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Learning from Indigenous Helpers and Scholars

The more I learn about Indigenous world views and approaches, the more solidly energized I become about how much our work building healthy communities can benefit when we recognize and learn from Indigenous knowledge sources.

Because I grew up in Canada, I grew up learning about Indigenous people, not from them. And most of what I learned was misinformation. Thankfully today things are shifting. Powerful community movements and leaders within Aboriginal communities, organizations and scholarship have been willing to take on the challenge of better educating those of us from a settler (non-Indigenous) heritage. I have often taken up these new opportunities to learn. It has always been time best spent: a workshop at a conference, a youtube video, a cultural or political gathering, an effort to facilitate learning among colleagues at work …and so many good books!Below I will share learnings from a favorite book of mine. But even if you can’t read on right now, I hope you will move on with a new (or renewed) determination to embrace any opportunity to learn from an Indigenous person/group/community when it next presents itself on your path. 

Below are some quotes, and their impacts for me, from the 2011 book by Ryerson University social work professor Cyndy Baskin called Strong Helpers’ Teachings:


“Let me share with you one of the challenges I am having right now… writing about Indigenous approaches on topics of helping as though they are separate from one another... Within Indigenous perspectives, everything is connected... Should I include a disclaimer here?” (p. 77)

I kept in that last sentence because it shows how Baskin’s warmth and humour permeate the book as much as her intellectual insights and social change determination.

I am struck throughout the book by how much of what Baskin emphasizes resonates with my experience and discussions in healthy communities work. For example:

  •  everything is connected;
  • we must work with families and communities if we want to impact individual health; and 
  • “helping” is reciprocal (i.e. when helping we also experience healing, when teaching we also experience learning).
“A world view is a foundation that guides how one sees the environment/land, people, communities, challenges, causes of problems, and possible solutions…” (p.11)
In reading this definition, I am reminded of how often HC Link works to help people and organizations see and approach the environment, land, people, communities, challenges, causes of problems and possible solutions differently. We share evidence and conceptual frameworks that differ from the dominant world views. As I already noted above, there is lots of alignment between our evidence and Indigenous knowledges. There are also places where Indigenous knowledges offer something unique.
“Centering Indigenous knowledges … can be a part of decolonization in Canada and elsewhere.” (p.17)
As I read, I reflect on how I could take a more active role in this centering:  recognizing Indigenous knowledges as an equally valued unique source of theoretical frameworks and approaches for our life and work (e.g. recognition beyond anecdotal proverbs). I remember how this was done when I attended the Health Promotion Summer School in 2001 in London: at the pre-school day, Western academic, Indigenous, and immigrant community health approaches to health promotion were presented together – a trilogy. Because of this, the foundational reference avoided being euro-centric. We need to make this a norm, instead of an exception.
“World views can be learned as they are general. Cultures cannot be learned unless one is immersed in the particular culture…” (p.12).

I learned that there is a big difference between me taking and applying a holistic approach (which comes from a world view) versus me taking and applying a cultural practice, like smudging. Through Baskin’s book, I became more convinced on the importance of clearly referencing the Indigenous knowledge sources of commonplace community-building practices like arranging chairs in a circle, and using a “talking piece” to promote inclusion. Baskin uses clear explanations and examples, as well as citations of other Indigenous scholars, to teach us how to become allies in decolonization. I learned more about how subtle colonization is, and how impactful our own subtle acts of decolonization can be.

From spending time with this book, I nurtured a new relationship to Indigenous cultures and peoples. In this new relationship I receive strength and knowledge from Indigenous cultures and peoples and I deeply appreciate the generosity of those (in this case Cyndy Baskin) who share with us Indigenous wisdom and “collaborative process tools”. Through this new relationship, I learn and confirm important knowledge and approaches - and ways of sharing knowledge and approaches - that help me advance equity and achieve stronger impacts in my work.

I highly recommend you obtain a copy of Baskin’s book, and share it around. You might also consider requesting your local library to acquire it in their collection …now there’s a small act of decolonization any of us can take on!

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