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Taking Power Away and “Giving” Power Back: Understanding and Facilitating Empowerment in First Nations

Taking Power Away and “Giving” Power Back: Understanding and Facilitating Empowerment in First Nations by  Heather Schmidt, Cape Breton University

Taking Power Away and “Giving” Power Back: Understanding and Facilitating Empowerment in First Nations

Heather Schmidt, Cape Breton University

Abstract
As community psychologists, we frequently state that our goal is to empower marginalized populations. But what constitutes ‘empowerment’, exactly, and in what ways can it vary across cultures and perspectives?  Could practitioners and community members be envisioning two or more very different things? This presentation begins with a model of healthy human development, or empowerment, called “The Circle of Courage” as conceptualized by Dr. Martin Brokenleg, Lakota Sioux, and a Ph.D. in psychology. Inspired by both his own culture and the works of prominent psychologists such as Urie Bronfenbrenner and Erik Erikson, Brokenleg’s model is circular in nature (constructed within a 4 part Medicine Wheel) to show the intimate connection between individual well-being and the well-being of the collective or community to which each individual belongs. The individual cannot be healthy if the community is suffering and unable provide all of the nurturing that a growing child needs.  If on the other hand, a child grows up to feel loved, capable, powerful, and unique, then the model suggests that they will in turn feel motivated to give back to the society that supported them by finding a way (whatever that may be) to help nurture and support the next generation. Thus, the model is circular and never-ending under healthy circumstances.

The following slides detail a number of the oppressive and unjust regulations that have been put in place by the Canadian government  over history to systematically take power away from First Nations people, in an effort to forcibly assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. The government’s paternalist motto for the church-run Residential Schools, for example, was “Kill the Indian to save the child”. They did not consider the trauma that would be caused by forcibly removing children from their devastated families, and placing them in cruel institutions where they would be subjected to years of abuse, neglect and brainwashing.  Intergenerational legacies of learned helplessness, distrust, and lack of perceived personal power produced Broken or Dysfunctional Circles of Courage. Although empowerment cannot be forced upon or “done to” another person, the presentation concludes with a number of strategies that community psychologists can utilize in their practice to help nurture and repair the lost senses of belonging, mastery, independence and generousity within Indigenous communities.


Author

Heather Schmidt, Cape Breton University

Dr. Heather Schmidt, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada.


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