth
as a way to give thanks to Creator; as a mode of honouring and exchange when asking
something from the land, such as harvesting logs for the Sweat Lodge or cedar boughs; and as
an item they could use to make offerings to the Elders whenever they wanted to ask for
guidance or knowledge.
At the core of the retreat were cultural teachings and the acknowledgement that
colonialism tried/tries to strip that away; however, instead of focusing on that colonial history,
the retreat focused on cultural awareness and interconnected relationships (not only between
people and experiences, but also between people and land). This shifted the conversation of
Canadian colonialism from one of victimization to one that highlighted the resilience and
strength of Indigenous youth and Indigenous Peoples and cultures.
Results
Prior to the retreat, youth expressed pre-existing shame, a desire to feel belonging, and a
sense of exclusion from ceremony due to various barriers, such as gender identity, lack of
access to transportation and funding, school commitments, absence of relationships with Elders,
and a general fear of not knowing how to participate. In contrast, many of the youth spoke
about how they felt safe and listened to during the land-based retreat. Being in a safe space and
on the land helped the youth manage pre-existing shame and fear of judgment by inviting them
into a place of empowerment. The youth spoke about having always wanted opportunities to
spend time learning from Elders, participating in ceremonies, and sharing with other Indigenous
youth. The themes resulting from the gathering were the following:
inclusion
accessibility
disconnection
reconnection
teachings
transformation
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Inclusion
Youth shared that in their lives before the retreat, they often felt excluded from
ceremony; they felt they did not belong and had to hide themselves or pretend to be something
other than who they were. Upon arrival at the retreat, youth felt welcomed and accepted.
Participant “M” spoke about navigating ceremony as an Indigenous trans non-binary
youth, how simply being welcomed as he is during ceremony was a positive experience, and that
his inclusion and participation led him to become comfortable identifying as Two-Spirit:
I find in any situation when Im met with somebody whos transphobic at the worst Im
super uncomfortable and want to leave, dont want to be there. I dont feel like I can
share everything about me and I sort of have to dull myself down a lot. And I felt like
especially with ceremony and [the retreat] being very healing oriented, that would have
taken away from it for me. I didnt feel like I had to pretend to be something Im not in
order to participate fully. Im very comfortable with identifying with being non-binary
and trans and at that point I really wasnt sure if the word Two-Spirit was good for me,
and coming out of it I was like: I think thats okay for me.
Participant “C” felt welcomed and included, even though she lacked knowledge of
teachings and ceremony, which in the past had led to feelings of shame and judgment:
As soon as I arrived, I was warmly welcomed everything was very familiar with
everyone. It felt like family. Even the people that Ive seen for the first time it was very
calm. It was very familiar. And comforting. Sunrise ceremonies I had never done. I
never felt judged about not knowing when something was happening. That was a big
thing. I dont feel very knowledgeable or culturally skilled in most of these kinds of
things. Seeing it happen and experiencing it was very much a learning experience and
it was a very comfortable one.
“J” described the community that formed at the retreat as accepting her without
judgment, and the like-minded peers were grappling with the same issues:
I think thats why the retreat was so special to me. I was just totally absorbed by
everybody it was like Ive always been there the community aspect of it was a big
pull for me. And I knew that I would meet people who wouldnt make me doubt myself or
my fears or anxieties, like everybody made me, kind of validated everything that I was
feeling already. Made me feel a little bit more solid.
Cultivating spaces of inclusion and safety, where gender-fluid youth are not only
welcomed but cherished as holding unique and important perspectives, will move them beyond
colonial thinking toward critical stewardship and governance roles in their communities as they
claim their positions at the forefront of imagining alternative futures that hold social and
ecological justice.
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Accessibility
Many urban Indigenous youth search for opportunities to participate in ceremony (some
for the first time), connect with the land, and gather with other Indigenous youth. Although the
desire to learn and experience traditional teachings exists, accessibility to opportunities in the
urban setting, as well as on their remote home reserves/communities, pose a challenge for such
reasons as funding, transportation, scheduling, commitments at school and work that do not
allow for seasonal ceremony breaks, an absence of relationships to Elders, shame, and fear.
