“The children came back. Back where their hearts grow strong. Back where they all belong”

These words come from the Australian song “Took the Children Away,” written and sung by the late Gunditjmara and Bundjalung elder Archie Roach. They speak to the importance of country, community, identity, and culture for First Nations People. In his song, Roach explores the destruction, pain, and suffering caused by the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their parents between the 1910s and 1970s, in what is known as the Stolen Generations.

Three Indigenous young women in traditional dress

The Stolen Generations is just one of many “assimilation” policies that destroyed Indigenous culture and communities. Beyond Australia, there are similar historical and contemporary policies around the world, including policies in the U.S. that evicted First Nations communities from their land, causing long-term cultural destruction and social challenges. These policies and other ongoing colonial practices—including the denial of Native title rights and the overrepresentation of First Nations children in foster care—have forced First Nations People to look to their communities, their country, and their culture as sources of resilience and positive well-being.

Our research suggests that cultural preservation and cultural engagement—including parents transmitting culture to children—is important to help protect the well-being of Indigenous youth. At a time when these young people are facing serious mental health challenges, it’s especially urgent for organizations and communities to make cultural engagement a priority. 

Indigenous mental health

Evidence suggests that cultural loss and adversities harm the lives of First Nations People of all ages. And one of the major consequences of ongoing colonial policies is poorer mental health among First Nations youth. Their mental health challenges include high rates of suicide, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and intergenerational trauma, in addition to high rates of incarceration.

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When we conducted interviews with First Nations People working with us as peer researchers and life coaches, participants spoke about cultural loss and its negative impact.

One of the young participants reflected that they are “missing a part of myself and my identity. Someone took that away and that sucks.” This sentiment was also reflected by another participant: “There’s so many hurt Aboriginal children out there right now, nowadays being affected by modern society.” Together, these comments speak to the harm that colonization continues to cause for young First Nations People. Colonization has limited their ability to engage with their cultures and develop a strong sense of cultural identity.

How culture can heal

Given the disadvantages and inequalities experienced by First Nations youth, our research explores tools and strategies to promote their well-being and healthy development. One approach we explored was cultural engagement.

While definitions of cultural engagement differ among First Nations communities, for many the term can be defined as how embedded an individual is within the different elements of their culture and how closely they relate to their cultural identity. In the case of Indigenous People, this might include embeddedness within and connection to culture, traditions, community, religion, kin, land, ethnicity, or spirituality.

We conducted a review of 25 papers that included Indigenous groups from 10 countries. Some of the Indigenous groups represented were the Metis People from Canada, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples from Australia, Sami People from Norway, First Nations People from the U.S., and Toraja People from Indonesia.

Despite measuring different domains of culture, 18 (72%) of the studies reported that young First Nations People who were more culturally engaged had higher psychological well-being. We also found that when young First Nations People participate in culturally relevant mentoring or programs that include the exchange of cultural knowledge and practices, their sense of cultural identity is enhanced.

Examples of such programs include structured sports programs, programs that include traditional Indigenous games, and socio-culturally responsive education—education that incorporates cultural perspectives, language, values, and knowledge into course curriculum, school climate, and assessment. These programs offer the opportunity for Indigenous youth to connect to traditional land and see Native heritage and language respected and honored.

In our interviews with First Nations People working in research, participants also discussed the importance of engaging with their community, attending cultural events, and developing their cultural knowledge—and the impact on their well-being.

For example, an older participant discussed cultural knowledge transfer and reflected on the importance of “pass[ing] on that knowledge to our younger children.” In our review, another participant in a study explained: “I have issues with identity . . . can put on my dress. . . . It’s like telling the world who you are. Putting on the dress is one thing that helps me.” This participant affirms the importance of engaging with their culture and the sense of protection that putting on their traditional dress provides them.

The views of many of the participants in our study align with themes identified in earlier research. Indigenous People have greater well-being when they’re involved in passing on knowledge to young people, engaging with their community, participating in cultural events, and developing a strong sense of identity and self-worth.

Toward Indigenous well-being

While our research offers insights about First Nations youth, we need to remind ourselves of the diversities that exist not only among First Nations People in different countries but also among First Nations People within countries and communities. Our review represented only 10 countries and 13 groups from approximately 5,000 distinct groups that exist around the world—because of the limited research relevant to this topic. Additional research should be conducted with diverse groups of Indigenous People.

That said, we hope our work can assist in the development of relevant practices, policies, and programs to enhance both cultural engagement and well-being among First Nations People. To that end, we offer these suggestions:

  • For governments, program creators, researchers, and not-for-profit organizations, it is essential that we engage with communities appropriately at every step and, in particular, ensure community involvement throughout the design process. It is critical that their voices are heard and reflected, and their ideas and opinions captured in future policy, strategies, and programs.
  • The promotion, engagement, and strengthening of Indigenous community and cultural connection is beneficial for the well-being of Indigenous Peoples, especially young people. We recognize the significant and ongoing efforts of Indigenous communities to maintain and grow cultural engagement and to ensure the continued vibrancy and strength of Indigenous cultures, and we encourage continued investment in these activities.

In this work, we must keep in mind that the Western understanding of well-being—used in most research—is distinct from First Nations’ conceptualization of well-being. For example, true well-being among First Nations People in Australia considers the impact of both external factors (e.g., connection to land, community, and culture) and internal factors (e.g., connection to the mind and body). It also considers the role of political, historical, and social circumstances. Therefore, understanding the well-being of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander individual must take into account both the historical and current experiences of trauma, racism, and injustice faced by their group.

Similarly, in the U.S., First Nations communities often use the term “wellness,” which refers to the interaction between an individual’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The historical context, ongoing oppression, and cultural destruction experienced by First Nations People in the U.S. fall under the idea of wellness and can impair an individual’s sense of wellness.

Over 30 years ago, through his music, Roach told the world that healing for First Nations People happens on country, with community, and through connecting with culture. Let us support this process by celebrating First Nations cultures, providing greater opportunities and spaces for Indigenous Peoples to engage safely with their communities and cultures, and acknowledging the resilience and strength of First Nations communities.

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