Research as a Spiritual Contract

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Leslie Timmins

This article is based on an interview with Connie Deiter

In the past, when an anthropologist approached a First Nations tribe to document, for example, a ceremony, it would sometimes happen that faulty information would be given. If the researcher failed to "pay" for the knowledge being offered, he risked putting himself and the giver of that knowledge in jeopardy. In Cree, pastahow refers to this spiritual harm or "debt" that can be visited upon the relatives or future generations of the giver or receiver of knowledge if proper payment is not made. If you take something from someone, you have to give something back: this keeps life in balance. In this way, all knowledge is spiritual knowledge.

Connie Deiter and Linda Otway, two researchers affiliated with the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, recently completed a study in which they put this principle into practice. "When Linda Otway and I approached First Nations women elders for our research on health and community healing," says Connie Deiter, "we brought them traditional gifts of pouch tobacco and cotton broadcloth, and an honorarium. In a way we were following a ‘research method‘ we’d been taught as children. When we asked an elder to teach us something or pray for us, we paid them with a gift. The skill or benefit we gained would, in turn, accrue value to our family and community. When we asked for knowledge to be shared in our research study, we knew we were entering into a spiritual contract."

The completed study, Sharing Our Stories on Promoting Health and Community Healing: An Aboriginal Women’s Health Project, indicates that definitions of health, healing and healthy communities, as articulated by the women Otway and Deiter interviewed and those who answered their survey, still carry remnants of these old teachings. "An enduring concern about ‘balance‘ and pastahow is apparent," says Deiter. "What you do now, or is done to you, puts in place what will happen in the future; how we treat each other has a fundamental impact on our health. Although elders expressed these views in explicitly spiritual terms and the (mostly younger) women in the survey in primarily secular terms, most of the women’s responses indicate a broader understanding of health than is offered by a biomedical view alone."

A total of 98 women from Manitoba and Saskatchewan participated in the study, including five elders. "Because so much of First Nations history has not been recorded, we wanted to talk to older women who had experienced residential schools. Women who knew the old permit system, which required people to get a pass from an Indian Agent to receive medical care. With the elders," Deiter says, "we used an interview method that allows for an oral history to be given if the speaker wishes. We asked one question only, ‘What do you think ‘health’ is?‘ The elders’ responses commonly placed ‘healing‘ and ‘health‘ within both personal and historical contexts, linking colonization and illness."

Amy, a Sioux grandmother from Oak Lake, Manitoba, who is diabetic, said, "My health problems, I believe, began when I was eight years old. Now I’m sixty-seven. In between there I went through a lot of mental, physical, sexual [abuse]. When I was taken out of my home and taken to a residential school— from that first day, that’s when my illness started. Through healing I went back to … my Indian and Dakota way. Since I sobered up twenty years ago, the Creator has helped me and I help others." Inez, a Plains Cree elder in her late sixties, recalls, "For a long time at Onion Lake residential school, I had what was called a ‘running ear’; nothing was done.… Today, I follow the Indian way. I always go back to my reserve for healing and rest."

The top health concerns identified by the elders were family violence, diabetes, and the need for better coverage of noninsured medical expenses. Although prescription drugs are "free" to First Nations people under the Indian Act, Deiter points out that a number of the women said that they were usually only covered for "older" drugs. "If they wish to have the newer (and more effective) drugs, they have to pay for them themselves."

Although the majority of survey respondents were younger women, 70% concurred with the elders in identifying family violence as their number one health concern. They chose this over options including Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, hypertension, and cancer. Again, like the elders, they listed diabetes as a second priority, followed by substance abuse and mental health issues.

Most respondents said their communities were not healthy and their definitions of "healthy" showed a high degree of consensus. A common description was, "[a place] where everyone works together and watches out for one another." One woman wrote that a healthy community is "one that is free of illhealth [or] comprised of people who, despite ill-health, are intellectually, spiritually … and emotionally sound."

Confirming other research about the poverty of Aboriginal women in Canada (Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Profile, 1996) the data showed that 57% of the respondents live on incomes of less than $20,000 a year, only 40% are employed full or part-time, and 35% are single parents. Although some identified "good food" as part of good health and most of the women said their nutritional requirements were being met, some qualified this by stating that they regularly could not afford to buy fresh foods. "Can’t afford the Canada Food Guide" was the cryptic comment of one woman. "Of the 28% who said their nutritional requirements were not being met," Deiter points out, "some stated that they have gone without food to ensure their children were fed."

"Our study reveals that Aboriginal women see health as a holistic condition, largely created by the community and for the community," Deiter says. "We used a variety of research tools to find this out, but it was essential, in our view, to include methods that were appropriate to the culture we were studying. And now it’s essential for governments to embrace this view of health and empower Aboriginal women to realize it." .

This article is reprinted from the Centres of Excellence in Women’s Health Research Bulletin, Vol. 2, No.3, Winter 2002. For a free subscription to the Research Bulletin, contact the CWHN.

Leslie Timmins is Assistant Editor of the CEWH Research Bulletin. Connie Dieter is a Plains Cree writer and researcher, soon to be defending a Master of Arts thesis on oral history at the University of Alberta.

For a copy of Sharing Our Stories on Promoting Health and Community Healing: An Aboriginal Women’s Health Project contact: Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, Tel: (204) 982-6630, Fax: (204) 982-6637, e-mail: or download: