Access in rural, remote and northern communities
The Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) is an organization by and for Indigenous youth that works across issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice throughout the United States and Canada.
About the author: NYSHN
NYSHN is lead by and for Indigenous youth 30 years of age and under. In addition to our staff, NYSHN is advised by 3 Youth Councils:
- The National Indigenous Young Women’s Council (NIYWC)
- National Indigenous Youth Council on HIV/AIDS (NIYCHA)
- National Native American Youth Council on HIV/AIDS (NNYC-HIV)
We work primarily on issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice and our key areas of work are:
- Culturally safe sex education
- Reclaiming rites of passage, coming of age ceremonies and traditional knowledge
- Healthy relationships and violence prevention
- Pregnancy options, youth parenting and families
- Environmental justice and environmental violence
- Harm reduction
- Two-Spirited and LGBTTIQQA advocacy and awareness
- Sexually Transmitted and Blood Borne Infections (STBBIs) and HIV/AIDS
- Youth in custody, jail, prison and the child welfare system
- Sex trade, sex industries and street economies
- Sexual self-esteem and empowerment
- Media literacy
- Youth activism and human rights
We do advocacy work, outreach & Community Mobilization. This includes offering educational workshops to community, group, school and organization. We offer teach-ins, presentations, curriculums, and resources we develop. We also work in partnerships with diverse organizations on long-term collaborative projects.
We also do media arts justice work including short films and videos, diverse arts-based responses to current issues, media campaigns, zines. We develop position statements on a range of topics and facilitate community-based participatory action research.
Join the Conversation
It is no secret that many factors negatively affect the health of Indigenous people in Canada, including poverty, racism, and the intergenerational effects of colonization, residential schools and the sixties scoop. It is in fact, extensively documented. One significant barrier to good health is the relationship between Indigenous people and communities with the health care system itself. Many Indigenous people do not trust—and therefore do not use—mainstream health care services because they have experienced and/or do not feel safe from mistreatment rooted in stereotyping and racism, among a variety of other reasons.
To work towards justice in the context of health and access to health care, we invite you to inform yourself, seeking out resources like the 2012 report Empathy, dignity, and respect: Creating cultural safety for Aboriginal people in urban health care or the 2015 report First Peoples, Second Class Treatment: The role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada as well as read the following principles and tools provided by NYSHN to guide your practice with Indigenous patients.
Principles for Practice
(a term we learned from our Māori relatives). To us this means that it is our birthright to feel safe and be our whole selves when we’re in any space(s). Indigenous nations are not all the same. We have the right to talk and share about our different cultures, spiritualities, teachings and the realities of our own communities when we talk about our bodies and that is certainly true in the context of health care and of healing practices. It also means that reclamation and restoration of this includes addressing how colonization has impacted the cultures around our bodies.
means to be given the support to make decisions for ourselves based on our own lived experiences and within the context of our different cultures and communities. It is just as important to recognize the diversity of Indigenous peoples and not lump us all into one. However it doesn’t mean always getting left alone, especially when times are difficult. It’s also about the responsibilities we have to one another, and our next generations.
Sexual and Reproductive Justice
means that we can determine our gender and sexual identities on our own terms. It means having free, prior and informed consent regarding all decisions made about our bodies. As the legacy of Indigenous and women of color community organizing has taught us, it’s about recognizing just how interrelated issues are having to do with our bodies (i.e. domestic violence and higher rates of incarceration for women) and that often we need justice before “choice” even becomes a possibility.
Media Arts Justice
means telling our own stories about our bodies and lives in ways that accurately represent us. By creating our own stories and expressing ourselves through various forms of multi-media and arts, we are able to not only push back on demeaning and/or stereotyping mainstream narratives, but also collectively create new visions.
Harm Reduction As a Way of Life
means that we, as well as our ancestors, have been keeping our communities safe and reducing harms long before the word “harm reduction” came into the English language. It’s about reducing the many harms in our lives, not limited to just substance use (ie. colonialism, racism, homophobia/transphobia, criminalization, etc) through the tools that work best for us, without stigma or judgement. We also don’t define what harm is for other people.
Being More Than “At Risk” and “Vulnerable”
means that being Indigenous or a young person is not a “risk” or “vulnerability” factor all by itself. In fact being ourselves can be empowering. What actually puts our lives “at risk” are things such as racism, colonialism and everything that derives from that, including what resources we have access to, our relationships with service providers, etc. This also includes not having access to culturally safe resources and supports.
Support Not Stigma, Support Not Shame
means that we address issues from places of support and meeting people where they are at, instead of approaches that may blame/shame people based on what happens with their bodies or for harms that may come to their lives. Stigma and shame can actually kill. This means making space for acknowledging and lifting up the many different skills people have gained from our ancestors in dealing with both the legacies and current realities of pain and trauma. This also means support instead of saving or rescuing people.
Connected to Body, Connected to Land
means what happens to the land and the environment(s) around us (good, bad and everything) also happens to our bodies and our communities. We need to talk about and work from these connections, because the land speaks through our bodies.
Resistance Is Sexy
means that responding to oppression can be done in a way that recognizes the organizing of our ancestors and Indigenous youth who are living resistance every day; and that reclaiming our bodies and restoring our cultures are part of the process. This also means resisting the over- or de-sexualization of Indigenous peoples by renaming where we find beauty in our communities and selves, on our own terms.
means that we work to create more options for justice, not just the criminal (in)justice system, by meeting people where they’re at through community-based organizing to support Indigenous peoples directly impacted by colonial and state violence. Returning to ourselves and our cultural knowledge as spaces for transforming how we respond to state forms of violence while also supporting peer-led initiatives.
