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Aboriginal children : the healing power of cultural identity

Every day, 10 to 20 toddlers and preschool children gather at the Katl'odeeche First Nation Children's Centre on the Hay River Dene Reserve, Northwest Territories. They are learning South Slavey, the language originally spoken on the reserve. They make crafts and sing songs based on legends and traditional life. They learn about local ceremonies and take part in community events. Culture and language are interwoven into every activity.

Elaine Rene-Tambour, coordinator of the centre, has been working in child care for 35 years. She says she's convinced that the centre is making a difference to the children involved. "The children are excited and proud to be speaking South Slavey and learning about their culture."

The Katl'odeeche Centre is part of a larger movement in Aboriginal communities across the country. Child development experts know that children with positive self-identity are more likely to grow up healthy and Aboriginal leaders have believed this for some time. What's more, they believe that raising children with a strong sense of cultural identity is key to healing the wounds in their communities – and to the survival of their culture.

A sense of identity equals a sense of belonging

We are constantly developing our identity, from birth to the end of our lives. We build it based on our relationships to relatives, friends, community, geography, language and other social factors.

Identity plays a key role in healthy child development. When a child feels a sense of belonging to family, community and peers he or she is better able to deal with adversity.

The importance of identity is particularly true for Aboriginal children's healthy development since community and belonging are such important parts of their cultures' belief systems. In recent years, Aboriginal leaders have been striving to enhance children's sense of belonging. Some have called this a circle of connectedness. The circle is a sacred symbol in all Aboriginal cultures. An emblem of wholeness, unity and infinity, it represents the cycles of life and the meaning of the universe. The circle of connectedness sees the child at the centre, surrounded by his or her parents, who are in turn surrounded by their community.

The stakes are high

 Research in child development is clear that children's success in school, work and life is linked to their early years. Currently 38 per cent of Aboriginal people are children under the age of 15. This is proportionally twice as high as the rest of the Canadian population. Since the overall Aboriginal population is much younger than the overall Canadian population, the healthy development of Aboriginal children is especially crucial to the future of their communities.

Yet, Aboriginal children often face daunting challenges to healthy child development. They are at a higher risk of living in poverty than other children in Canada. First Nations children suffer from high rates of diabetes and obesity. Inuit children are affected by environmental problems that are contaminating traditional food sources and drinking water. Some Aboriginal children are disadvantaged from birth as a result of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Often they face discrimination in their schools and other community services.

Many Aboriginal communities believe that they can overcome these challenges by fostering a sense of cultural identity in their children.

Restoring identity

Given that identity is such an important aspect of Aboriginal culture, it's no wonder that certain historical events have been so devastating.

From the turn of the century until the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were moved far from their families to residential schools. The aim of the schools was to educate and assimilate the children, but the results were disastrous. The stories of emotional and physical abuse are well documented but there were also other types of damage. Children were forbidden to speak their traditional languages or to practice traditional customs. They were made to feel that their way of life was "primitive" or "sinful." For many, the most vivid lessons they learned were disdain for their peoples' way of life, and disconnectedness from their communities. Another unfortunate legacy of the residential schools is that their students later became parents without having role models for traditional child-rearing.The wounds from this experience are still raw – currently close to 86,000 people still living once attended these schools.

Then, between the 1960s and 1980s, high numbers of Aboriginal children were "scooped" from their homes and placed in foster homes or adopted out. Usually they were placed with non-Aboriginal families and lost all ties with their natural families. The intention was to give the children the chance to grow up in more "advantaged" homes, however, many adoptees have said that they felt a great sense of lost identity from the experience.

Aboriginal solutions for Aboriginal children

The key to fostering identity is to have Aboriginal communities develop solutions that they know will work best for their children.

Some communities have set up parent circles where parents can gather to share experiences and learn from each other. Others have volunteers who visit the homes of new parents to give them advice and support. Successful programs that serve Aboriginal families focus on the parents' strengths rather than their weaknesses.

