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A Mutual Exchange of Teachings: Indigenous Mindfulness Program

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By Gary Hutton, Indigenous Mindfulness Program Project Coordinator

My name is Gary Hutton, I am of Nehiyaw (Cree) descent and the newly hired Project Coordinator of an exciting and innovative Crisis Centre initiative. When I was hired to work with the Crisis Centre’s Indigenous Mindfulness Program, I was very enthusiastic for the opportunity to share the benefits of the ancient practice of mindfulness and also to ensure that these practices and concepts integrate with existing Indigenous cultural practices, spirituality, and ways of knowing. 

For the past 12 years the Crisis Centre of BC has offered mindfulness-based life skills resiliency programs on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples – sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations (Vancouver, Burnaby and the North Shore).  While the existing program certainly resonated with youth, this new initiative provides an opportunity to engage local Indigenous communities to integrate their ways of knowing and being, and to build a program that speaks to the lived realities of young, urban Indigenous youth.

My role as Project Coordinator is framed by my personal lived experience with my Indigenous culture and mindfulness practices.  As someone of  Nehiyaw (Cree) descent, I was deprived of any knowledge of the Nehiyaw culture while growing up, and this cultural void made it even more difficult to endure the challenges of personal identity, poverty, and discrimination in my early life.

When I first began to spend time with an Elder, my journey of healing and understanding that I could thrive as a Nehiyaw person in pride and self-acceptance began. Shortly after starting down this path, I encountered mindfulness practice when I became friends with a young man studying to become a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. We had a kind of exchange of worldviews and cultural practices; my learning meditation and Buddhist philosophy, and his coming to sweat lodges and spending time learning from my Elder.

My life since that point has involved weaving these two things together into an upward spiral of growth, like the two wings of a bird carrying me to greater heights than each could alone. However, the simple fact is that mindfulness has long been integral to the Indigenous worldview, as well as our traditional cultural and spiritual practices. Moving through the world with the perspective that everything in nature is your relation, as well as sacred and imbued with spirit, requires a deep inner stillness and a mindfulness of your outer movements and interactions in order to live up to your beliefs and values.

During this summer, I had the opportunity to begin this project by working with youth, service providers and elders from Vancouver Aboriginal Family and Child Services Society and shishalh (Sechelt) Nation.  Feedback and learning from those pilots are being woven into the curriculum, and we are currently reaching out and working with additional agencies and school programs this Fall.  Sharing these tools within a cultural context with Indigenous youth provides a unique opportunity, as guidance and a strong sense of identity that comes through connection to one’s Indigenous culture and the inner landscape of the self, has the potential to be both transformational and life-promoting. 

For the development of this program, I was also excited to truly embody and display the principles of community-based participatory research to more fully develop this program with the feedback from Indigenous youth and elders. The Crisis Centre has been very supportive of the fact that this program cannot treat the Indigenous community as a monolithic entity, nor can it be perceived as another outside party attempting to “fix” Indigenous individuals.

I have both curiosity and excitement around the future shape of this program, as we both give and receive one another’s teachings, and the increasingly beautiful and healing form it might take as we move into the future.

Learn more about the Indigenous Mindfulness Program.