The author wishes to thank Behnam Behnia for her assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.
This article uses a Medicine Wheel model, a structural social work framework and an anti-oppression stance, to practice culturally sensitive social work with Aboriginal peoples. The Medicine Wheel model is appropriate when working with many Aboriginal peoples because it considers spirituality important to healing. Using the Medicine Wheel guides the social worker to holistic, balanced practice. The recommendation of respectful social work practice tailored to the treatment of the client’s belief systems encourages healthy identity development. The Medicine Wheel model is used as an analytic tool used to illustrate the client’s states of being, location, and analyze various roles of, and form action plans for, social work practice.
In many Aboriginal cultures, “everything has a symbolic meaning, purpose and a function” (Bopp, 1984, p.8). Therefore, there is a special place for spiritual human development within many Aboriginal cultures. As social work professionals in a Western-based medically driven society, we of course tender the issues of the mental, emotional, and physical. There are many theories and practices for these aspects but what of spirituality? As an Aboriginal woman and social work practitioner, I have used the Medicine Wheel to analyze my social work practice and I have found the Medicine Wheel model allows me to address the spiritual aspect within treatment.
To deny spirituality as a valuable component of a client’s identity, social workers may not be able to fully address this important aspect of a client’s well-being. When the aspect of spirituality is not considered, social workers may overlook an opportunity for the client’s spirituality to be an asset in the intervention and empowerment of the client.
The Medicine Wheel encapsulates four components of the human experience which are referred to as states of being. The components are Spiritual, Emotional, Physical, and Mental. I have found that by considering these four states of being, the Medicine Wheel seeks to study the human condition in a balanced, holistic method. As well as examining the states of being, I have also found a model based on the Medicine Wheel can examine a client’s location in relation to individual, family, community, and nation contexts. Within the Medicine Wheel the roles of a social worker and action plans for social work practice can be attributed to quadrants within a Medicine Wheel model (Counselor, Educator, Facilitator, and Advocator). The resulting action plan for social work practice uses a structural approach, anti-oppression stance that complements the Medicine Wheel model.
I suggest that the Medicine Wheel model is particularly pertinent to use, when the client is Aboriginal and for whom these principles may seem more natural. When social work practitioners use worldviews and models tailored specifically for the client's population, they are practicing appropriate, respectful and culturally competent social work with their clients.
There are many Aboriginal perspectives and the Medicine Wheel may vary or not even exist depending on which Aboriginal nations are considered. Aboriginal peoples, for the purpose of this paper, include Status Indians, Metis, Inuit, and those that live on and off reserves. There are variances among the practices of Aboriginal peoples as some uphold traditional ways, while others may not. However, the point is not who does or does not use the Medicine Wheel, but how the general concept is applicable in social work practice with Aboriginal peoples. Specific traditional meanings and ceremonies of the Medicine Wheel should come from the client’s own nation’s teachings and from their Elders and spiritual advisors as this respects the diversity of the Aboriginal population. Given that it is so diverse, it is recommended that spirituality only be examined to the extent that the client values it
An Aboriginal perspective promotes the principle that all things are interconnected and this philosophy lends itself to encourage healing of interconnected systems (Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996). Some Aboriginal peoples who claim a greater knowledge base of their Aboriginal culture find ways of transcending their oppression (Hart, 2002). Many Aboriginal cultures recognize oppression on a cultural, spiritual, collective and individual basis, all relating to colonization. Colonization is the primary form of oppression because it affects Aboriginals' consciousness, self-worth, self- identity, community identity, and cultural identity (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002).
As McKenzie and Morrissette (2002) point out, to understand the Aboriginal perspective there needs to be recognition of the effects of colonization. While the reasons for colonization were based on religious, economic, and political factors, colonization attempted to destroy the social and cultural structures of Aboriginal peoples (Frideres, 1993).
