Hand drum painting by White Wolf (Nuu-chah-nulth)
In researching how science is catching up to Indigenous knowledge I often came across the idea of art as medicine. I noted an example in my chapter “The Healing Power of Women’s Voices”, Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival (Sumach Press 2003). Music therapy “has been increasingly legitimized. It is now an accredited practice in hospitals, hospices, senior homes and institutions” across Turtle Island. Today art therapy is used to improve communication and social skills, academic skills, motor skills and attention span. Art can help you manage pain, reduce stress and improve your heart health.
At my core I understood that art medicines impact us spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. However, knowledge holders often talk of art as “sacred” and I wonder what separates “sacred art” from other forms. It might be important to think about the question because it has implications for cultural appropriation and theft. In this 3-part article you’ll be treated to some of my findings on this issue.
In this first post I’d like to explore “expressive” and “transformative” art, which are different from sacred art, the most powerful medicine. In Part II we can look more in depth at sacred art and in Part III we’ll discuss how emerging science might have something to say about art medicine and the implications for cultural appropriation.
In the dominant society music, visual art, photography, film and other disciplines are mostly seen as forms of self-expression. Expressing oneself can be healing so long as it isn’t violent, abusive or otherwise oppressive. Also, there isn’t a clear line between expression and transformation as expressing yourself can be transformative for you and others. Allow me to illustrate with a story: If I go to an herbalist seeking a medicine to help me sleep and she tries to sell me peppermint tea I might be a bit confused.
“Will peppermint help me sleep?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “It will help your digestive system. Valerian will help you sleep but I don’t have any. I have too much peppermint, so that’s what I’m selling.”
In this story the seller has legitimate needs to get rid of her peppermint. Though I respect her need to sell and hope she does, it’s is irrelevant to my need for sleep.
Self-expression can be transformative but the goal is EXPRESSION. It’s egocentric and self-centered. Now I know that egocentrism in has a lot of negative connotations. Our teachings suggest we find more meaning and joy in life when we can overcome our egos to be generous and community-minded. None of us like mainstream culture’s glorification of individualism at the expense of communities and the planet. However, the ego isn’t necessarily the enemy or something to overcome. Maybe ego allows us to diversify and take on different but needed roles and responsibilities in our communities. Some folks are good hunters, others are better fishers, still others make better teachers and without some amount of ego we wouldn’t be able to develop our individual gifts, which our communities need.
It is, however, a struggle to keep our egos in check and not allow ourselves to think we are better than or separate from other life forms. Perhaps this ego versus a sense of oneness is a natural tension that comes from being alive and can be a source of spiritual growth. Hence, we constantly strive for balance between fulfilling our personal desires and serving a larger purpose. When the balance is right, perhaps there is no difference.
In any case, I found it interesting when I was a young mother to see how many parenting resources note that a baby has no sense of personhood or identity. Part of my job was to help my sons develop a healthy sense of self, where they understood themselves as unique and different from others as well as worthy of love and getting their needs met. This process is celebrated in mainstream culture.
In my teachings, however, this process is framed very differently. For example: babies are born without a sense of separation. They don’t see themselves as different from other life around them and are close to the Spirit World. This is a sacred mindset. As they get older children begin to think of themselves as separate, unique and disconnected from others. Sometimes because of what society teaches them, they begin to believe they are better or worse than others. Thus, we have stories, ceremonies and rites of passage to help children understand how to balance their sense of self with the reality of their inter-connectedness with and dependence on other life forms.
In Indigenous lifeways and probably many others, a community is only as healthy as the individuals that comprise it and the community impacts the wellness of individuals. Both are important and need to be nurtured. Making space for personal expression is one way to do this. You definitely need to express yourself. But expression is not transformation; there is no guarantee that EXPRESSING yourself will push you to change, grow or heal. It may. It may not.
TRANSFORMATION, however, requires pushing past your comfort zone, forging past social boundaries and growing or transcending from one level of knowing and being to another. With transformational art you change and grow in the creation, experience or use of art. I have certainly done this with my writings, finding out information I didn’t know before, using it to change my life and digging deep within to write in a way that helps my readers. As many other authors, I’ve been honoured to hear from readers that my writings have played a role in helping them transform or change in some fundamental way. That is transformative art medicine.
As most of us know, it is possible to “inspirit” or “charge” artwork with a spirit, energy or entity. This idea is not accepted in mainstream culture but the process can enhance and strengthen the spiritual impact of your work. Your creation, whether a painting, beadwork, dance or whatever will impact you and Our Relations.
That is why our songs, drums, regalia and other forms or art are often referred to as “medicines”. They impact our wellbeing, for better or worse, depending on the feelings and spirit we put into the creation or how we use art in our lives. This is why I took great care when I was younger not to perform or record music when I was angry or otherwise upset. When angry, I would sing in private and otherwise settle myself so I could perform and record with good heart and mind. I knew even then that the vibrations I sent out to others had power and impacted living beings.
The transformational power of art is clear to anyone who has attended an Idle No More round dance. A group of drummers and dancers, carrying themselves with dignity, honour and respect can impact the shift of a very large space. As science has now proven, anything (including dance, music and other art) that makes us feel connected, joyful and generous causes measurable changes in the body that contribute to mental and physical wellbeing. We’ll get to some science that explores this concept of art as medicine in Part III but stay tuned for Part II where we consider the concept of “sacred art”.