What a connection to the land means for Indigenous mental health

We ask Carol Hopkins of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation about the role that land plays in Indigenous culture — and the effects it can have on health and wellness
By Daniel Kitts - Published on June 19, 2018
a woman posing for camera
Carol Hopkins was recently named to the Order of Canada for her work in mental health and addictions, and as an advocate for culturally based treatment. (Matthew O'Mara/TVO)

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On June 21 at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature, the Ontario Brain Institute will host a talk on Indigenous culture and connection to the land by Carol Hopkins, a member of the Delaware First Nation of southern Ontario and the executive director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. In advance of the lecture, TVO.org spoke with Hopkins about the role land can play in helping Indigenous people with mental illness and addictions. The conversation took place on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of the New Credit.

In what way can a connection to the land contribute to mental health?

As Canada thinks about connection to land, it’s often in the context around this idea of ownership and rights. And that’s a perspective that’s completely different than how First Nations people think about land. In a First Nations’ worldview, land is a living being. You’ll hear Indigenous people talk about the Earth as our mother. That’s an expression of a worldview that says everything that we need to sustain our life comes from the Earth. The water comes from the Earth. The elements of fire and air are connected to the Earth. They’re absolutely necessary for life. We depend upon them the same way we depend on our biological and extended family.

Think about the people of Davis Inlet when they declared a crisis in the 1990s. The government put them on this rock and removed them from land that was part of their lifestyle. They were a caribou-herding people. And they became sedentary on a rock. When you take children from their mother, a lack of bonding happens. And the impacts are life-long. So these people were taken from land, and it impacts them until they can reconnect with the land.

Many Indigenous people today live in cities, far removed from their traditional land and ways of life. So why does this strong connection to the land persist?

I was born and raised in Chicago. But central to my identity was knowing where I come from. And you’ll often hear Indigenous people introduce themselves that way: who am I, what’s my identity in terms of the nation of people I come from, what’s my clan, where’s the land that I come from. People might think, “Why introduce yourself that way?” Because in Western society, I’m Carol Hopkins, I’ve got a master’s degree in social work. It’s our credentials and our profession that give us place and understanding about who we are. For Indigenous people, no matter where you go, your identity goes with you. Where we come from is always critically important.  And from a mental-health perspective, it’s important to understand that Indigenous people have been displaced from their lands.

Do you see what one might call “mainstream approaches” to mental-health treatment as complementary or counterproductive when it comes to Indigenous approaches?

That’s a big question. My answer, in short, is that they can be complementary, and they can also be very damaging.

A young woman came to our treatment program. She came from a family where she had lost both her parents to violent death. She wasn’t in school. She had a boyfriend who was in his mid-forties, and she’s a teenager. Not a good story. She had lots of trauma in her life. And it was causing her to use substances to cope. So she participates in the cultural program, and one of the things that this program did was connect people to their ancestors through a feast. She participates in this feast and then goes fasting out on the land. She has a dream about this uncle that had hung himself in her presence.  In the dream, this uncle tells her about how thankful he is for what she’s doing, encouraging her in her healing. From a conventional perspective, the dream would give insight, but would be looked at as purely symbolic. From an Indigenous perspective, that’s a very real experience. It’s direct communication from our ancestors.

How can non-Indigenous people help sustain and grow Indigenous people’s connection to the land?

In the declaration of crisis that some communities have made specific to suicide or opioids, the response from the Canadian public has been “Well, maybe they should just leave that community, then. Why don’t they just move?” That perception is outside this context of understanding the land as our mother.

In Attawapiskat, or some of the other communities that talked about a suicide crisis, community leaders were saying, “We want supports for land-based programming.”  So the government says, “Well, I don’t know what that means. What does it mean to go out on the land? And how is that a program? And how is it funded, and how is it structured?” So it takes work to help government and Canadian society understand why land is critically important for healing and wellness. It’s more than a fight for ownership of land and marking out territory, although that is critically important as well.

We also have to think about who can help us know how to be on the land — finding a place for Indigenous knowledge keepers and elders and compensating them appropriately for that knowledge. Just like a pharmacist knows medicines, we have people who know medicines: what they are, how to gather them, how to mix them, and their uses. And that knowledge isn’t compensated. So Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices have to find their way into our curriculum and our professional schools so there is at least some awareness that there is another way of thinking about how to facilitate wellness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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