Competition, separation, and hierarchy are mechanisms by which those with power keep a system of oppression in place (Bishop, 1994). Mullaly (1993) explains that social control by a dominant class takes place through political, economic, and ideological means. Ideological hegemony is the capacity of the dominant group to rule by control, not only over social institutions but over ideas as well. . Those with ideological power construct the social realities of others as it forms the foundation for who is in control and how they control (Bishop, 1994).
Within many Aboriginal perspectives of history, the government of Canada had a partnership with religious sectors. Colonizers believed Aboriginal peoples needed to be assimilated to the colonizer's assumed superior ways (Akwatu, 1996) and used racism as a method of control. They enacted legislation to eliminate Aboriginal cultural practices such as dances and ceremonies ((Frideres, 1993; Boyko, 1998); included here is the Indian Act and the outlawing of cultural practices like the Potlatch ceremony (Kellough, 1980). If Aboriginal peoples retaliated against these policies, they were controlled by force (Frideres, 1993). The colonizers disregarded the need and desire of Aboriginal peoples for self-determination through political autonomy (i.e. self government and having an economic base) (Kellough, 1980).
While racism had its roots in biology (Frideres, 1993) colonizers enforced colonization by forcing a survival of the fittest, or "Social Darwinism" through policy (Kellough, 1980, p.360). Biological racism had been replaced by social/cultural racism that claimed the colonized culture as inferior and structural racism became dominant.
Colonizers enforced colonization through cultural/psychological methods such as; redefining Aboriginals' realities, and educating Aboriginal peoples to believe they had no worthwhile culture of their own. This led many to feel ashamed, worthless, and have low self-esteem for being Aboriginal (Kellough, 1980) The colonizer would only take into account their own perspective of history and attempted to wipe out the colonized people’s perspective. Kellough (1980) argues that by alienating Aboriginal people from their own culture they were vulnerable and unable to fight their colonization Colonizers also emitted propaganda so that non-Aboriginals would not relate to Aboriginal concerns and become their allies. Those who colonized would encourage other colonizers and the “successfully” colonized to blame their victims for their failure to fully assimilate (i.e. blaming Aboriginal peoples for not being well educated, technologically developed, and using effectively "white" solutions). Structural control was implemented throughout many residential schools, where Aboriginal children were educated by force.
Decolonization is the process of the oppressed regaining self-determination and independence in social, economic, cultural, and political structures, and an identity as individuals, families, communities, and nations. Strategies for decolonization range from Aboriginal self-government in areas of social, economic, cultural, and political systems to consciousness-raising regarding oppression. The process of decolonization will be different for various Aboriginal populations because of the diversity among Aboriginal peoples and their beliefs.
When Aboriginal peoples reclaim the knowledge of their forefathers, they learn how to keep oppression from preventing them from achieving their full potential (Hart, 2002). According to Brad McKenzie and Vern Morrissette the development of cultural identity is important for healing Aboriginal peoples. and many Aboriginal cultural values and traditions are seen as important aspects of their individual and collective wellness (2002). Effective practice and the promotion of empowerment and self-esteem demands that social work practitioners incorporate Aboriginals’ unique worldviews into their interventions, recognize how colonization has affected Aboriginal peoples, and understand the need for Aboriginal peoples to know and accept their cultural identity. This promotes healing, empowerment, and positive self-esteem (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002).
McKenzie and Morrissette also extol the importance of spirituality and identity in understanding the Aboriginal client as compared to predominant cultures (2002). They suggest that within the assessment process the practitioner needs to be aware of differences among diverse Aboriginal identities. A strengths perspective can link identity and healing and is necessary to appreciate Aboriginal peoples’ resilience in overcoming acculturation (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002).
Effective social work practice requires that social workers become allies with Aboriginal peoples and recognize and appreciate their spirituality (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). There is a need for social work to understand the oppression brought on by colonization, to understand the intergenerational effects as it applies to Aboriginal peoples. Through education there can be a focus on reclaiming Aboriginal culture and traditions, which can rebuild wellness for Aboriginal peoples (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002).
