Indigenous Approaches to Community Care
Indigenous Peoples comprise less than five percent of the world’s population, yet their traditions, learned through generations, protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. At SPACE10, we want to learn from this intergenerational wisdom and amplify these voices in imagining a collective future for people and the planet. With Ancestral Futures, we pass the mic to Inuk filmmaker and activist Aka Hansen, who curated a series of conversations with Indigenous changemakers from the Arctic region.
For this conversation, Aka is joined by Indigenous birthworker Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, whose name means ‘between the clouds’ in her language, Anishinaabek. She lives and works on the shore of Lake Superior in Toronto, the homelands of her Nation. Growing up between Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation and the prairies of the Cree Nation, she spent a decade learning the teachings of her Elders. Now, she passes on those teachings, and her language, through activism, harm reduction work, and birthing assistance for Indigenous Peoples in Toronto.
Aka: I am so honoured to be speaking with you today. First, I would like to know about your work?
Brianna: I found out quite young that my responsibility was to be a helper. The Reindeer Clan/Hoof Clan/Caribou Clan has the responsibility as artisans, to share stories, to gather with people, to comfort or support people. There were so many young people in my community having babies unassisted. They didn’t have a mother to support them, or a community or relation because colonisation has separated us. So I realised, I had to step up and take that role.
I trained to become a perinatal outreach worker, and then a doula — which is a helper of the midwife. I help the person to go through the birth, supporting their emotional and physical needs. We called my great-great-great-great grandmother Kachimama, which means ‘great mother’. Kachimama delivered hundreds and hundreds of babies in our community. The love and care that we still carry are because of the love Kachimama taught everyone. Not just to affirm people in our community, but to affirm new life. That’s who I am.
Why do you think community care is important as an Indigenous person?
For Indigenous Peoples, care — not just medical or spiritual care, but a culmination of all those things — is integral to any territory you’re on. It’s the connection that has existed there forever. Studies show that people have been living on this island for 14,000 years. Science now confirms what we already knew. Our creation stories go back to time immemorial — to the very beginning of time. Since 1492, when settlers came to these lands, that is a very small window of time compared to the experience that our ancestors have here. Our care is informed by our teachings, our history, the relationship to the land and the water, and by the change of seasons.
Did you grow up with these teachings from childhood, or did you, at one point, take pride in starting to learn this?
My mum took us to different ceremonies growing up, but I didn’t become fully involved until I was a young adult. I would go to my community and sit beside my grandma. That was where a lot of my teachings came from, and also from the lodge.
I was adopted by a Cree Elder on the prairies as a child. A lot of my teachings come from spending time there. It’s not like school, with modules and curriculum. I spent 10 years sitting next to him at a lodge. It’s time, it’s investment, it’s humility, it’s giving your offerings.
A lot of what we do is around cultural revitalisation and resurgence. I am who I am because of those teachings. My ethics, all of who I am is informed by that. My role now is to pass that on. That’s what my Elder told me: ‘You’ve been here long enough, you know what I taught you — now you can go share that with other people’.
How do you incorporate traditional knowledge in your work?
With Indigenous birthwork, it’s specific to your Nation. Water is sacred to our Nation. We are nomadic and travel from one place to another in the Great Lakes region. We are in constant relationship with that water. All of our creation stories are connected to that water. Manatees, our spirit beings, are in that water. When you think about it, the womb is in water. That’s where life is living. So we know that when we stand up for the water, we are standing up for who we are. The health of the water is connected to the health of us.
For our Nation, we may do a cedar bath when the baby is born. Cedar is a plant that grows all across Turtle Island in different species and varieties. Cedar is one of our first sacred medicines. It has antibacterial properties. It’s soothing. We use it for birth and death ceremonies in our territories. That’s how my birthwork is inspired by my culture.
Can you talk about the relationship of Indigenous Peoples to non-human relatives?
One of the things I learned from my Cree Elder is the country is so concerned with Nation-to-Nation relationships between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian government.
But our first treaty relationships are with the land, the water, and our non-human relatives. A treaty is an agreement so you can live together in peace and harmony.
The reason for climate breakdown is we have forgotten to honour those original relationships with those relatives. When we come back to that, we can begin to fix everything.
How do you balance living in a big city and honouring your traditions?
I had a teaching from an Elder who said: ‘If you take a deer out of the country and put it in the city, it’s still a deer. It’s never not going to be a deer’. Our people kept their culture, no matter what. Many of the people we meet on the streets of Toronto are fluent in their language, they know their traditions, they know what food they need to nourish their body. We’re still Native, wherever we go.
Your work is very much contributing to healing and taking back pride. How can we take the wisdom from our ancestors into the future?
The colonial government has taken our education from us. From the time you’re small until post-secondary, you’re only given the European settler knowledge. None of it includes our histories, our contributions to society. None of it values our wisdom. We have to begin thinking outside of those institutions. The history of this territory wouldn’t be what it is without Anishinaabek people. Democracy wouldn’t exist here if it wasn’t for the lodges. We have to take on the role of teaching our young ones and our peers and being strong advocates for our history and experiences in these territories.
We have to start investing in Indigenous communities. So many Indigenous languages are struggling. We have to invest in them and in spaces in our communities to revitalise the language. That’s the future I see.
How can non-Indigenous people start to take action?
Look up the Indigenous territories of where you are. Colonisation is about erasing Indigenous Peoples. What is the opposite of that? You can recognise us, you can affirm us, you can learn about us.
A warm thank you to Aka Hansen for this generous, seed-planting journey. Listen to the full conversation. Read abridged versions of Aka Hansen’s introduction to the series and conversations with Paninnguaq Lind, Alice Qannik Glenn, and Sunná Nousuniemi. We’ve woven these stories together in Ancestral Futures.
Aka Hansen is an activist, mother, and Inuk filmmaker from Greenland. After gaining recognition in Greenland’s film and television industry, she founded Uilu, a production company on a mission to tell more Indigenous stories with Inuit voices. She has been active in recent debates on the decolonisation of Greenland.
Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat is an Anishinaabek birthworker, jingle dress dancer, artisan, activist and member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation. She is co-founder of Native Arts Society, an Indiqueer/Two-spirit-led gallery and studio in Toronto. She also co-leads Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, a response to the shutdown of frontline services to Indigenous houseless folks in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.