Slideshow image
Slideshow image
nav image
nav image

The Healing Power of Art & Reconciliation 

Two weeks ago, I returned to my old stomping grounds at the Vancouver School of Theology to enjoy my first course at the Indigenous Studies Program Summer School. The Indigenous Studies program was formed many years ago to better facilitate theological education for Indigenous students by offering coursework needed for an MDiv or other theological degree in a culturally appropriate, holistic, and interdisciplinary way. The Rev. Melanie Calabrigo has attended this school for many years. Until recently, I never knew that non-indigenous students are welcome to courses for credit or as part of continuing education. There is, of course, a cap on how many non-indigenous students can register each session.

 I registered for a course called Land-based Wellness taught by Lauren Aldred (English/non-status Plains), a lifelong student of plant medicine currently working on her Doctorate of Ministry dissertation. This course sought to give students a clearer picture of traditional land use and relationship in Indigenous cultures, and how it informed health, wellness, and spirituality.

The class was in two pieces, with a sit-down portion and a portion that involved wellness practices like herb-gathering, wildcrafting (we made a medicinal salve and other products from foraged material), painting (my first time trying acrylic pour!), and yoga.

For many Indigenous cultures, relationships are the basis of all endeavours, so we spent a lot of time discussing the assigned articles and our own experiences in sharing circles. This not only accommodates a variety of learning styles, but allowed for a more culturally appropriate environment where the many elders within the class could share their own personal and inherited ancestral wisdoms. Finally, rather than writing an exam or a paper, all of us together spoke to each of the competencies to discern whether we had developed them. We did this, Lauren explained, because “the burden of knowledge is not on one person’s shoulders – we share and hold it together.”

The articles we read covered a variety of topics, but most relevant - I thought - were the ones on art and its role in healing. One of the larger documents was a research series sponsored by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation called “Dancing, Singing, and Painting the Healing Story,” by Linda Archibald (et al), a social worker and writer on Indigenous trauma and healing. The document sought to explore the question, “What happens when art, music, dance, storytelling, and other creative arts become a part of community-based Aboriginal healing programs?”

The nature of the ongoing and historic traumas suffered by Indigenous peoples in Canada precludes them from being healed in any significant way by Western psychology or biomedical models. What colonization takes (and attempts to take) from the colonized is a sense of identity, a sense of their culture having its own inherent value and necessity for a fully healed and blessed world. This is not only done through explicit acts like the banning of the Sun Dance and Potlatch, or enforced attendance of so-called residential schools, but implicitly through favouring Western modes of engagement, education, healing, and cosmology over and above Indigenous modes. 

If we truly want to invoke a spirit of healing in our work of re/conciliation, the restoration and sharing of cultural practices is paramount.

But it’s not just that we have divorced people from their cultural practices and now we seek to rectify that by returning them. That’s too transactional! We have to decolonize even further than that.

I think we are beginning to see it happen in the work many of us have been doing with Rikki Kooy, the teaching elder at Christ Church Cathedral, and especially the art workshops arranged for the “Being a Good Ancestor” series sponsored by our Diocese and several parishes in the Archdeaconry of Granville. 

In working with Rikki making prayer flags for our prayer pole; in making cedar woven rattles with Todd G̱íihlgiigaa DeVries; in making beaded orange shirts with Kerry Baisley; in drum-making, foraging, wildcrafting, singing, dancing, and listening to the stories of the elders, we open ourselves to being changed by something that Western society still, all too often, cannot help but commodify. 

We open ourselves to the possibility that something as simple as sewing an abalone button onto a felt square while an elder shares the story of children lost and found could actually be one tiny step in the healing of not just a church, but a nation.