The Medicine Wheel is an ancient symbol arising from within many Aboriginal communities, and it can interpret Aboriginal realities in ways some Aboriginal peoples can appreciate (Webster & Nabigon, 1992). The wheel is used as a way of analyzing a concept by envisioning it from various viewpoints. It is important that each aspect of the Medicine Wheel be considered equally and be developed with the purpose of achieving balance, connection, and holism (Hart, 2002) through an individual's volition, as is represented at the center of the wheel (Bopp et al, 1984). Holism considers the whole, and not just the components. Be means of all four aspects of the Medicine Wheel, harmony, growth, and a good life (Hart, 2002) emerge through continued effort. The Medicine Wheel model is a flexible analytical tool that reflects many Aboriginal worldviews.
Nabigon and Mawhiney provide a guide to help replenish a person’s “spiritual balance” (1996, p.19). It is believed that in order to restore social and environmental circumstances, it is necessary for Aboriginal peoples to reexamine spiritual knowledge (Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996). Spirituality is often a fundamental cultural value for Aboriginal peoples (Weaver, 1999) and can be seen as a part of daily life (Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996). Hence, an advantage of a Medicine Wheel approach is that it can incorporate spirituality as an important component of healing. “The Cree and other North American Aboriginal cultures use the medicine wheel to heal individuals, communities, and nations. The medicine wheel uses the compass points of the four directions to help each person to rediscover and find the way back to his or her path.” (Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996, p.28). Social work practitioners can ask clients questions pertaining to issues that concern them and which could be mapped out in the Medicine Wheel model. Suh questions can elicit information on the different aspects of the client’s states of being and location, and from there can influence the client’s attitudes and behavior.
Unlike other articles which may give detailed descriptions of Aboriginal teachings according to their nation’s practices, the Medicine Wheel concepts that are being produced in this article seek only to give general guidance in the practice of social work. For a deeper understanding of the traditional meanings of the Medicine Wheel, it is best to consult an Elder or spiritual advisor with such queries. This article is concerned with using the Medicine Wheel within a structural social work framework and an anti-oppression stance. This leads to practicing culturally sensitive social work with Aboriginal peoples while implementing a holistic approach in that it includes spirituality, an aspect which seems to be neglected in most structural social work approaches.
The Medicine Wheel can be adapted to many uses. For instance, the Medicine Wheel can address individual concerns regarding the nature of personality as Nabigon and Mawhiney discuss in their 1996 article, A Cree Medicine Wheel. As well, Mary Loomis in Dancing the Wheel of Psychological Types reveals how Jungian principles have been used within the Medicine Wheel for analyzing personality types within a psychological framework (Loomis, 1991). Further, Vigilante and Mailick (1988)use a wheel concept as a developmental assessment tool, and a family assessment tool (Vigilante & Mailick, 1997).
Figure 1: States of Being wheel
Spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of the person are all connected and interplay with each other (Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996) and there are no clear-cut lines between each aspect. To attain balance one must understand how each aspect connects with the others, the goal of being healthy is attained by facing issues concerning all aspects of the self. For example, physical distress affects how we feel, think, and what we embrace, and as such it needs to be recognized as interrelated and addressed in a holistic manner.
An Aboriginal healing journey can involve spiritual healing like: sweat lodges, ceremonies (naming and colors), fasting and feasting, giveaways, traditional medicines and teachings, talking circles, and counseling. Many Aboriginal perspectives consider spirituality a vital part of healing and an increasing number of Aboriginal peoples are returning to traditional ways of healing. The literature identifies a strong need for spiritual practices in the areas of cultural and spiritual healing (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). According to McKenzie and Morrissette's view of healing, the Aboriginal perspective actualizes healing through its devotion to the principle of holism, and development of the personal goal for harmony and balance (2002). Healing is seen as a continual process for individuals, families, communities, and nations (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002), see Figure 2 for an illustration of client location. The client can decide to work on healing individually, and/or collectively (Bishop, 1994), regardless. the balance emphasized by the Medicine Wheel necessitates that all aspects need attention.