Feelings about access to community, access to peer support, and belonging were
expressed by “M,” as well as the desire to take that experience back to his life in the city, post
retreat:
I think definitely being around a bunch of other Indigenous youth who are in similar
situations so Im not the odd one out [was great]. Im not the only one whos like shit out
of luck on connecting with family that was really nice having access to ceremony
and having that experience under my belt and then bonding with other Indigenous
youth and feeling acceptance from them. Its kind of like some external validation which
is really really nice so I dont feel like Im just making shit up and then making me
able to not feel weird about participating in Restoring Our Roots retreat that feedback
loop is very affirming.
“D” expressed some of the logistical factors that have kept him from ceremony in the
past on his home reserve, as well as his appreciation of having access to ceremony and
teachings at the retreat:
If we look at it from a practical way, like getting there can be sometimes an issue
because it costs money. Then there is the matter of scheduling. I cant schedule a
ceremony but, like, I have to work with when that ceremony is. [At the retreat] the
education that I got first from our teachers, our Elders, and then it was being out there
in that space. Being able to be a fire keeper for the first time in my life, I thought that
was very special. I felt like I was part of something you know, part of the collective.
“N” described the retreat as access to an opportunity of reclamation and discovery:
This retreat really greatly helped me in discovering and reclaiming who I am, but Im a
twenty-four-year-old Anishinaabe Two-Spirited medicine person in training. And kind of
behind the motivation in applying: When I was younger, my family and I, like, everyone
knew we were a native, but it was rarely talked about. If at all. So, motivation came
from the not only, like, the desire but also the need to learn what was taken from us. And
also, to honor our ancestors. I found everything was magic. And I felt a feeling of
hope like Ive never felt before. And I also experienced a light ignite in peoples eyes
that seemed buried. And I think the most beautiful thing was experiencing strangers
become community.
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Teachings offered at the retreat were from nehiyawewin Elders perspectives. Youth
expressed their extreme gratitude for having time with the Elders who were present and the
teachings they provided, and commented that the fundamentals of many Indigenous teachings
are similar across nations. Feedback from participants has led the research team to recognize
the desire in the future to include representation from the various nations represented among
participants, while also understanding that this research started with the relationships and
resources that were available for this first gathering.
Disconnection
A common theme was how youth felt disconnected from their own communities and
cultures. S spoke about the impacts of urbanization on her family and how that influenced
feelings of belonging:
My extended family live on a reserve, but my grandparents generation had to go to
residential school, so they were removed from the community and then they had to live
with a Caucasian family off reserve if they wanted to pursue higher education like college
or university. Im the oldest of six, my grandfathers the oldest of 14, so some of the kids
got raised with white families as they went to school off reserve and then the other side of
the family stayed on the reserve. So, I have cousins who grew up on the reserve and then
I have cousins who live off reserve in the city. As adults they didnt go back and stayed in
the city because at that time kids on reserve were still forced into residential school. So
thats where the divide is for me.
“S” is speaking of the impact for many of her family members of growing up outside
their cultures and communities, and the disconnection this creates with their cultural identity(ies)
and sense of belonging.
Similarly, “C,” who is Inuk on her mother’s side and French Canadian on her fathers
side, said, With not being accepted within the Inuit community, in the urban space Ive been
feeling very. Its been very heavy.” “C” was born in her mother’s community but was mostly
raised by her father in southern Quebec and feels excluded or disconnected from her Inuit side as
a result of both the cultural divide and distance from her Inuit family. She was also speaking of
both the real and perceived rejection that many youth of mixed backgrounds experience in
relation to their Indigenous families and communities.