A program run by the Métis Nation of Ontario supports Aboriginal parents by matching them up with other parents in the community. The Lay Home Visitors program brings people from the communities who have parenting experience into the homes of families with young children. The home visitors are trained in supporting families and promoting child development. They work with families to build on their strengths, develop their parenting skills and help them connect to community resources.

Aboriginal leaders also see an important role for child care programs in fostering cultural identity in young children. The Assembly of First Nations has stated that Aboriginal child care services that "reflect First Nations beliefs and values, [will] restore our children to their rightful place and, in doing so, restore our communities to a place of power and self sufficiency." And, according to an Inuit Early Childhood Development Issues Discussion Paper, Inuit early childhood development needs to take place in an environment where "…The Inuk child has a positive self image, has a strong foundation in Inuit culture [and] language and feels pride in Inuit ways."

The Hopedale Language Nest in northern Labrador is one of several 'language nest' programs in Canada. The concept of language nests originated with the Maori in New Zealand as a program that immerses young children in their culture and language within a nurturing environment that includes the concept of extended family, and encourages parents to revive the use of the language at home. The Hopedale program, operated in partnership with the Torngasok Cultural Centre, is targeted to infants from 3 to 24 months — a critical stage for developing language skills. The staff speak only Inuktitut to the children and offer a program of activities built around Inuit culture. The children are restoring pride and hope to their community by keeping a nearly–lost language alive.

Child care programs can foster cultural identity by having Aboriginal child care practitioners as staff and by involving the community in creating their curriculum.

First Nations communities in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan have worked in partnership with the University of Victoria to develop a curriculum for teaching Aboriginal early childhood educators that combines current knowledge on 'best practice' overall with Aboriginal customs of child-rearing. The curriculum is taught to Aboriginal students who are then encouraged to work in their communities with Aboriginal children.

Elders play an important role

At the Katl'odeeche First Nation Children's Centre, Elders play an important role in passing along beliefs and values.

"One Elder comes to the centre and brings her sewing or beading. The children will climb up into her lap to watch or to be comforted. Some of them are learning to bead themselves. Another Elder who does yard work at the centre is a trapper. Sometimes he brings in the animals he has caught so that the children can see them and learn about them. We also have an Elder who comes to our centre to cook traditional meals," says Elaine Rene-Tambour.

Rene-Tambour says that her community is proud of what the children in the centre have learned. "Everyone notices the difference in these children. At community feasts, they know the rules and etiquette of the drum. They are able to speak South Slavey with the Elders. Teachers at the school tell us that our children are calm and confident when they start school."

Rene-Tambour says that she's seen first hand the difference that a strong sense of identity can make in a young child's life. "Language and culture are crucial. Children are hungry for it. They have to know who they are."

Gifts from the Creator, hope for the future

According to many Aboriginal belief systems, a child is a gift from the Creator. Today, Aboriginal people also believe that if children grow up with a sense of belonging, they can keep their cultures vital and restore their communities.

As Shuswap Elder Mary Thomas has said, "We have been caring for our children since time immemorial. The teachings of our values, principles, and ways of being to the children and youth have ensured our existence as communities, nations, and peoples. The values of our people have ensured our existence. It is to the children that these values are passed. The children are our future and our survival."

Whether you're a parent, caregiver or health practitioner, you can help foster a child's identity:

  • Learn as much as you can about the specific culture of the child – its traditions, strengths and challenges. Aboriginal cultures are diverse (there are approximately 50 different Aboriginal cultural groups in Canada) and there is also diversity within each community.
  • Try to balance the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the child.
  • Support the child to learn and maintain his traditional language.
  • Provide regular opportunities for her to take part in traditional activities. Fish, gather berries, prepare and eat traditional foods together.
  • Provide regular opportunities for him to take part in community events. Attend ceremonial and ritual events.
  • Encourage meaningful interaction with Elders from her community. Children can learn respect and wisdom from Elders.
  • Support him to learn traditional stories and legends.
  • Provide her with books, videos, traditional games, dance and music that reinforce her traditional, family and daily life.
  • Speak frankly to him about discrimination.
  • Network with other Aboriginal parents, colleagues and Elders to share experiences and ideas.