The Medicine Wheel can aid in the analysis of the self and the ability to progress in reaching goals that are healthy. The negative patterns of living can be understood, resisted, and overcome with the help of the Medicine Wheel (see Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996). When healing occurs by concentrating on spiritual realms, it affects the other aspects of the self and impacts the relations the person has with their family, community, and nation.
Structural social work requires an understanding that an individual exists as a part of a multidimensional collective, that strives towards societal change (Mullaly, 1993). It also requires a critical analysis of power structures; clients should understand that oppression placed upon one group could be executed in the same fashion onto them. Structural social work posits that a plan of individual/collective action is needed (Bishop, 1994), and that the oppressor role may not be individually of anyone's initiation but requires collective action to change it (Mullaly, 1993). Mullaly goes a bit further by stating that to not take a position towards change is to agree with the status quo and oppression (Mullaly, 1993). Empowerment should address power imbalances, inequalities, and link personal issues to the political sphere, as such social workers need to be free to use methods of empowerment in their respective agencies and programs (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002).
Education and a structural approach for community action require that Aboriginal culture and practice direct socio-political, economic, and spiritual development (Absolon & Herbert, 1995). Spirituality assists in the creation of strong communities free of racism (Nabigon & Mawhiney, 1996). There is a need for Aboriginal peoples to be trained to analyze, organize, and to develop Aboriginal models for change (Absolon & Herbert, 1995), complementing a process of decolonization.
In Becoming an Ally, Anne Bishop (1994) discusses a process of liberation that follows a spiral model of learning. The process is described as follows,
It begins with breaking the silence, ending the shame, and sharing our concerns and feelings. Story-telling leads to analysis, where we figure out together what is happening to us and why, and who benefits. Analysis leads to strategy, when we decide what to do about it. Strategy leads to action, together, to change the injustices we suffer. Action leads to another round: reflection, analysis, strategy, and action. This is the process of liberation. (p.83).
Bishop describes this process as ongoing and that in reaching the action stage people become active participants in their liberation (1994). According to Bishop, for clients to understand their oppression and become liberated, they must understand their oppressive roles and the interconnectedness of all oppression. Clients need help understanding that oppression comes from a worldview that claims superiority (Bishop, 1994). This type of consciousness raising occurs though the unification of oppressed people against oppression that give rise to social change movements, solidarity and empowerment (Bishop, 1994; Carniol, 1992).
The next section will incorporate the theories previously described into the Client’s Location wheel, Roles of Social Worker wheel, and Action Plan wheel for Social Work Practice work as suggested practice with Aboriginal peoples.
Mutuality, connection, empathy, and authenticity are key aspects of the counselor role (Hart, 2002). Mutuality is very important within the healing relationship (Nelson, Kelly, & McPherson, 1985) and is supported within the Medicine Wheel framework and within many Aboriginal perspectives, by the principle of reciprocity (Bopp, et al, 1984). The role of the counselor is that of a healer to many Aboriginal peoples and social workers need to respect the spirituality of those they help (Hart, 2002). If their clients are to be mutual and grow towards centeredness within the Medicine Wheel model, social workers need to recognize that there are no experts in the healing journey (Hart, 2002) and that each journey is unique. Qualities that are key in helping Aboriginal peoples are those of humility, non-judgment, noninterference, listening, and sharing from the heart (Hart, 2002). As Weaver states “the client is the practitioner’s best source of assistance in developing cultural competence” (1999, p.223).
Where dominant practices of social work hold independence as a goal of intervention, the Aboriginal perspective holds that connection and interdependence should be the goals (Hart, 2002). Suggestions recommended for practice are that there be respect for the Aboriginal perspective of storytelling, role modeling (Hart, 2002), and conducting sharing circles, to name a few (Hart, 2002). The counselor's role is what is often focused on but it is only one part of the healing journey. The other aspects of the social work relationship must be given equal attention if the social worker is to be an effective ally to the client as per the Roles of Social Worker wheel.
