Tłı̨chǫ-speaking nurse Lianne Mantla-Look answers our questions
By Lianne Mantla-Look
December 12, 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.
In my many years of nursing, I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible nurses and doctors. I’ve also worked with some nurses and doctors whose minimal experience providing care to Indigenous clients was reflected in their attitude toward the Indigenous client and their family. Sometimes non-Indigenous health professionals have asked me what they can do to be better allies and provide better care to their Indigenous clients. Here is what I would say.
Learn some basics, such as their language
Having a basic understanding about the Indigenous population that non-Indigenous care providers are working among would be a good start. This means knowing that there are many Indigenous people and groups and that they are not all part of the same group. Also, have a basic understanding that not everyone speaks the English language or is proficient in English. Learn about the Indigenous people on whose land you are working: their language(s), culture(s), history(ies). There is a LOT of information available to support allies in this learning journey. Allies shouldn’t simply ask their Indigenous colleagues to explain it all to them. Why should this responsibility fall on your Indigenous colleagues? Identify any preconceived ideas you have about Indigenous people and challenge those with your learning. Consider this the truth portion of your own personal truth and reconciliation journey.
For example, years ago, when I was working at a hospital, I was visiting a close family member who was admitted to my unit. It was obvious that I was not at work; I was in regular clothes and sitting with my family in a patient’s room. A nurse from another unit came to me and asked if I could translate for her to one of her Indigenous clients. I told her that I could not leave my family at that time and she should get a medical interpreter. Just in case it was an emergency, I inquired about the dialect of her client. The nurse didn’t know; she just assumed that we all spoke the same language and did not know that there are several dialects of Indigenous languages. I was speechless; I couldn’t believe that a nurse who has worked in this region for many years — home to so many rich Indigenous cultures, languages and peoples — could assume that all Indigenous people speak the same language.
As a positive example, I’ve also had some colleagues from my time at the hospital who asked me to teach them simple phrases in Tłı̨chǫ (pronounced tli-cho or tlee-cho) so that they could communicate a little with Tłı̨chǫ patients. I saw first-hand how a simple “How are you?” in Tłı̨chǫ went a long way. The Tłı̨chǫ patients were always so happy that the staff made the effort to speak to them, even just a little, in their language.
This is such an important thing for allies to do. Learn a few simple phrases of the Indigenous languages spoken in your region. Learning to say “Hello,” “How are you?,” “Are you in pain?” or “My name is…” shows awareness and respect and can set people at ease.
Attend community events
Attending community events is another way non-Indigenous health-care providers can learn about the community/region and the people who live there. For example, in my community, seeing a non-Indigenous nurse or doctor attending a drum dance, community feast or meeting would be valuable. This builds trust with community members; they see that you are attempting to learn and immerse yourself into their community.
I’ve often heard from non-Indigenous health professionals that they aren’t sure if it’s appropriate to attend or that they would feel uncomfortable in this space. Generally, if a community event is advertised for community members, all are welcome. You can certainly ask a colleague if you’d like to be sure your presence is appropriate. Likely, they will roll their eyes and tell you that of course you are welcome. And it’s true that you might feel uncomfortable at the event. After all, it’s oriented around an unfamiliar worldview, history and culture. That could help give you a sense of what your Indigenous patients feel when coming to see you at the health centre, clinic or hospital.
Be aware of the diverse groups you serve
The education and awareness needed to become a true ally are lifelong. In the immediate short term, non-Indigenous practitioners should make it a priority to at least be aware of the Indigenous groups that live in the regions they work in, the languages commonly spoken, and if English is not the first language of their Indigenous clients.
Racial slurs should never be used. Years ago, I took a course that was attended by other nurses who were from out of territory. One day I was speaking with one of the nurses in the hallway and a student from another program walked by. The nurse then simultaneously asked and exclaimed, “There are Eskimo people here?!” I was horrified and apologized to the Inuit woman who was walking by us, who heard what was said. I will never forget the look on her face. Furious, I turned to the nurse. I told her that we never say that word to reference Inuit people. In hindsight, I wish I had used that moment to educate this person, but I was in shock that, in this day and age, some people could be so ignorant.
Remember that you are a guest
Another important concept for non-Indigenous health-care providers is understanding themselves to be visitors, guests or settlers on the land on which they are working. These terms aren’t meant to be pejoratives but instead describe the reality from the perspective of Indigenous people. I’ve observed many posts on social media from non-Indigenous nurses who are going into an Indigenous region for the first time, and I have never seen a specific post positioning the author as a visitor or guest to the community, or as a settler in general, or inquiring about the people or culture they are going to be working with. The posts are more often like this: “I’m going into this community; what’s the internet like?” or “What’s the fitness centre like? Is there one?” or “What clothing/groceries should I bring?” Non-Indigenous health professional allies might first identify themselves as visitors and ask, “What is the cultural background of the people whose community I am coming into?” and “What is the history of the people in this community?”
What health-care systems can do
The focus of this article is individual actions, but I also want to mention that health systems need to have supports in place to encourage and facilitate allyship. Things such as cultural awareness and sensitivity courses and programs are excellent ways to learn about a region’s history and people. Such courses need to be evaluated and continuously improved. We also need to find ways to support and train health-care providers who will be working on short contracts.
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.