My mother was attending a workshop called Dream Catching. It was about teaching First Nations children. She called me to say I should meet a man she met. She was quite excited about it. I agreed and met an extraordinary man. Elmer Ghostkeeper is a Metis who holds a Masters of Arts degree in cultural anthropology. Yes, here come the anthros, as Willie Dunn would say, but he is one of our own. We talked about many things, including his book called “Spirit Gifting: A Concept of Spiritual Exchange,” and something he calls Weche Teachings.
Basically, Weche Teachings are lifecare, which he says is a holistic approach to satisfying the needs of aspects of the mind, body, emotion and spirit in order for a person to live a happy and healthy lifestyle. In Weche Teachings Ghostkeeper is a partnership of Aboriginal wisdom and western scientific knowledge. All of this comes together and has been used to develop and administer Aboriginal wellness programs. One of the wellness programs that was developed was the Aboriginal Diabetes Wellness Program. The program reports significant health outcomes of people who have completed the four-day live-in program.
The Nation: You’ve authored a book called “Spirit Gifting: A Concept of Spiritual Exchange.’’ What is the concept behind the book?
Ghostkeeper: The concept is Megiachahkiwin in my Cree language, and it means spirit gifting. What I looked at was gift giving amongst people. I did the work for a Masters thesis in cultural anthropology. Anthropologists had looked at gift giving as a universal phenomena or ceremony around the world and the question was what provided movement for the gift or things to be exchanged between people, the donor and the recipient?
They noticed a gift sets up three different obligations. The first obligation is to give. The donor gets an obligation to give something to somebody and in that process turns that thing into a gift. Then upon reception of the gift by the recipient it sets up that obligation to receive. The second obligation is to receive. It seems you can never refuse a gift; you’re obligated to receive it. The reception of the gift sets up the third obligation and that’s to repay. You have to repay in some way. It’s a receptacle thing but why does it seem to work that way? That was the question that a lot of anthropologists attempted to answer over time.
Some of them described it as seeming to have some metaphysical essence in the gift in both sides. Western thought only talks about things it can measure. Things it can’t measure it sort of denies. So where I come from the term used was Megiachahkiwin. What provides movement for an object to become a gift is that you imbed it with part of your spirituality as a donor. Then when the recipient receives the gift and gives you a bit of their spirituality and repays you in that way. So really underlying it is a spiritual exchange. That was my thesis for the Masters program and the thesis got published as a book.
Did you change it from a thesis form so it could be a book?
I wrote my thesis in such a way it was what I called a narration of a participant’s reflection upon past events. I had an excellent adviser and had very few references in the book. I pushed the envelope of academia to accept things. The old standard form is that it has to be highly academic and technical and that sort of stuff. I wove in the story all those things that an anthropologist does. I did it in such a way that you have to look for it. They don’t jump out at you.
How has the book been received?
It’s in its fourth and fifth printing. Its been received well. There are three Aboriginal scholars working at universities who are using the book as a textbook. It’s quite popular among non-Aboriginal people. I’ve had people phone me up out of the blue and say they’ve read the book for the second or third time. They said they could really relate to it. Because of it people have been referred to me.
One particular lady had chronic fatigue syndrome. She was studying environmental science. It got to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed, she was so tired. She phoned and said it took some effort to phone an author. “I’ve never done this before. Do you mind if we chat,” she said. I noticed the tiredness of her voice over the phone. I ask her what was the nature of her illness. So she told me. I ask her what she was studying. She told me and said for the past year she had been reading all the negative impacts on the environment. I asked her if she had a chance to relieve those negative things and have you done anything in the past month to give them to the Creator. “What?”
I asked her if she had done any ceremonies because if you reach too many negative things it will influence your thinking. Then that influences your moods. Your moods become low and low moods generate negative feelings. It eventually gets you down and wears you out. Your positive energy just can’t compete with all that negative stuff. Then I said it seems to me you need to do a spiritual ceremony. And she told me that she noticed in my book I talk a lot about spirituality. I told her she could do a simple thing – take some tobacco and take a print and transfer all your fatigue on to the print. Then take it out and hang it in your back yard. It just so happened that two weeks after, I went to Calgary where this lady was from.
I was attending the Aboriginal Achievement Awards and we decided to meet – her and her husband and my wife and me – and have breakfast together. She came and, sitting at the breakfast table, she was the most animated. She seemed to have the most energy. She started telling me, “I followed your advice and did what you told me. The next day I got out of bed and I felt pretty good. Every day I started getting more strength. I dropped all that negative stuff and reading positive stuff about the environment.” She couldn’t thank me enough for getting her out of that place.
You would consider that an example of gift giving too?
That’s right. It happens in so many different ways. Every time people come together there’s a spiritual exchange happening all the time. Sometimes it’s good energy and some times it’s bad energy. You have to determine what you’re going to let come through and what you’re going to drop.
What happens where there is a situation where there is negative energy and you’re not sure what to do or how to block it?
First of all you’re the creator of your own thoughts. You are the thinker. By being the thinker and creating your own thoughts you have a choice to create good thoughts or to create bad thoughts. If you create good thoughts nine times out of 10 you’re going to be in high mood. If your mood’s high, your feelings are going to be good. If you feel good about yourself then that’s when you’re the most relaxed and happy. If you think negative thoughts you create negative things and worry about things. Those in turn create a low mood. The low mood creates negative feelings. You want to judge others. You want to be critical of others. It’s a terrible day. Those types of things. Usually those days, those moods, you’re angry and you’re sad. You have the choice to be happy or to be sad. To be healthy or unhealthy. That’s entirely your choice.
If you’re in a high mood and you meet somebody in a low mood you have the choice to leave or not to communicate with person because you can sense when somebody’s positive or negative. You probably do that all the time in your job and when you meet people. That’s when you have to stay away or be patient until they come out that low mood and get into a high mood.