Community readiness and culturally safe approaches to testing, treatment, and supports
Indigenous peoples simply do not just “not get tested”. A variety of realities and factors must be considered, including:
Language and translation services
Racism in healthcare services
Lack of culturally safe healthcare settings and services
Stigma, shame, fear and discrimination
In addition to “getting tested”, aftercare and support must be considered, including what medication, treatment and resources are realistically available to people. This also includes cultural and traditional resources as options and how different health care systems or modalities can work together in partnerships.
Indigenous peoples are often labeled as simply “at risk” or inherently “risky”. Being Indigenous is not the risk factor. What actually puts people at risk are things like racism, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and not having access to culturally safe care, treatment and supports.
It is important to actually name the risk and context, and not label Indigenous peoples as just being “risky” all by themselves. (i.e. what is the actual risk or what is causing it?) It is critical to recognize people as human first, and not blame or shame “behaviours” but instead look at systematically what is going on and what can be changed.
Change systems behaviors
There is often much reference in sexual and reproductive health mainstream campaigns on the need to change “individual” behaviors. However, what we know is individuals are not separated from what happens in systems and institutions. Instead of focusing on the “individual” behaviors, let’s focus on changing systems’ behaviors to mitigate or eradicate their potentially harmful impacts
The reality of whether testing happens or not needs to be understood in the context and realities of what’s going on in people’s lives and communities. How people are treated and access healthcare settings and services is critical, as well as what follow-up supports and resources are made available.
Assessment needs to include a realistic plan of care, treatment and support including traditional and cultural resources as options, that meets people where they are at.
Holistic care as defined by the National Indigenous Youth Council on Sexual Health and HIV (NIYSCHA)
mental health, healthy relationships, sexual health (reproductive health), emotional/spiritual health, harm reduction (inclusive of substance use, food, physical activities), other STI’s, self-care, address violence, land/environmental health (learning how the land can take care of us bodily wise; land based teachings), traditional medicines, reconnecting with our elders (intergenerational), housing, systems of “care”, means of living (including job security, trapping rights, etc)
Understanding the Realities
Supporting Indigenous people, including Indigenous youth, means not policing how we talk about the violence we experience or asking us to validate to others what violence is and how it is experienced. For example, when we are in a community where a person has recently committed suicide, or when a person discloses to us that they have experienced sexual violence, or that their mom has been murdered, we affirm that we believe their realities and stories. When hearing these stories we don’t shame people for the feelings that they have or the ways they need to take care of themselves (i.e. drinking, using drugs, cutting). The reality is that we don’t have the privilege to experience things in separate boxes. Addressing what is happening regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), doesn’t happen without also talking about land theft and how violence against MMIW is normalized because of ongoing violence to our environment. We can’t talk about violence or MMIW without talking about the extreme poverty, lack of housing, racism, and the discrimination we face. This is why we support a range of responses from nation to nation. We work from a place of self-determination, centering the voices of Indigenous people and communities. It is crucial to make our work about meeting people where they are at. This looks different for each person; it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We have to respond and cope with the tools we have as best as we can. There is no waiting on government funding.
Actions for Change
We need to continue to work on strengthening different cultural supports within our communities so Elders and knowledge keepers are better informed to support including Two-Spirit and LGBTTQQIA-identified youth and community members. Homophobia and transphobia often drive people away from their families and communities. Working to decolonize and reclaim values of acceptance and love can prevent violence in the long term, while also increasing the visibility of informal support networks and existing Two-Spirit mentors, aunties, uncles, grandparents and Elders.
Indigenous people are not just ‘partners’ in breaking the cycles of violence we face. We need to continue to lead and respond to the traumas that have been built into and on our bodies. It comes in the form of addressing the intergenerational cycles of violence that come from colonization, the exploitation of our lands, the disregard for our bodies and the desire to ‘save us’ without actually addressing any systemic forms of violence. In the future we would like to see more support for Indigenous-led responses to colonial gender-based violence, with a focus on supporting the self-determination of our bodies, territories and nations. But this isn’t about the action of individual people in the community; we need our youth, Elders, grandparents, and cross-generational mobilization to create medicines for the future.
Working with Indigenous Youth
Youth Leadership, Empowerment and Intergenerational Organizing for Future Generations
means young people are strong and need to be supported to take leadership in initiatives that have to do with us, because we are the experts about our own lives. Empowerment isn’t something we define for other people, it’s self-determined; one size does not fit all.
means that the work we do and things we talk about also needs to be happening with our Elders and grandparents. They are a part of how we work between and among different generations, in honor of our ancestors and for the health and well-being of future generations. Providing safer spaces to exchange knowledge between Elders and youth is integral to cultural growth specific to today’s realities.
means that relationship building with other Indigenous youth and nations is just as important as our relationships to the land and our bodies.
Indigenous youth leading community-based research = Part of the solution
The National Indigenous Youth Council on Sexual Health HIV & AIDS (NIYCHA) offers the following guidelines in regards to HIV, Sexually Transmitted and Blood Borne Infections (STBBI’s), Sexual Health and Harm Reduction related research: http://www.caan.ca/youth/indigenous-youth-leading-community-based-research-statement/
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