While First Nation communities have yet to see the true impact of COVID-19 in terms of health and well-being, there is certainty in knowing the impacts will be devastating. Given our collective vulnerabilities to disease as a colonized people and continued limited access to Western care, this virus will find a perfect host in the average Indigenous body.
A recent talk by Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Dean of Social Work at the University of Manitoba, entitled “Decolonizing COVID-19: A Return to Traditional Indigenous Prevention Strategies in the Time of Uncertainty” led me to think more deeply about how leaders in First Nation communities must legislate specific health education standards for their school(s) that align more closely with critical local health and cultural needs to reduce chronic disease instances and strengthen immune systems.
It is important that these standards go far beyond expectations found in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum currently in place in Ontario schools. First Nation communities have a huge hill to climb in terms of positive health outcomes. Each community having scarce resources would need to hyper target a change to their curriculum to bring about the most positive change to student health, i.e., observing traditional feasting protocols for their high nutritional value, incorporating daily reflective thinking practices such as meditation, instituting more time outdoors or allowing for participation in intermittent sweats and fasting that have strong mental health benefits.
Dr. Yellow Bird highlighted how centuries of tried and true Indigenous cultural practices, almost eradicated by colonial and racist policy, were mechanisms to build physical resiliency in our bodies. In his talk, he references western research related to natural and seasonal sleep patterns, ‘immune memory’, and cognitive resilience that relate to and affirm benefits of traditional practices like prolonged fasting; prolonged singing, dancing in supportive social groups; humour and laughter; and sweats. Each cultural prevention strategy did its part in building immunity in our microbiome, cognitive and muscle/skeletal structures.
With this in mind, more must be done to include traditional physical health practices in First Nation schools. Dr. Yellow Bird worries about the epidemic of inactivity, the devaluing of independent play and the disconnect in relationships between people and place that have become prevalent in modern day society, which is why, he focuses on Indigenous mindfulness practices in his work. Adopting similar practices and more land-based learning that is culturally based as a requirement of curriculum in First Nation schools could be an easy remedy to these issues.
And now more than ever, First Nation education system leaders are in a position to engage in discussions about setting rigorous learning goals that represent the needs of the community and are culturally relevant health standards for all students.
What would a revised Physical Education curriculum look like?
In the short-term, community education decision-makers could legislate increased instructional time outdoors, increased hours of physical education per week and a redefining of what constitutes physical education. Educators can then, in turn, reinvigorate key physical experiences, co-taught with cultural knowledge keepers, like fasting, hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing and other land-based training to strengthen children and youth physical health and cultural knowledge.
In the mid-term, for example, community infrastructure planners would need to build school fire pits as Wikwemikong Board of Education has; teaching lodges as Chippewas of the Thames has outside their school; and, outdoor shelters. Lands and environment officers would need to designate areas for maple bush growth, sweetgrass harvesting (as in the case at Walpole Island First Nation), hunting and interpretative trails to support the work. Curriculum writers and cultural leads would need to help teachers align learning about customs to seasonal timetables, i.e., winter storytelling, and prepare teachers to be flexible when natural life circumstances present significant learning opportunities, i.e., deaths, births, feasting in a revised school improvement plan. And finance officers would need to assess budgets for their ability to hire knowledge keepers, provide the equipment, safety supports, transportation and liability insurances to run rigorous outdoor education programming.
Why culturally relevant curriculum will help our immunity?
Our cultural values place the highest importance on the interconnectedness of all living things. Dr. Yellow Bird says knowing cultural values like humility and respect for all life would keep in check the current thinking prevalent in some youth who believe they are invincible to COVID-19. One example he provided of cultural thinking in the face of disease is being able to see viruses and bacteria as thinking living species that live in our bodies ‘as a great population’ in balance and harmony. Students who understand these values and can apply them to their own immune system functioning will be less likely to take for granted the instability and threat to life a pathogen, like COVID-19, can be to their bodies in times like these.
What will a call to action look like?
Let’s create research teams to assess how First Nation schools are impacting immune system functioning in our students. Let’s legislate for school-led cultural experiences where a healthy level of environmental stress through fasting, doing sweats and being outside for longer period of times strengthen immunity. Let’s plan for schools where children and youth laugh, sing, dance, sleep, meditate, and run more. Then finally, let’s track the impacts these changes in education legislation have on overall community wellbeing and immunity over the long-term.
By learning the lessons of this pandemic, communities can build stronger physical education experiences that draw from tried and true cultural practices for greater physical health.
 The talk was hosted by KIN Knowledge in Indigenous Networks on April 7, 2020 and can be found on their Facebook page.
See National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health at https://www.nccih.ca/en/ for a diversity of publications, resources and other information related to Indigenous health.