Cannabis & Indigenous Women:
A Series of Health Stories

Cannabis Use and Culture

by Shelley Wiart

Our next cannabis storyteller, Tanya Snow is originally from Kanigi&liniq (known as Rankin Inlet), which is located in the Kivalliq region (northwest coast of the Hudson’s Bay of Nunavut). Her mother is Inuk and her father is Scottish. She has been living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories for the past twenty-five years, and she is a single mother to her son, Agalukti-Ipkarnaak, age ten.

Tanya shares her personal insights about the devastating impacts of colonization on her family members, and the intergenerational trauma that she and her siblings have experienced including being placed in foster care at a young age, struggling with addictions and mental health, and battling stereotypes imposed on her by her foster family.

The impacts of colonization on Inuit peoples are evident in the statistic pertaining to their violence and suicide rates, and high rates of substance abuse:

Inuit can expect to live 10 years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts and suicide rates for Inuit are five to 25 times higher than all Canadians. Substance use in many Inuit communities…is linked to high levels of suicide and violent crime. In Nunavut, for example, 23% of all premature deaths involved excessive drinking, and 30% of all homicides were linked to drugs and/or alcohol. Across Inuit Nunangat, 82% of those accused of homicide had used alcohol (Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development, 2019,p. 7).[1]

Tanya’s story personalizes these devastating statistics, and she recognizes that cultural displacement and assimilation left a void inside that she attempted to fill with cannabis use. It was through the practice of Katajjaq – throat singing that she found access to her inner peace.

Indigenous psychologists, Duran, Firehammer and Gonzalez (2008) recognize the importance of culture to heal Native communities that have experienced colonization:

“Culture is part of the soul. As human beings, we are all part of a culture and not separate from it. When the soul or culture of some persons are oppressed, we are all oppressed and wounded in ways that require healing if we are to become liberated from such oppression. All [Native] people have gone through some form of historical trauma that continues to cause confusion and suffering in the present” (p. 288).[2]

Tanya’s suffering was due to being removed from her land base and culture. She reclaimed her Inuit identity through practicing throat singing and discovered that it was a more sustainable and wholistic practice than using cannabis.

I would like to share that part of my motivation to share this five part series on cannabis and Indigenous women is the lack of culturally appropriate resources and literature on this topic. My web search for academic articles and grey literature on cannabis and Indigenous women turned up next to nothing. Most of the focus for Indigenous populations and cannabis is aimed at youth, most likely because of the public fear surrounding well-established associations between early-onset cannabis use and mental health problems and dependence outcomes (Fisher, Russel, Saioni, et al., 2017, p. 3).[3]

An Australian report, Raising Awareness About Cannabis (2012) did identify a gap in research pertaining to Indigenous peoples and cannabis:

There is a lack of clear direction for culturally appropriate treatment approaches to cannabis use, very little indication that many Indigenous people seek treatment for cannabis-related issues, and as such very few established treatment approaches for cannabis use in Indigenous communities. It appears that cannabis use may be a neglected topic across Indigenous health, and there may be little community awareness of cannabis use issues (n.p).[4]

There is a gap in culturally relevant, harm reduction approaches to delivering cannabis education to Indigenous women. I hope that I can co-create some health promotions materials with our cannabis storytellers in the near future. Our Women Warriors website features a tab on Cannabis Education and I’ll be sharing my health promotions unit on Cannabis Use & Pregnancy and/or Breastfeeding and our Cannabis and Indigenous Women five-part series of health stories. Please feel free to contact me with questions or comments about our cannabis series via email: Shelley@womenwarriors.club.

[1]Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development. (2019 March). Policy Brief Indigenous Harm Reduction = Reducing the Harms of Colonialism. Retrieved from http://www.icad-cisd.com/pdf/Publications/Indigenous-Harm-Reduction-Policy-Brief.pdf.
[2]Duran, E., Firehammer, J., Gonzalez, J. (2008). Liberation Psychology as the Path Toward Healing Cultural Soul Wounds. Journal of Counseling & Development. Summer2008, Vol. 86 Issue 3, p288-295. 8p. Retrieved from http://0-search.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=32732649&site=eds-live.
[3]Fischer, B., Russell, C., Sabioni, P., van den Brink, W., Le Foll, B., Hall, W., Rehm, J., & Room, R. (2017). Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines: A Comprehensive Update of Evidence and Recommendations. American Journal of Public Health, 107(8), e1–e12. https://0-doi-org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/10.2105/AJPH.2017.303818.
[4]Howard, J., Butt, J., Wright, T., Norberg, M., Copeland, J., & Wilkes, T. (2012). Raising Awarness About Cannabis. Retrieved from https://cannabissupport.com.au/raising-awareness-about-cannabis-its-use-and-impact-on-health-and-wellbeing-among-indigenous-australians/.

