Wellness Wednesday: Indigenous Belonging in the Digital World
by Rebekah Elkerton
Every person needs to feel a sense of belonging to maintain good health. The concept of belonging in Indigenous communities has been corroded and corrupted by the implementation of settler policies that impose definitions of Indigeneity on our communities that purposefully divide our people. These policies have been a disruptive force to Indigenous community wellness and as a result many have come to be left out, feeling like an imposter, or engaging in unhealthy relationships with one another. As we each seek out belonging after generations of imposed isolation we are tasked with learning new ways to unify and connect with one another.
The most widely known examples of community disruption would likely be the Residential School System and the 60s Scoop, both of which are recent and affecting living members of our communities. However, colonial forces of separation were present as far back as the implementation of the reserve system with which an Indian Agent was assigned to an Indigenous community to enforce settler values, norms, and restrictions upon community members- instilling fear and division. This along with the blood quantum stipulations outlined in the Indian Act, which define Indigeneity in ways that are not traditional or culturally acceptable to the very communities they impact, have created long-standing and often harmful beliefs in Indigenous people about who should have access to community knowledge, connection and spaces.
Historically it was community itself that kept us alive. There was protection in numbers and each community member had a role to play in supporting the wellbeing of the group. This gave people a sense of purpose and fostered intergenerational knowledge exchange and connection. We were guided from childhood onwards in ways that nourished us emotionally, spiritually, and physically so that the community would be healthy, strong, and aligned.
In this modern day, and with the way life has changed during the pandemic, it can feel easy to go it alone. Most of us have devices that allow us to shop for our needs from home, work without seeing another person, and live independently of any group. While it may feel like we have everything we could want, the digital world can only fulfill our needs so much, especially when online spaces are often used to disassociate rather than engage. We watch TikToks and scroll through Instagram and we might feel that we know the people we are viewing, giving us a false sense of connection that cannot sustain our wellbeing or support our growth. To truly achieve a sense of belonging and fulfillment we need to feel seen, accepted and validated by the people we share our time and energy with. True community must be nurtured, requiring each member to be an active participant. While online communities can be a great place to uplift one another, more often than not, they offer us a surface level reflection of ourselves and exclude those who may not fit a particular mold of the perceived ideal community member.
To be part of a community is to find common ground with a group of people based on shared characteristics or a set of beliefs. To participate we are asked to be authentically aligned and engaged in the community and thus we can build meaningful connections with one another. It feels good to be part of something and to share our strengths with others whether that is a particular talent or an ability to support and uplift another person. When we are part of a healthy community we receive honest feedback about our gifts as well as our blind spots. To belong is to feel empowered and rooted so that we can build healthy relationships with ourselves and others through which we may experience growth.
For many years, I felt most cared for, valued, and seen when I spent time with my family on reserve. I laughed whole–heartedly with them, felt so natural being embraced by them, and knew I was loved for my entire being- flaws and all. This feeling was felt again when I came together with friends on the pow wow trail. Living in urban spaces most of the year, I soaked up these experiences and gave all that I could back to the people I was with. Sometimes that meant adding cones to a friend's jingle dress in the backseat of the car when driving to a pow wow and other times it meant painting an elder’s living room to bring them joy. Being part of a community meant that I was participating in a multitude of ways and sharing my time and abilities where possible. As things have shifted since the onset of the pandemic and so much of community engagement has moved online, I find myself wanting. I sift through posts about pretendians and the politics of indigeneity to seek out other Indigenous people who use the online space to build connection. I find joy in rez memes and TikToks, immediately sharing them with the people I once gave my time to in person.
While so many eyes are on digital spaces, we have an opportunity to create community in new ways. We’ve seen the rise of new Indigenous voices gaining popularity, including comedians, influencers, and wellness advocates. Digital spaces allow us to reclaim our identities, share knowledge and connect with one another through active engagement with other Indigenous people. Collectively we carry common colonial histories that have created trauma within our families, disconnected us from one another and instilled imposter syndrome in people who otherwise have wonderful things to offer to the greater community. No longer overseen by an Indian Agent, we have a chance to define ourselves, hold each other accountable in our own ways, and learn from one another. It can be scary to place trust in other people or put ourselves out there but it is only through doing so that we can fulfill our inherent need for meaningful relationships. When we intentionally use online spaces to build with one another rather than divide or disassociate we take back our power and create new forms of community. We must welcome intergenerational inclusion and value the knowledge and gifts of our fellow community members to ensure the effects are lasting and create new lineages of healthy Indigenous belonging. By reimagining our use of social media and our avenues to connection we can change the ways we embrace Indigenous identity and care for one another more effectively.
photo by Fausto Sandoval