Tłı̨chǫ-speaking nurse Lianne Mantla-Look answers our questions
By Lianne Mantla-Look
November 28, 2022
Editor’s note: Lianne Mantla-Look was profiled in Canadian Nurse on November 14. In this four-part series of followup Q&A articles, she provides candid and first-hand insight into her experience as an Indigenous nurse working in the North.
Please describe the role of a healer within your Indigenous culture. As an Indigenous nurse, how do you incorporate those values into your everyday nursing practice?
As I reflect on my nursing practice here in the North, I think about how Indigenous healers have influenced the care of some Indigenous patients in my professional and personal life. Patients would leave the hospital in search of the ultimate cure for their diagnosed terminal illness and weeks or months later, the patient would be admitted to the palliative care room of our unit. These experiences have left me jaded and I sometimes struggle to keep my opinions to myself when I’m asked if an Indigenous healer might cure a terminal illness.
I was asked to leave the room by an Indigenous healer because he “could sense my negative energy” and called me a “non-believer.” This was the healer who was hired by my family when an immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer. I was especially angry when the healer asked my parents how much their family member’s life was worth; why was their life reduced to a monetary value? How was money tied to the holistic aspect of this “treatment”? The healer told us that the more money we paid, the more effective the treatment would be.
An internal struggle
I’ve written about this experience previously:
As much as I respected my culture and our ways, I struggled internally to remain “neutral” whenever I had to care for a cancer patient from my region, because I believed in medicine and science. I struggled between who I was as a Tłı̨chǫ woman, and as a nurse who believed in science. In my region, at least, many people distrust Western medicine and seek out alternative cures for cancer. Too often, I’ve seen patients and families spend time and money trying to find a cure for cancer, losing valuable time with their loved ones. I became especially jaded when an immediate family member was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer when they were 37. My family spent thousands of dollars looking for a cure and seeking help from traditional healers who were known to “cure cancer.” … They died just weeks after their 38th birthday, almost exactly four months after the diagnosis (Mantla-Look, 2020, p. 26).
A patient asked me directly once if I thought an Indigenous healer would cure their stage 4 cancer; they told me they valued and trusted my opinion as a fellow Indigenous person. I didn’t bring up my negative experience. All I told the patient to consider was the time factor in seeking out an Indigenous healer. How much time away from their family would this entail? If the healer recommended a certain treatment or change in diet, how would this affect their current health? When and if the end comes, would they regret the lost time with loved ones?
As an Indigenous nurse who has had unfavourable experiences with healers in my immediate family, I always find it tough to reconcile those experiences with my nursing practice. I don’t go as far as expressing my doubt in the efficacy of healers for clients should they decide to seek alternative treatment, but I don’t encourage it, either. It’s difficult for me to remain neutral, especially when asked directly what my thoughts are on the matter.
In my practice, an Indigenous client will often seek out a healer when they are faced with a terminal illness. This is after a prognosis is given and all Western medical treatments have been exhausted.
I understand patients wanting to connect to their culture and spirituality at such a difficult time. Facing a health crisis, especially a terminal illness, is a time for people to connect to the deep values they hold, and healers and ceremonies are part of many of our Indigenous cultures.
It is natural for people to want to connect with something spiritually and culturally meaningful in these times. Sometimes, a client might pursue both Indigenous and Western treatments, or move back and forth between Indigenous healers and Western medical treatments. If the healer’s treatment is not successful, the client will return to Western medical treatment as a lifesaving measure. This has been my personal experience as well.
Next week — Q&A (part 3): What is the role of language when providing care to Indigenous patients?
Advice to non-Indigenous health-care providers
My advice to non-Indigenous health-care providers would be to continue to support the patient should they opt for the Indigenous healer route and endeavour to be non-judgmental. Remind yourself that your focus is the patient and their needs.
I can’t ignore my own painful experiences, and this is where I struggle the most as an Indigenous health-care provider, to try to separate my own negative experiences in this matter from supporting the patient.
Make time and room for ceremony in the hospital if the patient requests this. I know that there are some health-care facilities that have dedicated areas for this, but not all do.
If you are asked to participate in prayer simply by being in attendance, oblige the patient if your faith allows this. If you can’t, gently explain why without going into personal details.
Hospitals and clinics are spaces where people experience some of their most difficult moments and days. Treatments and providers, whether they use Indigenous ceremony and healing practices, or Western medical treatments and approaches, can offer patients comfort and hope in those most challenging moments. There is a place for differing cultural identities in the health-care system.
Mantla-Look, L. (2020, August). “Bridging the gap between two world views: Perspectives of an Indigenous nurse.” Northern Public Affairs: 25–27.
Lianne Mantla-Look is a registered nurse who lives and works in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She uses the language she grew up with to bridge gaps in accessing health care for people who speak Tłı̨chǫ (pronounced tli-cho or tlee-cho) and to advocate for Indigenous patients whose first language is not English. Read her profile to learn more.