Environment

How can the land heal mental illness? Members of the Gwich’in Nation explain

Across the North, rates of addiction and mental illness dwarf national averages. Here’s how the land is helping people break through the pain.

At the 15th biennial Gwich’in Gathering in Tsiigehtchic, Northwest Territories just after the summer solstice, members of the Gwich’in Nation from Alaska, Yukon and N.W.T came together to govern as a nation and set goals for the future.

The gathering centres around the protection of caribou, since Gwich’in communities depend on the porcupine caribou herd for food, clothing and culture. But throughout the week, people continually expressed another common struggle – with mental illness, addictions and suicide.

In N.W.T., rates of alcohol-related hospitalizations, heavy drinking and suicide are the highest in the country. One study shows that 48 per cent of Indigenous people in the territory felt they were in good or excellent mental health, compared to 69 per cent across Canada. 

“We’ve all been touched by death and by suicide and by alcohol and drugs,” said Vuntut Gwich’in council Dana Tizya-Tramm. “They’re not going to go away. But neither will we.”

Many leaders spoke intimately about their journey towards healing, and how spending time out on the land has helped them, be it harvesting medicinal plants, berries, or caribou. I asked community members what land has to do with mental health, and here’s what three of them had to say.

Ellen Smith, Fort Mcpherson, N.W.T.

Ellen is a residential school survivor and a Gwich’in elder. After years of addiction and surviving abuse, she found support in others and learned to love herself. That’s when she began helping those around her, just as they had done with her. She started as a community social worker and ended her career working on addictions, as a board member for the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation. Today, 32 years sober, she runs a 24/7 crisis line from her home, on her own dime.

“The elders saw what was happening, nations being destroyed because of that abuse, and they said, ‘We have to save it, we have to save our culture and our way of living by sobering up.’ We’re going back to that way, and taking in the healing from the land, you have to learn about it.

When we sober up, we realize what caused our pain. Maybe some of us have been traumatized. And that there’s a history to that, because of the residential school era, when we came home and we couldn’t fit into the community because we were so brainwashed and we couldn’t speak for ourselves. So elders went to sobriety and said, ‘No more.’

My way of treating the addict, I would take them out to the land and teach them skills. We don’t talk about addiction, we just talk. And once we take them out there, we’re cutting wood, getting water, preserving things. With a clear mind, you can do the work properly. People don’t like being talked down to, so I don’t harp on them. When they say they feel so good, I tell them, ‘That’s the healing power from the land.’ They say, ‘Now I get it. Now I get what you mean.’”

Russell Andre, Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T.

Russell Andre places tobacco on the sacred fire, signalling the beginning of the Gwich’in Gathering and blessing the outcome of the five days that followed.

Russell was recently elected chief of Tsiigehtchic by one vote, but the close call has led to a second election. He was one of the first people to greet us when we arrived in town. Russell says addiction and healing for youth are key priorities when and if he takes office. His elders taught him to live from the land, and he continues to lead a subsistence lifestyle.

“The way I see it, is we all came from the land at one time. Even when God created us, we came from the land. And over time, the more disconnected we became from the land, in my own experience, the more sick I got and the more I depended on society to deal with my issues. And it brought me to a really low place.

“But when I turned about 40-years-old, I went to the land and I realized that, this place that I’m sitting in has got power and has got strength. And if you draw on it, it will help you. All of the medicines that it has to offer, all the food that it has to offer, and the shelters – it’s endless.

“So it’s really important for people when they want to heal their bodies and their mindsets, they go out onto the land and draw from its resources. That’s what it’s there for, that’s why we are the people we are.

“If we don’t have the land we don’t have nothing. If we don’t have the caribou we don’t have nothing. It’s our life, it’s our blood, it runs through our veins. It’s hard to explain to people that don’t have that connection. But once they go out there and they live, for even two weeks, then they can feel it. Then they’ll understand what we’re talking about.”

Angela Koe, Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T.

Angela Koe is 20-years-old and eager to start studying adventure guiding at Thompson Rivers University this fall. I met her when she gave a speech about youth and resilience on the last day of the gathering. Later, she was selling 50/50 tickets to raise money for her baseball team, the Shamrocks. I asked her what the land has to do with mental health.