by Pamela Lamb

More Than Words seeks to contribute to deepening an understanding of cultural safety and trauma-informed work with young people, and of well-being more broadly. The idea of well-being in More Than Words extends far beyond health and healing. Though it is founded on cultural safety and is trauma-informed, well-being includes an understanding of resistance as resilience.

A diversity of lived experiences and modes of resistance contribute to a growing Indigenous girl-led movement. Resistance to colonial legacies includes addressing and deconstructing notions of Indigeneity in the context of girlhood. Activist-affinity groups affiliated with More Than Words are working to build the capacity of Indigenous girls and women to relate to themselves as subjects, no longer to be objectified. Personal stories and testimonies are courageous acts that add momentum to Indigenous resistance movements by strengthening solidarity and support; inspiring others to come forward and speak out against a culture of racial, gender and sexual violence; and providing resources for advocacy and action (Lamb, 2018).

In Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, Indigenous writer, musician and academic Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2011) writes of the necessity for Indigenous Peoples to celebrate their resilient presence in the face of ongoing colonialism in order to build Indigenous resurgence, which relates to the revival of Indigenous ways of being and knowing. As one of the Indigenous girl groups attached to Networks for Change and Well-being expressed during an event, “the translation of resilience in Indigenous terms means resistance and creating a positive self-identity.

The Arts and Well-being

Knowing that rape culture can have the effects of disempowering or silencing girls and women, the arts offer a unique platform – a safer space – to speak back to a culture of violence against Indigenous girls and women. In participatory arts-based research, girls and women exercise their agency in choosing which stories they want to tell and how they want to tell them, and in the process they gain valuable peer support and a sense of solidarity and well-being. Moreover the act of holding space for photo exhibitions, film screenings, or spoken word events affords another powerful mode of resistance in its own right - taking space, which can be powerfully perceived however silently affirmed. As an act of resistance to colonial stereotypes, speaking back through visual mediums such as photographs, videos, or digital stories creates opportunities for dialogic engagement. These mediums may also pose safer opportunities for addressing specific issues and audiences through the curation of their messages in exhibitions and screenings, as well as through audience selection (Lamb, 2018).

Cultural Safety

Eve Tuck (2009) warns against a ‘damage-centered’ approach to research that focuses on narratives of harm and injury. She notes that these narratives reinforce pathologizing approaches “in which the oppression singularly defines a community” (p.413). Cultural safety requires that we ‘tune in’ to moments of resistance, which we may do through embodied reflexivity (e.g. sitting with the discomfort of someone else’s silence). In doing so, we may be more open to change – and trauma-informed – by seeking to reconsider what is taking place and listen for how it may be reinterpreted.

Judith Herman, and her work with trauma survivors, is credited for setting the standard for trauma-informed practice, particularly in field of treating post traumatic stress disorder: “Trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control; the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control to the survivor. The first task of recovery is to establish the survivor’s safety. This task takes precedence over all others, for no other therapeutic work can possibly succeed if safety has not been adequately secured” (Herman, 1997, p. 159).

Promising practices to support survivors of gender-based violence and their families include the key elements of More Than Words – such as, youth-led and mentoring (aunty-ing) – that integrate and apply intersectional and story-telling and arts-based approaches. Promising practices also include trauma- and violence-informed work in cultural safety. In their Final Report (Vol. 3) entitled, Promising Healing Practices in Aboriginal Communities, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (2006) defines cultural safety as, “creating a physical environment that reflects and reinforces Aboriginal identity, culture, values and traditions” (p. 28). The Aboriginal Healing Foundation studied 60 projects highlighting personal and cultural safety, and identified the following themes:

  • Ensuring confidentiality
  • Creating a comfortable, non-judgmental atmosphere
  • Taking the necessary time
  • Working in circles and groups
  • Building safety into the therapeutic process
  • Building trust through dependability
  • Having the right staff
  • Reinforcing safety through proper closure, follow-up and aftercare
  • Creating a nonthreatening environment through informal activities
  • Creating a comfortable place for healing
  • Creating cultural safety

Endeavouring to minimize risks, Neil Andersson’s work (e.g. Andersson, 2017) developing participatory research protocols is a great example of promising practices in community-led health research. Andersson writes that community-led research is about creating equitable stakeholder engagement: “the ethical codes play out differently” in that “communities essentially choose what they want to do” (p. 5). It is also important to highlight in any statement on ensuring personal and cultural safety, that participants would also create their own engagement protocol and consider their own ethics of engagement. “A big part of the skill set for community-led trials is being able to stand back and simply support communities in what they want to do and how they want to do it” (Andersson, 2017, p. 5).

It is imperative that when we work we listen to youth and their families/communities to ensure cultural safety. Kishk Anaquot Health Research (2002) describes the following mechanisms for ensuring safety in a therapeutic context: “Therapy was best initiated with some clarity and education regarding client rights. When codes of ethics, guiding principles and team rules were developed, publicized and shared one-on-one with prospective clients, it helped to establish safety” (p. 78).

Works Cited

Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2006). Final Report of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation Volume III Promising Healing Practices in Aboriginal Communities. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Andersson, N. (2017). Community-led trials: Intervention co-design in a cluster randomised controlled trial. BMC Public Health, 17, 397.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence-from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kishk Anaquot Health Research (2002). Journey and Balance: Second Interim Evaluation Report of Aboriginal Healing Foundation Program Activity. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Lamb, P. (2018). Affective possibilities for addressing sexual violence through art:

Reflections across two sites. In Mitchell, C., & Moletsane, R. (Eds.), Disrupting shameful legacies: Girls and young women speak back through the arts to address sexual violence (Doing arts thinking, volume 4). Leiden: Brill Sense.

Simpson, L. (2011). Dancing on our turtle's back: Stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Pub.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational

Review, 79(3), 409–428.

For further reading...

Intergenerational and multigenerational trauma happens when the effects of trauma are not resolved in one generation” (Bourassa et al., 2015, p. 10)

When trauma is ignored and there is no support for dealing with it, the trauma will be passed from one generation to the next” (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 1999, p. A5).

Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (1999). Aboriginal Healing Foundation program handbook (2nd ed.). Ottawa, ON: Author.

Aguiar, W., & Halseth, R. (2015). Aboriginal Peoples and historic trauma: The processes of intergenerational transmission. Retrieved from National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health website: https://www.ccnsa-nccah.ca/docs/context/RPT-HistoricTrauma-IntergenTransmission-Aguiar-Halseth-EN.pdf

Blackstock, C., Cross, T., George, J., Brown, I., & Formsma, J. [Internet] (2006). Reconciliation in Child Welfare: Touchstones of Hope for Indigenous Children, Youth, and Families. Ottawa, ON: First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada/Portland, OR: National Indian Child Welfare Association. [cited 28 June 2015]. Available from: http://www.fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/Touchstones_of_Hope.pdf

Bourassa, C., Blind, M., Dietrich, D., & Oleson, E. (2015). Understanding the intergenerational effects of colonization: Aboriginal women with neurological conditions—their reality and resilience. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 10(2), 3-20.

Brascoupé, S., & Waters, C.. (2009). Cultural safety: Exploring the applicability of the concept of cultural safety to Aboriginal health and community wellness. Journal of Aboriginal Health, 5, 6-41.

Brave Heart, M.Y. (2003). The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship with substance abuse: a Lakota illustration. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 35(1): 7-13.

Hooks, b. (1990). Marginality as a site of resistance. In R. Ferguson, M. Gever, T. T.

Minh-ha, & C. West (Eds.), Out there: Marginalization and contemporary cultures (pp. 241- 243). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Methot, S. (2019). Legacy: Trauma, story and Indigenous healing. Toronto: ECW Press.

National Aboriginal Health Organization. (2018). Cultural competency and safety: A guide for health care administrators, providers and educators. Ottawa, Ontario. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/interculturaldialogue/resources/249

Roy et al. (2015) summarizes the Aboriginal Health Foundation’s recommendations on best practices for addressing intergenerational trauma.

Sotero, M. (2006). A Conceptual model of historical trauma: Implications for public health practice and research. Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice, 1(1): 93-108.

Tuck, E. & Yang, K. W. (2014). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(6), 811-818. DOI: 10.1177/1077800414530265

Wesley-Esquimaux, C, & Smolewski M. (2004). Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Whitbeck, L.B., Adams, G.W., Hoyt, D.R., & Chen, X. (2004). Conceptualizing and measuring historical trauma among American Indian people. American Journal of Community Psychology, 33(3-4): 119-30.

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