I first want to acknowledge that I am writing this from Richmond Hill, Ontario, which stands on the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinabek Nations, and the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation.
The second Monday of October is what many celebrate as Columbus Day, especially in the United States. This garbage holiday celebrates the “discovery” of land by forces of violent colonization, where people already resided and led full and culturally rich lives. It represents the erasure and murder of peoples and cultures.
In 1992, 500 years after Columbus’ landing in the Americas, Berkeley, California chose to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. As time went on, more and more areas and municipalities adopted this new holiday, celebrating, showcasing and educating on the cultures, languages and art of Indigenous People’s across the Americas.
Why would this be relevant to a mental health blog? It has been my hope and my aim to make my platform informative on more diverse topics and communities. Indigenous People’s Day is an opportunity to bring awareness to the unique mental health challenges and barriers to access to care faced by Canadian Indigenous communities. This relates to the holiday because the long term impacts of the atrocities of colonization as well as the ability or lack thereof to live in celebration of one’s culture play a substantial part in social determinants of health for Indigenous people.
In Canada, Inuit communities experience suicide at a rate 11 times higher than the national average and First Nations communities at a rate twice that of the national average. In First Nations youth, this rate is five to seven times higher. A First Nations Regional Health Survey from 2008-2010 shows that 50% of First Nations people stated they live with moderate to high levels of psychological distress while this number is 33% for the general population.
These disparities have been shown to be related in part to factors such as exposure to aggression and racism, attendance in the residential school system and lack of cultural continuity. Cultural continuity here means the ability to preserve and use one’s language and culture, to be connected with one’s land and heritage, to have control over things like land claims, self-government and to have access to culturally appropriate social services.
In short, a direct line can be drawn between the mental health challenges faced by Indigenous communities today and the horrors, destruction and long lasting consequences of colonization and of Europeans’ arrival in the Americas.
While this is far more complex than I could explore in one blog post, the point is to start reading, listening and educating ourselves on this topic. People are individuals and will experience unique mental health concerns based on genetics, environment, personality, etc. It is however undeniable that intergenerational trauma and the deep, painful and destructive ramifications of how Indigenous Peoples have been treated in the Americas are at the root of many of these mental health trends.
Part of rectifying the mental health disparities that exist within Indigenous communities is rectifying the wrongs that have been perpetrated over hundreds of years. This requires political action and policy change, but it also requires individual education and efforts. We need to confront our own biases that skew our understanding of the issues faced by these communities.
It is October 13th. Indigenous People’s Day was yesterday but the need for awareness, education, respect and change still exists the other 364 days of the year. I spent much of yesterday reading, researching and giving space to Indigenous voices and narratives and I encourage us all to keep doing so. Here are some places to start:
Download “Native Land” from the App Store: This app will tell you what traditional lands you stand on wherever you go so you can state your own land acknowledgements or simply be aware. It currently covers North and Central America, most of South America, Australia, New Zealand and some of Europe, but new information and data are constantly added.
Here is a sample list of Instagram accounts to learn from, from Canada and the United States. There are hundreds more and this is not by any means exhaustive. Most of these accounts will have highlights sharing other accounts you can learn from as well:
Read Indigenous authors, both in terms of non Euro- and white-centric educational, cultural and historical texts but also fiction, poetry, stories that demonstrate joy, culture and beauty. Find Indigenous activists and educators to follow on social media, watch films by and about Indigenous people.
Holidays are meant to be days of celebration, love and power and Columbus Day represents none of that. Happy Indigenous Peoples Day.