An Indigenous healing connection to the land

Geoff Russ, The Source

March 23, 2021

Suicide among Canada’s Indigenous people is disproportionally higher than in the non-Indigenous population according to a survey done by Statistics Canada (2011–2016). Less well known are the traditional means that Indigenous communities can draw upon to combat that tragedy.

Alanaise Onischin Goodwill, PhD, spent two years studying the intergenerational effects of suicide and how the Stó:lō people of southern British Columbia combatted it by land-based Stó:lō practices. Her talk, entitled Shxweli and resilience, at the SFU President’s Faculty Lecture Series on Apr. 7, 2021 will focus on the Stó:lō connection to the land and its healing effects.

Goodwill’s work focuses on the link between traditional knowledge and the recovery of Indigenous peoples experiencing historical trauma in Canada. Her work and scholarship on mental health landed her an advisory role on the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Her lecture will be the latest contribution to that body of work.

In her lecture, Goodwill, a registered psychologist and assistant professor of Counselling Psychology at Simon Fraser University (SFU), will talk about land-based resilience and recovery practiced by the Stó:lō that helps overcome the intergenerational effects of suicide.


The land and people

Goodwill’s audience will learn of the importance placed by the Stó:lō on their connection to the land. The Stó:lō have a deep and intimate connection to the Fraser River which Goodwill, an Anishinaabe woman, experienced growing up on Stó:lō territory. “Sto:lo means river, and the Fraser River flows through their territory connecting the villages and unifying their relationship to all the things that the river sustains,”she says.

In the Stó:lō language, Halq’emeylem, Sóhl Téméxw means “our land”. Shxweli, means the “life force” connecting every Stó:lō person to everything within their land along the Fraser River. Both the land and Stó:lō teachings of Shxweli are pillars of Goodwill’s presentation on land-based resilience and recovery.

Goodwill’s presentation is the result of a two-year research project conducted together with young Indigenous people, Chiefs, Elders health workers, and scholars. “I cannot speak on behalf of Stó:lō people but can only comment on what they have shared with me,” she states.

The Stó:lō have shared knowledge of the land with newcomers since the first settlers arrived. Though not a settler herself, Goodwill was a newcomer herself and knows gaining knowledge and support from the connection to the land is a universal possibility.

“Many of us live in the presence of Stó:lō ways of being and knowing vicariously, just

by living on their lands,” says Goodwill. “To be in the presence of people with this kind of relational knowledge with their lands is to be in the presence of an ancient scholarship.”

Fostering healthy minds through connection to land

Having spent over 17 years as a mental health practitioner in Indigenous communities, Goodwill makes it clear that lacking a connection to the land leads to depression for many Indigenous people. Consequently, land-based resilience and recovery through Stó:lō teachings is key for combatting the effects of suicide among generations of people.

“Everyone grows resilience from this practice,” says Goodwill. “By including the younger people, it can prevent the harms that come from Indigenous peoples growing up disconnected from their land”.

Although a Stó:lō practice, Goodwill sees land-based recovery and resilience as a method for those willing to try it. She feels everyone gains resilience from the practice of land-based recovery. “The universal truth here is that connection to land supports all of our lives,” says Goodwill. “When we live in a way that creates a constant awareness of this fact, we all get healthier.”

For Indigenous communities, teaching these practices to younger generations is vital to combat the effects of disconnection from the land.

Regarding the future of joint Indigenous studies and psychology, Goodwill’s experience on land-based resilience and recovery makes her optimistic about the future.

“It was important for me as a psychologist to allow Stó:lō knowledge to emerge in a way that it is safe and respected.” she says. “I think we are at the stage of learning how to engage and include this knowledge in our teaching.”

The free lecture series examine themes of resilience and recovery from a variety of disciplines. Lectures are followed by a conversation between presenters, SFU President Joy Johnson, and the audience.

For more information on the event, visit www.sfu.ca/sfu-community/events.html#!view/event/event_id/16529

For more info on Goodwill, visit www.sfu.ca/education/faculty-profiles/agoodwill.html

This was published by The Source on March 23, 2021.