Identity and sense of self are connected. Indigenous people traditionally have had what could be called “a relational self” since the needs, desires, obligations and happiness of each individual is related directly to the well-being of those around them. While this may be true in non-Indigenous cultures as well, it is still actively practice in Aboriginal life. For example, individuals are often expected to participate in community activity and have particular roles related to the Big House, to Sundance, to healing or leadership practices and to assisting the deceased pass to the spirit world. Some people have designated roles related to singing, drumming and participating in ceremony. These roles can be indicated by the name a person receives. While a child receives a name at birth, an Indigenous person may also receive an additional name (or names) throughout their life related to their heritage, their Ancestors and their emerging responsibilities and gifts.
Personal well-being for Indigenous children is linked to the well-being of community. One might say this is true for all children, but having a sense of community, and doing service to that community is part of the collective orientation of many Indigenous communities.
It is important to learn about and acknowledge the efforts and strategies of Indigenous families to find their roots, families and cultural practices. In spite of the deliberate obstacles placed in front of families, individuals have made great strides in trying to reconnect with family and community, despite injustices such as secrecy laws related to closed adoption. Part of “finding one’s way home” has involved relying on inner guidance (one’s inner space and spiritual connection), following “signs” and intuition, using prayer and ceremony to ask for guidance from the Ancestors in finding family. Many of these strategies were described by participants in the doctoral research of Cathy Richardson (2004).
Starhawk, a women’s ritualist and healer, has identified one of the key challenges related to being separated from one’s family, people and place of origin while at the same time experiencing a sense of longing and distant connection. She writes:
We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been – a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free (1982, Dreaming the Dark).
While this conception of community might seem idealistic, this sense of longing for “home” is felt deeply for Indigenous children in care. It is often experienced as a hole in the heart or an ache that never goes away. You will witness this sensation in the writings of Richard Cardinal, a Métis boy in foster care in Alberta. You will engage with this theme in the article “From Longing to Belonging” by Carriere and Richardson (2009).
An Indigenous Perspective on Attachment and Connectedness
Attachment theory, with its focus on the mother/child dyad is limited in terms of Indigenous family structures. Overgeneralizations about attachment theory (and brain development) are sometimes misapplied and used against Indigenous mothers in child welfare situations. For example, if a child is placed in government care for a temporary period while a mother is experiencing some life challenges, visits with the mother are sometimes attenuated while the child is encouraged to bond with new and perhaps temporary caregivers. When the child bonds with the non-Indigenous family, social workers often make the case that this new relationship should take precedence and that the birth mother is not able to care for the child, often due to poverty, isolation or perhaps due to paternal violence. In many cases, Indigenous mothers are not supported and colonial biases are applied against them. This topic can be explored further, along with traditional Aboriginal Mothering in the book “Until Our Hearts Are On The Ground: Aboriginal Mothering, Oppression, Resistance and Rebirth” by D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (2006).