Katajjaq - Throat Singing

by Tanya Snow

The smoke rolls down my throat and into my lungs like a warm cloud of hazy green cotton candy. A soft and gentle wave of pleasure floods my limbs, my face, my eyes and lulls me to comfort like a baby swaying in a cradle. Smoking weed was great sometimes. After a few puffs, I was floating on an ocean of majestic pink lapping on the shore of a sunny tropical island. It was a way of dreaming, relaxing, of silencing my overactive mind. Although, once the high ended it was a fast snap back to reality. The high was fun but the burn out was low. For me, it didn’t feel like a healthy or sustainable form of rest and relaxation.

When I smoked something inside my gut didn’t feel right. There was a sinking feeling that weed was a bandaid for a wound deeper and darker than short term pleasure. Weed revealed a truth within myself that I could not rest and relax without the help of a substance. Considering my background and family history, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

I am genetically inclined to become an addict. Both of my parents were and are alcoholics. My paternal grandparents both died from alcohol poisoning. I have a sibling recovering from drug addiction, and another one committed suicide. Addictions and mental illness run deep within my family history.

As an urban Inuk woman that spent 15 years in the Northwest Territories foster care system, I am still healing from cultural displacement and assimilation. When I aged out of the foster care system I had many hurdles to overcome such as: poor life skills, poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. These hurdles are the stereotypical tribulations my people, Inuit and other minorities face due to the effects of colonization. My former foster family once told me I was destined to become a stereotype, but their imposed beliefs didn’t feel right for me.

To nurture a deeper sense of relaxation I tried yoga, meditation, a vegetarian diet, and running. I drank a lot of chamomile tea. Although nothing could touch or satisfy a deeper knowing that there was a void that needed to be filled in order to have that real soul satisfying relaxation hiding in the pit of my stomach. Relaxation didn’t come easy for many years until I found myself practicing more Inuit throat singing and realizing a deeper sense of calm.

Inuit throat singing is a traditional form of musical entertainment done typically between two women. We sing chant-like guttural sounds in a back and forth rhythm to imitate the world around us: animals, weather, the sound of daily life. While throat singing with a friend, warmth nested deep in my belly. It felt like a gentle kiss to the wound festering in my soul. Throat singing became my high.

Traditionally Inuit didn’t use substances like drugs or alcohol to experience another reality. We had belief systems that catered to the facets of our human experience. Animism was the belief system that my people practiced. Animism is the belief that every object, living and nonliving, contains a spirit, a living energy that occupies the space. There was a stronger sense of reverence towards the environment, towards each other, and towards life that we have lost.

There were healers and shamans that helped people metaphysically, similarly to the trance that high people experience from smoking weed or taking drugs. Healers and shamans had access to a higher level of consciousness and didn’t need substances to reach that state. Exploring our human capacity was a normal and natural experience prior to colonization and the assimilation of Christianity. We have lost touch with our roots and inherited practices. When a person has culture, community, and a strong and respectful relationship to the land the desire to fill a void with substances lessens. I looked in the wrong places to fill that void until I found it in the culture I was displaced from. Throat singing became my form of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation without the burnout.

Tanya is a published author for Yellowknife’s Edge and Up Here magazine, and the Writer’s Union of Canada sharing stories on urban Inuit culture. In addition, Tanya is a celebrated Inuit throat singer and has performed at the Winnipeg art gallery and many events around the North.

Tanya & Nanasee

August 15, 2019. Tanya Snow & Nanasee Leblanc performed Inuit throat singing at our Legacy event in Yellowknife, NT. Tanya's digital story, Tuq&urausiit features her own throat singing soundtrack.

A behind the scenes photo of Tanya being interviewed by Charlotte for APTN National News.

Thursday, November 14th, 2019. A behind the scenes photo of Tanya being interviewed by Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs for our APTN National News story which aired on November 18, 2019. "APTN National News Tonight: A research student uses digital storytelling to help healthcare professionals".

A Review of Women Warriors Digital Health Stories

"I am doing a course at the University of Saskatchewan about the role of the physician in Indigenous health. For my last project I want to list resources for my Indigenous patients. May I please use Women Warriors as a resource? I have started reading some of the website information and I am amazed at what you have done"