Disconnection was expressed as grief, absence, something missing and lost by “D,” who
never had the chance to learn his culture even though he grew up on his reserve:
Being able to take part [in the retreat] helps me to grasp a little more of the things Ive
lost and things that I did not have passed down to me. I grew up all my life practically
on my reserve and you would think that such a background would entail having the
cultural things to go along with that. But I have none of those things. I have no songs
that I can sing, not really familiar with any dances or I have a little bit of my
language. Theres a lot of absence in my life about the things that I ought to have
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an undercurrent of something missing in me that I couldnt quite put my finger on, that I
dont think I really realized until I started to get older just what it actually was the
absence of my culture. Grief of a life I never lived. Not something that I lost. That I
never had.
Reconnecting youth to land and culture fosters feelings of groundedness, belonging, and
self-sovereignty. Indigenous well-being, cultural vitality, and networks of community are
essential dimensions of the movement toward a future beyond mere survival.
Reconnection
Despite these experiences of disconnection, several of the youth participants shared that
the retreat helped them feel reconnected. For example, when referring to some of the organizers
and facilitators, “K” explained she felt inspired because there were people older than her who
were still learning how to reconnect with their cultures, and it took some of the pressure off for
her and let her feel that she still had time to learn her language:
So I found that very inspiring that wasnt an issue for them, if they wanted to learn
about their culture they were going to learn about it, and now theyre teaching and
theyre educating others about it. Sometimes I feel like Im running out of time to learn
my culture and the language, so seeing how theyre still able to embrace it is really
assuring because it relieves some of the pressure I feel.
“S” explained that she thought she was going to the retreat to participate in cultural
activities, but the teachings allowed her a greater capacity to become self-aware and to get in
touch with her spirituality:
I wasnt expecting that whole level of more awareness and more self-knowledge, self-
awareness and positive messages. The more I am taught about my culture the more I
learn about, like, not only myself but my family. And the more understanding and
patience and forgiveness I have which allows me to see the strength and beauty, in not
only in my family but, like, my extended family, my people and the land and its
inhabitants.
“D” at one point described his reconnection experience in terms of his relationship with
the land, as the land being a part of himself, albeit outside of his present understanding:
Abenaki territory, as I understand it theyre related to the Anishinaabe through kinship.
So for me its still woodland, its still bush. Its still a territory Im familiar with. And
when you think about its also Anishinaabe thats where my people were,, wherever they
are now they were there before. So the territory of this region is familiar to me I think on
a level Im not even able to understand yet. So for me part of being there was good,
because I was already home.
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The act of finding a sense of belonging and identity, piece by piece, and nurturing this is
a (re)connection to culture and community. These acts of reclamation have given youth a chance
to create a wider web of knowledge and resistance to the colonial paradigm, creating deeper
relations within the Indigenous community, speaking more openly with new knowledge, and
becoming more of who they have always been.
Teachings
Land-based activities and oral narratives explored at the retreat provided teachings on
relationships to the land, including fire, ceremonies, medicines, and more to help the youth
experience how a relationship with land preserves cultural heritage, strengthens cultural pride,
centres Indigenous pedagogies, and supports the well-being of Indigenous youth.
Participant “N” conveyed her sense of gratitude for the teachings that were shared by the
Elders and for the restorative nature of the experience:
And also having spent the time with the Abenaki Elder and her grandchildren I think
allowed me to have a connection with, like, the spirit of the land that we are visiting. I
feel that connection. Ive never felt it that strong. And building the Sweat Lodge and
participating in the sweat. Its like one of the most healing things Ive ever done. Ill
always be very very grateful for learning all of the teachings that were shared, will
forever hold that close to my heart.
“J” spoke about how her mothers own journey demonstrated to her traditional
knowledge used in daily life to support others, and she expressed her fascination with the
juxtaposition of Indigenous ways of knowing versus Western knowledge systems:
And its knowledge that Ive watched my mother take and integrate and use to help. And
nobodys ever made her, or me for that matter, feel stupid for asking the questions or for
not knowing which way to pick up the pipe or which way to turn it when youre passing
it, like the little things that you didnt grow up with, thats knowledge thats really
important but theres no aggressiveness to the teaching of it. I do look at it as sharing in
the very literal sense of the word.
