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Teachings from the Medicine Wheel: Reconciliation in Social Work Practice

Teachings from the Medicine Wheel: Reconciliation in Social Work Practice

March 11, 2023 2:19 pm Published by

Teachings from the Medicine Wheel: Reconciliation in Social Work Practice

University of Calgary SOWK 614 

Tara Emery 

Who am I? 

Who am I “what are the parameters of what I may know and not know”? Kathy Absolon states that we must identify “[our]self to the spirit, the people and the spirit of the work [we] do” (2010, p. 75). Writing from my location in Nelson, BC the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa, the Syilx, and the Sinixt peoples, also the home to the Métis and many diverse Aboriginal persons. My intention is to acknowledge and incorporate the vast wisdom of Indigenous culture, and healing practices into my work. As a social worker with French, English and Scottish ancestry my relatives were displaced settlers who stole this land.  The settler’s goal of assimilating and acts of colonization of Indigenous peoples was in fact a genocide. In my work I continue to see how Indigenous people’s minds, bodies, and spirits are suffering from the effects of this genocide. Disconnection and “the absence or attack of Indigenous worldviews, traditions and identity has created imbalance and dis-ease” (Absolon, 2010, p. 76). The dis-ease can also be viewed as symptoms of the internalization of colonialism contributing to internal violence and lateral oppression” (Absolon, 2010, p. 76).  This absence of Indigenous identity also can leave me feeling lost as a non-Indigenous social worker wondering about my place. I wonder about building my Indigenous knowledge bundle and honouring Indigenous ways of knowing in my practice (Absolon, 2010, p. 75). I feel my role is not to be an expert but to be a lifelong learner, advocate, and deep listener of the heart and spirit of my Indigenous clients. What can be my commitment to critical analysis of the existing unequal power structures and consciousness raising? (Absolon, 2010, p. 79) And how do I understand the limit of my current knowledge as a settler? I must seek guidance from my Indigenous elders, clients and teachers to better answer these questions. “The history of benevolence and of helping Indigenous peoples is wrought with tensions around if, when and how Indigenous peoples need to and should be helped. Assimilation has been a tool of manipulation for much too long to ignore” (Martens et al., 2010, p. 7). 

Medicine wheel teacher Duncan Grady [an elder in my Kootenay community] has said that his Montana Blackfeet elders see this time as an unfolding of ancestral prophecies—what they call “windy times”—and strangely enough, healing is also a part of it. The elders advise us to “stay out of the tops of the trees,” i.e. our heads, and instead try to centre ourselves in the heart. Not forgetting, then, but forgiving (Chamelonfire, 2011).

Most recently while I was listening to lessons from sacred plants, I felt an awakened sense of connection and respect for the life of these plants nurturing my own spirit (Eagle, 2021, Wellness slides). The medicine wheel offers teaching to my social work practice understanding that “Indigenous wholistic theory is whole, ecological, cyclical and relational” (Absolon, 2010, p. 76).  The four directions and circles are effective healing strategy as a “multilevel strategy that is circular” (Absolon, 2010, p. 76). 

WAABINONG: In the East

“Visioning requires one to be able to see the past, the present and envision the future” honouring spirit, identity and history. (Absolon, 2010, p. 78). What is my vision and how do I understand the past; the events of the sixties scoop, residential schools, the structure of our systems? We must acknowledge the dark history of Canada, In 1920 Duncan Campbell said that, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill” (Archives,  6810, file 470-2-3).

As a healthcare worker I envision a future where Indigenous peoples feel seen, heard and valued. My experience in sweat lodge, smoking ceremonial pipe, and engaging in drumming ceremonies, has taught me about the depth of the Indigenous spirit. By looking at my clients “dreams, ceremony practices, [and] vision quests” I can learn about the spirit of these clients and invite [their] ancestors to share knowledge (2010, p. 78). 

ZHAAWNONG: In the South

Emotional and relational realms; the teachings of life, relationships, people and growth (Absolon, 2010, p. 79). Summer and renewal “nurturing quality relations is integral to living in a good way” (Absolon, 2010, p. 79). “From an Indigenous perspective the culture of a community is where the heartbeat of that nation resides” (Absolon, 2010, p. 80). Social work practice must involve the community on all levels including; “planning, visioning, brainstorming, designing, creating, evaluating, assessing, intervening, and treating” (Absolon, 2010, p. 80). As elders are knowledge keepers of culture including oral traditions and language social work must seek to learn, protect and support these individuals and their knowledge. Understanding local ethics and protocols such as the offering of tobacco or a small gift can be done in consultation with local community members. When we look only at the symptoms of our clients within frameworks such as the Diagnostic Statistic Manual (DSM) we “problematize Indigenous clients” (Absolon, 2010, p. 80). “The complexity of symptoms that accompany intergenerational trauma and substance use disorders represents major challenges in the treatment of both disorders. There appears to be an underutilization of substance use and mental health services, substantial client dropout rates, and an increase in HIV infections in Aboriginal communities in Canada” (Marsh et al. 2015, p. 1). This underutilization tells us that we a much more critical look at our systems. 


“Teaching of the ancestors, the mind and respect” relating to respect of knowledge and knowledge of creation (Absolon, 2010, p. 81). Indigenous knowledge is an important part of trauma recovery, and it exists in traditional stories and oral traditions (Absolon, 2010, p. 81). This knowledge in culture also increases self-confidence and “validates Indigenous philosophies and worldviews” (Absolon, 2010, p. 81). Indigenous knowledge is said to exist in “vision, dreams, ceremonies, songs, dances, prayers and relationships to each other and creation” (Absolon, 2010, p. 81). Life is “sacred and all life forms are considered to have a spirit” (Absolon, 2010, p. 82). Reconnection to life and living is supportive in a natural recovery from trauma. Therapeutic work can work to reconnect Indigenous people to the land, sacred plants, medicines and elements” (Absolon, 2010, p. 82). As the ancestors are in the western doorway there is “acknowledgement of the cycles of life and death as natural life cycles” facilitating grieving (Absolon, 2010, p. 82). Grieving is an important element of healing for Indigenous peoples given the tremendous losses through colonization. “Loss of language, culture, land, freedom movement, subsistence and livelihood” (Absolon, 2010, p. 82). The legacy of social work’s involvement in a process referred to as ‘cultural genocide as languages were lost, cultural practices were denigrated, and traditional socialization practices were replaced by institutionalization’ is deeply traumatic (Sinclair, 2004: 51). Non-Indigenous social workers like myself can work toward reconciliation by acknowledging the past and putting Indigenous frameworks in the center of their work. 

GIIWEDINONG: In the North 

The Northern doorway, “brings forth teaching of healing, doing and movement. Physical elements are acknowledged and physical action and movement location” bringing winter healing (Absolon, 2010, p. 82, 83). In acknowledging the northern doorway social work can put Indigenous healing practices into action. Although sacred practices may not always be shared many practices such as smudging, circle talk and using a talking stick are available. Circles provide a “counter to the isolation and alienation that many Indigenous people experience” (Absolon, 2010, p. 83). This also maintains that Indigenous peoples remain the experts in sharing their experiences. As “diversity is another concept of this doorway and actions of practice ought to reflect the diverse manifestations of colonialism” (Absolon, 2010, p. 84). Client-centred, strength-based practice honours this diversity of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples presenting with challenges associated with poverty, mental health, and substance use must be viewed through a “structural economic” lens. Social work cannot continue to “blame the victim” and must redirect energies into rebuilding colonial structured institutions (Absolon, 2010, p. 84). 


“The center shkode (fire) is where the fire exists and where all four directions intersect and interrelate.” It is where balance and harmony exist when all of the directions are living in balance (Absolon, 2010, p. 84). The center can also represent “self in relation to all else” (Absolon, 2010, p. 84). Client centered practice align with Aboriginal epistemology in encouraging the “pondering [of] great mysteries that lie not further than the self” (Ermine, 1995, p. 108). The self speaks to the interconnectedness or wholeness of the “spirit, heart, mind and body” (Absolon, 2010, p. 85). 

Wholistic practice means to honour the balance and respect all the directions in programming, policy, and practice. For example: create programs that feed the spirit (using medicines of sweetgrass, sage, tabacco and cedar; ceremonies and circle format), the emotions (the internalized inferiority, fear, shame, anger, pain and self-hate), the mind (educating First Nations worker and shareholders about the authentic history, the nature of their own experience, decolonizing [the] minds and unlearning racism, and dealing with [the] internalized racism and inferiority), and the body (addressing the symptoms of racism the First Nations people workers and leaders carry with them as baggage that result in low self-esteem, substance and personal abuse, family violence and suicide) (Absolon, 2010, p. 85). 


Indigenous cultural development is integral to professional development, self-development and relational development for social workers.  Indigenous frameworks must be central to Indigenous people who are coming into contact with social work. As with all social work we can move away from stigmatization and victimization putting this energy into humanizing our structures. In this ambiguous time of change, I can feel cautiously optimistic in creating allyships, by seeking opportunities to enact meaningful change in the relationships between settlers and Indigenous peoples (Garbutt, 2019, p. 19). 



Absolon, K. (2020). Indigenous Wholistic Theory: A Knowledge Set for Practice. First Peoples Child & Family Review, 5(2), 74–87.


(Martens), T. R., Dennis, M. K., & Hart, M. A. (2020). Feeding Indigenous people in Canada. International Social Work, 002087282091621.

National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, vol. 6810, file 470-2-3, vol. 7, 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3).

Plain Eagle, I. P. E. (2021, January 14). Wellness Activity [Slides]. D2L.

Sinclair, R. (2004) ‘Aboriginal Social Work Education in Canada: Decolonizing Pedagogy for the Seventh Generation’, First Peoples Child & Family Review 1(1): 49–61

→ V. A. P. B. S. (2011, November 24). Not Forgetting, But Forgiving. Chameleonfire1.

Walking Alongside: Poetic Inquiry into Allies of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. (2018, September). Garbutt, Joan.


waking up

beginning to decolonize

seek redefined connections

these are early days

why choose this work?

truth-telling unlearning


righting past wrongs

forging equitable relationships

constant states of conflict

the system seems ill-conceived

treaties made promises

the honour of the crown?

lasting intergenerational effects

finally resonated

to engage in meaningful work

bring about change

~ Garbutt Joan


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