Western colonial ways of thinking about health tend to focus on physical disease and injury. However, in Indigenous communities, our personal health and the health of our communities are often thought of as being dependent on our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Also, for many Indigenous people, our health is deeply connected to the health of all of our relationships, including the relationships we have with each other, our tribe, our culture, our ancestors, future generations, and the land.
Many Indigenous cultural practices and lifeways are rooted in the land. From the animals we hunt to the water we drink, so many aspects of our wellbeing are tied to the land. Many of our teachers come from the land as well, including animals, plants, and the elements. Without them we would not know how to live purposefully and responsibly on Earth. For example, we learn what plants to eat by watching animals like the grizzly bear. We also know that we share these plants with the grizzly bear, so we make sure to never take more than we need. Reciprocity and giving are part of the cycle of life. We cannot take without giving back. This is how we care for all our relatives.
Care and love is part of our larger network of health. From the smallest shoot you grow on your windowsill, to praying over cedar trees in the forest you use to make baskets, participating in caring for natural beings opens your heart to something beyond yourself. When we care about something, we have a stake in it. When we have a stake in something, it feels like a part of us. We all want to heal and be well together.
From picking up litter, leaving enough berries for the animals, to advocating for our land and land return, organizing outdoor cultural activities (like fishing, hiking, tool-making etc.), eating traditional foods, or learning about our natural world, making a conscious effort to get reconnected with the land through cultural practices and traditional teachings can help heal us in ways that go beyond just tending to our physical being.
Because so much of what we have learned as Indigenous people comes from teachings of the land, we have a stake in its wellbeing, because that ancestral connection we have to the land impacts all of us emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Our relationships have power, and we have the ability to heal ourselves through our connection to our natural world.
- Sacred Water: Environmental Justice in Indian Country
- Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the U.S.
- Robin Kimmerer: ‘Take What Is Given to You’ (video)
Author: Rose Bear Don’t Walk is a Bitterroot Salish/ Crow Ethnobotanist, who has a Master of Science in Environmental Studies. Her research focuses on how traditional food plants can improve holistic health and cultural longevity for the Bitterroot Salish of Montana.