Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill is a Mohawk of the Wolf Clan, holds a PhD in cultural anthropology, lives on Six Nations and is one of the founders of the indigenous studies program at McMaster University.
Improving the health of Aboriginal children requires teaching them about their traditional languages and culture, says anthropologist Dawn Martin-Hill.
Martin-Hill was speaking to an indigenous children’s health symposium put on by university medical students Saturday at McMaster Innovation Park.
Its purpose was to examine why the quality of health of aboriginal children is so much worse than other young Canadians — and to consider solutions.
Ongoing and systemic racism within the medical profession was a major reason raised.
So too was a deep distrust of doctors by Aboriginals, something passed down through generations that stems from trauma at their hands in residential schools, or in practices such as sterilizing native women, Martin-Hill said.
And yet there was a time in history when the colonizers relied on aboriginal medicines, ways and traditions to survive, Martin-Hill pointed out.
Children and youth make up more than 48 per cent of Canada’s aboriginal population.
They suffer from higher rates of infant mortality, poverty, diabetes, tuberculosis and fetal alcohol syndrome than non-aboriginal children and lag in access to health care.
A 2009 UNICEF report on children ranked Canada third out of 177 countries in prosperity and welfare, but if the First Nations communities were considered on their own, the ranking slips to 68th.
Martin-Hill is a Mohawk of the Wolf Clan, holds a PhD in cultural anthropology, lives on Six Nations and is one of the founders of the indigenous studies program at McMaster University.
“Elders see traditional medicine as the primary tool for health restoration,” Martin-Hill said, adding that with youth forming almost half of Canada’s aboriginal population it is imperative changes happen now. “Traditional medicine and identity are important.”
Martin-Hill said the natives of Akwesasne territory have been the most proactive at restorative health so far by using traditional methods of intervention, bringing back rituals “to reseed our identity” and the rights of passage into manhood and womanhood where family and community lends support in much the way “a village” raises a child.
It’s about teaching children empowerment through traditional methods, she said.
“We need to start with the teenage population making healthy choices, and with all the supports they need.”
Through research and study, Martin-Hill said, it has become clear that native language is the primary protective factor of children’s health.
“I know it’s hard to fathom,” she said, adding that the B.C. interior communities able to keep their languages and traditions due to their remote locations, far from agents and missionaries, fared best in children’s health.
Martin-Hill said there are no biological reasons for suicides and diabetes being higher in aboriginal children — other than the historical trauma that has made its way through the generations, including children being torn from their homes and sent to residential schools.
“We need Canadians to really understand our history and our goals of being self-determining.”
With supports and following indigenous, community-driven initiatives, “we could start to lessen these disparities.”