“Cultural Awareness- Working with First Nations Communities: Seek First to Understand” by Sherry Saunderson, RDH

Sherry Saunderson, RDH.

Sherry Saunderson, RDH.

I have had an intrinsic interest in Indigenous cultures most of my life. Perhaps I was influenced by my mother and grandmother’s stories through their contact with members of the Sarcee Reserve (now Tsuu T’ina Nation), which was down the road from my grandparents’ Southwest Calgary home. I also had many unanswered questions about “Indians” since my knowledge of Canadian “history” was learned through the French/English colonial perspective.

Three decades after my dental hygiene graduation I had the opportunity to learn more about Coast Salish peoples when I was offered a contract to work with the Cowichan Tribes. My goal was to develop a community health family based program to tackle high rates (79%) of early childhood caries. I was also fortunate to have the chance to seek out courses to increase my limited knowledge of Indigenous peoples in Canada. I enrolled at Malaspina University College in Women’s Studies 210: Aboriginal Women and Treaties and Women’s Studies 211: Themes in Women’s Studies: First Nations. The classes, taught by two inspiring Indigenous instructors, were exhilarating and informative and fed my desire to learn more.

In my classes, I had the chance to examine a range of themes and issues relating to contemporary First Nations and Metis women including: cultural representation and appropriation, Indigenous women and government, healing, two-spirited women, resistance and activism. We also read and discussed numerous literature selections including Janice Acoose’s Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaw. This powerfully written work deconstructs stereotypical images of Indigenous women in popular “literature” as shaped by the ideological influences of the white Euro-Canadian, Christian patriarchy. Acoose maintains that in Euro-Canadian literature Indigenous women are imprisoned in stereotypical images that perpetuate racism, sexism and fosters cultural attitudes that encourage violence against Indigenous women.

Sadly, twenty two years after Acoose’s work CBC’s recent 5th Estate program, Death in Thunder Bay: No Foul Play, highlighted the ongoing systemic racism in Thunder Bay’s police force where unexplained deaths of First Nation citizens continue to be filed away as ‘non-criminal accidents’. We also have the roughly 1,200 missing and murdered women in Canada, and the ‘Highway of Tears’  west of Prince George where many young women have disappeared, many of them Indigenous.  These realities alone should tell us that we still have a long way to go in terms of ending systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.

Author Richard Wagamese and Sherry Saunderson at his book reading and signing in Sidney, B.C.  October 2015.

Author Richard Wagamese and Sherry Saunderson at his book reading and signing in Sidney, B.C. October 2015.

Knowing that I, as a primary health care provider, had more work to do to understand the deep seated systemic racism and to foster my cultural competency, I continued my studies by enrolling in courses related to First Nations English Literature, history etc.  My collection of literature with Indigenous content continued to grow and I worked to dig more deeply into the importance of healing and recovery of the spirit from the forces of colonial oppression.  The effects of intergenerational trauma from Residential Schools has impacted every First Nations community and researchers write on topics that range from suicide, cancer, diabetes, addiction, violence and issues in health management promoting wellness in times of change. As I studied more, I came to appreciate the strength and resilience that was required by Indigenous families in view of all that has been perpetrated on their culture and lives.

In 2006 I enrolled in Thompson Rivers University’s Nursing 484: Nursing with Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. My 34 virtual classmates were hospital nurses or student nurses. Because I had eight years of working directly on reserve, I was able to contribute significantly to the discussion and bring forward the perspective of another health care provider.  This course was deep, exploring power relationships, oppression, racism and the immense responsibility of engaging in cross-cultural work. I loved it ! Working with Indigenous peoples is a unique field of practice and as practitioners we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about Indigenous history and issues.

My educational path has taken me through these courses, allowed me to do my own reading and has fostered in me a continued and ongoing desire to keep learning. In May a talk at the Royal B.C. Museum “De-Constructing Colonization in Each of our Lives” was presented by Louise Mandell, Chancellor of Vancouver Island University and a foremost Indigenous rights lawyer. A year ago a Symposium on the Biology of Loss was held in Nanaimo with keynote speaker author Dr. Gabor Maté, whose work included residents in the downtown eastside of Vancouver and the dispossessed. He spoke on trauma, addictions, suicide and mental health needs in First Nations communities.

I encourage my hygiene colleagues to shift to a dual focus that allows them to not only continue to learn the high end technology, clinical procedures and office management seminars, but also explore, learn and read about the rich and complex history of Canada’s First Peoples. With dental disease rates three to five times greater than the rest of Canada, I envision a time when every First Nations community will employ their own dental hygienist as a partner on their health team. As health care providers we have a responsibility to enhance our cultural competency and ensure the cultural safety of those we care for.

Sherry Saunderson RDH, Canadian Keynote Speaker at the 2005 Indigenous Oral Health Symposium in Australia pictured with American Keynote, Sherry Saunderson RDH, Canadian Keynote Speaker at the 2005 Indigenous Oral Health Symposium in Australia pictured with American Keynote, Maxine Brings Him Back-Janis, RDH and MPH. Maxine is an Oglala Sioux from South Dakota, and Assistant Professor at Northern Arizona University.

Sherry Saunderson RDH, Canadian Keynote Speaker at the 2005 Indigenous Oral Health Symposium in Australia pictured with American Keynote, Maxine Brings Him Back-Janis, RDH, MPH. Maxine is an Oglala Sioux from South Dakota, and Assistant Professor at Northern Arizona University.

 

Suggested Reading:

  1.  “The Indian Act View of Women” from Kathleen Jamieson’s Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus.
  2. Report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996, Vol. 4, Chapter 2: “Women’s Perspectives”.
  3. Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaw by Janice Acoose.
  4. An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English 2nd edition.
  5. Canada’s First Nations, A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times by Olive Patricia Dickason.
  6. A PERSISTENT SPIRIT: Towards Understanding Aboriginal Health in British Columbia. Peter H. Stephenson, Susan J. Elliott, Leslie T. Foster, and Jill Harris, Editors.
  7. INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS: The Nuu-chah-nulth Experience produced by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
  8. Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese,
  9. Chilcotin Chronicles by Sage Birchwater.
  10. Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson.