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UofGH’s Dr. David Danto publishes new research on Indigenous land-based healing

Land-based activities—programs and interventions centred around connecting with the land—have been found to improve wellbeing and mental health in many Indigenous communities. Now, a new study by University of Guelph-Humber Psychology Program Head Dr. David Danto explores the important role of Elders in these initiatives.

“Land-Based Healing: Toward Understanding the Role of Elders,” published last year in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, details the findings of interviews with three Elders in a Mushkegowuk community in northern Ontario. Dr. Danto met with the Elders to hear a first-hand account of the components and challenges of land-based programming.

The study, which was supported through UofGH's Research Grant Fund, employed a two-eyed seeing approach.

“Two-eyed seeing is about taking the strengths of traditional Indigenous approaches and combining them appropriately with Western approaches,” explained Dr. Danto. “We have a need to decolonize Western systems and approaches. Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall’s use of the term two-eyed seeing recognizes this. Two-eyed seeing asks, ‘What can we do to take the best of both approaches, both epistemologies, in order to help society and in order to facilitate Indigenous mental health and wellbeing?’”

This new research provides insight into how being on the land can act as a form of healing. It is also a way for Indigenous people, particularly youth, to reconnect with their culture and identity. Elders, as respected members of the community and keepers of knowledge and traditions, play an essential role in land-based programs.

“We need to listen to the voices of the knowledge keepers, of the community members,” Dr. Danto said. “Indigenous approaches to wellbeing are connected to context, they're connected to the land, they're connected to tradition and to the Elders.”

Along with Dr. Danto, Duquesne University’s Dr. Russ Walsh and UofGH Psychology alumna Jocelyn Sommerfeld co-authored the study. For Sommerfeld, a notable finding was the connection between youth and Elders.

“The youths’ parents would have been the ones who were going to the residential schools,” explained Sommerfeld. “I think this connection between Elders and youth is a really important part of land-based programs, because that's how youth are going to be connected with their culture.”

Recognizing challenges

Dr. Danto points out that psychologists too often assume a Western concept of the self and family when working with Indigenous patients.

“The profession of psychology has a responsibility to provide culturally appropriate treatment,” emphasized Dr. Danto. “In many cases, psychologists have a role—it's just a little bit different. It needs to be decentralized. Indigenous concepts, ways of knowing and Indigenous culture need to take the lead.”

Dr. Danto points to the concept of the eco-centric self, meaning that the self and identity are fundamentally connected to the land. Understanding this connection can be essential for developing appropriate programs.

“Culturally appropriate approaches to treatment, assessment, program planning—all of these things are so needed. They all involve psychologists taking a back seat to Indigenous perspectives and actually hearing what the client wants, and then being there to support them in healing ways that makes sense culturally,” said Dr. Danto.

Though land-based interventions have been shown to be beneficial, one of the biggest challenges is a lack of funding.

“These approaches are often run by families or by individuals within the community who don't have the resources or the ability to go through complex funding processes,” Dr. Danto explained. “It's very difficult to get the funding, and yet I would argue that these are some of the most effective approaches to healing.”

A similar challenge was found in Dr. Danto’s latest research, “Indigenous Grassroots and Family-Run Land-Based Healing in Northern Ontario.” Published earlier this year, the study analyzes one participant’s small land-based ventures in Mushkegowuk Territory.

Moving towards change

This research is part of an ongoing effort to address Indigenous mental health and advocate for more culturally appropriate treatment.

In 2017, Dr. Danto chaired a task force looking at the harms caused by the profession of psychology to Indigenous Peoples. The Canadian Psychological Association and the Psychology Foundation of Canada went on to publish “Psychology’s Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Report,” which included recommendations and a direct apology to Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

“The profession of psychology may not have intended to engage in this oppression. Nevertheless, many harms have been inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples both in Canada and around the world through a patronizing gaze and so-called good intentions,” Dr. Danto said.

“In psychology we have failed to take stock of our own Western values and how those values make it into our judgements, assessments, and the kinds of therapies we offer. Worse still, those implicit values have had and continue to have real impacts. This is colonization.”

To increase the likelihood that future psychologists are equipped with proper training and knowledge to work with Indigenous clients, Dr. Danto has been advocating for change in the profession. At UofGH, the Psychology program has been delivering a number of courses, including a field study to Mushkegowuk Territory.

This past fall, the program also added a new core course requirement for all first-year Psychology students. The course textbook, “Indigenous Knowledge and Mental Health,” edited by Dr. Danto and Humber College’s Dr. Masood Zangeneh, is forthcoming this year by Springer Publishing. The book includes knowledge and perspectives from scholars around the world, who came together in 2018 at the University of Guelph-Humber Global Indigenous Mental Health Symposium.

While Dr. Danto sees a positive shift in the field of psychology towards better understanding and training, he still believes there’s much progress to be made.

“Where many Indigenous people find healing, strength and resilience is within their own culture, their own traditions, their own language and their own ways. The knowledge for healing is there among the Elders and within the community,” Dr. Danto said. “Culture itself can be healing, particularly for people who have experienced generations of trauma as a direct result of our governments’ and our institutions’ longstanding efforts at cultural eradication.”

“What we can do as a helping profession, as psychologists, is get educated on the subject, acknowledge that sustained systemic oppression exists and approach our clients with humility and respect,” added Dr. Danto. “This means being open to learning new ways that may be different from how we were originally trained. I’m starting to see some shifts in perspective within the profession, but changes do not come quickly or easily. There is much to be done and there is urgent need.”

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