Healing and reconciliation will come when there is true respect for Indigenous people, an acknowledgment of their humanity and the power of their culture to help all people. Photo by Michael Swan

Healing Indigenous communities

By 
  • June 10, 2021

Indigenous elder and lay minister Rosella Kinoshameg reflects on the Gospel of Matthew’s parable of the treasure discovered hidden in a field as she looks to find healing and meaning in the wake of the latest trauma to hit Indigenous communities in Canada.

It’s the Scripture she felt compelled to read at a sacred fire held outside of Holy Cross Church in Wikwemkoong First Nation in the days following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried near Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. People held tobacco offerings up to Heaven as they prayed and extended whatever message they had to the children, their parents and loved ones. Those offerings were put into the fire as the eagle feather was used to fan the smoke of their prayers up to God.

It’s not going to heal all the pain, says Kinoshameg, but it will be a start.

“At this time our hearts are heavy so you want to remove that heaviness and cleanse your spirit so that you will be open to receive whatever message that you’ll be getting out of all this,” said Kinoshameg. “You take all that negative energy that’s been removed and you put it on that smoke and burning medicine. Then we take the eagle feather, and we send that smoke up higher. We ask that eagle who flies the highest and sees the farthest to take our prayers to the Creator. We asked the Creator to give us cleansing and renewed energy.”

The retired nurse and residential school survivor has been a spiritual leader in her community on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. She is known for her commitment to the faith, justice and reconciliation. She has spent decades in healing work, caring for the sick both medically and spiritually. In 2000 she was commissioned by the Sault Ste. Marie diocese as a member of the Diocesan Order of Service.

The long-term effects of the trauma of children as young as three years old being removed from their parents is all too close to Kinoshameg, who was sent to residential school at age nine. In reflecting on the wounds from that experience of being separated from her parents and family, she reasons it is likely why she was so protective of her own children when they were young.

Healing for the nation and individuals comes through true respect for Indigenous people, through the acknowledgment of their humanity and the power of their culture and teachings to help all people, she says. A new project by the Jesuit Forum called Listening to Indigenous Voices, Kinoshameg believes, will be an important project for non-Indigenous people in order to learn more about their culture and ways.

Though society may have tried to bury the darkness of our history, Kinoshameg maintains it’s important on the healing journey that we face the pain head-on as a nation and within ourselves as individuals, especially Indigenous peoples, for the betterment of all.

“It can sit (inside you) and if you’re feeling it or it’s hurting, you’re wearing it,” said Kinoshameg. “It will make you sick. We have to talk about it. Dialogue is very important.”

Tom Dearhouse has been involved in such dialogue as a therapist for several years. A traditional support counsellor and social worker at Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services, he has skills in traditional Mohawk practices and healing methods such as sweat lodge and smudge ceremonies. He is a member of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine at the St. Francis Xavier Mission and co-chairs the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle along with Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas.

Dearhouse has been engaged in healing work with former residential school students and their families who are feeling the impacts of the intergenerational effects. Through his trauma-informed practice, he works to find the resilience in people. The latest trauma, he says, compounds so many others in the community. The discovery of the children left him in shock and filled with all kinds of emotions and looking at ways to respond.

The stress imposed by the bullying and the removal of language and cultural learning through the residential school system partly explains the lateral violence experienced in communities, which includes domestic violence and substance abuse, said Dearhouse.

“What the settlers and the mainstream society did to us, we’re doing it to each other,” he said. “I find myself placed to try to deal with that, to address the trauma.”

He leads several weekly groups in unpacking grief and other ways people are suffering psychologically, and is planning a sacred fires and teaching circles welcome to all those who felt the impact of residential schools and of the 215 children. For him it’s all about creating a safe space for people to share and providing them with tools for coping.

The impact of the Church’s presence on the reserves has been heavily discussed in communities, he said. The Church has been connected to splitting families apart and so much trauma, but it’s also the place where people have many happy memories of marriage, baptismal celebrations and other events. Indigenous peoples are challenged with holding those positive and negative realities at the same time. While lashing out in anger in different ways is a natural response to suffering it is not the healthy way forward.

“It’s a hard balancing act I would say, but I don’t think it’s the right way to act, to be taking a sledgehammer or making threats or carrying anger,” said Dearhouse. “If you can address that anger and get in touch with that maybe you’ll move forward. That’s where our work comes in as counsellors and helpers. We don’t call ourselves healers but we’re helpers to move people along.” 

While formal apologies can be a crucial part of the healing process on the national level, they don’t need to be the starting point for individuals to process their pain, said Dearhouse.

“For example, if you have something against your father from childhood and he’s passed on, you can still make things right,” said Dearhouse. “You can still get those emotions through ceremony and different methods where you’re going to let those emotions get out and say what you have to say. Use your own voice and fix things in a spiritual way.”

The road ahead is a long one, he said, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides the roadmap with its 94 calls to action. Though there is work to be done, Dearhouse through his work is obligated to the individual and communities as part of the healing of our wider society.

For Kinoshameg, true justice won’t be possible for the 215 children and however many others, and though we cannot change the past it must be examined to deal with where we are now. That comes with openness to new possibilities and ways of seeing our society and understanding the oneness we are called to walk in as created beings under God.

“We have a new trail ahead of us,” she said. “We see the footprints, but we have not followed to the point of knowing. In looking at our past, we have told our own story. Have lived in our own story. We cannot change the past, but we do have to look at our past of hurts to deal with where we are now. If we are unwilling to carry this to the future, then we should be standing towards the opening in the trail, to the opening of possibilities of our future. I believe that our answers lie in our traditional teachings and spirituality.”

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