First Nations seek to heal the mind, body and spirit on the land

Nora MacIntosh has been waiting for this moment for months. “I’m sober,” she says, crediting the newly-opened Jackson Lake Land-Based Healing Centre north of Whitehorse.

Nora MacIntosh has been waiting for this moment for months.

“I’m sober,” she says, crediting the newly-opened Jackson Lake Land-Based Healing Centre north of Whitehorse.

She’s already picked her wall tent, a two-person home overlooking a bluff.

MacIntosh looks noticeably more peaceful than she did two weeks ago, when she was still cutting back on her drinking. Back then, she described the bliss she’s felt at previous healing camps.

“You’re more dominant when you’re on a natural high of traditional living,” she said, sitting on the banks of the Yukon River on National Aboriginal Day.

“Especially when you have elders there or children there or your mom and dad, your brother or sister.

“Knowing that you’re doing something good makes your healing a lot easier and a lot better for everyone.”

The Yukon’s newest government-mandated aboriginal healing camp is opening just in time. The recent deaths of two First Nation men in police and detox custody has made cultural-specific treatment for alcoholism a potential cure against the social blight.

For MacIntosh, healing camps have provided solace for the suffering she endured from rape and incest. Despite her relapses into alcoholism, she’s optimistic about this new camp’s program.

Her face brightens when she describes her previous experiences. In the middle of a sentence, a large eagle crosses the river.

“That’s what I mean – it’s like being an eagle,” she said. “If anything, I would love to be an eagle because it soars so high, it’s so powerful and it has so much strength.

“When I see the eagle, I see the four nations, the four directions.”

Self-development in aboriginal culture derives a lot of its meaning from the natural environment, not from books or texts. But the subjective benefit of that wisdom is hard to measure. It doesn’t translate easily into a government’s cost-benefit analysis.

But for people like MacIntosh, living in nature and sharing traditional survival techniques and culture bring strength.

“Your body is thankful for it,” she said. “Your mind, your soul – everything just feels refreshing. It’s like you’re born again.”

Unlike conventional western medical treatment, a camp is not a controlled environment with a mentor who directs the healing. While elders will tell stories and share their experiences, the gathering will evolve naturally.

“It just seems like everyone falls into place,” said MacIntosh.

And whatever you’re there to deal with doesn’t need to be discussed.

“When you’re out there, you don’t have to really talk about it. You’re just out there to heal your mind and emotions.

“You don’t need to talk about it. Just being there heals.”

Human beings are naturally inclined to gain clarity on their selves in nature, said Bryan Jack, who has run a healing camp on the Taku River for 23 years.

“Our people are still crying for that freedom when the land opens up,” said Jack. “It touches your heart and it touches your soul. And you can’t have that in the cities because you’re so assimilated in a process. You’re just there. It’s like a little prison in itself. That’s why I relate to land when I say healing issues have to happen on the land.”

While First Nations have built a philosophy around nature for centuries, it doesn’t mean the experience is restricted by ethnicity.

“If it’s restricted to anything, it’s people’s hearts,” he said. “Your heart has to be open.”

However, reinforcing ancestral traditions adds depth to the psychological impact of nature for First Nation people. And, after centuries of assimilation and a difficult adjustment to newcomers, aboriginal people have an extra stake in developing their psychological strength on the land.

“I’ve seen this in a number of different places where there are two or three thousand First Nation people, and what happens is they tend to get into trouble,” said Jack. “And people say it’s their way of life, and it’s not.

“Before Christopher Columbus, we were a free people. And by being free, I mean if we wanted to go and get healed, we’d do a sweat – we just went downriver to be with nature. It was all a part of land and land issues. That’s where our healing has to start.”

Jack’s involvement in camps began in the 1980s when he used to walk south from Atlin to commune with nature. He eventually found a spot three days out and built a cabin there. With some government money, he and his wife started a camp.

“As an alcoholic, I’d ask myself many times, ‘Why the heck am I drinking? Why am I doing this to myself?’” said Jack of his younger days.

“It took me four years before I said that I better start doing something about it. It was then that I started walking downriver and getting close to the land.

“And I got so close to the land that I’d have visions of our elders and stuff that you don’t see in real life, but in spiritual life.”

Jack echoes MacIntosh’s impressions on the process of developing self-respect in a natural environment.

“It relates to how we become self-sufficient, how we become independent, how we put our pride first and foremost when we do our dances, when we do our songs,” he said.

Alcohol treatment in urban centres doesn’t demand enough from an individual, he said.

“When you send someone out to alcohol centres where we sit and discuss things and whatever, it’s almost the same environment but just without the reach of alcohol or drugs,” he said.

“We spend millions and millions on alcohol centres, they come back. We don’t have the dollars to support them and they feel left out, they feel alone, they feel depressed, and what do they do? They start the wheel all over again.

“If we set something up 40 or 50 miles in the bush, we can bring people out there. People will just relate to each other out there.

“We bring the language out there, we bring the culture and traditional values. We bring the traditional aspects of our healing out there. We can start building a nation of people supporting each other.”

The Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s Jackson Lake healing centre site has long been used to help people, but this is the first time a program under government auspices will take place.

It will be difficult to ascertain how much healing camps mitigate alcoholism and other social ills.

But the institutional model hasn’t always worked, and a more holistic approach to the illness may provide a better psychological grounding for those who suffer from it.

“The programs and projects that are in place now, the ones that have some effect on our people, they still haven’t got the full effect because they’re not working with the land and land issues,” said Jack.

Contact James Munson at