The winter months are known to be beautiful but also some of the hardest months to deal with both physically and emotionally.
There’s the shorter daylight hours and the colder temperatures making it more challenging to enjoy the outdoors.
For many Indigenous people, it can just be an added layer of stress to a year that hasn’t been the greatest for various reasons.
Inuksuk Mackay and Tiffany Ayalik are sisters, and also Inuit throat singers PIQSIQ [pronounced PILK-SILK]. They both have complicated feelings for this time of year, and for the Christmas holiday.
So much so, they created a holiday album reimagining carols and Christmas songs to dive into those mixed, complicated feelings.
Ayalik said this time of year brings the wanting to have the opportunity to come together with friends and family to celebrate, but also feeling different ways about the religious side and the harms that have been done to Indigenous people through colonization.
“A time that is supposed to be full of love and wonder and celebration at the birth of this immaculate child, when we also are in stark contrast to the way our own children were treated at residential schools and [tuberculosis] sanatoriums,” said Ayalik.
For Ayalik’s sister and the second half of PIQSIQ, Mackay also feels the same complicated emotions around the holidays, on top of the winter blues.
“I definitely struggle with seasonal affective disorder in the winters since learning about that and realizing that that’s what was happening, it’s certainly improved,” said Mackay.
Mackay uses her vitamin D and a full spectrum light to help out during these times, but admits it can get foggy for her and can be difficult to focus.
You just kind of feel like you’re on a different planet sometimes.– Inuksuk Mackay
“That makes everything challenging. You just kind of feel like you’re on a different planet sometimes. So I very much physically feel the change in season.”
Because of these experiences, Ayalik and Mackay understand the importance of taking care of themselves and looking after their mental health this time of year.
But there is also worry about others who may have similar feelings as they do, and the access to adequate appropriate health and mental health supports.
Ayalik said medical health care and mental health care shouldn’t be separated, and there are many racist barriers within these systems as well.
“We just don’t have the same access to any health care, mental or physical. We don’t have permanent full time mental health services or counseling services in communities where we are experiencing, like some of the most devastating effects of colonization and racism,” said Ayalik.
While there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done when treating mental health, Niemi Himes is doing her best to help out.
A community services branch manager for the Ontario Native Women’s Association in Thunder Bay, Himes said through their programs, they’re trying to get away from a colonial view of wellness.
And they want to promote an Indigenous perspective on mental health that deals with every aspect of a person.
“Wellness isn’t just based on, you know, our mental health. We use the medicine wheel as a guide, right? So ensuring that our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health is all in balance is imperative to really looking at our all around wellness,” said Himes.
Himes said a lot of their work is informed by traditional teachings and advice from elders and for many Indigenous people, land and culture is also a big part of that healing.
It’s why they run programs such as a land based hide tanning camp, and said those activities are not only a good way to come together during the pandemic, but it also revives cultural practices and reinforces a sense of purpose and belonging in their community.
“Just being able to be with one another and share a space with one another, I think is so imperative to creating wellness throughout our communities,” said Himes.
Ayalik said it’s good that some mental health services are being delivered in a culturally relevant way, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to improve mental health services, especially in the far north.
And she thinks an important part of improving those services is listening to what Indigenous people say they need.
Even though Ayalik and Mackay might have their mixed thoughts and feelings for this time of year, it’s not all completely bleak. It’s why they created their own version of a holiday classic, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
“We do need to remember the sweetness in life… that’s why we wanted to record this one this year,” said Ayalik.