Ian Puppe is an instructor and research associate in anthropology at the University of Western Ontario in Ontario, Canada. Puppe’s work focuses on the anthropology of First Nations peoples, global studies, social justice, and peace studies. As an instructor at the university, he teaches anthropology of tourism and Indigenous Studies. He also currently serves as the Canadian Anthropology Society’s (CASCA) archivist, assistant editor/research associate with the Franz Boas Papers: Documentary Edition and Co-Principal Investigator/Research Lead for the Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital Archives Project (SLZHAP).
Puppe has done ethnographic work on Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, and his research and writing investigate the relations between First Nation peoples and Canadian settler-colonial society. In this interview, he explores how Western approaches to mental health impacts Indigenous peoples, and how the imposition of psychiatric treatments can lead to harmful, unintended iatrogenic effects.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Micah Ingle: Tell me about the work that you have done in the area of Indigenous rights. How did you come to be interested in this area?
Ian Puppe: I came to be interested in this in an organic way, I would say. I was interested in finding a research topic where I did not feel that I was interjecting myself into other people’s concerns unfairly and where I was not walking into a situation and assuming that somehow I was going to make it better. When I decided on Algonquin Park, I was thinking about a place that I had always felt connected to and somewhere that I had been told, as a Canadian, that I had a responsibility.
Algonquin Park is an iconic place in the Canadian imagination. It is one of our largest and most visited tourist areas, and one of the oldest protected areas set aside in the country. I thought what better place to organically involve myself than a place where I have already been invited to be involved.
The concerns with Indigenous issues came out of my recognition that Indigenous people are being pushed aside, made invisible, obfuscated throughout the park in its representation of history. This was evident, for example, in the way that they talked about the natural landscape as untouched and somehow pristine. I thought that these issues of representation needed to be fleshed out. I have been working on it for about a decade now.
Ingle: Can you talk more about the Indigenous rights or Indigenous issues that you are researching?
Puppe: Algonquin Park is named for the Algonquin people. When the park was created, the Kirkwood Commission pointed out that they wanted to protect the pristine wilderness, the headwaters of several rivers, that they needed a place for “experimentation in forestry,” that they would protect the animals, and also that they wanted the site to act as a health resort. Lastly, they stated that the park would serve to memorialize the Algonquin people that were, they wrote, “one of the greatest nations to walk the continent.”
The way they stated this made it sound like the Algonquin people were already gone. I was surprised to find out, during my preliminary research, that Algonquin people had an active claim to the land surrounding most of the area of the park. Most people did not know about it, and it had had not been actively pursued while the Algonquin communities were building up their political power and their numbers by defining membership more carefully and finding their relatives.
In relationship to the land claim, often, the folks who talked about it saw Indigenous involvement as a threat to the continuity, the integrity, the protection of the area. I thought that that was hypocritical because the park was really set aside to maintain the forestry industry.
As a result, there was often an opposition in the way that tourists and certain settler-colonial locals spoke about Indigenous issues in the park—as if they were a threat. They talked about, to quote them, “Indians” as people that could not be trusted, did not look after the land, and whatever else. All kinds of stereotypes would come out.
Not only that, but the way these issues were spoken about acted as if Indigenous people who were traditionally related to the land, who thought about the land in different ways, and who related to the land by being on it in careful and responsible ways, were already gone.
Ingle: You mentioned this idea of the settler-colonial. Can you talk about that and how it is distinguished from Indigenous societies?
Puppe: The borders are always fuzzy. Anthropologists are careful to point out that when we talk about a culture, we do not mean to isolate it and to suggest that somehow it exists within itself, that all the people are self-same or similar, that there is some sort of homogeneity. Nevertheless, there are broad strokes that seem to correspond to different lifestyles and the way that those lifestyles demonstrate a distinct apprehension of the world. The way we relate to the world is embedded within these cultural practices, and sometimes the way that we talk about it can make obvious a very different relationship to the world.
My work has been focused on not pushing apart, but trying to find the meeting points between different ways cultures have of apprehending the world. To broadly characterize two different approaches, there is an objective approach to the world, one that looks at the world as a set of resources to use, and then a more relational approach, referred to as a relational ontology.
Ingle: That leads to my next question. You talk in your work about the “Western, white, medical worldview.” How do you see that playing out in some of your work with the Algonquin people?
Puppe: The Algonquin people are a community that’s a nation among larger nations. The Algonquin are part of the Anishinabeg peoples. The Anishinabek nation, in some cases, includes certain Algonquin communities, so they are not isolated people. Their dialects are often mutually intelligible, and there is a common way of relating to the world that is embedded within that sort of language. For the Algonquin, it is important that we consider things as stemming from relationships, which are either mutually beneficial or, in some ways parasitic, but modeled upon what we see in the land, a sort of natural ethic.
This relational approach differs significantly from the approach that we see in Western biomedical models or allopathic medicine, where separateness and objectivity are often assumed. If we think that there’s a thing at the root of an illness, we look for virus bacteria. However, Indigenous people would often look at relationships that had been disturbed.
People might suggest this is because these belief systems developed before we knew about viruses or bacteria. But this is because we’ve almost intentionally mistranslated the language to suggest that when they talk about the smallest of things, they’re talking about spirits rather than these little people.
That is important because, in a relational ontology, the world is seen as peopled. Within a relational ontology—when a hunter or a gatherer is successful, what they have done is aligned a relationship respectfully. They suggest that a hunter does not necessarily succeed when they defeat an animal, but when the animal takes pity on the hunter. Just as, at the end of human life, we seem to give in rather than being overwhelmed. It is because of this positive relationship, this respect between them, that the animal feels willing to give its life for the human community.
When we talk about issues of illness and disease, the understanding is that there is a destabilized relationship at the root of the illness and that the behavior that led to the problem in the first place needs to be addressed. In this form of medicine, public health is not divided from medical interventions in quite the same way.
Ingle: That is interesting. When it comes to this biomedical perspective and institutions encountering the Algonquin people, what are the effects that you have seen?
Puppe: Some of the most violent effects have been the failure to recognize that medical treatments can cause iatrogenic effects, unexpected consequences that denigrate their approach to the world—that particular patients, clients, however, we might choose to represent them, have—denigrating that relationship to the world, that relational ontology.
Well-trained healers and healthcare practitioners can do this quite unintentionally. It has a compounding effect that works with the intergenerational trauma related to things like residential schools, forced relocation, and what we call in Canada “The Sixties Scoop,” which refers to a policy that led to a lot of Indigenous children being removed from their families because the families were characterized as not looking after them.
It led to a situation where we have huge compounded traumatic effects that can be brought up again, triggered during therapy sessions. Well-meaning healthcare practitioners can refer to particular stereotypes or can make comments that seem to assume that a way of approaching the world is wrong and that their way of thinking about the world is wrong.
That can have deep effects when you’re already facing racism and the compounded effects of other representational matters. It can be traumatizing and disempowering, and it can lead to a lot of emotional distress.
Ingle: So it sounds like you are essentially pointing to arrogance on the part of Allopathic medicine, Western biomedical approaches, assuming that they have the answers—they know what the disease is, and they have the cure.
Puppe: In some cases, it can seem to be arrogance. I think that is more on the individual practitioner level. I think that there is a definite hubris, though, and it is not just medicine. It is also present in Western science.
We see within medicine the suggestion that it knows best how to adjudicate what people are talking about, without careful attention to the language people are using to describe their experience. Practitioners may think that language is another specialist’s problem. But when ways of understanding oneself are embedded within language, we cannot simply discard the importance of language.
Ingle: On this topic, I like a quote of yours. You wrote, “the failure of white medicine is simultaneously its inability to accept alternative ontologies of illness and disease and its stubborn refusal to allow Indigenous peoples space to heal on their own.”
Have you encountered alternative Indigenous healing methods? Do you think that Indigenous people should engage with Western practitioners, do you think that Western practitioners should change somehow? Or, do you think that Indigenous people should go off on their own and just not deal with that at all?
Puppe: Well, my first point would be that I am just one voice, and I would not want to prescribe a whole set of responses for any particular person. It is really important to me that I don’t over-generalize. I do think that science and Western medicine have a great deal to offer, and there is no reason that they should be discarded or disregarded. I think that would be swinging the pendulum too far in one direction. Once the box is open, you cannot put everything back in–there is no erasing what has been done.
That said, Indigenous peoples, who are experts in their own right, need to be recognized as experts. Long ago, [the philosopher Antonio] Gramsci argued that if you want to look at factory workers and understand factory workers, you do not talk to academics. You speak to the factory worker who likes to think about things. Anthropologists have been doing that in many communities. We recognize that not everyone in a community wants to talk about or think about how their society works or how cultures interact. Still, I do believe that it is vital to get the first-person point of view.
For instance, in Northern communities where we have nursing stations, we don’t have a physician on-site—at best that they can get ahold of them on the telephone, and they’re serving communities perhaps as large as 2,500, 3000 people—and some of the community members in the area should be recognized as people who hold traditional medical knowledge.
Some women are skilled in the equivalent of midwifery. Some people are counselors. Some people are healers and skilled practitioners of group therapy sessions. Often this is something we would talk about as a talking circle, and it is something that happens at pretty much every communal meeting.
Often, there is no topic off the table at any given community meeting. If something is troubling you and you have a community meeting, you bring it up. Each person is valued as a member of the community. In that sense, it is critical that we move away from assuming or presuming that people do not have any knowledge of how to look after themselves if they do not have Western medicine and psychologists.
Instead, we should assume that people have different ways of looking after themselves. These methods might be improved upon but improved upon from within the culture, not by subsuming or assimilating that culture in some way.
Ingle: With the community meetings, for example, it sounds like Western medicine can probably learn something from some of these Indigenous groups. I mean, psychology and psychiatry are only around 150 years old.
Puppe: For sure. This is part of the issue with scientific approaches in general. Anthropology has taken a scientific approach to evolution and human difference, psychology has taken a somewhat scientific approach. Some would argue that there are alternatives now, but initially, the point was to professionalize all of these disciplines and to make sure that they had something to offer.
The trouble is when we suggest that any particular discipline has the whole picture. I think that is where the West needs to learn. When we talk about a healing circle, we are also talking about restorative justice. There is no line between healing and justice within the community. If someone has been wronged, it is not a justice issue. That is the way that a particular set of community members are going to focus on the issue. That is their responsibility.
This is what has passed down through different traditions. For instance, amongst the Algonquin, the bears are responsible for justice. People from within the bear clan tend to be taught to think about issues of justice. When they are listening to, say, a domestic dispute issue in a community conversation, what they are going to be concerned with is making sure that there is a just outcome.
But that doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing that’s going on, because, the cranes, for instance, they’re going to be thinking about how people are speaking, the rhetoric. They will attend to the way that people are talking and whether or not that speech is damaging or something that bridges the different approaches between two people who have a dispute.
There are different responsibilities in the community, and it is important that people recognize those responsibilities. We can liken that to [academic] disciplines; yes, they take different approaches, but they need to be in conversation, and they need to recognize that it is not just the authorities, the recognized authorities, who can offer important perspectives on different issues. Sometimes the people closest to them are the ones who know the most.
Ingle: I could see how psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists coming into these communities could do damage if they come in with this self-perceived expert status, thinking that they have the answer. It sounds like from what you are saying that there is a lot of expertise within the communities themselves already. I’m curious about any other implications around healing that your work has brought out for you.
Puppe: At first, I took with a grain of salt this idea that they set aside the park to have a health resort, as they said. I thought that was somewhat funny. I thought, of course, people like to go out to the woods and stuff like that, but I didn’t understand at the time the profound implications of being on the land in particular for people who have such a deep, historically grounded relationship with particular places.
There are places within Algonquin Park where there are pictographs, burial sites, religious sites, village sites, all kinds of archaeological remains all over the place. We are not going to know where all of these places are. We are not going to be able to find them, and I am not sure that the point would be to find each of them and point out where those sites are.
The point is that Indigenous people were everywhere and that the Algonquin people were always in this place. It is a peopled landscape. When we think about places like this, we often think of them as places without people, and that we get out there to get away from one another, but it is more about grounding ourselves on the land and building up the stories that make us feel at home.
Sometimes I go out for camping trips, sometimes I go for hikes and walk around the visitor center and museum, or we will go car camping at the different campgrounds. Sometimes we paddle in, and we are in there for a week, with just my family and my dog, and we really do not talk to anybody else.
Some people would be confused about how that could be anthropological work. What kind of cultural study am I doing by isolating myself with my family in the woods? But there are people out there. If you start to realize, you know, that the animals themselves see themselves as people. Your relationship to the eagles that come by every day, or to the chickadee that pops by your campsite, is important.
They can be just as important as the relationships that we have to other people in the city that we take for granted on a daily basis, where we ignore what is seen as natural because we are so focused on the cultural. I think it is important to break down those barriers between the natural and the cultural, but also to recognize that, in particular for Indigenous people who are involved in relational ontologies, that being on the land is a matter of not just identity but health.
You cannot be yourself if you cannot be with the people who make you who you are. Sometimes those people are places; sometimes, the trees are your ancestors. That is a profound difference. It works hand in hand with recent research that’s shown us that both mental and physical health are connected to being on the land—that our physical wellbeing depends on having a little bit of dirt under our fingernails, getting out into the sunshine, and breathing clean air, not recycled and stale air. All of this stuff has a compounded presence that we need to recognize in particular for people who participate in a different imaginative relationship with the land.
Ingle: The psychological research that you bring up is interesting because I do feel like there is something to be learned from a relational worldview, a relational perspective. Even this research, though maybe it’s getting at something in terms of the necessity of being closer to nature—it still objectifies things and says, “if you want to heal, then take your daily walk through the park.” It is framed in an objectifying way.
Puppe: Absolutely. It is about the organisms that get in contact with the skin of your feet when you walk barefoot outside, not about the feel of your feet on the land. Right. Because that is not important. How you feel is not important, but somehow this is still about mental health. It should be baffling to us that we can isolate things this way.
Ingle: Any final comments or thoughts?
Puppe: I am thankful for the opportunity to talk about this. I hope that some of your audience can learn something from it and that amid the global emergency, we can reflect on the need to be on the land in a different way. We’re talking about a virus that’s probably been caused by the ecological collapse and the sort of high pace of interconnected lives where our health is failing in a lot of ways, in favor of things that don’t benefit many of us individually. I think we need to rethink, and part of that needs to be focused on getting back to the land.
That is not just for Indigenous people. That is something that settlers need to learn from Indigenous people—that if we want to become people who belong here, we need to show responsibility for the land, not just the right to make use of it. That gets back to our treaty responsibilities as well.
I think there is a lot to reflect on there, and people should start learning about what treaty, what original agreements govern their relationship to the land. Who are the people that were on the land that you live on? Are they still there? What are their stories, and how do your stories articulate with them?
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations