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

  • Author / Creator
  • 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.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
    • Department of Anthropology
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
    • Fletcher, Christopher (Université Laval, Département de médecine sociale et préventive)
    • Nuttall, Mark (Anthropology)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Palmer, Andie (Anthropology)
    • Sharma, Sangita (Faculty of Medicine, Endocrinology)
    • Parlee, Brenda (Faculty of Native Studies and Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology)