Power, Grace, Resilience: Art Therapy and a Journey of Healing

Power, Grace, Resilience: Art Therapy as Colonial Resistance, Shared Communal Suffering, and a Journey of Healing for Indigenous Women in Canada

             Indigenous women in Canada use multiple forms of art as sources of therapy to mitigate systemic inequality perpetuated by the structure of settler colonialism. Throughout this paper, I elucidate how three major themes — resistance, communal suffering, and healing — correlates with how Indigenous women in Canada engage in art therapy to contest colonial harms attempting to eliminate them. To begin, I will explain how Indigenous women take part in visual and musical art therapies to resist the colonial state’s desire to govern Indigenous women through an imperial oppression. In part two, I will show how Indigenous women unite through musical and beadwork art therapies to liberate themselves and debunk colonial pathologizations of Indigenous women. Finally, I will examine Indigenous women’s propensity to associate theatrical and social activist art therapies with healing from intergenerational trauma of ongoing colonialism. I will indicate how anthropologists have the ability to encourage Indigenous women to initiate their path of healing when they allow Indigenous women to have their voices heard through research projects. Therefore, Indigenous women utilize visual, musical, beadwork, theatrical and social activist art therapies to corroborate their presence in Canada as a united feminine empowerment. In so doing, Indigenous women resist colonial dispossession through art therapy, by addressing their communal suffering, and uniting to embark on a journey of healing.

Part One: Indigenous Women’s Resistance of Imperial “Aid” Through Art Therapy

            Kim TallBear claims that Canada has entered a new wave of colonialism, as the structure of settler colonialism continues to dispossess Indigenous women by disguising its oppression as a benevolent saviour (TallBear, 2019, 26). More specifically, the colonial government pledges to make sustained change to “help” Indigenous women overcome trauma as a strategic mechanism to appear less overtly eliminationist than it really is. Krista Maxwell claims this is accomplished when the Canadian state utilizes “settler humanitarianism” to imperially “aid” Indigenous women by ameliorating Indigenous dispossession with public policy (Maxwell, 2017, 1007). However, these policies are embedded with colonial agendas that harm Indigenous women. For instance, the Harper administration passed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to allocate public funding for healing programs aimed to curtail intergenerational trauma prevalent among residential school survivors (Maxwell, 2017, 989). The Canadian government also created national polices to encourage early childhood education and parenting programs to “aid” Indigenous families in overcoming the trauma of Canada’s former inadequate healing programs (Maxwell, 2017, 994). The problem with the programs Harper introduced is that they invoke historical trauma by forcing Indigenous women to share experiences of sexual and physical assault, and subsequently rebuked them for their inability to cope with “a Canadian way of life” (Maxwell, 2017, 990). Maxwell regards these policies as “rescue missions” because Indigenous children are disproportionately stripped from their parents, and Indigenous mothers are pathologized as unable to adapt to a “Canadian” framework of an adequate mother.

            Indigenous women are cognizant that settler society will continue to dehumanize them if urgent resistance is not taken. Maxwell claims that despite Indigenous women having their children taken away from them at astronomical rates, they are refusing to the “numb the pain” with substance abuse (Maxwell, 2017, 999). Rather, Indigenous women use art therapy in the form of painting as a medium of resistance. This is because painting addresses collective social experiences; every stroke of the brush fosters a sense of community linked to kinship, language, and territory (Maxwell, 2017, 989). Indigenous women resist settler humanitarianism when they refer to healing programs as “damaged goods” in their artwork (Maxwell, 2017, 998). Indigenous women paint to illustrate their strength when they debunk arbitrary assumptions that Indigenous children are in danger of the “unfit” Indigenous mother.

            Indigenous women also utilize art therapy to resist state sanctioned violence of Canada’s criminal justice system that aims to “rehabilitate” them. Indigenous women are over-represented in Canadian prisons, and encounter violence in the form of police brutality and sexual and physical assault by male correction officers (Bamarki, 2016, 11). Once released from prison, Indigenous women face high rates of recidivism due to police oversurveillance that aims to “reform” them by criminalizing survival strategies, such as sex work and welfare fraud. Reza Bamarki accentuates how Indigenous women use music, song, and dance as “revitalization movements” to resist being disproportionately vulnerable to criminalization and recidivism (Bamarki, 2016, 5). Indigenous women regard healing songs as wealth and power, to reclaim their cultural identity from their negative experiences with law enforcement. Healing songs are used to cure a “diseased person” by calling on Indigenous spirits (an animal helper) to send a “voice” (Bamarki, 2016, 4). This voice fills a presence that is heard to cure physical and emotional pains (Bamarki, 2016, 4). Indigenous healing songs are prayers set to music; songs are magic that allow an animal helper to connect with one when dreaming (Bamarki, 2016, 5). Healing dances are prayers put into action (Bamarki, 2016, 5). More specifically, healing dances make one’s wish come true, and cures the sick because they enable Indigenous women to release pain by becoming one with music (Bamarki, 2016, 6). Indigenous revitalization movements use musical art therapy as an empowerment to resist oppressive sociopolitical forces of a colonial violence by releasing trauma and regaining cultural identity.

