What it Means to Live

July 20, 2021

"Looking at Swuq'us from Pi'paam over Kwa'mutaun Xatsa. This photo makes me think of how each of those places hold names and stories older than my nation, and each name holds a legend of how it came to be. Some see a mountain; I see the legends of my culture and theories about life." —Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

In mental health, approaches to addressing suicidal behavior are often couched in a prevention paradigm that asks, “How do we make sure our kids don’t harm themselves?” Alternatively, in her work, Dr. Emma Elliott-Groves, an assistant professor in the UW College of Education, would rather ask, "What does it mean to live healthful lives?" This reframing calls for a paradigm shift from separation to connection and prevention to transformation.

Elliott-Groves, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology and a master’s degree in social work, came to this realization through her doctoral dissertation on the rates of suicide in her community, the people of the Cowichan territory located on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. While the discipline of psychology offers pathological reasons for suicide like depression or alcohol use disorder and seeks to address those illnesses through mainstream approaches, Elliott-Groves wanted to go deeper and document what was going on from the perspectives of those with the lived experience of suicidal behavior or those who have lost loved ones to death by suicide. From this standpoint, she maintains, we can begin to address the predicaments that Indigenous communities face through culturally sustaining and locally-specific methodologies.

Members of the Cowichan community shared stories of their survival related to the strength of vast systems of relationships — with others, with their land, and with their cultural and ceremonial practices — that facilitate their livelihoods. They narrated how colonization has impacted their everyday lives through a disruption to these systems of relationships. Elliott-Groves found that the community's struggles arose from the harm inflicted by colonialism on systems of individual and communal relationships put in place to ensure collective survival.

"They talked about the impact of colonial encroachment on food and land systems, governance structures, religious practices, education, child welfare, and all other social systems," says Elliott-Groves. "In an Indigenous community, where collective welfare matters, taking away our ability to make decisions for ourselves makes it very difficult to adapt to widescale change, and thereby forecloses our possible futures."

That led to Elliott-Groves' current work, a recently launched study funded by the Spencer Foundation designed to document local Cowichan stories for theory and knowledge creation, dissemination, and intergenerational transmission of knowledge. Approaching learning and well-being in this way highlights community knowledge and values and engages a culturally responsive approach to identifying communal needs and strengths.

"In psychology literature, 96% of our understanding comes from 12% of the population," says Elliott-Groves. "That's not good enough. When we look at the data, we can see that Black and Brown and Indigenous disparities haven't shifted over the last 30 to 40 years. Whatever approach we're taking — it’s not working."

Elliott-Groves imagines something different. "In a linear, Western understanding of the world, it's easy to fall through the cracks," she says. "But in an Indigenous context, it's more like a ball of yarn, with connected systems of knowledge that are dynamic and healing, moving and shifting to hold people."

A Responsive Approach to Research

To gather wisdom responsively, Elliott-Groves imbedded her project in the Cowichan community's history and social and cultural contexts. The study centers on community elders and knowledge keepers, and the land as teacher. Going to places of their choosing, such as historical village sites or places of personal or cultural significance, knowledge-keepers walk, read, and story the land wearing a GoPro camera and document the stories that emerge from that particular place. The GoPro recordings provide additional critical information about the storyteller's perspective and experience in association with a vast system of relationships.

As the pandemic interrupted the project plan and prevented Elliott-Groves from traveling, she is working closely with several research assistants, including Sabrina Elliott, who provides community-based support. "In the Cowichan Valley, our stories instill a sense of pride and identity," says Elliott. "Each one has a purpose, like the one about the chipmunk who wanted more and more. He disguised himself to get more food ― but the people would have given him food if he had come as himself. When you hear the elders tell that story, you learn about being yourself and not being greedy." Local stories share essential cultural teachings without discounting individual lived experiences or specific standpoints. That is, they allow the story’s listener to interpret meaning from their current, specific context.

Once a story is gathered, UW graduate research assistant Alayna Eagle Shield of the Lakota Nation helps Elliott-Groves catalog the information. "The beauty of this project," says Eagle Shield, "Is that we all know the ways our communities have always connected to the land, and the importance of leaning into our protective factors and cultural buffers in ways that continue to raise the level of health of our communities."

All three women bring layers of evolving knowledge and lived experience to this work. In addition to working in the local land office and supporting the health of women and children with her expertise in nutrition and herbal remedies, Elliott graduated with a degree in business administration. Her degree work included cross-cultural studies, allowing her to develop interdisciplinary expertise in contemporary Indigenous and First Nations issues. Elliott and her family are deeply engaged in local cultural practices and take pride in sharing with others their experiences related to their collective community and the responsibility they have to help care for others.

"My Xwulmuxw studies opened my eyes to historical trauma across the globe, not just in the Cowichan territory but in Hawaii and other places," she says. "At home, we didn't hear about residential school and the impact on our grandparents and great grandparents. What I'm learning allows me to support my community, to have gentle conversations, and to move toward healing."

