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Ancestral roots: Indigenous women, girls’ health report highlights hurdles, traditions

Artist Melanie Rivers describes the inspiration between report’s cover art, poem

Melanie Rivers has a long history of working with Indigenous communities in the health care sector.

Rivers, of the Squamish Nation, has spent 20 years working in First Nations health, beginning with providing HIV education in remote communities for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

She describes the time as a “reconnection for me back into community and into our teachings and culture.” Her ancestral name, Tiyaltelwet, is her great-great-grandmother’s name, and her ties to her roots are incredibly important, not just in her life but in her work, too.

“I have a real strong passion for doing work in Indigenous health work, bringing in more traditional healing into the health system, creating a more culturally safe system,” Rivers said.

That’s why she partnered with the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) in creating the cover art, dedication and poem for the organization’s latest report, Sacred and Strong.

The report focuses on the health and wellness of women, girls and Two-Spirit people at all stages of their lives. While the report noted that First Nation communities had robust and sophisticated systems to support the wellness of their members, it cites the heath-care associated trauma many suffer as a result of colonial mindsets in the system.

That trauma stems not only from the “Indian hospitals” that operated in Canada until the 1980s but from the treatment that many Indigenous people still receive from the country’s health care facilities. The FNHA report noted that First Nations women “experience racism in distinctive ways due to the intersection of pervasive and systemic Indigenous-specific racism, misogyny and gender discrimination.”

The report weaves together data with the stories and teachings of First Nations Peoples, with a focus on lived experiences. Many women shared accounts of how they have not been supported by the health care system, from birth to their later years and especially during child birth.

Researchers note that while the Western health care system plays a role in the lives of most First Nations women, they still look to the ancestral knowledge that has kept their people safe and health for generations.

READ MORE: Anti-Indigenous racism embedded in B.C. healthcare system: report

Rivers’ cover art focused on a sense of belonging and connection for Indigenous Peoples, particularly those living apart from their communities or on the streets.

“When I think about universal elements and teachings that we all have, this earth is something we can all belong to. As well, we all have a long line of ancestors behinds us,” she said.

Those elements are present in her art.

“Having the tree representing the roots that go down and and connect us all, both to this earth, but to our own heritage and teachings, and then reaching up towards the the moon, because we all can struggle with dark time and the moon brings in that light.

“And when we talked about bringing in the different stages of life of women, having the Elder up top bringing her wisdom and looking down and wanting women to feel that that they were loved and that they were cared for and that they mattered.”

Rivers said that she wanted to reach the women and children who are struggling with intergenerational trauma, who struggle to feel a sense of connection or even love for themselves. She painted the initial art on a wood board, first using a pencil and writing a poem dedicated to her fellow sisters, to bring forth that energy into the painting.

The importance of connection, and the tree and moon painted in the cover art is equally reflected in Rivers’ poem:

Ancient forests know

How she can be in stillness

How she can grow and connect

Ancient forests know

Strength comes from living as one tree, each tree, all trees

Ancient forests know

Ancestral roots connect her through time

Grounding, holding, inter-weaving

Her branches reach out, one palm up, one palm down

Ancient forests know

Each ring writes her story

Each pain, each lesson, each triumph

Growing steadily upwards until she touches the medicine of the moon

And through the darkness, the moon gently reflects back her light

And shows her the ebbs and flow of life

Each child held in a mother’s love

Guided by Elders’ wisdom

And nourished by the sisters around her

Ancient forests know she is not alone.

“When we look to the teachings that the forest and the trees have for us, they know that they are stronger as a whole than individually,” Rivers said.”Trees will actually reach out for help from each other if there’s a fire or they’ll send each other water or nutrients through the soil. So they know even if they’re going to compete for light and nutrients that they’re stronger together.”

That lesson is even more important as Indigenous Peoples, hit hard by the COVID, begin to emerge into the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Our communities have faced pandemics in the past and know what what it means to be exposed to a virus that no one has any immunity to,” Rivers said, referring to diseases brought to North America from Europe.

“So we know that we need to work together and we know we need to protect our Elders. I think those teachings of how we do work in community is something for the rest of Canadians to learn from as well, that we do need to work together, that what one does affects the other.”

READ MORE: Rise in hate during pandemic to mark first-ever inquiry by B.C. human rights commissioner


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