McKenzie and Morrissette (2002) discuss a model of overcoming oppression that recognizes the interrelatedness of Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal peoples, and having social workers act as allies, advocates, and facilitators. Social workers need to advocate resources for their clients in such a way that it supports their healing. Many Aboriginal peoples may experience difficulty participating in group work and activism, which may be linked with the colonization and the political oppression Aboriginal peoples have faced and continue to struggle against. There could be many reasons why people do not feel comfortable in working as a collective, so it is important that social workers properly assess their clients to acknowledge their concerns and find them proper support and a suitable environment if they want to participate in activities. As well, it is acknowledged that "the role of the practitioner as an educator and information provider is particularly important in this context." (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002, p. 269).
Absolon recognizes the link between education and practice, education about colonization and "unlearning racism" (1993, p.17). The role of educator is a role within the Roles of Social Worker wheel, as it is necessary in the process of raising consciousness. Social workers need to educate clients about power differentials so that they can come to understand their own dynamics with "power-over", "power-with", and "power-within". In order to end power-over oppression, the challenge is to discover how practitioners can restore the skills, methods, and culture of “power-with" (Bishop, 1994, p.31). Social workers need to educate clients about structural oppression, as this understanding of power structures is necessary for clients to understand their own and other people's oppression, and to be able to move toward action and structural change.
Education is a vital component of the process of overcoming oppression (Bishop, 1994). Facilitation, or what Absolon terms mediation, can be supported within the Roles of Social Worker wheel. The social work profession must present the client with the option to merge into interconnectedness with other systems (i.e. family, community, nation) thereby creating an alliance that can lead to social and structural change.
Action Plan for Social Work Practice
Figure 4: Action Plan wheel for Social Work Practice
It is important that social work practitioners understand the signs of clients' internalized oppression if clients are to successfully conceptualize the stance that the personal is political (Mullaly, 1993,). Mullaly (1993) defines internalized oppression as a clients’ belief that they are inferior. He recommends social work practitioners expand from a focus on an individual’s pathology, to raising the client's consciousness in order to become a part of a collective consciousness striving for change (Mullaly, 1993). A journey toward increased consciousness and healing is a unique process for everyone (Bishop, 1994) as each person has different insights and perspectives. It is essential that social workers do not place healing in a hierarchy that will compare one form of healing to another, as Bishop states, “no healing is wrong” (1994, p.81). For clients to become truly liberated in a holistic way, individual and collective forms of healing are needed, otherwise clients run the risk of participating in the cycle of oppression they are trying to change. The Action Plan wheel for Social Work Practice can help social workers direct the work they need to do with their clients.
Social workers can assist clients to build a shared identity and seek out fellowship with others (Carniol, 1992; McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). This supports the Action Plan wheel for Social Work Practice using the facilitator role described in the Roles of a Social Worker wheel. As a part of social work practice, the option of helping facilitate the linkage of clients into a collective must be offered. The opportunity to work together may accomplish more than is possible on an individual basis. Being a part of a collective may also aid some Aboriginal people because they can share their personal and structural oppression and can understand each other's identity and past, and have a sense belonging (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). In a collective, clients can empower and support each other to create change (Carniol, 1992).
At a collective level, increasing consciousness can occur through group work, activism, (Bishop, 1994) and sharing circles (Hart, 2002). This recognition of increased consciousness and healing the pain at various levels (such as individual, family, and community) leads to a process of action and structural change (Bishop, 1994).
