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Ontological Security, Movement, and Well-being: Teetł’it Gwich’in Experiences of Life Transformations Open Access


Other title
Ontological security
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Supervisor and department
Fletcher, Christopher (Université Laval, Département de médecine sociale et préventive)
Nuttall, Mark (Anthropology)
Examining committee member and department
Sharma, Sangita (Faculty of Medicine, Endocrinology)
Parlee, Brenda (Faculty of Native Studies and Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology)
Palmer, Andie (Anthropology)
Department of Anthropology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Based on ethnographic field research in a northern Aboriginal community, this thesis explores Teetł’it Gwich’in experiences of personal transformations from suffering to well-being. Literature on Aboriginal health largely approaches social suffering as trans-generational trauma, and strength in terms of resiliency. The process of how individuals within their communities overcome the effects of adversity and restore a sense of well-being, however, is not well understood. This thesis represents a critical exploration of the concept of ontological security, which denotes a sense of existential integrity that allows people to act in the face of adversity. The material presented was collected during a twelve-months stay in the community of Teetł’it Zheh, or Fort McPherson, in the Northwest Territories. As my primary methodological approach, I followed local Gwich’in pedagogy in conjunction with phenomenology, focusing on learning through experience and collaborative research. Central to my discussion is the story of life transformation of a Teetł’it Gwich’in Elder and her subsequent work in a community-based volunteer-run alcohol-counseling program. Her and others’ narratives, as well as their lived healing practices, directed my attention to movement and mobility as characteristic of experiences of renewal and ontological security. Two aspects emerged as contemporary reflections of positive life transformations in the community: volunteering and working on the land. The importance of contemporary volunteerism is rooted not only in a strategic discourse that safeguards local practices against state intervention and bureaucracy, but it also offers people a space to engage in movement and purposeful work and to restore a sense of ontological security within their community. While personal engagement with the land is varied, common to many people’s experience is an increased sense of agency and well-being while working and travelling on the land. As kinesthetic experiences are foundational for the formation of a sense of a continuous and competent self within a field of relations, I argue that bodily practices such as walking, volunteering, travelling, and working are pivotal to inducing a shift in experience from existential threat to ontological security and are characteristic of personal experiences of renewal and healing.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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