Land-based healing saving lives on Wet’suwet’en territory



Throughout her schooling in clinical psychology, Dr. Karla Tait's long-term vision was to build a healing centre on her traditional territory for Wet'suwet'en youth. What began as a humble camp operated out of a tent, the off-the-grid Unist'ot'en Healing Centre is now a multi-floor building featuring a full kitchen, dining space, meeting rooms, and lodging for Elders and participants.

The healing centre offers programming for addictions treatment as well as trauma caused by the intergenerational impacts of residential schools and colonialism. Construction was completed entirely with donated materials and volunteer labour from community members and allies, making the camp possible for participants to attend but also for Unist'ot'en members and supporters to live in full-time.

“For communities considering doing this kind of work, lean into the skillsets you have in your traditional house groups if you're organized in that way. Lean on who is there, willing to do the work and willing to be on the land," said Tait, speaking on a “Land as Healer" panel discussion at the First Nations Health & Wellness Summit which ran May 7 – 9 in Vancouver.

The 22,000 square km of Wet'suwet'en Nation territory in the northern interior of BC is divided into five traditional clans and 13 house groups. The Unist'ot'en are an ancestral family group associated with Yex T'sa wil_k'us (Dark House) of the Gil_seyhu (Big Frog) clan. There are also six Wet'suwet'en communities established under the Indian Act. Many First Nations in the north have similar house and clan systems.  

“There are ways that we have our healing centre and hereditary work autonomous and distinct from the (Indian Act) community that we are attached to," said Tait. “We're really happy to be members of the Witset First Nation and a lot of our work is in partnership and in endorsement and support of our health director. So that's how we access the land-based healing fund each year."

Carla Lewis, FNHA Sr. Specialist, Traditional Wellness, who moderated the panel, said the FNHA is working with all communities to find great strategies to strengthen and revitalize land-based healing.

“Land is medicine. Land is the way we're going to find healing for our people. Because we've had that taken away from us, taking that back is such an act of healing and wellness," she said.

Savannah Prince is a Wet'suwet'en youth who grew up in Prince George. She shared on the panel that she felt very disconnected from her culture and had turned to drinking alcohol every day to cope. One day her concerned mother drove her 400 km from the northern city to the remote healing camp near the town of Houston in the hopes that it would save her daughter and turn her life around.

“I didn't have a vision for myself years ago. I didn't see myself making it a few months, a few weeks. As I spent time healing on the yintah (territory) I gained a vision for myself in the future. It's amazing to be living on the territory with amazing matriarchs. It's been such an honour to learn from all these amazing people. They saved my life. I'm really grateful to be here."

Prince reflected that it may have been a family intervention that brought her to the land, but now she is choosing to stay. “It became my choice throughout the years. It was my mom's choice at first but now it's my choice."

The “Land as Healer" discussion was one of several breakout sessions at the First Nations Health & We​llness Summit, an annual three-day event for community and health leaders and health system partners to restore wholistic wellness practices for First Nations in BC. The summit is an opportunity to shine a light on wise, community-led initiatives to support knowledge transfer and further innovation.

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