Cannabis & Indigenous Women:
A Series of Health Stories

The Soul Wound & Harm Reduction

by Shelley Wiart

Last September, I was invited by Dr. Cheryl Barnabe, Associate Professor, Departments of Medicine and Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary to present our Indigenous Women’s Health Stories at the Internal Medicine Retreat for residents (physicians training in a specialized area). I wrote a Women Warriors newsletter, Presentations at AIM-HI & the Internal Medicine Retreat about the responses to a questionnaire given to the residents to reflect on the digital stories and potential for change in practice (responses in the newsletter).

An important finding from this questionnaire was the resident’s lack of awareness about the reality behind residential school and their impact on indigenous health, and unfamiliarity with the concept of intergenerational trauma and the scope of it within Indigenous communities. These concepts are foundational to enacting reconciliation in healthcare and treating Indigenous peoples’ physical dis-ease as a psychosomatic manifestation of intergenerational trauma.

A Western understanding of intergenerational trauma (also known as historical trauma) is trauma passed down through generations and it usually refers to maladaptive life skills and emotional coping behavior.[1] It usually includes reference to the adverse childhood experiences of residential school survivors and the intergenerational trauma passed on to their children such as loss of language and culture, and increased rates of addiction and violence in communities. I do not feel this understanding does justice to the devastating impacts of intergenerational trauma, and it seeks to pathologize Indigenous peoples and label them as dysfunctional.

The Indigenous way of understanding intergenerational trauma resonated with my entire being when I read Duran’s (2019) book, Healing the Soul Wound: Trauma Informed Counseling for Indigenous Communities. He is a Western trained psychologist that was hired by a Native community to provide mental health support. In a storytelling format, he shares how he attempted to use a Western intervention, a needs assessments, in order to develop and implement a behavioral health program[2]. Community members refused to participate in the “Western colonial approaches…as these were part of the colonizing root problems.”3 They proceeded to “describe their history of the devastating genocide that occurred in their communities’ past” and explained it as, “spiritual injury, soul sickness, soul wounding, ancestral hurt.”4 Dr. Duran conducted a western literature review to investigate this concept of “soul wound” and found nothing so he conducted an oral literature review with Elders.5 Elders explained the interconnectedness of the genocide of Indigenous peoples’ and the wounding of Mother Earth. The Elder stated, “When the earth is wounded, the people who are caretakers of the earth also are wounded at a very deep soul level.”6 The earth wounding is a referral to the interlocking systems of colonization and capitalism that remove Indigenous peoples from their lands in order to extract from Mother Earth, thereby destroying the “natural environment and disturb[ing] the natural order.”7

Healing intergenerational trauma or as Dr. Duran defines it, the soul wound, requires a deep spiritual understanding of what Indigenous peoples’ have lost from a history of genocide, land removal, and environmental destruction. It is more than that Western academic literature has articulated. It has to be felt with your soul. I ask myself, as a Métis academic that has experienced the soul wound within my own family, are non-Indigenous people capable of articulating and feeling something so profoundly disrupting as the soul wound? Perhaps. Or, can parallels can be drawn to the same way White people will never be able to understand and articulate Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour’s experiences of racism?

I ask this question because it forces us to think about reconciliation in health care and Western medicine. Can Western concepts of disease and medicine even begin to address the complexity of Indigenous peoples’ spiritual soul wound? Are non-Indigenous health care professional able to form empathic connections with Indigenous patients when they don’t know what the soul wound is or the depth of Indigenous peoples’ spiritual loss as a result of genocide, colonization and forced assimilation?

The soul wound, left untreated, is often filled with substances like illegal drugs, and alcohol. Within my own family I have first-hand experience with the agony of loved ones addictions. I wish I could take away their pain and suffering, but that spiritual work can only be done when the person is ready. I believe that people with untreated soul wounds deserve safe conditions and substances to use while they are gathering the courage and strength to heal. This concept is known as harm reduction.

The distinction between Western harm reduction and Indigenous harm reduction is that, “Mainstream harm reduction is about individual ‘choices’ and not about systemic change. [It] does not interrogate those bigger pictures. If we don’t deal with larger issues all the needle exchanges in the world aren’t going to change [anything]. People will continue to reach for the medicines to feel better.”8 The Western understanding of harm reduction blames and shames people for their soul wounds, whereas, in Indigenous harm reduction, the onus of harm is placed on systems, “Indigenous harm reduction is reducing the harms of colonization.”9

Cheryl Stump, our next guest writer for the Indigenous Women & Cannabis series shares her story of intergenerational trauma and healing in the context of Indigenous harm reduction. She views cannabis as medicine and “a helping gift for our people with pain and trauma to be able to benefit from parts of the cannabis plant and to suffer less.” Cheryl also believes in the power of spiritual practices to heal the soul wound in the form of of Indigenous peoples’ culture and prayers.

[1]Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Centre (2020). Residential schools. Retrieved from https://trauma-informed.ca/trauma-and-first-nations-people/residential-schools/.
[2]-7 Duran, E. (2019). Healing the Soul Wound: Trauma Informed Counseling for Indigenous Communities. Teachers College Press: NY.
8-9 The Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development. (2019 March). Indigenous Harm Reduction = Reducing the Harms of Colonialism: A Policy Brief. Retrieved from http://www.icad-cisd.com/our-work/knowledge-sharing/indigenous-harm-reduction/.

