Healing Relations

  • Nancy Van Styvendale (Editor), J. D. McDougall (Editor), Robert Henry (Editor) and Robert Alexander Innes (Editor)
    The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Allen Chadwick (Author)
    Earthworks Rising: Mound Building in Native Literature and Arts. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Charlotte Coté (Author)
    A Drum in One Hand, a Sockeye in the Other: Stories of Indigenous Food Sovereignty from the Northwest Coast. University of Washington Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

“We don’t live in natural times,” the late Stó:lo writer Lee Maracle had a character say in Ravensong. Often diagnosed by Indigenous communities, this alienation has affected every human and other-than-human relationship in the world. According to Chadwick Allen, centuries of cognitive imperialism have even made it impossible for Indigenous peoples to fully think outside the parameters of colonialism, with far-reaching effects on their holistic lifeways. Decolonizing relationships is arguably a matter of life and death given the impacts of ongoing colonialization and late capitalism on Indigenous peoples and land bases. The three books analyzed here investigate ways to reclaim Indigenous lifeworlds through embodied methodologies and praxes eschewing Cartesian dualism, academic dispassion, anthropocentrism, and the objectification of the land. The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being explores the vital role of creative endeavours (both everyday and professional) for Indigenous health, wellness, and healing; A Drum in One Hand, A Sockeye in the Other focuses on Tseshaht food sovereignty; and Earthworks Rising foregrounds contemporary Indigenous artists’ revisitings of earthworks. These works counter anthropological fixity by re-examining the past to (re-)create in the present and ensure better futures for the next seven generations. Accordingly, they are informed by Gerald Vizenor’s concept of survivance—survival as active, creative presence beyond a mere reaction to colonialism.


The Arts of Indigenous Health and Well-Being is an offshoot of the 2013 Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference, which resulted in a first collection, Global Indigenous Health: Reconciling the Past, Engaging the Present, Animating the Future (2018). As the organizers were selecting contributions for that book, they realized the need for an additional collection on the role of artistic practices for Indigenous health and well-being on Turtle Island. Based on overwhelming evidence that Indigenous arts have both a “therapeutic function” through their role in “community cohesion, resilience, and positive health outcomes” and their validity “as a method for health research” (3-4), the collection moves beyond biomedical definitions and the social determinants of health—which include culture—to embrace “a more holistic approach to well-being resonant with Indigenous epistemologies” (4).


The eleven chapters foreground interconnectedness and balance through Indigenous concepts such as the medicine wheel; nurturing relationships between individuals, communities, and the natural and spiritual worlds; and ethical principles like the Cree miyo pimâtisiwin (“good life”; 1) or the Mohawk ka’nikonhri:yo (“good mind”; 149). The collection bridges many media (from a Lakota jingle dress to performances to a graffiti wall) and fields (arts-based health research, social sciences, literary theory, film studies, ethnomusicology, gender studies) and adopts transdisciplinary Indigenous methodologies. It is dedicated to the late Jo-Ann Episkenew, who “unite[d] a humanities approach to artistic production and literary analysis with health research and policy analysis” (5).


The “overlapping themes” are organized into four parts (6). “Material Culture, Embodiment, and Well-Being” explores embodied engagement with cultural objects as connecting authors with their peoples’ epistemologies and relations. “Community Health and Wellness” showcases community-based health research from artists’ and facilitators’ perspectives, foregrounding culturally appropriate concepts of community resilience and youth empowerment that nourish “wider relationship networks” (10). “Healing Land, Body, and Tradition” highlights how creativity can help heal the intergenerational traumas of individuals, Nations, and the land. Finally, “Resistance, Resurgence, and ‘Imagining Otherwise’” investigates “anticolonial, resurgent, and speculative” cultural and artistic practices that both resist colonialism and gesture beyond it (14), extending kinship to transnational Indigenous communities among others. Richly layered, the volume emphasizes the centrality of Elders, ceremonies, material culture, storytelling, and Indigenous languages to Indigenous pedagogies.


Indigenous Food Studies scholar Charlotte Coté/ɫuutiismaʔ (“Carrying Thunder”) tackles a related issue, the decolonization of diets in her Nuu-chah-nulth home Nation of c̓išaaʔatḥ (Tseshaht). Having grown up eating haʔum (traditional food) and learned to be tiičʕaqƛ (holistically healthy), she saw patterns of chronic illness and premature deaths surge in her community as many became addicted to processed food. Indeed, Indigenous people suffer disproportionately from food insecurity and diet—and inactivity-related ill health due to lifestyle changes caused by colonization, urbanization, and the commodification of food and the land. The food industry’s hunger for profit directly contradicts Nuu-chah-nulth ethics of responsibility, reciprocity, and kinship with the web of life.


Accordingly, A Drum in One Hand, A Sockeye in the Other is part of a growing corpus developing strategies for Indigenizing food sovereignty. Defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods” (“Food Sovereignty”), this concept stems from a global movement responding to the paradox of world hunger despite the massive production of food. Indigenous contexts further require the integration of self-determination and restorative food justice, which strives to reconcile Indigenous food, ecological, and cultural values with colonial policies. Coté roots her analysis in the reclamation of Nuu-chah-nulth terms, the philosophies of ʔiisaak (“being respectful”) and ʔuʔaaɫuk (“to take care of”), ḥačatakma cawaak (“everything is interconnected”), and a “talking around the table” methodology foregrounding experiential knowledge as “Indigenous theory ‘in action’” (7-8).


The centrality of foodways to Tseshaht well-being, economy, and cultural transmission is conveyed by a quotation by Darrell Ross, Sr., in the title and the epigraph to the second chapter: “A happy Tseshaht has a drum in one hand and a sockeye in the other” (56). Coté details vibrant memories of berry-picking and fishing as strengthening bonds with her family, her salmon relatives, and c̓uumaʕas, the Somass River. Despite adverse circumstances and past bans, the Tseshaht are revitalizing Fish Days and Potlatches—occasions for sharing efforts, nutrient-rich food, ceremonies, traditional teachings, and stories. Other initiatives include Coté’s sister Gail Williams Gus’s efforts to heal the land and people through a communal garden on the grounds of a residential school and the attempts that her friends Nitanis and John made to live off the land. Coté further acknowledges her broader community of social, environmental, and food justice warriors, to whom she dedicates her book, addressing it to everyone who wants to make healthy choices.


In Earthworks Rising, Chadwick Allen, an American Indian Studies scholar of Chickasaw descent, investigates the “original and ongoing significance” of Indigenous mounds as explored in contemporary Native arts (330). This extensive study addresses centuries of colonial theories and practices (such as archeological attempts to dominate mounds intellectually, often by damaging them) and the scarcity of research on the lived Indigenous experiences of interacting with those massive ancient constructions as builders, residents, visitors, or “Indigenous peoples living in the present or future” (22). Often treated like a canvas for settler fantasies, earthworks are reclaimed as living relations: the term emphasizes “grounded earth, dynamic works” (10). Allen defines them as a “synthesis of artistry and engineering: projects in applied Indigenous science staged as ceremonial complex, social forum, sports or civic arena, busy marketplace, artistic workshop, open-air theater” built across the eastern continent (10). Through real-life and artistic examples (like Choctaw poet Allison Hedge Coke’s layering of prime numbers in Blood Run), he stresses their mathematical encoding and alignment with cosmic and land features, arguing that they are forms of writing knowledge through the land and require an embodied reading.


Thus he starts from his own journey with fellow students of earthworks (he refuses to be called a specialist). He includes dreams and diary entries about his processions around earthworks using his five senses through a process which relational archaeologist Mary Weismantel calls “slow seeing” (176): structures like the Serpent Mound in Ohio are not directly legible but intentionally necessitate long “physical and cognitive effort” (176). His years-long reflections with the aid of contemporary Indigenous artworks attest that mainstream archaeology contradicts Indigenous cosmologies: thus Alyssa Hinton’s Ancestral Plane, a mixed-media collage subverting a famous colonial painting of a burial mound, helped him realize that they were not intended as places of desolation but as wombs incubating new life.


The three parts follow the “three-worlds theory of mound-building cultures” (above, surface, and below worlds; 31) and revolve around major earthworks categories, their corresponding principles, and their spatial positionings. Part I, “Effigies/Crossing Worlds/Above and Below,” examines effigies, which have mimetic shapes like animals. Part II, “Platforms/Networking Systems/Cardinal Directions,” analyzes literary and performative engagements with platform cities like Cahokia. Part III, “Burials/Gathering Generations/Center,” investigates the meanings of burial mounds. The conclusion, “Earthworks Uprising,” emphasizes the resurgence of earthworks through “future-oriented” projects integrating ancient structures with new techniques; it ends on the word “Always” (337).


The three books are eye-opening in different ways; I admit that I knew very little about Indigenous earthworks in particular. It is striking that the authors present their contributions as journeys and conversations rather than finished products or definite answers, several even inviting readers to contact them. They vividly demonstrate how scholarship can be done differently, often from within the institutions they subvert, with clear love for their communities. Beyond a damage-centred approach to healing, they aim for “Indigenous futurities of love, joy, and justice” (16).


Work Cited

“Food Sovereignty, A Manifesto for the Future of Our Planet.” La Via Campesina, 13 Oct. 2021, viacampesina.org/en/food-sovereignty-a-manifesto-for-the-future-of-our-planet-la-via-campesina/.

This review “Healing Relations” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Apr. 2023. Web.

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