Is Onkwehon:we health related to our lands?

The World Health Organization WHO suggests that over 50% of the world’s 370 million Onkwehon:we are affected by diabetes, with those numbers projected to rise. What’s behind the chronic illnesses facing Onkwehon:we?

By Starla Myers

In 2016, The Canadian Medical Association Journal published findings that 8 out of 10 Onkwehon:we in Canada will develop Type 2 Diabetes in their life span. The article also points out that Onkwehon:we women are at a greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes over their male counterparts. 

Despite scholars giving increased importance to the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH), few studies tend to capture the uncomfortable truth and the reality behind the sicknesses affecting Onkwehon:we. Dominant approaches do not consider that Onkwehon:we dispossession from our land also disposes of traditional practices. In areas where we can carry out traditional practices, we are greeted with settlers protesting, which often results in violence at the hands of these settlers. 

Most recently, Mi’kmaw fishermen have faced the racist destruction of their fishing industry and ongoing deforestation of their hunting territory will leave many open to poor access to foods required to maintain optimal health.

Onkwehonwe connection between land with health

For Onkwehon:we, there exists an understanding of the land that is firmly grounded with the knowledge that our Mother, the earth, is a living and breathing entity. She provides for us as a Mother should. This relationship is reciprocated through our actions of stewardship: compassion provides the balance for our survival. Harmony and health within a Kanyenke:haka (Mohawk) worldview is specific to understanding this balance. 

This may be a difficult concept to translate; for example, practices of farming require song and ceremony that nourish the soul while simultaneously offering prayer. The seeds that are planted carry stories and are tended to not just as growing plants, but as caring for our three sisters of sustenance. 

Coincidently these particular three staples also range from moderate to low on the glycemic index, which has been proven to manage conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. The connection is distinct, and the ideology is now appearing in evidence-based journals, from caring and talking to plants to genetically friendly diets. These have only been recently recognized as trends rather than the requirements for the health and wellness of Indigenous Nations the world over. 

The relegation of Onkwehon:we to postage-stamp-sized parcels of land at the direction of  Canada has been used as a means to detach Onkwehon:we from the relationship that exists between a mother and child. It has intentionally affected that relationship with our Mother and our health. When considering land dispossession and health from an Onkwehon:we perspective, it is obvious why colonial countries with large Indigenous populations don’t see land removal policies as harmful or at the root of so many medical problems. Restricting access and use to traditional territories directly correlates with the over-representation of Indigenous people in Diabetes, HIV infections, Suicide and Stroke rates in Canada. 

The land is just as essential and fundamental to health as is the cultural identity of the people who have lived upon it since time immemorial. 

When Onkwehon:we are included in a system that does not consider our relationship with our lands as a social determinant, it places the blame on the individual’s shoulders. This result creates a system that cannot address the complexities of addressing historical and current disparities. It creates an environment that suggests that the Onkwehon:we are solely responsible for the adverse conditions of our health due to the external colonial interference with our way of life. The latter being the cause rather than the effect of this relationship.Perhaps the perpetrators directly involved in deaths of Onkwehon:we people such as Joyce Echaquan, Tyson McKay, Ina Mapawat, Tracy Okemow and Debra Chrisjohn had an understanding that these people were not just victims of the system, but targets made by design.

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