Cultural Teachings and Healing Practices

Being trauma-informed involves having cultural competence regarding the traditions and practices of any specific culture. When working with First Nations, an understanding of their cultural practices is essential in promoting and understanding the healing process. Traditional healing practices are localized and culturally specific.

There are 617 First Nations and 53 Inuit communities in Canada. As of the 2006 census, over one million Canadians identified themselves as Aboriginal. Within the First Nations there are more than 50 Aboriginal languages. Among the Inuit population there are differences in language, beliefs and cultural practices across the northern territories. The Métis populations across Canada demonstrate similar diversity. Although there is a common perspective or holistic worldview that binds Indigenous populations together, there is also great diversity in languages, beliefs and cultural practices throughout the country.
Connors, 2013

Therefore, it is necessary for all service providers to participate in cultural competence and understanding as it relates to the indigenous populations they serve.

It is very important to not make any assumptions when considering the individual’s experience and practices with respect to cultural teachings and practices. It is also the responsibility of service providers to become culturally aware and competent when working with First Nations, Inuit and Métis clients. For agencies working with these populations, it is essential that program planning and policies be culturally informed and competent. The following information may not be specifically relevant to the clients you are working with, but it is important to be curious about cultural beliefs and practices when working with clients.

First Nation traditional concepts of respect and sharing are the foundation for their way of life and are built around the seven natural laws, or Seven Sacred Teachings. These teachings  honour the basic qualities for a full and healthy life (Saint Elizabeth website, Elder Care curriculum, 2013).

The Seven Sacred Teachings are represented by animals that represent the embodiment of that particular teaching. The  animal world teaches everyone how to live connected to the earth and how to respect all life (; website accessed, 2013).

The Seven Sacred Teachings

LOVE (Eagle)

The Eagle is able to reach the highest point of all creatures. This teaching recognizes that true love is connected to the Creator. Love that is given to the Creator is expressed through love of self because without the love of self, it is impossible to love others.

RESPECT (Buffalo)

The Buffalo is highly respected by First Nations because it gives its life to and shares every part of its being with the people. It is a reciprocal relationship of respect. It provides the gifts of shelter, clothing and utensils. Native peoples developed a sustainable relationship with the Buffalo, resulting in a relationship that was rooted in utmost respect.


The Bear is both gentle and ferocious and teaches us the importance of having the mental and moral strength to overcome fears that may prevent us from living our true spirit as human beings.


Long ago there was a giant called Sabé who walked among the people to remind them of the importance of being honest to both the laws of the Creator and to one another. Honesty is when we are able to keep the promises made to the Creator, self and others.

WISDOM (Beaver)

The Beaver uses its gifts as a way to survive. If the Beaver did not use his teeth to build his home, they would grow until they were no longer useful to him. The Beaver teaches us that communities are built upon the gifts of each of its members. These gifts, which are given by the Creator, are important and necessary to use when creating communities of health and peace.


To recognize and acknowledge the higher power of the Creator is considered to be truly humble. By expressing deference and/or submission to the Creator, we recognize and accept that all beings are equal. This captures the essence of the spirit of humility. The consideration of others before ourselves is also an expression of humility. The Wolf teaches us all these lessons. He bows his head out of deference in the presence of others and will not take food until it can be shared with the other members of his pack. The Wolf lacks arrogance and has respect for his community, which is the Aboriginal way.

TRUTH (Turtle)

To know the truth is to know and understand and be faithful to all of the original laws as given by the Creator. Grandmother Turtle was present when the Creator made man and gave him the seven sacred laws. It was Grandmother Turtle who ensured that the laws would not be lost or forgotten.


First Nations across the country use various forms of the Medicine Wheel (also referred to as Sacred Hoops or Circles) in their ceremonies and teachings (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013). Variations of the Medicine Wheel are dependent upon the culture and/or the teacher. It is important when working with clients to be curious about which Medicine Wheel teachings they connect with, so as not to make assumptions about their beliefs and values.

For information about other Medicine Wheel teachings, see the following links:

Dancing To Eagle Spirt Four Directions Teachings

Role of the Elder

It is an essential consideration to involve the Elder of specific communities when developing programming related to First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations. It is also important to work collaboratively with the Elder in understanding the specific teachings and beliefs for that community as it relates to trauma recovery and healing.

There are various definitions of an Elder, including:

  • “Elders” are those people who are recognized by their community to be first and foremost “healthy” - spiritually, psychologically and mentally. These are often highly “ethical” people. They may be very “spiritual” people, but this does not seem to be a requirement of recognition. An “Elder” in this sense can refer to respected people in the community, regardless of age.
  • “Elders” are those people in a community who have lived a long time, and as a result have much cultural wisdom.
  • “Elders” are culturally regarded as teachers, mediators, advisors, medicine people, stewards of our lands, and the keepers of our culture and way of life.
  • “Elders” used to be known as “the Old Ones” – a term of respect that means those people in a community who have lived a long time, and, as a result, have much cultural wisdom, experience and guidance to share (BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, 2010).

The role an Elder plays in a community can include:

  • Cultural advisor
  • Historian
  • Social activist (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013)

As a service provider, there may be situations or circumstances that may require you to access the support of an Elder. It is important to consider the community and the cultural beliefs and practices when approaching an Elder for assistance. The cultural teachings and healing practices following are a list of general protocols to consider when approaching an Elder:

  • Be respectful
  • Ask permission
  • Seek clarification if there is something you don’t understand
  • Display a sense of humility – many Elders believe humility needs to be reflected through the way individuals present and interact
  • Wear appropriate attire based on community practices and situation
  • Being loud, interrupting and rushing the conversation can be considered rude (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013)

If an Elder has a “helper,” ask the helper what would be appropriate for the specific Elder. The Elder’s helper will also provide direction with respect to offering the Elder a gift of tobacco (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2009). Tobacco is considered a sacred plant. The gift of tobacco offered to an Elder recognizes the wisdom the Elder has to offer. Tobacco can be given as “cigarettes, pouch tobacco, or tobacco ties (loose tobacco wrapped in a small square cloth)” (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2009).

In the Inuit culture, the Elders do not expect tobacco because it is not used in their ceremonies. Instead, a small gift may be given as an offering for the Elder’s time, support and guidance (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2009).


First Nations Elders prefer that no photos or recordings be taken or made during spiritual ceremonies. It is also inappropriate to touch any of the sacred items an Elder may use during a ceremony, including pipes or medicine pouches, unless the Elder gives permission. It is also essential that permission be asked of the Elder to photograph any of these items.

Elders request that everyone participate in the ceremonies in the same way. 

Honour songs are performed to honour a person for various reasons. It is expected that everyone stand and remove any headwear during an honour song.

Smudging is a prayer ceremony where specific medicines (plants) are burned as an offering to the Creator and the Earth. (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013)


Historically traditional teachings were shared by the Elders to the community for the development of spiritual, social and educational reasons. It is important to know that First Nations teachings provided at a public event, such as a conference or workshop, are not considered public information. Therefore, it is necessary to ask permission of the Elder or the organizers to use this information (Saint Elizabeth website, 2013). For further information in working with Elders, see Jonathan H. Ellerby’s work “Working with Indigenous Elders” (2005).

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