Mi’kmaw Sisters Launch First Aboriginal Crisis Counseling Services in Nova Scotia

 Photo Credit Robyn Hazard
Photo Credit Robyn Hazard

Sisters Mindy Gallant-Zwicker and Robyn Hazard from the Mi’kmaw First Nation are opening an Aboriginal crisis counseling service for those living on reserves in mainland Nova Scotia. Because of the significant treatment dropout rates and underutilization of mental health services experienced in Aboriginal communities, they have taken it upon themselves to Indigenize the system.

The Alsusuti Aboriginal Crisis Counseling Services (AACCS) will provide mental health resources as well as traditional healing practices, combining the best of Aboriginal and Western medicines. Since about 68% of First Nations people live on reserves in Canada, they hope to reach and support individuals who feel more comfortable with in-community services.

Gallant-Zwicker, the counseling company’s owner who is also of the Glooscap First Nation, will be in charge of the traditional elements such as smudging and drumming. As an active member of her Aboriginal community, she has been learning techniques from elders and pipe carriers for years. These traditional practices promote cleansing of negative emotions, therapeutic relaxation and reconnection to culture, an often-overlooked yet vital step in Aboriginal healing.

“Our goal is to try to make sure that we are incorporating our culture at all times,” Robyn Hazard told CBC News.

Hazard yields a Master of Social Work from Dalhousie University, and has worked with Mi’kmaw Family and Children’s Services for over four years. She emphasizes the importance of home visits for communities on reserves due to their lack of resources in both access to transportation and finances. For clients in crisis, AACCS has teamed up with the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Heath Support Program and Health Canada’s Non-Insured Health Benefits Program to provide free services. Yup, free.

Both Hazard and Gallant-Zwicker’s highly specialized experiences and sensitivity as healthcare providers are exactly what Canada’s Aboriginal population needs today. With widespread health disparities such as the Attawapiskat suicide epidemic, it is clear that the current system in place is not meeting Indigenous needs. Change in health care availability for Aboriginals is an important first step towards initiatives such as suicide prevention. So far, AACCS is the first professional on-reserve counseling to provide in-community and traditional aboriginal services. Hopefully others follow their innovative lead.


Interview with Eunice Tso, 2016 Native Woman Business Owner of the Year: “Be honest and ethical if you want to remain in the Native Business world”

Earlier this year, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development named Eunice Tso the 2016 Native Woman Business Owner of the Year. Today Tso, the founder of ETD, Incorporated, is considered one of the premier consulting forces within the Navajo Nation. Her initial vision to form a small, highly specialized environmental consulting business has evolved over the past 20 years to be an agent of both continuity and change for Navajo lands.

In 1987 Tso graduated from Northern Arizona University with a B.S. in geology, and was hired by the Navajo Nation’s Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Department. After gaining practical experience, she returned to NAU for her M.S., focusing on environmental geology. By 1995 Tso was working part-time for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals while raising two boys with her husband, who was frequently away for work. She began to envision launching her own consulting firm.

“I knew I could create a niche for myself given that all or nearly all developments on the reservation require some type of environmental assessment,” Tso explains. Given both her personal background and postgraduate training, Tso had a full-scope understanding of the socioeconomic factors that were important to account for when developing land for commercial use on the Navajo nation.

For over twenty years, ETD (named for her initials, including her unofficial married name: Eunice Tso-Dotson) has been a leading force in land use and land use rights in Arizona. Tso connects specific opportunities and responsibilities with land development.

“Because of my background in geology and the area that was raised in, I always appreciated the land for its natural beauty and the history it contains. Land and land use rights are major issues on our reservation; livestock permit holders often stifle economic development. There are many illegal land uses. In spite of the rules on the books, there is no enforcement. Such illegal land uses include junkyards next to beautiful scenic areas. These are the kinds of issues that I try to address in my land use planning projects.”

Tso selects projects based on their potential to challenge the ETD team and be a credit to the company’s name. Her typical day goes beyond the office, with Tso volunteering to conduct field surveys. “I love driving to and through the Navajo reservation; it’s so beautiful out there. On my best work days, I’ve flown in a plush helicopter over Lake Powell and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Parks, or into Havasupi Canyon.”