In your most critical decision-making you should always wait until you’re in your high mood. That’s when you’re the most relaxed and problems don’t seem like problems. You can deal with them with clarity and be focused. You should never make big decisions when you’re in a low mood. You’re negative and it seems like you have the world on your back. That’s how you can deal with moods and negative things.
You have what you call Weche Teachings. Diabetes is a problem for Aboriginal peoples across Canada and you use the teachings to deal with it. How does Weche Teachings help people who have diabetes?
I tend to look at things in terms of puzzles rather than problems. Diabetes is a puzzle for Aboriginal people in the sense that about 26 percent of Aboriginal people have diabetes. In some communities it’s as high as 50 percent. Diabetes is type 1 or type 2. Type 1 diabetes is juvenile diabetes where it’s insulin dependent Type 2 diabetes is age onset or adult diabetes. It seems to come to people 45 or up on the average and is not necessarily insulin dependent. You can manage it through diet and exercise.
So if you look at diabetes as a puzzle and you follow it through the two belief systems or views or the world. Western scientific knowledge has given this type of disease the name of diabetes mellitus. Diabetes is a Latin word that means to siphon. Mellitus is a Latin word that means water sweetened with honey. So what the old Greeks noticed about somebody with this disease was that their urine was sweet smelling. That’s how they named the disease.
Diabetes has a number of symptoms. If you’re always tired and overweight and you may feel dizzy sometimes, blurred vision and you go to the bathroom a lot, then you may have diabetes. To find out whether or not you have diabetes you take a plasma glucose tolerance test. There’s a certain range of sugar count and if you’re over eight on the scale you have diabetes.
The way you monitor your blood glucose is you do a test every day. You draw blood and you do a sugar count. Western science in its metabolic clinics teaches you about the physical-ness of the disease and by doing that you’re using the mental aspect of self and you’re somewhat a little emotional. But there’s no spirituality in Western metabolic clinics on diabetes. They teach you about lifestyle, exercise, diets and stress management. They figure that diabetes is caused by stress and they teach you how to manage that. They have medications they can prescribe. There’s liquid insulin and four types of pills to take. They’ll measure for height, weight, blood pressure, temperature and blood glucose. Western science is all about measurement.
To look at diabetes through Aboriginal wisdom, the wisdom says we have four aspects of self or bodies – the body, the mind, emotion and spirit. If you neglect any aspect of self, for example if you neglect the spirit and become extremely overweight and eat a lot of fast foods, these are high in fat and salt, and that can put extreme stress on your pancreas. Your pancreas makes insulin, which is used to break down glucose for energy. So if you’re out of balance in some way it can leave a door open for something like diabetes to attack you. So the teaching is that you have to be balanced.
In the program on the Western side we use Aboriginal nurses who are trained in Western practices and graduated. We have a dietician and two doctors who are non-Aboriginal. On this side we use Elders in the program and these are the teachings of one Wider. Her teachings are the seven grandfathers. She talks about wisdom, love, respect, warrior, honesty, humility and truth. Each one of those has a teaching and a lesson. We talk about the bush economy and the way we used to live. In some parts of Canada they still live that way. A lot of northern communities have TVs, running water, fast food stores.
In the past 30 years there’s been a great shift. What we teach about is in a traditional lifestyle there is a lot of exercise and protein. You eat more protein than carbohydrates. That’s the wild meats and berries and stuff like that. We talk about the use of Aboriginal medicine, medicinal plants. Aboriginal healing and medical practices. We do a lot of ceremonies. We start with the pipe ceremony, we have smudging ceremonies, sharing and talking circles. Where these both sides come together is what I call Weche Teachings.
That’s how we developed the Aboriginal Diabetes Wellness Program. It’s a four-day program and people come to live in residence. They eat the food we prepare for them. It’s a very strict diet with very nutritious content. We measure out food in the proper amounts. The program is a partnership between Aboriginal wisdom and Wsstern scientific knowledge, so it’s holistic and cultural. It’s all about educating people. The focus is about living well because most of the time you’re never totally healthy or totally sick, but probably well enough to get on with it. We talk a lot about wellness and management. You can manage this disease. You just have to accept it and get on with your life. A lot of the people who come to the program are in denial. They’ve never accepted diabetes. They pretend they don’t have it any more, so they fall off their diet and they don’t take care of themselves. When they come to the program they really accept it. There’s a lot of grieving and crying and releasing. A lot of people have been dramatically impacted by residential school and that sort of thing. It gives them empowerment. They say, “Hey, I can live with this disease. I can control and manage it. I can get on with my life.”
Being a program run in a medical system, we are partners with a researcher at the University of Alberta. He did an evaluation of the program and there has been a significant improvement in blood glucose. It’s dropped. People who enter the program can come back for a three-day refresher after six months. It’s a more detailed program with a lot more spirituality. A lot of people want more spirituality. They want to learn more about ceremonies and how to pray. A lot of people don’t know how to pray or who to pray to.
You said this was a funded wellness program?
Yes, this program is funded through a major corporation called Nova Corporation for three years. The only cost to you for coming to this program is your transportation. Everything else is free.
People would get hold of you?
The program or me. Our phone number is (780) 477-4512. A couple of weeks ago a lady came down from the Wabano Health clinic in Ottawa to participate in the program. They want to start up a similar program like ours. As far as we know there is no other Aboriginal wellness program. They liked the fact that Western and Aboriginal are equals. The Elders are no less or no more than the doctors.
Spirit Gifting Artie Institute of North America, University of Calgary, Alberta. Call (4(B) 220-7515 to order the book Spirit Gifting: A Concept of Spiritual Exchange.