Indigenous rituals that connect spirit, mind, and body
The smoke wafts over Greg Hopf as he holds a bowl of burnt sage. He takes a breath and exhales—exhaling more than just sacred smoke, but also negative energy. It’s an Indigenous wellness ritual that Hopf’s people have carried for centuries, and it carries potent lessons for all of us.
Hopf is the co-founder of Moccasin Trails (moccasintrails.com), an Indigenous tourism experience in BC that takes visitors through Indigenous history, culture, and rituals. But he actually grew up in Denendeh (Northwest Territories), where he was steeped in his Dene values.
The Dene people trace their roots back more than 30,000 years. It’s the rich history of the Dene, and the other Indigenous peoples in Canada, that guide many Indigenous wellness practices today.
“Wellness from an Indigenous lens starts at the beginning of time immemorial,” says Hopf. “Pre-contact, we roamed Mother Earth and she gave us everything. We had our connection to our land and to each other. So, when we talk about wellness, it’s about that connection—with our land, with our animals, and with each other. Wellness is about spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical connection.”
A poetic example is the word mino-pimatisiwin from the Algonquin people in Eastern Canada. It roughly translates to “living the good life.”
To live a good life—to be truly healthy and well—the Algonquian term encompasses all aspects of your well-being, including a harmonious connection to your people, your history, your land, and your cultural identity.
This is an obvious break from the Western view of wellness, which focuses primarily on physical health and the avoidance of disease. Instead, wellness in the Indigenous worldview often includes practices that help you to
Indigenous culture is preserved through oral traditions. “When you’re told a story, you’ve been given something invaluable—it’s like a family heirloom,” says Hopf. “You have a responsibility to guard that story. That’s why our stories, legends, and songs are significant to us.”
Indigenous oral traditions are highly accurate (to the point of being admissible in court) and are now being used to validate or uncover new ecological, historical, and scientific breakthroughs.
Indigenous people are not a monolithic group. Hopf is quick to point out that there are hundreds of Indigenous communities with dozens of languages and dialects.
Each community might have their own unique rituals or a distinct way to carry out a specific ceremony. But most wellness practices all have a common theme: intentionally creating mindful space to acknowledge and celebrate the interconnectedness of spirit, mind, body, and planet.
“Smudging is our go-to ritual,” says Hopf. “I use it whenever I’m not feeling right, or feel like I’m holding on to some negative energy.”
Sacred medicine, such as sage or sweetgrass, is placed into a bowl and burned. The smoke is then used to cleanse the body and mind with specific intentions (e.g., “I cleanse my mind to think positive thoughts” or “I cleanse my eyes to see good things”).
Other rituals show just how linked today’s practices are to the past. Take some of the land and water rituals as an example.
“Before our ancestors would start their journeys, they would feed Mother Earth,” says Hopf. “They would say to her, ‘We need you to protect us. We need you to guide us.’ As you’re speaking to her and seeking her guidance, you also pay her. You feed the land with tobacco or sage, or even music like a drum or a song. That’s a pretty significant ceremony that really grounds you and puts you into that connection with Mother Earth.”
Other prominent wellness rituals that different communities may use include sweat lodge ceremonies, healing circles, and drumming.
“Different nations have different variations,” says Hopf, “but at the end of the day they all mean the same thing: connection.”
Sage has purifying antimicrobial and antibacterial benefits. It also contains compounds that may improve your mood, boost cognition, and reduce stress and pain.
We often like to compartmentalize our lives. But rather than focusing on specific dimensions of wellness like diet or exercise, the Indigenous worldview invites us to rethink how we live our lives as a whole so that we can all embrace mino-pimatisiwin (“living the good life”).
“The constant interaction with the land, by knowing it with all five senses, guides individuals and provides what is needed to live in harmony with the environment, with each other, and with oneself,” writes Lawrence House and Eddie Pashagumskum, members of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, in their article Land, Life, and Knowledge in Chisasibi: Intergenerational Healing in the Bush. “The ... relationship with nature provides not only the material needs but also the ethic, moral, and spiritual underpinnings of living a good life.”
Western medical practitioners and wellness experts are taking note. In a study published in the Journal for Nurse Practitioners, researchers point out how symbolism, spirituality, and ideas of social and ecological connection make Western doctors and healthcare providers “uncomfortable.” But the study notes that seeking harmony in spirit, mind, and body has immense healing benefits.
“Traditional Indigenous systems of care provide a blueprint to model new healing strategies,” summarize the researchers. “Living in harmony with the earth and our environs has meaning and purpose, not only for us but the whole—the earth, its peoples, and all that is.”
If that isn’t the truest definition of real wellness, what is?
One of the 94 calls to action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada dealt specifically with Indigenous wellness rituals. “We call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian healthcare system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices,” it reads in part.
Connection to the land Many Indigenous rituals focus on connecting with the earth. A growing body of research shows that being more directly connected to the land promotes physiological changes in the body, including reports of reduced chronic pain, less stress, and better sleep.
Increased mindfulness Wellness rituals create space for mindfulness and self-connection, which have significant positive effects on sleep quality and sleep duration.
Stronger social support Indigenous rituals help people stay in a relationship with their culture and those around them. A strong sense of community, and healthy relationships, have been linked to everything from increased longevity to reduced risk of disease and even improved sleep.