Among her many accomplishments, she is especially proud of ETD’s work on the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Improvement project. From 2005 to 2009 ETD oversaw a private-government partnership that ultimately produced a new visitor center, a 90-room hotel (“The View”) and new infrastructure.

Tso notes there is still a need for these kinds of lodging projects on the Navajo Nation. She wants the land to be more than a drive-through for travelers, and instead be the destination itself. Tourism is the “untapped gold mine.”

For young Native women looking for advice on how to achieve their own goals, Tso’s recommendation is simple, “Keep up with the paperwork part of running your business,” and, “Be honest and ethical if you want to remain in the Native business world.”

Tso’s work is both protective and progressive. On the one hand, she ensures that the Navajo land’s beauty is preserved and its boundaries respected. On the other, she is helping bolster the Navajo People’s cultural and economic sovereignty by assisting the community’s initiatives to modernize certain areas of the land. Tso emphasizes, “I think a person and/or community are sovereign when they are economically self-reliant and make decisions for themselves.”   

Phobias Linked to Chemical Changes in DNA

 Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press
Photo Credit: Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

Modern medical researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have uncovered more information about how DNA works. While studying mice, researchers found that learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences was passed to subsequent generations. The results may explain why some people have neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety, PTSD and irrational phobias – it could be based on the inherited experiences found in their DNA.

Prior to this, scientists and medical researchers assumed that memories and learned experiences had to be passed on by instruction or through perception. While further research is necessary, the proof of structural changes in the brains of mice and their offspring indicates that memories can be passed to later generations through our DNA as well. If transgenerational memories were stored in human DNA, this discovery would have vast implications for medical treatments, psychiatric therapy and future reproductive practices.    

The idea of transgenerational memories is not new to Indigenous tribes. In fact, that notion is at the heart of the structure for many roles of tribal members within our communities. The practice of passing the roles of chief or tribal healer from one individual to their offspring or kin is one example. It could be argued that this was one of the reasons the clan structure within some tribes became utilized. When you think of the ramifications of holding the memories of your ancestors in your cells, you set up your community in a very different fashion than those who do not see a literal connection to those who came before them.

Imagine the changes that will surely occur to our current social structure once transgenerational memories supplied through human DNA is proven through medical research, when more knowledge that is Indigenous becomes common scientific thought.

REVIEW–Four Winds Literary Magazine, Issue No. 3, Taking Back Tiger Lily

 Four Winds Literary Magazine
Four Winds Literary Magazine

By Sheena Louise Roetman

This past summer, Sovereign Bodies ran criticism of the Taking Back Tiger Lily theme for Four Winds Literary Magazine’s third issue. The criticism was valid in that it was the opinion of its author. It was not a critique of the ‘zine itself, as it had not yet been released, and was rather a statement in which Tiffany Midge disagreed with the idea of the them – she did not feel that the idea of Tiger Lily deserved to be revisited by Indian country. But all of this has been covered already.

One of the more poignant criticisms Sovereign Bodies received in response was that this piece criticizing the idea of Tiger Lily fit within the theme itself – that Midge’s criticism of Tiger Lily was revisiting the idea of her, even if only to arrive at the same conclusion.

So, as a gesture of good faith, I’m here to as-objectively-as-possible tell you what I think about the 22-piece collection of fiction, poetry and personal essays that editor Misty Shipman Ellingburg has put together under the controversial theme.

Even before all the fuss, I had seen the call for entries and was excited because people kept calling it a zine and, in my day, a zine was a black and white, taped-and-glued together, photo-copied booklet someone had hand-stapled in their bedroom in the middle of the night when they were avoiding English papers. So my first impression was, admittedly, one of disappointment because the punk rocker in me still longs for the days of using my lunch money to mail order zines from all over the world, and receive personalized little envelopes full of comics, stickers, music reviews and essays written by people just like me.

But the beauty of the Internet (and sometimes its curse as well) is access for all, and we’ve seen positive proof of this in Indian Country over the past few years. Social media in particular has lead to movements with actual, verifiable results. We have created change by using the tools we have, and this is something at which Indigenous people are particularly adept.

