Reclaiming cultural teachings about mortality, grief, loss, death and dying

News & Updates | June 17, 2022 | Chrystal Waban Toop

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One Anishinaabekwe’s perspective on death and dying 

Kwey kwey, my name is Chrystal Waban Toop and I am a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation. I am a proud Anishinaabekwe and very honoured to be occupying space on the Dying With Dignity Canada blog. A member of the rural Indigenous community of Renfrew County, a counselor and Indigenous death doula, I have been asked to share some insights on mortality, culture, and approaches to grief. 

National Indigenous Peoples Day and Indigenous History Month are important designations on the calendar and now, more than ever before, it is a time for educating ourselves and gaining knowledge about the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people who have historically shared this continent with settlers and immigrants from around the world.  

Death is an important part of the lifecycle. Some would argue this time is the most important. In Anishinaabeg culture, this time in the lifecycle is one revered for the wisdom gifted by age, and the joys that come with watching the next generations. 

What we cannot overlook or smooth over is the reality of death for Indigenous kin. It is always lurking. Death and the experience of dying and grief is not isolated to watching the Elders of our families and communities travel on from a life well lived.  

Our communities are coping with abrupt and unexpected loss. Our families read headlines, like those of recovered students who went away to Residential Schools and never returned. Communities follow court proceedings, sentencing decisions, and feel their worlds shatter at the trauma of relatives and friends taken too soon, fighting to survive the violence visited upon them. Indigenous families carry the impacts of colonization through each day, railing against the onslaught of risk facing each generation.   

Trauma responses lead to patterns or cycles of behaviour once used to cope with the original trauma. For some people trauma was not a one-time incident but a chronic experience. One can research further with intersections of poverty, displacement, and systemic oppression.  

For Indigenous people the original trauma is colonization, and this too must be considered deeply. For some families, their younger generations have been spared traumatic experiences themselves, a direct result of hypervigilance and the hard work of the generations before them. Each new cycle of family must discover its own path to healing and cycle breaking, each generation working to remove degrees of harm which they are faced with overcoming.  

Resting instead of quitting may be the cycle to break for one family. People pleasing might eclipse the path for members of another family. Co-dependency and resignation may be the hurdle for another. These trauma responses embed themselves here and there, quietly dismantling healthy relationships, or dictating the cycles inside unhealthy relationships.  

These are the intricacies which propel my own work to create learning opportunities for overcoming trauma, coping with grief, and finding empowerment through cultural reclamation.  

Experiences with death and dying are unique for Indigenous populations, as it would be with any other. What I have gleaned on my own journey is that death is sacred, just like birth. When we learn our creation stories in our nations, death and dying are often interwoven in these stories. Birth and death are twin journeys every spirit will take.  

Algonquin Elder William Commanda once shared a teaching with my cousin, who shared with me, that the Earth Walk is a painful experience for Indigenous people. It is fraught with danger, fear, and despair. It is a very difficult journey we take on when we decide to come to our parents to be born. As Anishinaabeg it is our mission to discover our life’s purpose before we finish our time in this place. Colonization has separated us from this teaching and way of knowing the gift of life as well. 

Though I have been asked to share ceremonies here about end-of-life and after death, this too requires a pause and measuring for potential harms. End-of-life spaces are fraught with cultural appropriation, and this is its own, on-going trauma. Consider the impacts on Indigenous people who do not carry their teachings as a direct result of systemic racism. Consider how a First Nation, Inuit, or Metis person would feel when a non-Indigenous person shares ceremonial practices and teachings that have been observed and appropriated for their own benefit. There are numerous benefits to non-Indigenous EOL practitioners who decide to offer Indigenous ceremonies in their practices of care, including but not limited to raising their own profiles as ‘spiritual practitioners’ and financial incentives. 

Just the other day one of the death care groups I belong to on social media promoted an event and training offered by a non-Indigenous EOL practitioner who not only offered an expensive practitioner training, but also authored several books on Indigenous practices, without an ounce of Indigenous identity. These individuals profit and make livings off teachings obtained in ceremonial spaces.  

When our cultural teachers provide teachings, there is a great responsibility in receiving and honouring these teachings on cultural practices. As a carrier of these teachings, we must always practice ethically, conscientious of the belief that teachings are not to be monetized while simultaneously balancing a very real need to take care of ourselves and our families.  

Before you pay a non-Indigenous person to teach you Indigenous culture, please question what nation these teachings genuinely belong to and do the hard work of reflecting on whether you need this teaching for your practice and if you genuinely support Indigenous people. If the answer is no, I want to congratulate you on your very real efforts to decolonize your thinking and your EOL practice.  

If your pursuit of these teachings eclipses the needs of those who are Indigenous and reclaiming what was taken, please check yourself and your privilege.  I am often dumbfounded by the willingness of those who pay non-Indigenous practitioners for culture but refuse to practice diligence to ensure payment of actual Indigenous community members for the same, without ethical lines being crossed.  

If you are pursuing cultural teachings for your own spiritual growth, you will often find yourself welcome in many Indigenous spaces. First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities are communities grounded in respect and inclusion, which is how the nation Canada came to be.  

The truth about death and dying I wish to impart is simple. It can be extremely difficult for Indigenous people to reclaim culture and knowledge and barriers such as family obligations and/or separations, limited resources, and trauma are real and often insurmountable. Reclaiming cultural teachings about mortality, grief, loss, death and dying are no exception.  

Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are in a space of unlearning and though it can be awkward and uncomfortable, we can press on and come out better for the experience.  

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