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Spring 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 1 · pp. 105–106 

Book Review

Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths

Rupert Ross. Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2014. 284 pages.

Reviewed by Deanna Zantingh

Rupert Ross, a former assistant Crown attorney, spent years conducting criminal prosecutions for more than twenty remote First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario. Ross could not have anticipated the way in which these interactions would change his own life. For this reason, it could be argued that Indigenous Healing is best read as the third in a trilogy. Ross’s previous two works—Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality, and Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice—were both shortlisted for the Gordon Montour Award for the best Canadian nonfiction book on social issues, and they provide a foundation for the discussion and journey he outlines in his third book.

Indigenous Healing continues the story of one man’s struggle to make sense of the historical and ongoing collision of Western and Indigenous communities as he comes to understand just how different these two ways of being, particularly their practices of justice, really are. This book is as much a story of Ross’s unexpected confrontation with suppressed Indigenous realities, teachings, and practices, as it is a glimpse into the very practices of Indigenous modes of healing, and why, in light of colonization, that healing is necessary for all of us.

Ross argued in his previous works that Western prison systems and conceptions of punitive justice operate counter-intuitively, even oppressively, to Indigenous ways of being and perspectives of justice based in healing. Here, Ross builds on this understanding by taking his readers down the traditional paths he has tried to navigate and understand in the eighteen years since writing Returning to the Teachings. His journey is divided into three distinct sections.

In the first section, Ross details how he has learned to see justice relationally. He explores Indigenous concepts of language and connection, ethical responsibilities to creation, place, space, the medicine wheel, having an embedded soul, a posture of thankfulness, and an understanding of humanity’s inherent goodness and need for right relations. He then explores the implications of these concepts for a full-bodied understanding of justice and the tragic consequences of acting without a respectful regard for the other that it demands: a history of flawed relations in North America between host and newcomer peoples, which not only categorized Indigenous knowledge and people as inferior but caused the chaos of disconnection within Indigenous societies.

In his second section, Ross examines the effects of this structured inferiority known as colonization. He details colonization’s many sources {106} of harm as it privileged Western understandings while violently oppressing Indigenous ones. He pays specific attention to the residential school system, and later the Sixties Scoop. Perhaps his greatest contribution to helping his readers understand how past actions are always breaking into the present is his exploration of the ways psychological damage was perpetuated through colonial oppression. His account of (sometimes shocking) real life examples powerfully explains trauma and its accompanying phenomena of silence, learned helplessness, emotional suppression, sociocultural shame, the attraction of drugs and alcohol, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and the collective relational damage that trauma continually perpetuates on and within Indigenous communal life. Ross wants to help his readers see the way misunderstood Indigenous practices of connection were treated as inferior; how their suppression caused, and is still causing, chaos and disconnection. He suggests that it is the impact of jails which continues this colonizing disconnection, preventing the return to connection.

In his final section, Ross surveys three Indigenous healing programs in Canada: Hollow Water First Nation’s Community Holistic Circle Healing Program, the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, and the RedPath Addictions Program. He closes the section with a detailed articulation of twelve important differences between Western and Indigenous conceptions of healing.

It is clear that Ross still hopes to see change in the lives of offenders, but in this powerful book he has blurred the lines between offender and offended, and broadened his scope concerning where change needs to happen for true healing to take place. He offers a convincing case that the Western world needs to reconsider Indigenous practices of healing and their potential to bring about change and healing, not only for Indigenous communities but also for non-Indigenous newcomers in need of reconnection with their Indigenous hosts.

Some readers will have followed the findings of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission); others may not be sure what the TRC is. Some may be skeptical of Indigenous practices and our great need for them; others have experienced healing through them. For those who want to take active steps to learn more about what reconciliation may require, or who may still be asking why we can’t just leave these things in the past, Ross’s easy-to-read style, profound insights, and the sheer magnitude of the importance of the issues he raises makes this book an important resource.

Deanna Zantingh is completing her MA in theology at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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