Cultural Attachment Theory- My Story
Updated: Jan 6
How learning about Indigenous social work concepts helped me put words to my healing journey
By: Andrea Deleeuw
December 3, 2019
When I first got involved in community work in my early 20's, I didn't know that I was embarking on a journey of personal awakening, but in the years that followed I learned first-hand the healing power of cultural connection. Now, I feel it is my life's work to provide the same opportunities for culture, community, and connection to others who felt as lost as I once did.
A major barrier that stands in the way of this work is the lack of understanding about culturally-based services and initiatives by mainstream society. Funding for anything Indigenous specific always seems to be the first on the chopping block. Many people still view culturally-based services as almost a reverse-racism approach, whereby Indigenous services are exclusionary (not true) and assigning services based on "race" fuels divisiveness in today's society (also not true). Those of us working on Indigenous initiatives have gotten used to navigating false premise questions, such as "but why should they get special treatment?" and "I thought we were trying to get away from segregation?"
I wanted to share my story here as a way to educate more broadly about what is known in the Indigenous social work field as "Cultural Attachment Theory". In my early community work days, I didn't know such a theory existed- I just intrinsically knew that this approach worked. Cultural attachment theory is not a race-based approach, nor is it an attempt to segregate ourselves from mainstream society. By inviting you to listen to a story that is deeply personal, my hope is that you will join me in advocating for for culturally-based services; or, at the very least, stop advocating for cuts to services that you do not understand.
Growing up in small-town northern Alberta, I was raised in the cradle of a large extended family. My parents divorced when I was really young, but I never really viewed that as a bad thing. When my parents remarried, I was wrapped up in even more familial love. I always considered myself lucky to be surrounded by a diverse, caring network of blood relatives and chosen kin. One of my favorite places to stay on the weekends was at my Grandma and Grandpa's in Beaver First Nation. We were gleefully spoiled by my grandparents, aunts, and uncles every time we went to visit. I felt the most loved and accepted with them at their house, like I could just be completely myself, and they would love me no matter what.
"One of my favorite places to stay was at my Grandma and Grandpa's in Beaver First Nation. We were totally spoiled every time we went to visit. I felt the most loved and accepted with them at their house, like I could just be completely myself, and they would love me no matter what."
At the age of 14, our family relocated to the big city of Calgary, and it rocked my world. High school in my new city was a miserable experience. It was a huge school of about 1200 students, and there were maybe only 10 other native students in the entire school. I constantly felt like an outsider and I missed my family and friends back home. I had one good friend who I was stuck to like glue, and if I didn't have her, I don't know what I would have done. I developed crippling social anxiety, and since I didn't have the words to explain what I was feeling, my coping strategy was to isolate and and skip school. In my grade 12 year, I had to sign a contract with the vice principal, and I was told that if I missed anymore classes I would be suspended and possibly expelled.
I barely managed to graduate, and the years that followed high school were a blur of depression, binge drinking, drugs, unstable relationships, job hopping, and recklessness. I won't go into that time period in any more detail, because frankly I don't feel comfortable exploiting my traumas to prove a point. I will say that when I think about that young girl, and the situations she put herself in, I feel so incredibly sad for her. During the height of my party days, I started seeing my now husband, and we would find ourselves expecting a baby after dating for just a few short months. Totally in shock and unprepared, we lived with my parents until we could get an apartment of our own. In 2009, we opened a new chapter in our lives when we welcomed our oldest daughter, Isabelle.
After we had our daughter, I still struggled with feeling adrift. I had my new little family as an anchor, but I was somewhat between worlds-- I had been away from my hometown for years, and I felt no connection to the community of Grande Prairie. When a seasonal job opportunity opened up at my local Friendship Centre, I applied, and was so excited when I got the job.
I hadn't been working at the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre for very long when I was hit with a "coming home" experience. This is a phenomenon many describe feeling when they visit their local Friendship Centre or other cultural communities they've connected with. A defining moment was when the elder and Head Start cook, lovingly known by the children as Cookie Bear, offered me tea and bannock during our lunch break. I choked back tears as I thought to myself, this is what I was longing for. I felt a sense of belonging, culture, and community that I had been missing since I was a little girl. I found something that I didn't even know I needed.
"I felt a sense of belonging, culture, and community that I had been missing since I was a little girl. I found something that I didn't even know I needed."
In the years that followed, I immersed myself in culture and community. I was invited to attend a culturally-based youth retreat in Batoche, SK, where I connected with other Indigenous youth from across Canada who had stories just like mine. The themes of disconnection and trauma were not lost on me. Under the guidance of a supportive Elder, we sat for hours in ceremony, holding space for one another in that grief.
Back at home in my youth coordinator role, I tried my best to create similar opportunities for youth here in Grande Prairie through culture camps, youth leadership training, access to ceremony and sharing circles, and fun community activities. I immersed myself in culture, soaking up as much as I could from whoever was willing to share with me, so that I could, in turn, pass these teachings along to others who could find them helpful. I worked with partnering agencies, including child and family services, educational institutions, and health services to weave culture throughout mainstream programming so that Indigenous youth could maintain or be introduced to these life saving concepts.
In 2012, under the Harper government, federal funding for the National Aboriginal Health Organization was entirely eliminated, as was funding for the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth. In the years that followed, I found myself having to constantly justify cultural approaches to funders, policy makers, and mainstream service providers who just didn't understand why this approach was valuable and necessary. Frustrated with ongoing funding cuts to Indigenous services, I decided to return to post-secondary in 2016, with the goal of using my education to advocate for Indigenous families and youth to have access to these vital services and supports.
Cultural Attachment Theory
Now, nearly a decade after I first began this journey, I am a fourth year BSW student. This past semester our cohort studied Cultural Attachment Theory. We had the privilege of learning from Indigenous scholars Dr. Raven Sinclair and Iris Plaineagle, who validated so much of what I know to be true.
One of our assignments invited us to watch Tunchai Redvers TEDxTalk, called "Creating environments for Indigenous youth to live & succeed".
Redvers suggests that we build Indigenous youth what she calls a “decolonial structure”, using a foundation of “affirmation and support, relatable role models, and challenging current norms”. (View the TEDxTalk here). When I watched her video, I saw my story, and I realized that is exactly what my community did for me. In this decolonial structure, I felt a sense of purpose, a strengthened sense of cultural identity, and a positive connection to the broader world around me. It wasn't long before I began to thrive.
During the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry last year, I heard an Elder say, "this might not be your medicine, but it's someones medicine". And I think that is a good way to say you might not completely understand something, but you don't always have to understand an approach for it to have value. The fact remains that cultural connection is our medicine; as such, it should be valued the same as any western helping and healing modality.
I feel the need to explicitly state that cultural attachment is so much more than an Indigenous social work theory. The concepts within this theory have been in existence since time immemorial, but learning about this theory did help me make sense of my journey, and gave me the words to share my story.
There are people who have been doing this work for much longer than I have, so if that's you and you have any resources about this topic you would like to contribute, please feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org (I will update this post with all your suggestions and new resources). Thanks in advance for supporting this dialogue!
If you've made it to the end, thank you for reading. The next time you hear someone criticize culturally-based services, I hope you will remember my story, and how much culturally-based resources help thousands of Indigenous people every day. This work is valid and it is my hope that one day policy makers, funders, and governments will treat it as such.
Take good care and let's continue to support each other in the work that we do.