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A study released in March, 1989 by the University of Saskatoon Department of community Health revealed that the state of Indian health in the province has improved over the last few years.
However Indians are generally not as healthy as the rest of the Saskatchewan population.
In this series of interviews, I have talked with Indian health professionals, a drug and alcohol councillor from the New Dawn Centre, a women who turned to traditional Indian healing methods to deal with her mental illness and a sports enthusiast who is working to promote recreation and sports in Indian communities.
Each of them offers a unique perspective on the state of Indian health in Saskatchewan.
Mary (not her real name) could have spent the rest of her life in institutions; but, she overcame her mental illness when she rediscovered her traditional spiritual community.
I was twenty when I was hospitalized. After about two months of being sick at home I tried to commit suicide. I took a whole bunch of pills because I felt like it was either kill me or kill my family. And I decided to kill myself. When I did that my mother realized how really, really sick I was. There was never an agreement as to what was wrong with me. Five doctors saw me because they couldn't figure out what was wrong.
One was a schizophrenia man and he diagnosed me as a schizophrenic. One guy was into manic depression and he thought I was manic depressive. And I don't know about the other ones. There were definitely symptoms of some kind of depression and if any label fit I think it would be manic depression. I went way up and then down, up and down.
Its hard to say when I became sick. I think it was building up. I started to know that something was wrong when I was in my teens. But I think the thing that really triggered it was I got involved with a story on a reserve in Saskatchewan. I was working as a press person - me and another guy. We were publicizing the housing conditions and the malnutrition on the reserve. And the story took off and got national coverage; and we were too young and inexperienced to know how to handle it. It got twisted into "Indians starving on Saskatchewan reserves" and we couldn't turn it around. We couldn't stop it. We worked day and night ... running after this giant, fast moving monster. And what concerned us most was that the giant wasn't telling the truth. We went out to the reserve and called a band meeting and I spoke to the band people. I was trying to get them to become involved. I think now, knowing what I know ... I think that was when I was "hit" with medicine to make me go crazy. When you're hit you're hit at your weakest part ... the thing that's most vulnerable. And at that point my sanity was the most vulnerable. So that's how the medicine worked. It worked on my sanity. You see ... when you begin to agitate for reform there are people in every group that are threatened. They don't want change to happen. I think that I was threatening somebody enough for that person to do something to me. There's a variety of ways that it can be done. It can be done by somebody who is powerful enough to send you negative energy. The person has to be very powerful to do that, and you have to be open to it. I was totally open. I had no defences. I had no protection at all. The other way is to put actual herbal concoctions in something that you eat. Or you can step on it. It goes through your skin and its an actual physical thing that is transmitted to you.
I wasn't suicidal at first. I began to hear a voice through the family dog. And I got afraid of that voice for what it was telling me to do. The voice was telling me to kill my parents. It was inexorable and I knew there was this force inside me that was very destructive and very evil. I couldn't stop it and it wouldn't let go. I kept fighting it, and fighting it, and fighting it. And nobody understood what was going on. Your environment can contribute to your wellness or it can be a negative force. By doing nothing it's a negative force. By not understanding or refusing to accept the situation, people left me alone with that situation. I think that my dad knew, but my dad had been so indoctrinated by the church, and so removed from his own background, and had become so rational ... It was really a hard period for him.
When I went to the hospital I was so sick and so helpless that they (my family) had to take me. The hospital wanted them to commit me but they refused to commit me legally, which I'm very thankful for today. I remember laboriously signing my name on a paper when my mind could just barely work. And I had to do that because I just instinctively didn't want to have that power taken away from me. I knew even in that deep dark time that my well-being was mine.
I think I was in there for six weeks. When I got in there I was really in a bad way. For several days they just kept me on powerful tranquillizers and I couldn't do anything. They just deaden you until they decided what they are going to do. And what they did was give me shock treatments and combine it with drug therapy. The morning that I went for my first shock treatment I felt utterly helpless. I felt dead. There was nothing that I could do. Nowadays they put you to sleep ... they didn't used to. It's like being zapped by lightening. And then they revived me and we all walked back down to the ward. I came out of there feeling like a zombie. All I had was my motor functions.
But I had deep inside me a rock that was me that was never touched by all of this that happened. And I lust guarded that little rock inside me. And I realize now, that was my spirit. That was my soul and I protected it. I thought if it was touched that would be the end - I would never be well ever again. In that period I had about twenty four shock treatments. Everyday ... weekends off.
But I had some experiences in the hospital which showed me that whatever was happening to me was not what the medical people understood. When I was first put in the hospital they didn't have room in the crazy side of the ward, They only had room on the geriatric side where the very old people who are crazy go to die. They put me in a room with an old German lady. She was just a tiny, little, purple bird. I think her circulation was just about nil. She was almost bald with wispy hair like a baby. She was afraid and she had regrets. She would sing German lullabies and children's songs and cry out for her mother. And she didn't know her own children or her grandchildren. When I was in the room with her I would watch her. I was in another dimension ... in a heightened state of awareness. And one morning I woke up and I could understand every word of what she was saying (in German). And I understood from her babbling that she was afraid to die. I went over to her and stroked her head and told her that there was nothing to be afraid of. Her mom was waiting for her and everything was going to be good on the other side. And it was time to leave this world. And when I talked to her, I talked German and she understood me. She looked up and her whole face lit up like a light. Then she stopped talking and was quiet all that day. I went over to her in the afternoon and she didn't recognize me. Here was this dignified old lady lying in that big crib. That afternoon her children came and she talked with them and told them that she was going to go. That night ... they had these gigantic sleeping pills and they brought my sleeping pill to me. I struck it in my mouth but after the nurse left spit it out. And in the middle of the night I just went to sleep naturally. When I woke up there were two nurses by that women's bed. And I said "Is she dead?" And they said, "Yes she is". And I said, "Good".
That's when things really started to happen. There were the dreams and the visions and the experiences. All of those things were teaching me that there was much more to reality ... and that there were ways of contacting that reality that could affect goodness. So I tried a geographical escape and went to B.C. I got a permanent job and I became part of a team that was fighting an oil port on the West Coast. It was a very small, tight group of people who cared about one another. I was respected for what I knew ... they treated me like I had something to offer. And that was the spark. Its love that is' the spark for healing. It was that group of people who cared about me, who saw that I had something to offer that made me want to get well.
I knew that one of the chiefs had a sweat and I kind of wanted to go. But it wasn't until I had a dream about a particular community on the West Coast of Vancouver Island that I jumped on the bus and went to that place. I knew that I would find somebody who knew about that dream, and at that place was a German psychologist who had come from South Africa because he had a dream. We put our dreams together and we realized what the message was. When you have dreams, you always look for confirmation. If it's real you'll find someone else who has had that dream and the two make truth. Truth is not an individual thing, it's community. That's an Indian way.
When you're given these things you can't think about being weird or crazy. You've got to follow you're inner self - your instinct, and do what sometimes seems irrational. and inevitably people will look at you strangely and they'll think that you're quite weird. But I recognize now that having to do that is a test. You have to trust a greater power, and it builds your faith.
On Vancouver Island we found a sweat. I went intuitively because it was time to go. I always knew that I would end up in a sweat. I wasn't scared of it, but I was scared of myself ... scared of what I would see in there ... of myself. I could not have gone any sooner because I wasn't ready. You just know, now is the time I have to stand up and walk over there and do that thing. And I went in and the wife of the medicine man was afraid that I wouldn't be able to handle it. But I wasn't afraid at all. I knew there was no problem.
The medicine man is the one who takes responsibility for everyone in there ... to make sure that they are safe. He knows who is in there for the first time, who is scared, who is going to be crying, who is really upset. They have to be aware of a whole lot of things and they have to do the ceremony exactly the way it was given to them. They can't deviate from it. The Turtle sweat is four rounds, meaning that the door is closed four times and water is placed on the rocks. Certain songs are sung in each round and the medicine man or his helper will tell you what prayers they are saying for each round. I went in because I needed help coping with life. I was under a great deal of stress and I was alone. I needed some kind of help to get a grip. That's why I went in.
Since that period of time I've lost track of how may times I've been doctored. Some people can, go and get doctored one time. But they are a rarity. For me it was a gradual, slow process. I'd get doctored once and I'd begin to feel other things. I'd get new knowledge and I could define more clearly what it was I needed to get doctored for again. And I'd go in again.
The western treatment told me what was not possible. It told me that my life was limited - limited in the sense of what I can do as a person. You reduce your expectations. "Accept that you have this condition," they said, "and this condition limits what you can do."
The Indian treatment teaches me that I am a repository of unlimited possibilities. In the Indian way you're taught, "This is who you are. This is your relationship to the universe I am a part of God and God is a part of me."
When you look at it in those terms there is no limit.