Reflections on Healing: A Canadian Aboriginal Perspective

I’ve been reading a fascinating article from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in Canada entitled Aboriginal Healing in Canada: Studies in Therapeutic Practice and Meaning. What of course is said in this article is relevant to recovery in the western world. Here are some interesting thoughts about healing:

‘The first thing that emerges from our work is that healing is a concept that is difficult to articulate, in part, because most [people participating in the research – DC] seem to feel that there is no need to articulate it and/or simply have never been asked to.

There is no dominant treatment paradigm at work here. Healing proved to be variable in meaning, often vague and fuzzy, and very idiosyncratic.

… healing is an active, not passive, process: it is something you do, not something you think or that is done to you. In this sense, healing is work, it is ongoing and requires dedication. First and foremost, it requires commitment from the individual. No one can heal you or make you heal. Personal agency is stressed above all else.

The dominant metaphor in our research describes healing as a journey, sometimes articulated as following the “Red Road,” the “Sweetgrass Trail,” the “Way of the Pipe” (Waldram, 1997), or the “Road to Wellness,” as in Joseph Gone’s study in this publication.

The journey has a clear direction toward healing, yet it is a journey fraught with challenges. Falling off the path of healing is common, even expected by treatment staff. There is no shame to temporary setbacks, nor are these seen as failures; rather, the individual is welcomed back to continue on his or her journey when he or she feels ready.

Returning to the idea of efficacy, one can see how difficult it becomes to assess treatment outcomes when such setbacks are anticipated and when there seems to be no end point to the journey. No one is ever completely healed. No one speaks of being cured in the same way biomedicine uses this concept.

Even those who have been on the healing path for many years and who have become therapists themselves must struggle to remain on the path. Healing remains, in Gone’s assessment, “an ongoing process of self-transformation.”

Healing was rarely thought of in biomedical terms, and even conventional psychotherapeutic understandings were largely absent. Rather, what emerged is a common theme that healing is ultimately about the reparation of damaged and disordered social relations. The individual, through outwardly and self-destructive behaviours, has become disconnected from family, friends, community, and even his or her heritage.

The reason for undertaking healing is often found in the clients’ desire to make amends and to be accepted back into the web of relationships. Healing, then, speaks to a form of Aboriginal sociality that reduces the degree of self-indulgence and self-pity and frames one’s problems and the solutions in broader, collective terms.

It does not deny historical processes or the legacy of the residential schools, which have created the conditions for social and psychological discontent; rather, it helps individuals understand why they have problems in a manner that allows them to simultaneously see that, while victims of oppression, they retain the necessary agency to change their lives for the better. Healing, then, is ultimately about hope for the individual, the family, the community, and the future.

The inherent ambiguity in the meaning of healing also plays out in the blurring of the distinction between service providers (healers or therapists) on one hand and clients (patients or participants) on the other in many of the programs. It was impossible to standardize the terminology for these therapeutic players across all programs without forcing the kind of discursive manipulations that would blur rather than clarify meaning.

In all programs, treatment staff members who were also on their own healing journey and who had personal histories paralleling those of the clients were particularly valued.

The holistic program environment of the various programs encouraged an interaction between therapists and clients that was bidirectional: therapists were simultaneously patients learning from their clients as they continued on their own healing journey; and clients were simultaneously therapists offering their own troubled life experiences as a reflective tool for self-healing by the therapists.

The beauty of this synergy is evident from the chapters, and this underscores how these healing programs differ in fundamental ways from many non-Aboriginal psychotherapeutic approaches that implicitly or explicitly enforce rigid distinctions between therapists and clients.’