Nov. 30, 2022

Treating trauma as ghosts: How finding parallels in Indigenous and western healing can improve mental wellness support

Elders Teaching Series welcomes Piikani Elder Reg Crowshoe on Dec. 7
Piikani Elder Reg Crowshoe Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The effects of traumatic life events are much like ghosts: the consequences will linger with a person, rarely visible and silently influencing them in negative, haunting ways. Beyond a poetic metaphor, these “ghosts” can take on an important role in the healing process for some Indigenous cultures.

Dr. Reg Crowshoe, a Piikani Elder and cultural adviser at the University of Calgary, says his culture’s approach to mental health practice involves dealing with the ghosts that represent emotions or sicknesses we can’t see. He will be sharing his knowledge on intergenerational trauma and mental wellness at the Elders Teaching Series webinar on Dec. 7.

“I would say trauma splits your body from your spirit, and then you start having trouble with emotion,” says Crowshoe, Hon. LLD’01. “And emotion, you can’t see — you can feel it. Fear, frustration, anxiety, even sickness and so on … those are ghosts.”

Crowshoe says if trauma is left untreated, these ghosts can lead people down the wrong path. He explains that his culture has a protocol for each of these negative emotions, with the community being a key part of recovery.

“When your body has no spirit, you might be the smartest man, you know what's right and wrong, you don’t abuse alcohol or drugs, you know that,” he says. “But, when your spirit is gone, your body follows other bodies that have no spirit and they might go into crime, drinking and alcohol … That’s why we have the healing ceremonies of bringing the body and the spirit back together, so you do the right thing, and you can heal.”

The image of trauma represented as a ghost can be helpful when those who have been traumatized want to blame themselves, says Crowshoe. “It takes away the concept of regret,” he says.

You need to forgive yourself, otherwise, regret is another ghost.

These Indigenous ways of knowing and doing don’t have to exist in conflict with western medicine, says Crowshoe, adding he sees parallels and urges people to find solutions together — which includes learning the language other cultures use to talk about mental health. For example, he compares how western medicine works on written, scientific knowledge but Indigenous Elders understand ghosts: “The two system languages need to understand each other if we’re going to solve the problems we need to solve.”

Many Indigenous youth are affected by intergenerational trauma, says Crowshoe, who has seen the way that isolation from cultural knowledge stifles their confidence and leaves them struggling with their identity. 

“When I was young and I needed help, I didn’t have any money, but I knew the community was there. So, the old lady next door, she gave me some help,” says Crowshoe. He recalls making his approach by picking some sage and saskatoons, offering them to the “Grandma” to open the conversation: “She wasn’t my blood relative, but … I told her, this is what I was worried about, and she straightened it out for me.”

Crowshoe wants young people to know that no matter how separated they feel from their Indigenous community, they are always welcome back.

“I think we need to understand, our young people have a lot of grandmas in many of our cultures,” he says. “I did that when I was young. They could still do it and the grandmas and grandpas will be glad for it.”

As a residential school survivor who was beaten if he tried to use his Indigenous ways of thinking or doing, Crowshoe says he is careful not to impose “cultural confusion” on his students when he is teaching. He says he spends a lot of time providing parallels to help understand each other and show young people that both ways of thinking can contribute to a good way of life.

Crowshoe says he feels a lot of pride in sharing his culture’s stories with university audiences, noting how important it is for students to be exposed to diverse perspectives.

“I would say the university audience needs to have many different perspectives because that’s a part of research — looking at many different things,” he says. “If they can be introduced to a concept from an oral system, that will expand their research — and to be able to visit Elders and access Elders’ narratives with mental health, or whatever it is, to be a part of the research.”

For Indigenous youth, Crowshoe says his most important message is one of belonging: “The ceremonies are still here. Your DNA is a part of these ceremonies. You do have a home here. If you can understand this kind of healing, or preventative health from our cultures, then it’s there for you.”

Event details

Dec. 7, 2022 
12 – 1:30 p.m., online 
Register now

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary is moving toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.