It's also helping Elliott to make more cross-cultural connections. "Going to school and studying Western ways of policies and guidelines, I can then relate that to how we culturally understand things," she says. "It allows me to guide, advocate and support families facing things like child services involvement."

Since the pandemic, Eagle Shield began doing her UW graduate classes remotely, moving back home to the Standing Rock Nation, bordering North and South Dakota. At the same time, she's serving as co-executive director of Mni Wiconi Clinic and Farm and Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Wóuŋspe (Defenders of the Water School). This work gives her more perspective to apply to her work with Elliott-Groves. "So many researchers come in with a colonial lens," she says. "They ask questions about things they think are important to us."

For example, in her co-executive director role, Eagle Shield has fielded many questions about vaccine hesitancy. "In the very beginning," she says, "Yes, it was an issue for real reasons because of past experiences with forced sterilization and intentionally infecting people with smallpox blankets, it was in our own right to be hesitant. But we moved past that quickly. We started conversations around vaccinations in early January and were among the first to roll them out within Indian Country. We got the word out through organizations, by gathering community members and even using a huge online platform that has over two hundred thousand members called the Social Distance Powwow Facebook page.”

Let us tell the stories we want to share. Don't sidetrack us with things not relevant in our communities. Let us tell you what's relevant, what's happening on the ground, and the supports we need.

Her point and the point of the study being done in collaboration with the people of the Cowichan territory? "Let us tell the stories we want to share. Don't sidetrack us with things not relevant in our communities. Let us tell you what's relevant, what's happening on the ground, and the supports we need."

Restoring Relationships

"We cannot get this knowledge anywhere else," says Elliott. "In the Cowichan Valley our goal as parents or grandparents is to ensure that our children grow up knowing who they are and what they are connected to, so they don't fall off into the Western world." If enough people hear the stories, she says, they can share them and pass them on. "That's how we create wellbeing. My grandma shared a story, then a niece tells a cousin who tells her daughter. Once we document and record it, we're able to hold it."

She describes the transformative power of this work. "Our land holds sacred values, and each one is unique," she says. "There's nothing like this written by scholars that would give an understanding of why the land is important and why our stories carry so much value. There are stories that lift you up and you are walking like a feather. Some make you smile and laugh for the rest of the day."

Elliott-Groves emphasizes that this process doesn't involve going back to a precolonial understanding of the world. Instead, the effort uses knowledge rooted in the wisdom of ancestors to address current-day needs, including stopping colonial harm and increasing collective possibility.

"If you Google 'Native Americans,'" she says, "Ninety-five percent of the imagery comes from the 18th and 19th century ― and it all looks very stereotypical. But if you do that with any other population, the images are largely contemporary. That's the mainstream understanding of Indigenous people. Erasure. I want my work to strengthen those representations. Indigenous knowledge systems have something to offer all of us."

How non-Indigenous people and systems support this effort also forms a critical part of the solution. Eagle Shield talks about a word in the Lakota language, iglúha. She says it's close to the word "sovereign" in English and means having the right to make choices on your behalf. "Communities have the right to make choices that are right for them," she says. "If I ever go to Sabrina and Emma's homeland, I will take the lead and direction from them."

In the same way, she finds the long legacy of the U.S. government or funders prescribing processes for Indigenous communities counterproductive. "Putting Robert's Rules of Order ― formal governing procedures codified by a US Army officer in 1876 ― on our tribal council meetings is not how we operate, it's not how the people on the ground work," she says. Instead, she describes processes in line with traditional practices that help shed colonial harm. "If we don't listen to our elders, we are missing the mark," she says. The example of encroachment on systems of governance in Lakota territory reflects a sentiment shared by members of the Cowichan community that the governance model mandated by the Indian Act of 1876 does not serve the needs of the people, nor does it reflect traditional governance practices and values.

"How can you support us?" asks Elliott-Groves. "Land, money and decision-making power." With the land as teacher and Indigenous experts guiding the way, Elliott-Groves sees approaches that would benefit Indigenous children and community wellbeing coming firmly in reach. "Without setting foot in the classroom, we have the collective knowledge to give young people what they need to pass standardized tests with flying colors," she says. “By prioritizing diverse knowledge perspectives, we can offer multiple points of entry in understandings of education and wellbeing including ethical responsibilities and sustainable practices to benefit not just Indigenous peoples, but all living beings.”

"Because of the nature of colonialism and capitalism, some people are at the top, while others are falling through the cracks," says Elliott-Groves. “This project is about stitching communities back together by following the wisdom.”


The image and quote above ― provided by Dr. Emma Elliott-Groves ― comes from Cowichan First Nations’ traditional foods chef and teacher Jared Qwustenuxun Williams. Learn more about Qwustenuxun Williams here.



Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communications, wilcoxc@uw.edu