Photo caption: Environmental Sustainability Students stand in the healing garden at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College, at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere.
Contributor: Cassandra Carlson
How does one heal oneself? Whether it be a physical, mental, or spiritual injury, the only one that can truly heal ourselves is us. You can be prescribed medication by a doctor, for example, but if you do not take it, you will not get better. We are responsible for our own happiness, and thus, need to find and use our own tools to combat the difficulties of everyday life.
In today’s society, humans are sharing knowledge and producing opportunities at a far greater rate than ever before. At the same time, there is an increasing level of both supply and demand, in many fields, that is becoming unsustainable. The rise of urbanization and industrialization, and continuous technological and medical advancements, seem to imply that humans are increasing the tools available to combat everyday difficulties. The solution to solving our everyday problems may not be creating new tools, however. The solution may instead lie in re-examining how we can use the tools we already have to the greatest effectiveness. Maybe it is more accurate to say that “we’re given the tools to achieve happiness, it is up to us how we use them”. With that in mind, it can be argued that the greatest tool of all—Earth—is often the tool that is most ignored.
Healing Gardens are one of many tools used in Indigenous practices to promote greater health and wellbeing for both people and the Earth. Not only do plants provide a variety of beneficial medicinal uses, but healing gardens also act as an open space for worship, thinking, and self-reflection. The combination of connecting to the Earth and the benefits of the various plants within the garden provide the potential for people to gain great improvements to their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Land is also very important in Indigenous culture and holds a special connection to healing and overall wellbeing. The idea of respect and treating others the way you would want to be treated is the key feature between the relationship of land and human health. Is it a coincidence that as global climate change is on the rise, so too are levels of stress, anxiety, and general distress? From a Westernized perspective, this connection may never be examined. In an Indigenous worldview, however, it is ever so clear.
Compared to a Westernized perspective, Indigenous mental health revolves around a holistic approach, where all spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the individual’s current situation are intertwined. For example, improving cultural pride, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships has been shown to increase the resilience and wellbeing of many youth. A focus on the land-health connection has also been shown to provide many benefits to those who lack access to relevant mental health resources due to barriers in location, understanding and availability. Ideologically speaking, a problem that exists in the human mind probably has a solution that can be found in nature. . . Not only can Indigenous land-based programs provide the same, if not better, benefits than Western medicine, these programs are also more widely available to different demographics of people. Why then, are they not more popular? The answer could be rooted in colonialism.
Indigenous peoples have a historical level of mistrust of the Canadian government, and the practices it embodies. Understanding and accurately using land-based programs goes beyond having an uncomfortable conversation about the effects and involvements of colonial trauma and genocide and environmental protection. These conversations need to extend toward an acceptance of a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship between Earth and Human. For example, children should not just be taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but rather, should be encouraged to develop a personal connection to the Earth, to gain a greater appreciation and respect for the gifts that Earth provides.
How do we do this? As an Indigenous person myself, I believe the best way to learn is through the sharing of stories, listening to a variety of perspectives, and self-reflecting on different ways to integrate new ideas, opinions, or narratives. Our voices are powerful, but what is even more powerful is our ability to listen and relate to others. We need to respect and learn from the stories of others so that we have an integrated understanding and appreciation of the human experience.