The intimate journey of being a pipe carrier, and the struggles to adhere to traditional
protocols surrounding that journey, as well as the experience of being mentored by an Elder on
the pipe teachings were voiced by “T”:
Just understanding my responsibility with being a pipe carrier and knowing what it
means to carry a pipe. Because that was the first time I used it with an Elder, and I was
very scared of it for seven years, I was very scared of it. I always kept it up high when
I had been sober enough to touch it, I would put the pieces together. Id often apologize
to it for not being respectful to myself. I think now I am ready and these past seven
months Ive been sober have been the best I have ever had in my whole entire life. Js
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words resonated with me: by honouring myself with sobriety, Im honouring the creator.
And those really really stuck in my head and I realize that me being sober isnt just about
myself. Its honouring the creator and the pipe and the culture.
The teachings provided participants with a newfound sense of purpose and possibility,
healing and gratitude, and a distinct realization of responsibility one has to these stories as they
carry them through their lives.
Transformation
Retreat participants described how positively affected they were over the course of the
retreat as they took the experience back to the city, describing the processes of integrating what
they learned into their day-to-day lives. They expressed gratitude, strengthened identity and
confidence, an excitement to share teachings and knowledge, a personal balance and
groundedness, humility, and hope.
Participant M:
So that was like a really nice way of bringing healing home because you can get your
medicine plants and do it for yourself at home, and thats something you could take with
you anywhere, which I like. Thats been really helpful to me for chronic health issues,
and Ive been hanging out at Native Montreal a lot more lately, and I ended up giving a
medicine plant workshop. So that was super nice to be able to share what I learned.
Participant S:
Its been about two years since Ive been to Mount Currie Mountains. Its clear pristine.
Its like my eyes arent even closed. I saw it. I was surrounded by these mountains at
night and the sky was full of stars and there was the moon like biggest ever, a full moon,
and moonlight and I just felt like I was home. And I just felt like I was like completely
grounded. And what I was able to do is realize at any given time I can tap into home. I
am home wherever I am. And my roots may be from there but I can carry the lessons and
teachings from where Ive come from and use them anywhere I go. But what I realize
is that Im here, I am taking care of myself, and Im doing what I have to do for myself.
And home is where I am this retreat has helped me on so many levels just to stay
grounded, to remember where I came from and respect where I came from and then just
try to be a good role model. Im so grateful for this experience.
Participant T:
Coming back from [the retreat] theres a lot of things I realize I dont know. Like theres
a lot of songs that I wish I could do and I know that will come in time. I think that will
come with me wanting to learn the language. J gave me some pointers on some
protocols. Funny enough I already have everything there with the red cloth, the tobacco
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and to tie a feather to it and I was like, how perfect is it to have a goose feather to go
down south with me, to take it with me.
Participant C:
But going to the retreat it was very positive feeling not healing but I just feel very more
relieved. I started volunteering at La PAQ [an organization providing shelter and
services to homeless and precariously housed Indigenous people]. Its the first time that I
am working with people not in an academic sphere and Im with the community and it
feels good to have the human contact.
Participant N:
Just that I have so much more hope, like I knew decolonizing was possible but to
experience it is something totally different. And its thanks to the retreat that I know that
change is possible and the more I am taught about my culture the more I learn about,
like, not only myself but my family. And the more understanding and patience and
forgiveness I have, which allows me to see the strength and beauty, in not only in my
family but, like, my extended family, my people and the land and its inhabitants. My
words cant describe how thankful I am for the opportunity.
Once back in the city, participants were able to maintain connections made during the
retreat, remembering relationships and teachings, and bringing ceremony into a broader life
context. Decolonizing and Indigenizing became concrete actions instead of mere concepts
spoken about in academic institutions and spaces, and participants were then able to take these
actions and share their new knowledge with the community.