Part Two: Indigenous Women Using Art Therapy to Liberate Their Communal Suffering

             Despite Indigenous women experiencing settler colonialism differently according to their geographical location, age, and social status, Indigenous women in Canada utilize art therapy to unite through pain and sorrow. Indigenous art has been historically barred for its non-normative behaviour; colonial settlers labelled it “savagery” by depicting Indigenous women as more animal than human (Bamarki, 2016, 3). Audra Simpson asserts that the colonial “Empire” (the state) uses the term “culture” as a method to belittle Indigenous bodies for taking part in intimate practices that do not conform to colonial values (Simpson, 2007, 69). I conclude that Indigenous women initiate ethnographic refusals by utilizing art therapy to challenge the notion of the “uncivilized” Indigenous woman. Indigenous women unite through a communal suffering, to reclaim “cultural differences” in art as something to feel liberated about, rather than feel disparaged from colonial chastisement.

            By acknowledging collective suffering of colonial dispossession, musical art therapy allows Indigenous women to reverse gender norms engraved within their communities. Bamarki explains that healing songs and dances for Indigenous women go beyond revitalization movements. When Indigenous women lead spiritual songs and dances, such as sweat lodges, they are challenging gender norms because sweat lodges are traditionally led by men. Therefore, Indigenous women’s communal sufferings develop into a communal strength to show a feminine empowerment through interdependence. Bamarki states that when Indigenous women utilize musical art therapy to resist colonial violence, their rates of criminalization and recidivism decreases. When Indigenous women lead spiritual practices, they “deconstruct and reconstruct” their cultural identity through music, song, and dance (Bamarki, 2016, 8). Through musical art therapy, Indigenous women demonstrate that they are survivors of colonial violence; they are civilized women who overcome state sanctioned violence, mass incarceration, and high rates of recidivism. Therefore, Indigenous women perform musical art therapy to debunk colonial narratives that “cultural differences” makes Indigenous women “uncivilized.”

            Laura Harjo, Jenell Navarro and Kimberly Robertson explain how Indigenous women utilize the ontological practice of beading as a form art therapy. Beading allows Indigenous women to share communal suffering of colonial dispossession and mourn the loss of deceased Indigenous women through social justice activism. Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) is an Indigenous social justice organization aimed to eradicate gender-based violence as a result of the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada (Harjo, Navarro & Robertson, 2018, 280). WWOS mobilizes Indigenous women as a united community through pain and sorrow by animating Indigenous cosmologies (such as beading) to alleviate Indigenous women’s suffering. Beading allows Indigenous women to visualize the missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the pain their faces and bodies displayed (Harjo, Navarro & Robertson, 2018, 292). When Indigenous women “pin the face” of a fallen sister to a bead, they underscore their refusal to the colonial Empire. Indigenous women “pin the face” to other women they have never met to demonstrate a shared pain and suffering. Beading maintains community strength by overcoming pain and suffering in a pursuit to gain liberty. Beading sets the spirits of missing and murdered Indigenous women free, spirits that the colonizer can no longer harm.

            Harjo, Navarro and Robertson also elucidate that beadwork allows Indigenous women to sustain a political consciousness by uniting through cultural pain to debunk flawed colonial notions that the missing and murdered Indigenous women were “fallen women” associated with “prostitutes” and “addicts” (Harjo, Navarro & Robertson, 2018, 288). When Indigenous women utilize art therapy through beading, they are uniting through a political consciousness to protest colonial injustice that blames deceased Indigenous women for their murders. While beadwork is a story of loss and absence, it is also a method of resilience. Rather than Indigenous women feeling ashamed for engaging in beading, Indigenous women utilize beading to maintain a cultural legacy of kinship and sisterhood. Indigenous women utilize beading as relentless hope that colonial violence will end (Harjo, Navarro & Robertson, 2018, 295). Despite immense and disproportionate levels of violence against Indigenous women, beading demonstrate that colonialism is forever incomplete. As long as Indigenous women continue to “pin the face” of their fallen sister to a bead, they are demonstrating communal strength to colonial violence through refusals of the colonial Empire.

Part Three: Indigenous Healing Amalgamated Through Art Therapy and Decolonial Research

            Indigenous women utilize art therapy as a feminine empowerment to embark on a journey of healing. I find it fascinating how community-based participatory research studies have a tremendous ability to inspire Indigenous women to use art therapy to heal from colonial dispossession. When anthropologists and researchers provide Indigenous women leadership positions and refuse to depict them in a damaged narrative, they have a tremendous impact on Indigenous women’s ability to reclaim identity, self-determination, and autonomy.  