Cannabis & Indigenous Harm Reduction

by Cheryl Stump

My name is Cheryl Stump, I am a Tsilhqot’in Nation member of ?Esdilagh First Nation located outside Quesnel, British Colombia. My father, Norman Elkins was from Tl’etinqox (Anaham) and my mother, Mary Stump is from ?Esdilagh First Nation. I come from a long line of prayer women. As a mother and auntie I have first-hand experience in the use and abuse of cannabis.

I am the daughter of two residential school survivors, my mother and father experienced the residential school system, and I have felt the impact of intergenerational trauma in my family and my community. Addiction and trauma go hand in hand, and as Dr. Gabor Mate frames it…Not “why the addiction” but “why the pain.” During my childhood, I witnessed generations of unhealed trauma and addictions impact family members and continue to the next generation. As the daughter of residential survivors’ I felt like trauma, stress, and death were a normal occurrence in my life. I viewed and accepted this way of life as the norm in my community. During my adolescence, I used cannabis as a coping mechanism to escape the feeling of isolation and to pause the empty feelings of life.

Upon reflection, I see the direct link between trauma, addiction, and the need for self-medicating with substances. In the dark face of emotional, physical, and mental trauma that runs generations deep, there is no shame in finding relief and comfort in whatever way helps. I now have the ability to reflect back on where I have come from and see the pain and residue of fear in myself and in all of my family. I have nothing but compassion and prayers in my heart for those of us suffering from trauma. It has negatively impacted our relationships with ourselves and distorted our vision and belief in ourselves. Addictions and its hold have become a powerful and painful coping mechanism for many Indigenous peoples. It has taken a lifetime of lessons for me to understand this connection and change my perception of use. I ultimately realized our culture is stronger than we know – stronger than our trauma.

Witnessing the popularity of cannabis stores and learning about the benefits of cannabis for all kinds of mental, physical, and emotional conditions, gives me comfort knowing there is a natural alternative for people to access. Through my lived experience with trauma and addiction, I understand that help is help and we all endure physical, mental and emotional pain, whether directly from traumatic experiences, or indirectly from our family members that have endured trauma. Our journey in this life must allow for balancing our sorrows and our healing, so I offer gratitude for all things that can help people, however it shows up.

Health research has allowed for a greater understanding of cannabis and its benefits including alleviating body pain, and supporting our emotional and mental balance. There may be some controversial health effects of cannabis, but the same goes with pharmaceutical medications that are prescribed with side effects that could be equally, if not more harmful. The increasing use of medicinal cannabis to help balance our mental, physical, and emotional being and the popularity of cannabis stores on reserves demonstrates the need for it in our communities.

Cannabis for many Indigenous peoples is medicine, with a healthy attitude shift from substance abuse to healing use. It is a helping gift for our people with pain and trauma to be able to benefit from parts of the cannabis plant and to suffer less. Being a mother, I have concerns for the safety of any substance use, but I also understand trauma and I have learned to accept all help, whether it looks like harm or not. I have come to terms that it is not for me to decide. I trust in Creator that when people ask for help, help shows itself, and it may not be what is wanted, but what is needed.

It is unfortunate that the intergenerational trauma of our peoples runs deep and will continue to ripple through generations to come. I take comfort in knowing that we continue to walk through life and do our best to change with the times, stand up for what we know is ours, support our fellow brothers and sisters, keep our culture alive, and our prayers strong.

Cheryl is the proud mother of two daughters and resides in Kelowna, British Colombia. She has worked for many years in the administrative and health fields. Her interests are in traditional medicine and natural healing.

March 2020. Cheryl and I met through our mutual acquaintance, Dr. Jennifer Leason at the International Women's Day event, Indigenous Feminist Panel: Infusing Matriarchy into the Academy. Cheryl, Jen and I spent a wonderful girls weekend connecting and sharing insights about addiction and recovery, spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing, and the best medicine of all, laughter. Thank you, Cheryl for writing this column because I know you value your privacy and this story is a special gift for the Women Warriors audience.

My New Blog
Pandemic Rebirth

I created a Medium blog to share my personal reflections on our Covid-19 pandemic spiritual journey. I'll be posting about my own pandemic rebirth and vision for a new world order. Please subscribe here and share.

An excerpt from my first post, Pandemic Rebirth: Reflections on our Covid-19 spiritual journey.

In the words of Audrey Lordes, “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Around the globe it is time for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC), especially women with our sacred connection to birth, to infuse our spirit, ceremony, cultural practices, cultural wisdom and world views into colonial spaces in order to bring balance back to the world. This pandemic is a portal to a new world — one that honours BIPOC’s sacred knowledge and spiritual ties to Mother Earth."

I am keeping my Medium blog writing separate from the Women Warriors newsletter because it involves personal reflections and details of my life. I’ll be discussing a wide range of pandemic topics including: my journey of codependency and recovery; the challenges of being a mother to three girls, and balancing my academic studies and research; thoughts about Indigenous leadership in a time of crisis; and whatever I need to express as a tool for healing during pandemic rebirth. I love writing the Women Warriors newsletter, yet I’m feeling constrained by it, and I need a platform to express my personal and political opinions, and insights from my daily life. This newsletter is dedicated to Indigenous women’s holistic health and it will stay in the same format with the same content. I hope you also join my Medium blog to explore a different side of my writing and become better acquainted as mothers, daughters, aunties, friends, advocates and allies. Please join me in this pandemic rebirth on my Medium account here.

My next Medium blog post is titled, Covid-19 & A New World Order: An Opportunity to Teach Indigenous Leadership Values and Practices.