Tradition and science partner for new view on healthy living

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OTTAWA - When loss of habitat resulted in a decline in the moose population in a northern community, hunters were unable to provide for their families.

"They believed they were bad hunters," said Henry Lickers, director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of Environment. "They stopped trying, went on welfare and began drinking. Their wives no longer had the work of preparing the moose. Sons no longer had pride in going out with the men. Abuse and crime went up."

Lickers said that the western approach would be "economic development and jobs."

"No one would think of saying 'we need moose,'" he said. "But when the numbers went up again and even the worst hunter could provide for his family, the wife had work and the son had pride in bringing meat to his grandparents and elders. Abuse and crime went down."

According to a new study being conducted in a partnership between the Akwesasne Department of Environment and the University of Ottawa, when both the abuse and moose were looked at as interlinking components, the solution was simple.

Before this study, Health Canada had only measured the abuse and biologists had measured only the moose. By using a database of First Nation philosophy, the Indicator Study coupled the statistics and developed a new way to measure.

"Morbidity, disease, suicide and standard life expectancy indicators are considered by Aboriginal people totally unsuitable, said George Haas, research associate at the University's Institute of Environment. "We know that divorce and crime rates are high. We know life expectancy is lower than the national standard. This is description of consequences, not causes."

The numbers are pointless if they don't provide people with a plan, he said.

Initiated by a $170,000 Health Canada grant allocated by the Assembly of First Nations, the Indicator Study is based on data incorporating the traditional view of wholeness of the mind, body and spirit.

Now in its third year and implemented in half a dozen communities between British Columbia and Akwesasne, the Indicator Study originated when the Mohawk elders drew a wheel and divided it into segments. The center of the wheel is Health. The circle around Health is segmented into eight opposite and balancing life indexes of Environment/Morale; Economics/Values; Religion/Spirituality; Politics/Responsibility.

"It looks at the world the way we want it to," said Lickers.

Western culture measures disease, suicide and death, Lickers said. It tells people what is wrong with them. While it is useful, it brings no hope.

For example, picnics can bring hope, Lickers said. When communities gather frequently and the sun shines often, scientists found people who know how to enjoy life. Sociology can measure the picnics but doesn't consider the environment, the amount of sunlight. When the social and physical attributes are brought together, there is a more complete picture. Environment is balanced with morale.

A low number of annual picnics and low amounts of warm sunshine indicate a depressed situation.

The scientists found communities with long dark winters were compensating by increasing their number of gatherings.

"Those communities can teach us a lot," Lickers said. "They instinctively know what they need."

A Davis Inlet community also reached for natural balance when it was found they had low sunlight and a low number of picnics. Western society said the depressed community, "needs more roads and more schools." But one of the first things the people asked for was a recreation center to bring well-lit gatherings into the community.

Religion is linked on the wheel with spirituality. A small community in New Finland counted many drums (religion) among the residents and the number of times they were played (spirituality). More groups were formed to sing and drum, children were included and the spirituality of the people was increased. When the drums were counted in Akwesasne, the people found a low number and began making more drums.

Economics are linked to values. Economics, for instance, are represented by a moose and values by a hunter. The index is measured in moose per hunter. Hunting in the north changed prior to 1950, dropping the moose population while at the same time domestic abuse statistics rose. In 1978 a management plan increased the moose population. The domestic violence numbers decreased.

Policy is linked to responsibility. The number of council resolutions passed in one community was found to be 60 percent for routine Indian affairs and 40 percent for the care of the community. The time spent on bureaucratic management changed to focus on child care and youth when the wheel changed the point of view of the council.

Both sides of the circle are needed inclusively to form a whole. Western health departments may measure the effect a polluted environment has on Aboriginal people by measuring the levels of toxins in the blood. If the levels are low, everything is OK.

The wheel measures how the loss of fishing affected the community at every level of individual, family and neighborhood life.

"Millions of dollars are spent to revive a community with jobs and housing, millions have been spent to move people and re-establish homes, only to find that group later falls into the same depressed state," said Haas.

The millions of dollars may better be spent on cleaning up the river, Haas said.

"We're measuring all this disease and throwing money at the problems, but it doesn't seem to be getting better," Lickers said. "People are tired of having what's wrong with them measured. They need to be given hope. They need to be empowered."

The new method has been spreading from community to community. Non-native communities have also been inquiring about it.

Although funding for the 2003-2004 cycle was cut, the communities involved decided to continue the effort by finding replacement money themselves.

"I see people drifting together in a room," said Lickers. "They talk about what they don't like and very quickly it becomes a group able to know what to do about it."

Getting educators to understand the concept in its wholeness, rather than separate compartments, has at times been a struggle, the two men say.

"We're linking Aboriginal knowledge with our western-style science," said Haas. "When we manage to overcome the surface difference, we find importance to both."

This year the study will ask communities to plan indicators that are important to their individual situations.

"We've spent so much time looking at illness and so little at joy," Lickers said. "We need to learn to look through a different lens."