Culturally Competent Social Work With Aboriginal Peoples
In order for social work practitioners to consider themselves culturally competent with Aboriginal clients, they must first educate themselves to develop an understanding of the cultures, values, traditions, and beliefs of the client. Secondly, the social worker needs to have an understanding of the implications history has had on the client (Weaver, 1999). Weaver acknowledges social workers must be aware of the trauma and loss experienced by Aboriginal peoples while using a strengths perspective (1999). In fact, McKenzie and Morrissette (2002, p. 258) identify five factors for effective social work practice:
an understanding of the world view of Aboriginal peoples and how this differs from the dominant Euro-Canadian world view;
recognition of the effects of the colonization process;
recognition of the importance of Aboriginal identity or consciousness;
appreciation for the value of cultural knowledge and traditions in promoting healing and empowerment; and
an understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal cultural expression
Weaver (1999) indicates that information and principles should be included with the practitioner’s social work skills and must be tailored to appropriately address the needs representing the diversity of clientele. Social workers must have an awareness of the tendency for Aboriginal peoples to have a stronger community identity versus individuality (Weaver, 1999). It is important for social workers to understand both the contemporary realities of the Aboriginal clients they serve, and the political climate affecting the daily lives of Aboriginal peoples.
The social work skills needed for culturally competent social work with Aboriginal peoples are, as identified by Weaver (1999), similar to those used with the general population. Weaver classifies these skills as general skills and containment skills. General skills refer to communication and problem solving while containment skills require social workers to highlight listening, patience and the acceptance of silence. There are certain values that culturally competent social workers need to espouse, according to Weaver’s study. She identifies the need for the practitioner to be self-aware and have well-being. “The theme of helper wellness and self-awareness is based on the belief that without balance in their own lives, helpers are not able to provide competent services. Social workers should be grounded in their own cultures and spirituality” (Weaver, 1999, p.222).
Other factors identified as important were for the social worker to be respectful, non-judgmental, open-minded, humble, and be willing to learn from their clients (Weaver, 1999). The participants of this study identified the need for social workers to examine their own bias and appreciate other worldviews. Social justice is another important value necessary for culturally competence and “includes decolonization, and an active acknowledgment of oppression and the unique status of Native Americans. Decolonization involves recognizing, then shedding, the mindset associated with colonial processes by which one culture subjugates another and defines it as inferior” (Weaver, 1999, p.222). Social workers should advocate for Aboriginal rights and support Aboriginal peoples, to be self-determining. The Action Plan wheel for Social Work Practice indicates the need for social workers to advocate action for structural change, and thereby seeks to eliminate social injustices.
The culturally competent social worker needs to focus on interventions, that incorporate the client’s cultural identity. Tailoring interventions promotes positive client empowerment. Three levels of intervention can lead to empowerment for the client: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and community (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). The social worker needs to assess intrapersonally, the client’s cultural identity, attitudes, and how these affect their coping strategies, and behavior, making them accountable for instituting the required changes (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). The next level of intervention is the interpersonal, which associates individual concerns with issues on a structural or community level. Social workers need to educate clients of their connection on an individual level to that of belonging within a community that also shares similar issues, thereby normalizing the client’s experiences (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002). The third level of intervention is at the community level. It is at this structural level that the social worker facilitates the understanding about structural oppression and encourages social action, that works to transcend structural change at a societal level (McKenzie & Morrissette, 2002).
Figure 5: Moving through Multiple Levels of Intervention wheel
The States of Being wheel examines the client’s states of being: spiritual, emotional, physical, and mental. Many Aboriginal cultures believe spirituality is important to take into consideration in achieving balance of the human condition and is a significant part of many Aboriginal traditional ways, customs, and values. Social work practice does not always explore this element, and without its consideration may not be able to effectively help Aboriginal peoples to whom spirituality is crucial. It has been identified that for cultural competency, values that would include spirituality need to be understood, appreciated, and recognized within social work practice. The Client Location wheel examines client location and seeks to interconnect the individual with family, community, and nation. The Roles of Social Worker wheel and Action Plan wheel for Social Work Practice examine the roles of a social worker and action plans for social work practice, respectively. The Roles of a Social Worker wheel reminds social workers of the roles needed to help enact action plans for clients to achieve balance within their states of being and location. This form of holistic practice, which considers Aboriginal spirituality, culture, and identity, is what makes culturally competent social work practice with many Aboriginal peoples achievable.
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