            Andrew Hatala’s and Kelley Bird-Naytowhow’s research documents the positive impact that theatrical art has on Indigenous youth’s mini-pimâtisiwin (healing) (Hatala & Bird-Naytowhow, 2020, 246). Hatala and Bird-Naytowhow conducted a 9-month research study in the Circle of Voices (COV) theater program to determine if Indigenous women are capable of reclaiming pimâtisiwin (“good life”) through theatrical art therapy (Hatala & Bird-Naytowhow, 2020, 243). The Indigenous women included in the project reside in Saskatoon, and are subjected to anti-Indigenous racism, poverty, marginalization, and racial stereotypes by the larger urban society. The Indigenous women who took part in the research study entered with an immense degree of colonial trauma and a common goal of healing to reclaim pimâtisiwin. Hatala and Bird-Naytowhow gave Indigenous women leadership positions as an opportunity to challenge “a wide range of identities and break away from dehumanizing forms of identity imposed on them by historical consequences” (Hatala & Bird-Naytowhow, 2020, 246). This successfully enabled Indigenous women to heal from colonial trauma, as they associated the COV program with their “home” (Hatala & Bird-Naytowhow, 2020, 254). Moreover, theatrical art therapy became an escape mechanism to avoid the hardships of racism and violence in an urban city, and improve Indigenous women’s autonomy, self-determination, and healing (Hatala & Bird-Naytowhow, 2020, 247). Hatala and Bird-Naytowhow facilitated a safe environment where Indigenous women heal from past traumas by sharing stories with other women and building a connection.

            Every time Indigenous women utilize art therapy as a reaction to colonial dispossession, they encompass power, grace, and resiliency. Despite suffering immense degrees of dispossession portrayed as saviourship, Indigenous women are powerful. By utilizing visual art therapy to resist colonial pejorative tropes of an “inadequate mother” and musical art therapy to resist mass incarceration and recidivism, Indigenous women are powerful survivors of colonial dispossession. Indigenous women emanate gracefulness by acknowledging a communal suffering and uniting to reclaim artistic cultural differences through a liberating feminine empowerment. Indigenous women overcome communal suffering by utilizing musical art therapy to reverse gender roles within their own communities, and beadwork therapy to pay homage to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Indigenous women are resilient when they utilize theatrical therapy to embark on a journey of healing. Indigenous women are uplifting themselves to regain autonomy and self-determination that the colonial state attempts to eradicate. Although the structure of settler colonialism attempts to eliminate Indigenous women, colonialism will forever be incomplete. So long as Indigenous women continue utilizing art therapy, Indigenous femininities will remain ineliminable.


Bamarki, R. (2016). Blocking their path to prison: Song and music as healing methods for Canada’s aboriginal women. Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 36(1), 1–27.

Flicker, S., (2014). “because we have really unique art”: Decolonizing research with Indigenous Youth using the Arts. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 10(1), 16–34. https://doi.org/10.18357/ijih.101201513271

Harjo, L., Navarro, J., & Robertson, K. (2018). Leading with Our Hearts /Anti-Violence Action and Beadwork Circles as Colonial Resistance. In Keetsahnak/Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Sisters (pp. 279–303). University of Alberta Press

 Hatala, A. R., & Bird‐Naytowhow, K. (2020). Performing Pimâtisiwin : The Expression of Indigenous Wellness Identities through Community‐based Theater. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 34(2), 243–267. https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12575

Maxwell, K. (2017). Settler-Humanitarianism: Healing the Indigenous Child-Victim. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 59(4), 974–1007. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0010417517000342

Simpson, Audra. “On Ethnographic Refusal : Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures : the journal for thematic dialogue, no. 9 (2007): 67–80.

TallBear, Kim. “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.” Kalfou (Santa Barbara, Calif.) 6, no. 1 (2019): 24–41.


About Author

            Brandon Bova is currently completing his Honours, Bachelor of Arts in Law & Society and French Studies at York University. He will begin his Juris Doctor studies at Osgoode Hall Law School in the fall to pursue his goal of becoming a lawyer.

            The purpose of Brandon's paper is to demonstrate that the settler population can and should support Indigenous feminine colonial resistance. While art and therapy may appear to be non-exhaustive and unnecessarily related concepts, his aim is to provide a glimpse of how Indigenous women conjoin art with therapy to remain ineliminable in a colonial nation that constantly attempts to eliminate Indigeneity. For Brandon, allyship with Indigenous People remains an active and ongoing process. He is learning to recognize his own White settler privilege. This paper reflects the ongoing journey of learning, unlearning, and re-evaluating how settlers can support Indigenous sovereignty. Brandon's paper contributes to colonial resistance by raising his own awareness of Indigenous presence and feminine strength through art, as sources of therapy, communal suffering, and healing, which elucidates the power, grace, and resilience of Indigenous women in Canada.