Discussion/Conclusion
This participatory research brings the voices of youth to the fore as they describe their
experiences being taught from the land (Meyer, 2008), what they have learned, how it changed
them, and how they are applying it to their daily lives. By bringing traditional ideas of land as
landscape together with contemporary ideas of land as urban space, and both as sites of
accessibility to Indigenous teachings, Indigenous youth are offered more opportunities to engage
with their cultures after leaving the retreat space. The project intentionally held time and space
for self-reflection by youth on their own lives within the context of land-based education, which
enabled participants to decolonize, collectively and personally, as a return “to ourselves, a
reengagement with the things we have left behind, a re-emergence, an unfolding from the inside
out (Simpson, 2017, p. 17). The self was held as a driving force for collective change with
knowledge of how Indigenous Peoples lived and thrived, brought into today to (re)establish a
status quo beyond settler colonialism.
In November 2019, participants artwork and photos from the retreat were exhibited
in a week-long showing titled Gathering Place at Concordia Universitys 4th Space. Retreat
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participants were invited to a reunion event to open the exhibit, reconnect, and celebrate the
launch of Land As Our Teacher, the continuation of the Restoring Our Roots work through a
separate multi-year grant. During the week, attendees took part in storytelling sessions,
drumming, singing, workshops (such as medicine bag making and screen printing), and the
option to receive traditional tattooing.
The participants shared the lasting positive change their experiences at the retreat have
created in their lives regarding their connection to cultural heritage and identity. Positive cultural
identity and connection are known to buffer the negative health effects of discrimination, so it
would be beneficial for future research to investigate the specific positive health benefits and
their underlying processes for Indigenous youth who participate in land-based education
programs (Wexler, 2009). It should be noted that working in partnership with Indigenous
communities creates health interventions that are “of high priority, sustainable, and a better fit
with cultural values,” as well as “[providing] increased community capacity, local ownership,
and important safeguards on the potential cultural expropriation of Indigenous knowledge and
traditional healing techniques in [health] intervention[s]” (Stanley et al., 2020, p. S18).
Future research, created in partnership with Indigenous youth and focusing on the
relationship between land-based programming and specific health outcomes, would create an
opportunity to inform culturally relevant future programming and policy wherein actual benefit
is given to Indigenous youth. Examples of effective research processes and programming have
been shown by Indigenous-led projects such as Vancouvers Urban Aboriginal Community
Kitchen Garden Project (Mundel & Chapman, 2010), the On-the-Land Health Leadership
Program of Yellowknife’s Dene First Nation (Lines et al., 2019), and the Promoting Community
Conversations About Research to End Suicide (PC CARES) programming developed by and
implemented in some Alaska Native communities (Wexler et al., 2016).
Decolonizing, queering, and creating non-binary inclusive spaces for land-based
teachings where Indigenous 2SLGBTQIA+ youth feel safer are all essential to the youths’
overall self-esteem, a sense of much-needed relief, and a greater understanding of themselves as
they relate to their Indigenous cultures. Alex Wilson (2018) has explained “coming in” as “an act
of returning, fully present in our selves, to resume our place as a valued part of our families,
cultures, communities, and lands, in connection with all our relations” (p. 171). This is in
contrast to the western notion of “coming out” to families, friends and the public at large. Wilson
(2018) addresses how norms that reinforce heteropatriarchy and gender binariesconcerned
with the regulation of “the bodies of women and Two-Spirit and trans people” (p. 164)—have
come to shape the social relations of communities, including their ceremonial contexts. Wilson
identifies skirt shaming and the gendered regulation of dress during Sweat Lodge ceremonies
as exclusionary expressions of protocol that betray Indigenous traditions of valuing gender and
sexual diversity. In contrast to the negative experiences many queer Indigenous youth face in
queer-exclusionary cultural spaces, non-binary transmasculine participant “M” articulated a
direct connection between his proactive inclusion in ceremony during the retreat and his
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subsequent self-identification as a Two-Spirit person, both of which contributed to his sense of
being accepted within a community of Indigenous peers.
Indigenous queer scholar Sarah Hunt and queer scholar Cindy Holmes (2015) discuss
how queer is not merely a term referring to gender and sexuality, but extends beyond to action
where we challenge ways of knowing and being that are entrenched in society by the settler state.
The praxis of decolonization and queering involves active, interconnected, critical, and
everyday practices that take place within and across diverse spaces and times (p. 156). This
research seeks to provide time and space for Indigenous youth to develop these everyday
practices of decolonization. With this scholarship and youth expertise in mind, this research
moves forward with Two-Spirit representation on the Indigenous youth advisory board and the
broader Indigenous community advisory board to ensure inclusion and accessibility to safe
spaces offering land-based teachings. The strong positive impacts of cultural programming that
is accessible to and inclusive of 2SLGBTQIA+ Indigenous youth are further demonstrated by the
robust positive feedback and widely expressed excitement from queer Indigenous youth when
they learned that this programming will be continued.
As the Restoring our Roots project continues and expands into the longer-term SSHRC-
funded Land As Our Teacher, queer Indigenous youth are consistently engaging with the
planning process and are actively guiding the ways in which it can move toward centring, rather
than simply including, queer Indigenous experiences and needs. 2SLGBTQIA+ Indigenous
people experience higher rates of violence, discrimination, and negative health outcomes than
non-2SLGBTQIA+ Indigenous peopleit is imperative that future research into the benefits of
land-based learning, decolonial approaches, and the protective effects of positive cultural identity
considers the unique needs and experiences of queer Indigenous people (Balsam et al., 2004;
Chae & Walters, 2009; Fraser Health Authority, 2015; Wexler, 2009).
With renewed funding from SSHRC for the next five years, seasonal gatherings are being
planned that will deepen and broaden the relationships created during our inaugural gathering.
Queer Indigenous youth participants and community members are looking forward to the
planned retreat dedicated to queer Indigenous youth in the summer of 2021, and are
enthusiastically guiding the preliminary processes. The youth advisory committee and
collaborators will focus on integrating what we have learned in terms of continuing to give space
to Indigenous youth to connect and explore diverse aspects of identity and belonging in
ceremony with the land and one another, as well as potentially acquiring land for a dedicated
space/place for youth and community to gather.
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nov2007-eng.pdf?ua=1
... These interventions prioritize Indigenous-specific approaches to health that authentically address the holistic relationships of mental, emotion, physical, and spiritual wellbeing, encapsulated by the four directions of the medicine wheel as mind, emotion, body, and spirit. Land-based activities such as cultural camps [15,[21][22][23], canoeing [24,25], harvesting practices (including hunting, trapping, and gathering plants or medicines) [26][27][28], and other land-based ceremonies promote improved mental health outcomes among Indigenous people. ...
... A systematic review of land-based outcomes and the populations using them for either mental health intervention or wellness promotion could clarify how relationships differ between various populations. Currently, it appears that the majority of interventions described in the literature have either focused on culture camps [19,21,22], been youth-focused [21,23,24,26], or have explored culture as treatment within residential interventions for substance use [18,20], but to date, a comprehensive review of outcomes has not been completed. By understanding the established literature dedicated to this topic, and through more region-or community-specific studies of outcomes, the results of the present study can be more culturally contextualized and, potentially, more representative. ...
... A systematic review of land-based outcomes and the populations using them for either mental health intervention or wellness promotion could clarify how relationships differ between various populations. Currently, it appears that the majority of interventions described in the literature have either focused on culture camps [19,21,22], been youth-focused [21,23,24,26], or have explored culture as treatment within residential interventions for substance use [18,20], but to date, a comprehensive review of outcomes has not been completed. By understanding the established literature dedicated to this topic, and through more region-or community-specific studies of outcomes, the results of the present study can be more culturally contextualized and, potentially, more representative. ...
