The birth of the ‘Windigo’: The construction of Aboriginal health in biomedical and traditional Indigenous models of medicine
Authors: Cash Ahenakew
This paper seeks to explore how biomedical models of health have generated Aboriginalhealth images that continue to culturally pathologize Aboriginal communities. Early healthwriting on Aboriginal peoples constructed them as primitive, superstitious, and incapable of complex thought (Waldram, 2004), and described Aboriginal communities as plagued withinfectious disease, chronic disease, or social pathology (Waldram, Herring, & Young, 2006).Through the medical construction of pathological communities with primitive Aboriginals onecan begin to imagine how biomedical definitions of disease are inextricably linked with thelarger structures of authority and power in settler societies such as Canada and the UnitedStates, and arguably, around the world.O’Neal, Reading and Leader (1998) explain that”epidemiological knowledge constructs an understanding of Aboriginal society that reinforcesunequal power relationships” (p. 230); they emphasise that “an image of sick disorganizedcommunities can be used to justify paternalism and dependency” (ibid). Shields, Bishop andMazawi (2005) refer to this cycle of construction of deviation from a norm being used to justify a need for paternalism and dependencyas ‘pathologizing practices’:Pathologizing is a process where perceived structural-functional, cultural, or epistemological deviation from an assumed normal state is ascribed to another groupas a product of power relationships, whereby the less powerful group is deemed tobe abnormal in some way. Pathologizing is a mode of colonization used to govern,regulate, manage, marginalize, or minoritize, primarily through hegemonic discourses(p. x).If research on Aboriginal health or other dimensions of Aboriginal life (e.g. culture or education) is to challenge pathologizing practices, researchers need to engage with thepolitical economy of knowledge production through an analysis of the relationships betweenwestern power, biomedical knowledge, and the construction of Aboriginality and Aboriginalhealth. In order to explore the unequal relationship between settler and Aboriginalcommunities, engagement with post-modern, post-colonial, and decolonizing theories haveproven useful (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin, 2007; Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). Therefore, this paper takes a critical perspective based on postcolonial and decolonizing approaches to examinehow the underlying codes of imperialism, colonialism and biomedicine havesystematicallyclassified Indigenouspeoples as the ‘other’ within hierarchies of race and typologies of difference. The first part of the paper focuses on Aboriginal cosmologies and traditionalIndigenous medicine. The second part outlines a critique of the biomedical model of healthand its association with colonial practices. The final part examines some examples of research on Aboriginal Health and proposes a combination of approaches to support theresilience and revitalisation of Aboriginal culture, practices and communities.
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