“The strongest part of my heart is back in the bush”, says Malcolm MacDonald, an alcohol and drug counsellor for the champagne Aishikik Band. He is speaking to a gathering physicians and healthcare workers who have come out at the band's invitation to a special presentation on native healing methods at Klukshu. The session is taking place on the last day of Circumpolar Health Conference, held in Whitehorse in late May, and Malcom is describing a unique approach to alcohol and drug problems. He calls it Wilderness Treatment.
“When I first started this...” he says, “we had these problems – suicide, violence, the whole bit – and there was this thing where we go back to the Elders. What the Elders were saying, to solve this problem, there's nobody out there... so we had to do it ourselves. The Elders say “Okay, if there's problems, go back to the bush.”
Malcom MacDonald has been involved in counselling with the champagne Aishihik Band for about nine years. He has a psychology degree from the university of alberta, and feels that he is uniquely qualified to work on a program that goes back to the land to heal the pains of alcohol and drug abuse for Yukon First Nations people.
“First, I'm an Indian,” he says. “Second, as wilderness treatment implies, I have some academic background to put this into perspective.”
Jane Failey is a clinical psychologist associated with Yukon College who has worked on the Wilderness Treatment program with Malcom since early this year. She explains to the health workers how traditional Indian teachings and modern psychology are converging to validate each other.
“The North American and European scientific establishments”,she says, “is itself discovering the value and wisdom of the native people, who have understood human problems, illness and healing from the intuitive and naturalistic observation path. These paths are now converging and the Wilderness Treatment program that Malcom has founded is a perfect example of that. In his culture camps, he noticed that the native people began to relax, to feel more sure in themselves, and to share with one another their griefs and also their sense of identity when they met together in a wilderness setting.”
Jane Failey identifies stress, and the specific stress of trying to relate to a dominant culture not their own, as a prime contributor to addictions for First Nations People.
“To be an Indian in North America is to be exposed to much more stress than a white person experiences... Going to a bank to get a loan, going into the grocery store. Every small act which for a white person is generally congruent and interesting as part of your daily operation, for a native person is exposing oneself to stress. The stress of white culture imposed itself on people where they had no skills for dealing with this foreign element. But beyond that, the skills and wisdom that they had were interrupted, because a generation of children were sent to mission schools, and so they didn't get the guidance of their elders about how to deal with this problem. Their only alternative in dealing with stress was to dry and dull the pain, and alcohol is readily available to dull the pain.
The native people need a healing which restores to them their sense of self-respect. Their spiritual nature responds very much to the spiritual quality of the wilderness.” Malcolm MacDonald hit upon the idea of wilderness treatment about three years ago, when the band decided to respond to its high suicide rate by targeting 16 – 25 year old youths and developing their outdoor survival skills through special mini-camps.
The response to the first camp was beyond Malcolm's expectation. He tells how some 25 youth came out, and recalls the problem of deciding where to go from there.
“I guess there must be a kind of intrinsic tie to that wilderness”, he says, “because there was no problem getting them out there... Now that we've got them here, what do we do with the? A format environment like a meeting hall or the band office, they won't come there. But if we provide just a campfire, there's all these people around.
So towards the night, with everybody gravitation toward the campfire, and this free flow of conversation, I figured that with this campfire atmosphere, maybe we could teach them something now. We introduced some more formal type of dialogue, focusing on certain things, like the suicide issue. We had these people there, and they could converse in that environment. The underlying theory of Wilderness treatment is to help fill the void that Jain Failey talks about. Adapting to an alien culture is an almost impossible task for someone with little self-esteem or personal identity, the task is to first help foster that initial self- confidence, and then build from there she explains.
“Learning the hunting skills of the wilderness, survival skills which Malcolm can teach them, develops a sense of adequacy and competence. In his program, he has made specific provisions for teaching native people the art and craft of relating to white culture, without feeling lost and confused and degraded.
He sensed the need... to first give them their own roots, their sense of dignity and a feeling of spiritual well-being in the wilderness. Then he teaches them the skills to relate constructively and peacefully in a white environment.”
Malcolm finds that the Wilderness Treatment program works well not only with youth, but with whole families. The champagne Aishihik Band has integrated its social programs, so that drug and alcohol counsellors, child welfare workers and community health representatives work together as a team. Child welfare worker Barb Hume says that the band does not take children away from their parents if there are alcohol and drug problems. Rather, they try to involve grandparents and other extended family members to help, while the whole family becomes involved in treatment.
“We believe that the children belong to the family”, she says, “and that no agency should take children away and place them into other homes. Since our child welfare program started, we've had about three or four cases where we sent the whole family into treatment. We should support Malcolm's program by sending them to Aishihik... and have been very successful. They've reached sobriety, they have their children back, and their school has improved.”
There have been points in the program where Malcolm's had to take calculated risks in tricky situations. He cites the example of a young man with addictions problems who was also bent on killing himself.
“He wanted to die. It was a bad situation. I just took him out in the bush, out to the mountains, and he sure had a hard time. I gave him an extreme amount of work to do and so this person was so damned tired at the end of the day he couldn't even think of wanting to kill himself any more”. The risk came for Malcolm when he had to decide whether to give the man a gun to hunt game. He too the chance, with profound results.
“From that, he was able to provide meat for his family, and he was able to demonstrate to himself that he was able and capable, that he amounted to something”, says Malcolm, adding that the man is still alive today.
Wilderness Treatment fills a gap that the conventional treatment techniques designed for a white culture do not begin to fill, according to Jane Failey.
“He may teach some youth who have never hunted before how to hunt, how to be quiet and find the animal, how to use firearms safely, that involves many things, learning to look and see, learning to use equipment assertively to get what you want.
But there are many people who will become his clients here, for whom going into an office to talk about a mental health problem is so alien, and would itself create tensions... he is able to reach a large population who would otherwise not be accessible to care.”
As Yukon First Nations develop their own approaches to health care in their communities, it seems that wilderness treatment will play a significant role in coming up with the answers to addictions. Remote treatment centres isolated from families and communities clearly aren't the answer, and it's doubtful how much of what passes for treatment in white culture can be applied to native people. What does seem to work is building people's faith in themselves, within their own communities, and in a context that's meaningful to them.
“The bush can create this healing environment all by itself”, says Malcolm MacDonald. “All you've got to do is just go out there, and it just happens by itself.”
By Brian Eaton