And I think that’s exactly the sort of beauty that Four Winds has shown, in previous issues as well as the current Taking Back Tiger Lily issue. I was genuinely blown away with the variety of the writers themselves, especially since Indian Country can be a rather small world sometimes, and I had never heard of or read half the writers who were included.

The current issue features pieces from Indigenous people from all sorts of backgrounds – different nations, of course, but also different ages, gender identities, experience levels, academic backgrounds, etc. I’ve always said that I want Sovereign Bodies to feature the variety and depth of Indian Country, and I feel whole-heartedly that that’s what Four Winds strives to do as well.

Whether you agree with the idea of the theme or not, I firmly believe that Misty’s goal was to highlight exactly that – that we in Indian Country will not always agree, but giving space to those differing opinions and ideas is what matters.

Midwifery and Native Women: Changing Woman Initiative

Changing Women Initiative
Changing Women Initiative

By Samantha Nephew

Growing up Native, I’ve had to think about what parts of my life are “colonized” and adhere to values different than my own. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the one element that is so fundamental to life and yet status quo is hardly ever broken – birthing.

The Changing Woman Initiative in the southwest brings Indigenous identity and the values of respect and honoring women at the forefront. In cases of normal, healthy pregnancies, there should only be trust allowing our Native women to birth the way they inherently know how.

They say it’s one of life’s most profound, magical and enchanting moments – the moment when a mother holds her brand new baby in her arms for the very first time.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily know that as I’m 26 and childless, but I’ve made my interest in birthing practices, pregnancy and child bearing known. There is so much beauty in the power of giving life. And to do so with the power of your heritage and history of resilience at your side – that’s what makes the Changing Woman Initiative so powerful, and it should be a model of birthing emulated throughout all of Indian Country.

Nicolle Gonzalez, Executive Director and Nurse-Midwife at Changing Woman Initiative, says she’s taken on this project because she wanted to “help renew cultural birth knowledge to empower and reclaim Indigenous sovereignty of women’s medicine through women’s stories and life ways.”

Centers like Changing Woman Initiative takes the medical, passive approach to child birthing out of the equation. Trust in the woman with the aid of her midwife is the ultimate approach here. Now that’s empowerment.

The impact of this center could be great for Native women in the densely populated Southwest where the Navajo Nation alone has over 300,000 peoples (as determined by a 2010 census report). In contrast, according to Gonzalez’s GoFundMe page, there are only 15 Native American Nurse Midwives in the United States. Examples like the Changing Women Initiative will hopefully influence other Indigenous people to follow suit. A need was certainly determined here.

What better way to keep our cultures and traditions alive by starting at the very beginning of our children’s lives?

As a firm believer in reproductive rights and justice, Indigenous sovereignty and cultural knowledge, I am a huge fan of this holistic birthing center designed with Native values at its core. I stand with women who want to decolonize their births.

Historical Trauma, Racism and Eating Disorders in the U.S.

By Gloria Lucas

During my eating disorder healing journey, I felt the need to find out why I developed an eating disorder. With the common belief that only white women develop eating disorders in the U.S., I was not what people considered a typical case. As a Xicana (American-born woman with a Mexican-Indigenous descent) who didn’t develop anorexia but bulimia and binge eating, I just felt that my reasons for developing an eating disorder had a deeper root.

While reading, “A Hunger So Wide And So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems” by Becky Thompson, it really made me think about the connection between history and eating disorders. In her book, Thompson talks about the lack of body autonomy black people experienced during slavery and how the legacy of slavery still impacts the black community today. When I read this I asked myself, how has colonialism impacted me? As a person with migrant parents that experienced the vast impact of acculturation and systemic racism, how much of my parent’s trauma have I embodied? Having an Indigenous lineage from a country that was violently impacted by European colonialism, I wondered how much trauma had accumulated in my body over the generations that, in return, influenced me?

