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Pair credit aboriginal culture for fresh start

Study backs what two native Winnipeggers experienced

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A pair of Winnipeggers say they're living proof of what recent Canadian studies show: Urban aboriginal adults who embrace traditional culture are less likely to experience prescription- and illicit-drug problems.

John Oige, 31, and Dawn Simmons, 29, both of Winnipeg, struggled for years with crack-cocaine addiction.

Oige's habit had him in and out of jail for a decade. It was a cycle of break-and-enters, alcohol abuse and physical altercations for the northern Manitoba Cree man, adopted as a four-year old in the big city. "I'd pretty much ruined my life," Oige said.

Simmons, meanwhile, grew up being taunted as aboriginal but had no links to her native culture in the Ukrainian Catholic home where she grew up. For her, crack cocaine was the ultimate anesthetic.

"I was very shy and withdrawn, and it led to drugs. I understand it was a way for me to deal with my life, because I didn't have the tools to cope," she said.

Now, both are drug-free -- Simmons since 2009 and Oige since his last jail term ended in November 2012.

She has a full-time job and he's working toward one. Both credit discovering their ancestors' culture through urban aboriginal centres such as Thunderbird House in Winnipeg for their sobriety and hope for a brighter future.

"Before, life wasn't worth living. It's not like that anymore," Oige said. "I look forward to every day, helping people... At Thunderbird House, I'm attending sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, smudging, feasts -- whatever they have."

Some researchers in Canada are confirming the positive experiences of people such as Oige and Simmons.

In a recent study, University of Lethbridge researcher Cheryl Currie concluded urban aboriginal people who embrace traditional culture are less likely to have drug problems.

"Those participating in aboriginal culture were those who were not using drugs and did not have drug problems," Currie said. "The culture was serving as a protective factor against using and abusing drugs for urban-based aboriginal adults."

The year-long study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, is based on surveys with about 400 aboriginal people in Edmonton.

The study is small but the findings were definitive, Currie said.

When asked what it meant to practise aboriginal culture in a city, those in the study described participating in aboriginal ceremonies and cultural events, valuing spirituality and family, and respecting oneself, others and the Earth.

Winnipeg university educators who are aboriginal and embrace their cultures said the findings might be new to science, but not to them.

"The most important part of this study is... it shows the real strength of aboriginal people and that we have these ceremonies and practices that are really protective for our health," said Marcia Anderson-Decoteau, the head of the University of Manitoba's medical faculty section on First Nations, M©tis and Inuit health.

Added Wab Kinew, the University of Winnipeg's director of indigenous inclusion: "It is good to see evidence to back up what the indigenous community has known all along."

The other part of the equation is to recognize that drug and alcohol abuse are part of a process that undermined indigenous people.

"The reconnection of those ties with community, language and a positive self-image -- all things facilitated by traditional indigenous ceremonial practices -- are enough for anyone to live a healthy life," said Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, an associate professor at the U of M.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2013 A11

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