This essay is part of our online special issue honoring bell hooks
Land, Kinship, and Healing
By Tabitha Robin
Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.bell hooks, All about Love, 2001, 215
I wrote those words in a notebook on the plane to Aotearoa six years ago as a nervous graduate student attending my first international conference on Indigenous research methodologies. Though my background was in colonially-informed natural sciences, I began my doctoral studies in social work to understand the fulsomeness of food—as helper, as healer—for Indigenous peoples. My topic was entirely new to me: Cree healing in Manitoba, where I am from and where my Cree and Icelandic ancestors met on the waters of Lake Winnipeg. I was insecure about my knowledge, or lack thereof, in social work and felt ill-equipped to explore food and healing from the angle of the sacred. What did I know of the sacred? I wrote hooks’s quote in my notebook to soothe my nerves and to remind me that understandings of healing exist beyond the walls of academia. From an Indigenous perspective, healing is dependent on that of our relationships: no one individual can truly be well if their surrounding relations are not. Individualism, as hooks writes, is antithetical to healing.
Healing is a lived and living experience. It is a human condition. Regardless of background, pain and the desire for freedom from pain connect us all. Indeed, as someone with a blood disease I have devoted much of my adult life to healing. Cree culture has provided me with the supports and perspectives from which I can see a path towards being well, one that centers my own history and connection to the world around me. Although academia did not initially offer a path in which I could see my life or my family’s life as relevant to my studies, I have good teachers. I learned to see my work as a kind of communion, a place to enter with my full self. Most importantly, my research became a place where I could carry my ancestors.
I recognized hooks’s words on the communion and interdependency of healing endeavours through Indigenous concepts of relationality. Interdependency and relationality are closely related concepts. As Indigenous peoples, we are all in relationships: with our physical and spiritual worlds, with the land and community, and with each other. These are reciprocal relations. We don’t only see land as what it gives us, but also what we give to it in order to honor the sacred agreements our ancestors made with all of creation. Indigenous healing seeks to find balance, wholeness, and harmony within a larger construct of being well and in good relations with your surrounding environment. Being in good relations is work, often hard work, and always heart work. It means activating relationships through prayer, ceremony, reflection, offerings, and other spiritual activities. Relationality, or the practice of being in active, generative relationship with the living and non-living world also means seeing larger patterns around, within, and part of you. Ecology instilled in me the necessity of relationships for survival, as modelled by the land. Social work taught me about systems, or relationalities, of pain: the way trauma reproduces within our families, communities, and nations. There is kinship between these concepts, as each offers insight into the ways that Indigenous bodies experience life.
The interdependency between an Indigenous self and the land is critical to Indigenous well-being and survival. I understand and relate to land and all of creation as kin and seek to be in good relation, to practice kinship each day. As an Elder once shared with me, the land is where the spirit is the strongest, so we have to be in good relation to the land to be well. For Indigenous peoples this means that threats to the land threaten our survival. This is a difficult reality to face. Stories of contaminants, of forced relocation due to resource extraction, and of communities that have burnt to the ground as our planet warms are common in Indigenous communities. When you relate to the land, experience the land as relation, the violence that is happening on and to the land seeps into every aspect of your being. Healing in this context is nearly impossible. And yet, we are still here, on the land, where the spirit is the strongest.
Hooks’s words and my notes were a marking of how far I had come in my own healing. I had made it to an international conference, a new world for me. I still had more listening and more learning to do, but I was finally starting to believe that my own healing pursuits offered insight towards my scholarship. Indeed, Indigenism—being and doing Indigenous—is its own kind of rigorous scholarship that is based in relationships, interdependency, and community. Practicing relationality with the land and my ancestors sharpened my focus. I no longer question what I know of the sacred. Rather, I ask myself: How I can protect the sacred? My healing, and the healing of my people, depend on it.
hooks, bell. 2001. All about Love. New York: William Morrow.
Tabitha Robin is a mixed ancestry Cree and Métis researcher, educator, and writer. She is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. She spends much of her time learning about traditional Cree food practices.