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Background Indigenous Peoples are impacted by industrial resource development that takes place on, or near, their communities. Existing literature on impacts of industrial resource development on Indigenous Peoples primarily focus on physical health outcomes and rarely focus on the mental health impacts. To understand the full range of long-term and anticipated health impacts of industrial resource development on Indigenous communities, mental health impacts must be examined. It is well-established that there is a connection between the environment and Indigenous wellbeing, across interrelated dimensions of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Methods This paper identifies how the Community Advisory Team and a team of Indigenous and settler scholars will conduct the review. The literature search will use the OVID interface to search Medline, Embase, PsycINFO, and Global Health databases. Non-indexed peer-reviewed journals related to Indigenous health or research will be scanned. Books and book chapters will be identified in the Scopus and PsycINFO databases. The grey literature search will also include Google and be limited to reports published by government, academic, and non-profit organizations. Reference lists of key publications will be checked for additional relevant publications, including theses, dissertations, reports, and other articles not retrieved in the online searches. Additional sources may be recommended by team members. Included documents will focus on Indigenous Peoples in North America, South America, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Circumpolar regions, research that reports on mental health, and research that is based on land loss connected to dams, mines, agriculture, or petroleum development. Literature that meets the inclusion criteria will be screened at the title/abstract and full-text stages by two team members in Covidence. The included literature will be rated with a quality appraisal tool and information will be extracted by two team members; a consensus of information will be reached and be submitted for analysis. Discussion The synthesized evidence from this review is relevant for land use policy, health impact assessments, economic development, mental health service planning, and communities engaging in development projects. Systematic review registration Registered in the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (PROSPERO; Registration number CRD42021253720 )
... Understanding the possible impacts of industrial resource development on mental health in Indigenous communities requires a recognition of the connection between the environment and Indigenous health and wellbeing (15,16). The relationship between Indigenous Peoples and land is part of a holistic ontology that situates mental health as interconnected with all other dimensions of health (physical, emotional, and spiritual) and with cultural identity (16-21). ...
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Background Indigenous Peoples are impacted by industrial development projects that take place on, or near, their communities. Existing literature on impacts of industrial projects on Indigenous Peoples primarily focus on physical health outcomes and rarely focus on the mental health impacts. To understand the full range of long-term and anticipated health impacts of industrial resource development on Indigenous communities, mental health impacts must be examined. It is well-established that there is a connection between the environment and Indigenous wellbeing, across interrelated dimensions of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. This systematic review will synthesize the evidence on the mental health impacts of land dispossession due to resource extractive projects on Indigenous communities. Looking at the mental health impacts of land dispossession from industrial resource development on Indigenous communities is relevant for a variety of reasons including planning, mitigation strategies, decision making, and negotiations. Methods This review includes an Indigenous Advisory Team and a team of Indigenous and settler scholars. The literature search will use the OVID interface to search Medline, Embase, PsycINFO, and Global Health databases. Non-indexed peer reviewed journals related to Indigenous health or research will be scanned. Books and book chapters will be identified in the Scopus and PsycINFO databases. The grey literature search will also include Google and be limited to reports published by government, academic, and non-profit organizations. Reference lists of key publications will be checked for additional relevant publications, including theses, dissertations, reports, and other articles not retrieved in the online searches. Additional sources may be recommended by team members. Included documents will focus on Indigenous Peoples in North America, South America, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Circumpolar regions, research that reports on mental health, and research that is based on land loss connected to dams, mines, agriculture, oil and gas. Literature that meets the inclusion criteria will be screened at the title/abstract and full text stages by two team members in Covidence. The included literature will be rated with a quality appraisal tool and information will be extracted by two team members; a consensus of information will be reached and be submitted for analysis. Discussion The evidence from this review is relevant for land use policy, health impact assessments, economic development, mental health service planning, and communities engaging in development projects. Systematic review registration Registered in the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (PROSPERO; Registration number CRD42021253720)
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