Maori delegation talks about decolonizing heath systems during Saskatoon visit
- Andrea Ledding | October 22, 2018
Seven academics from Aotearoa (New Zealand) landed in Saskatoon to share knowledge and network with local Indigenous academics and communities. One of their many presentations was led by Dr. Linda Tuhawai Smith and Alison Green on August 30th at Station 20 West. After chili and bannock was served, Smith and Green presented on decolonization and health.
“Trying to decolonize the kind of societies that settler-colonial states have become is really difficult, and so my work both in education and in health has been trying to struggle with and think through what it means to decolonize systems,” said Smith. “A specific disease or issue in health, but also to think about health as a concept — why does a society need a health system?”
She pointed out that if people are flourishing they don’t need a health system — but systems are designed around concepts of “disease, dysfunctions, illness, damage, trauma and what is wrong with us.”
The fundamental health system was family, land, mountains, rivers, stories, identity, relationships, connections, names, language, a whole system of being.
“That was what colonialism destroyed,” noted Smith. “It destroyed all those things which kept us well, which gave us a sense of wellbeing, control and sovereignty over our environment, our bodies, our emotions and feelings, our thoughts and minds, our imaginations. Those things we had were ripped from us.”
The deliberate destruction of not just the tangible things but intangible things is the story of colonization, and the breaking down of healthy systems — so the question becomes not just surviving it but rebuilding ourselves after all that. The real challenge Smith believes is how much to engage in mainstream systems and how much to build new ones — under the treaty framework, the Maori are doing both.
“It’s not one thing or the other — simply building our Indigenous identities and institutions — we must simultaneously be engaging and trying to transform mainstream systems.”
Smith compares it to restoring a smashed egg without even knowing what shape an egg originally is, and said that sometimes we can find pieces from other Indigenous cultures as we put it back together generation by generation.
“The horrible truth is the people who colonized us cannot put us back together again,” said Smith. “If anything, they look at us and throw their arms up in the air and say Oh my God this is the biggest problem ever; it’s not our fault, we didn’t make it, it’s their own fault...so we cannot rely on dominant society to put us back together again.”
Rather than thinking of decolonization as a burden, she suggested it is a responsibility we can all help to lift, “to put it back together again.” She listed what a healthy and happy Indigenous community would look like, and that being in charge of ourselves and well-being is the key: socially, culturally, spiritually, economically, and politically.
“Those are all the dimensions we have to build in health,” Smith said.
Green honed in on LBGTQ2S health and research, in particular her research project on it. The evening was one of several planned while the Maori delegation was in the city.