Tłı̨chǫ Elder Nora Wedzin remembers the tuberculosis epidemic in the early 20th century. Wedzin, from Behchokò, was taken from her community as a young girl to receive treatment.
She recalled: “I was in isolation, and I didn’t know what was going on [with] me. I didn’t understand English [and] I didn’t know where my parents were. I cried for them.”
Wedzin eventually recovered and returned to her family and community.
Many decades later, the Covid-19 pandemic is presenting similar challenges to Indigenous communities in the NWT.
This time, Wedzin said her community is fortunate to have improved medical facilities, Tłı̨chǫ healthcare professionals, and more access to technology and information.
“The only way we can cope with each other is to be very positive and try to help each other and try to unite,” she said.
“Health comes from positive energy. That’s what I want to share.”
On Wednesday night, Wedzin offered this tip and others in an online sharing circle hosted by the NWT’s Hotıì ts’eeda research support centre.
Indigenous knowledge-holders of different backgrounds came together to discuss how communities can stay healthy and happy during Covid-19.
“As Indigenous peoples, we have a history of epidemics and pandemics that we have endured through the years,” said moderator Dëneze Nakehk’o from the Lı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kųę First Nation.
“But the thing to remember is that we are still here.
“[We would like] to share some ideas on what we can do during this time in connecting or reconnecting to the land, language, or culture, and to those things that make us Indigenous.”
‘A form of planetary grief’
Speakers included Wedzin, Tłı̨chǫ nurse Lianne Mantla-Look, co-founder of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation Dr Nicole Redvers, and mental health advocate Jennie Vandermeer.
From self-care to proper hygiene practices, to debunking misconceptions about the virus, the knowledge-holders tackled topics related to Indigenous communities. More than 60 people across the territory tuned in to the Facebook Live event to hear what the speakers had to say.
Dr Redvers is a naturopathic doctor and a member of the Deninu Kųę First Nation in Fort Resolution. Drawing on the teachings of Elders in her community, she spoke about the ways the natural world reflects Covid.
“When I look at this virus, I really think of it as being a form of planetary grief, or Mother Earth grief,” she said. “And I think Mother Earth is literally grieving through human lungs for how our modern society has been treating her – taking her resources, polluting her water, her air.”
For her, the virus offers a moment of self-reflection, where communities can re-learn how to live with Mother Earth.
It’s a wake-up call – not only in how we should treat the planet but in how Indigenous peoples should treat themselves. It’s a chance, she said, to return to practices that were taken away from communities in processes of colonization, such as languages, diets, and ceremonies.
“I think in the sense of going through a decolonizing process for our bodies, we can really sort-of encourage going back to our traditional foods … more in keeping with our natural ways and the natural laws of where we exist,” Dr Redvers said.
A reminder of tenacity
Mental health advocate Vandermeer, from Délįnę, agreed. Colonization has led to problems with mental health across communities, she said, adding self-care is a way of remembering “how powerful [Indigenous peoples] are.”
“When I take care of myself, my body, all of it, you know, it’s my way of trying to honour my ancestors,” she said. “So, I encourage you to do the same.”
That includes getting outside, exercising, and meditating, Vandermeer said. These activities can improve both mental and physical health and act as alternatives to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol.
Vandermeer, Dr Redvers, and Wedzin each reflected on the hardships Indigenous peoples in the North have faced. Residential schools, past epidemics, housing crises, and addictions are some of the things their own communities have struggled with.
With everything Indigenous peoples have overcome, a pandemic is another reminder of their tenacity, the speakers said. Sharing traditional knowledge, offering support to one another, and being kind to yourself and others is how communities will move forward.
“First Nation people have strength, and they are known for their resiliency,” said Wedzin. “Today, we need to focus on our strength and resilience.”
As for Mantla-Look, a Tłı̨chǫ-speaking nurse in Behchokò, there’s one thing she wants people to remember: “Keep washing your hands!”