These questions led me to research historical trauma (also known as intergenerational trauma), which is, “is a constellation of characteristics associated with massive cumulative group trauma across generations, similar to those found among Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants (Brave Heart).” For the most part, historical trauma research has been coined and carried out in Native American populations, but I feel that this information is applicable to Indigenous people of Mexico, Central America and South America because we have experienced similar European colonization. Historical trauma responses include “anxiety, intrusive trauma imagery, depression, elevated mortality rates from cardiovascular diseases as well as suicide and other forms of violent death, psychic numbing and poor affect tolerance, and unresolved grief (Brave Heart).”

Considering there are some similarities between eating disorders and historical trauma,there is very little research or information linking both subjects together. Why? Research ignorance and bias. For the past 30 years, media and medicine have portrayed eating disorders as only affecting white, privileged, cis-gender women and this stereotype has dominated research. As it is, eating disorder research in non-white communities is scarce. It goes without saying that systemic racism also plays a large role in academia, medicine and medical research and that certain lives have more value than others due to sociopolitical class.

What is really alarming about current professional eating disorder education is that there is no coverage on the role that systems of oppression have on people with marginalized identities. US culture has a really hard time addressing social issues like racism and transphobia and this is reflected heavily in the eating disorders world.People of color and Indigenous people experience high levels of institutional racism and this plays a role in people’s mental health. This is alarming because not acknowledging racism and the impact of other forms of social systemic discrimination in people’s life means not fully accepting people’s experiences. Ultimately, when providers do not grasp oppression they limit the quality of their services, therefore impacting the client’s overall success and recovery.

We are in a time and age where we need to put discomfort aside and start having conversations about the violent impact of inequality. One step that everyone can take to help people’s journeys to healing is educating oneself by doing more active listening. Providers can find a great check-off list here if they are interested in making their services more culturally relevant to all. Medical research and employment in the eating disorder field needs to more accurately reflect the kinds of people that struggle with eating disorders while respecting the importance of community-led work done by people with marginalized identities.

Connecting Diné Suicides and Wastewater Pollution

Photo Credit: Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald, AP
Photo Credit: Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald, AP

By: Shauna Osborn

For the last century, many people have had a reckless relationship with their environment. The kind of relationship that involves ignoring the Earth, botanicals and bodies of water outside their front door until some catalyst creates a change – a large damaging storm, an earthquake, wildfires, a drought or a health mandate from their therapist or spiritual advisor. You know, something powerful, potentially dangerous and out of the ordinary.

This is not the way Indigenous folks relate to their environment. Despite the inherent differences in the views from tribe to tribe, traditional tribal views all include a strong connection to the ecosystem that the tribe relies on to survive. This is especially true of tribes like the Diné, who celebrate their relationship with the Earth through agricultural practice and care of livestock.

Farming communities are emotionally attached to their land, plants and water. It is impossible to follow a calendar based on the life cycle of plants – to have your future, food and livelihood all related to the condition of these elements – and stay detached. So when Russell Begaye – the Navajo Nation’s president – made a media statement in which he expressed his concern that the destruction caused by the Colorado’s Gold King Mine spill last August may be contributing to the recent Diné suicides, it should not come as a surprise.

The disaster last August, when EPA personnel tried to clean out an abandoned mine, spilt millions of gallons of wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River. That spill turned the river a nasty yellow and caused widespread contamination on Navajo land. The prolonged conflict over funding clean-up efforts intensifies the daily struggles that members of the Diné community already face.

The Navajo Nation’s water has been poisoned since the 1950s by uranium mining, coal mining and dirty coal-fired power plants. With the additional wastewater contamination from the spill last August, the condition of the Navajo Nation’s water supply is more horrific than the current problems in Flint, Michigan. Yet, like most Indigenous environmental concerns, there is rarely any media coverage focused on Diné land and water pollution.

Without even knowing what side effects each of the pollutants in the wastewater will bring, it is not difficult to imagine the negative impacts that heavy pollution to your water supply will manifest in a poverty-stricken community with already existing high suicide rates. Crops will be negatively affected. All the livestock is at risk of illness or death. There is a lack of fresh water to drink, wash and cook. Mental and physical health of the community members will deteriorate.

Despite all of the above, the focus right now should be on clean water access and preventative care strategies for the depression that several Diné community member’s battle. The arguments fueled by several tribal representatives against Begaye’s statement surrounding why Diné suicide rates have increased are not solving anything.