Indigenous peoples promote traditional health practices for world’s well-being


There is a direct correlation between health conditions and socio-economic inequities. There is no question that health is affected by access to health services and resources that prevent, detect and heal illness. But health is also affected as much as or even more by the way society treats a people’s culture, whether it provides education, sets strategies to counteract poverty, and stimulates economic and social cohesion.

There are two indigenous groups that are increasingly playing a strong role in directing the development of health strategies in their communities: the Quechua from Anta in Cusco, Peru, and the Mi’kmaq from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The Provincial Municipality of Anta, which represents 76,000 Quechua people, established the Municipal Health Service of Anta (MHSA) in March 2003. This indigenous leadership believes that the key political role is to enhance the population’s health and well-being through infrastructure improvement and development, “because without health there is no progress.”

This health center follows a holistic approach that includes traditional indigenous medicine and where “Western-style” diagnosis, treatment, ideology, religion and spiritually are interdependent components to treat and heal. The health center’s philosophy is to treat all patients with equal respect and to respect their traditional practices in medicine (such as medicinal plants, healers and midwifery).

In January 2005 the Provincial Municipality of Anta asked me, a Quechua from Peru residing in Toronto, to identify an indigenous group from Canada that would be interested in exploring a partnership to promote and exchange traditional knowledge in health and healing practices and education. Integration of traditional Native healing practices and medicines with state of the art health care lies at the center of the idea. This partnership aims at collaboration between the five Mi’kmaq First Nation communities of Cape Breton Island, the Mi’kmaq College Institute (MCI) at Cape Breton University (CBU) as potential Canadian institutional partners with the MHSA, the Provincial Municipality of Anta (PMA), the Anta Indigenous Women Organization (AIWO) and a local university in Cusco.

I contacted MCI and presented a concept paper that outlines the initial goals, objectives and activities of the proposed partnership. In April 2005, after a series of conference calls, electronic and fax communications between representatives of MHSA and MCI, a decision was made to pursue this partnership.

In February, after almost a year of dialogue between MCI and MHSA, a Quechua delegation from Peru visited Mi’kmaq communities of Cape Breton and the university. The group included PMA Mayor Wilbert Gabriel Rozas; Victoria Santa Cruz Vargas, president of AIWO; and Juan Carlos Rondon, MHSA director. They met with community leaders Chief Terry Paul of Membertou; Darlene Paul, director of the Membertou Wellness Centre; Mary Ellen Googoo, MIC director; Eskasoni elder Albert Marshall; Chief Wilbert Marshall of Chapel Island; and Darren Googoo, director of education in Membertou. In addition, they met with Jane Lewis, dean of the School of Education, Health and Wellness, as well as John Harker, president; and CBU Vice President Keith Brown.

Learning about Mi’kmaq achievements at MCI was one of the most important goals of the Peruvians’ visit. The visitors were informed that MCI enables Mi’kmaq students, educators, scholars and researchers to establish a curriculum and research agenda that contribute to the achievement of educational goals set by the Mi’kmaq communities. Through MCI, the needs of the Mi’kmaq communities and the resources available at CBU are brought together. Representatives from each one of the five Mi’kmaq communities (Chapel Island, Eskasoni, Membertou, Wagmatcook and We’koqma’q) form the board of directors of MCI.

During the visit, indigenous faculty from the MCI Integrative Sciences Program presented the goals and achievements of this unique program that integrates traditional Western science and Native worldview with the purpose of attracting more Native students to the study of sciences. The Quechua delegates described their struggle to promote increased access to higher education for Native people of Peru. They have been trying to establish a better understanding and validation of their culture and cultural needs among the health and health education authorities and among the respective academic institutions in Peru with very little success. The indigenous communities in Anta need support in skill development in midwifery, health promotion and nutrition, to name a few.

The groups discussed strategies to obtain support for an institute similar to MCI among the academia in Peru, including development of programs to be delivered in rural Quechua communities. The possibility of partnering in a joint Canadian/Peruvian nursing program that would include traditional Native healing methods and practices was also examined.

The Quechua and Mi’kmaq believe that the results of the visit are extremely positive. The friendship between them became a reality on a personal and on an institutional level. They agreed to work together towards solutions to common priorities in health and education. Also, a commitment for Mi’kmaq-led initiatives in education and culture and the role these initiatives play in the preparation of current and future academic programs was reiterated by CBU.

On their return to Peru, the indigenous leadership of Anta signed an agreement of collaboration with Universidad Andina del Cusco (UAC) in August 2006. This agreement aims to research and design outreach programs in health-related areas in favor of indigenous communities in Cusco. This collaboration will ensure skills development and institutional strengthening of Quechua people, as is being accomplished by the Mi’kmaq in partnership with MCI/CBU.

The Quechua and Mi’kmaq representatives, in collaboration with UAC, the Quechua new institutional partner, and MCI/CBU, would jointly design the parameters of their inter-indigenous partnership. These partners have asked me to continue with the facilitation in this partnership development. Both indigenous partners, as key parties of the project, and their university partners would participate in a signing ceremony in Cusco scheduled for the fall of 2006. This would mark the initiation of this historic project that represents unity and strength among the Quechua and Mi’kmaq. This partnership will contribute to academia with rich Andean indigenous knowledge and sciences for the benefit of the indigenous peoples and the well-being of the world.

This endeavor exemplifies the validity and application in current times of the indigenous peoples’ oral tradition that calls for the encounter of the eagle, representing indigenous from the north, and condor, representing those from the south, to combine their gifts and visions for the well-being of future generations.

<i>Jose Zarate, a Quechua from Peru, has worked on local and international community-based development projects for three decades. He is a visiting professor at the University of Northern British Columbia’s Anthropology Program.