July 9, 2021

A return to ceremony

Book aims to shine a new light on the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada's child welfare system
Book jacket cover of Growing a Child

Indigenization. Decolonization. Reconciliation. These are familiar terms to anyone engaged in contemporary social discourse regarding First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Tellingly, though, these words mean little in Indigenous languages such as nêhiyawewin (the Cree language). “They are all really Western words; there are no Cree words that are the equivalent of those,” says Dr. Ralph Bodor, BSW'94, MSW'95, PhD'04, an associate professor with the Edmonton-based Central and Northern Region of the University of Calgary's Faculty of Social Work. “What we’ve discovered is that, once we enter into Indigenous ceremony, none of those words have any meaning.”

In their co-edited book, ohpikinâwasowin: Growing a Child, Bodor and three of his colleagues – Dr. Leona Makokis, Hon. LLD'10, EdD, a Kehewin Cree Nation Elder and former president of the University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills; Dr. Avery Calhoun, PhD, professor emerita of UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work; and Stephanie Tyler, BSW'07, MSW'13, a UCalgary PhD student – encourage social workers to do just that: enter into ceremony. They even suggest readers smudge before diving into the text.

Ceremony, in short, informs everything – knowing, being, doing, learning, healing, research and practice. In recounting her personal experience with ceremony,  Makokis tells of how fasting helped her arrive at a place of truth, creating the foundation on the which this book rests.

“In finding that truth, I also found myself deeply embedded in that journey in connection to my extended family, in connection to the Elders, in connection to my language, in connection to the academic work that I was doing – all of it was based on my worldview,” she says. “Everything that I wrote came from there. That truth has guided me on that path that I think my grandmothers intended me to be on. It’s guided me on that path to this day.”

This journey of healing through ceremony, rather than Western approaches, has been the experience of many residential school survivors. In light of the recently discovered unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children this points to the need, as stated in Growing a Child, to “invert the long-held, colonial relationship between Indigenous peoples and systems of child welfare in Canada."

“In finding that truth, I also found myself deeply embedded in that journey in connection to my extended family, in connection to the Elders, in connection to my language, in connection to the academic work that I was doing – all of it was based on my worldview.”
Leona Makokis

The book’s contributing authors – 15 social-work and social-services practitioners, not including the editors, from nêhiyaw, Métis, Anishinaabe and non-Indigenous backgrounds – examine the over-representation of Western worldviews, values and practices in the lives of Indigenous people and present an alternative to current child welfare services. Using the nehiyaw Turtle Lodge Teachings, the book provides several decolonized wisdom-seeking (research) projects and service provision changes. One example is that, instead of focusing on chronological age, the book instead uses the lens of the eight interconnected stages of life based on the lived experiences of children and youth.

While the book is rooted in Indigenous tradition, the material is presented in a decidedly contemporary context – QR codes in the first chapter, for example, lead to videos of teachings from Elders on everything from Creation stories to relational accountability.

“Right now, social work is very focused on trauma-based theory, trauma-based approaches – however, once you understand trauma, what’s next?” Bodor says. “With Indigenous children and families, we need to move into healing. So, all our work is focused on ceremony-based healing.”

Tyler says the book "was really driven by the desire to give space to Indigenous worldviews and understanding children, families and healing from within an Indigenous universe, as opposed to a Western lens,” adding she felt greatly privileged to have the opportunity to co-edit the volume with such experienced and knowledgeable colleagues.

“We tried to detail this perspective in many different aspects: from working with infants and children, all the way up to adults who are trying to reclaim their cultural identity and their kinship heritage,” she says. “We are hoping that social workers and other helping professionals recognize the necessity of ceremony to healing by experiencing ceremony themselves and reading about the many ways in which we have sought to honour Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing, and demonstrate what practice through ceremony can look like.”

ohpikinâwasowin: Growing a Child is available through Fernwood Publishing.

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, “in a good way,” UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.