Follow the link below to read my Faces of U of T medicine interview/
Follow the link below to read my Faces of U of T medicine interview/
I am a Dene woman who finds it difficult to balance the study of bioethics and traditional (Indigenous) knowledge. Periodically I find myself navigating my academic program around my Dene teachings. I have been taught to look to nature for bioethical answers. It is a way of making sense of what is around me. The remedy to most ailments is found on the land, whether that remedy be medicinal or cultural. With this understanding of nature and culture, I paint a path where Indigenous knowledge and bioscientific medicine can meet.
I painted Searching for Answers in the Garden of Bioethics during a seminar course in clinical bioethics. We were studying end-of-life decision- making, with a focus on the withdrawal of care for terminally ill children. There were discussions spring-boarding from various bioethical standards of paternalism, agency, informed consent, dying with dignity, autonomy, and so on.
At that time there was a case in the news about an Indigenous child who refused chemotherapy, which eventually resulted in her death. Academic and medical experts recklessly authored harmful articles about what the parents of this dying girl should do. The majority of these experts had no understanding of Indigenous worldviews or cultures.
I am reluctant to impose my view on this specific case. There are intimacies within a family and information about this child I will never know. I explicate my painting of the withdrawal of care from a terminally ill child with the broadest of interpretation. I strive to illuminate the importance of agency, consent, and a respect for end-of-life decision-making.
As I considered conversations I had with clinicians and community members, I envisioned two doctors, one white and one red, searching for answers in the garden of bioethics. A sunset and a timer hover over the doctors, as death hovers over the terminally ill.
The baby’s feet acknowledge the heart-wrenching decision to withdraw treatment from a terminally ill child. As human beings, we naturally have an aversion to this action. If we perceive the withdrawal of care as hastening the death of a child, we cannot resist the urge to embrace a paternalistic view. This is a view that forsakes a young patient’s right to a peaceful and dignified death.
The clipboard represents consent. I see in- formed consent as a ceremony between physician and patient. There is a ceremonial process that houses the sacred observance of agency. A child can be very insightful. It is possible for her to participate in this ceremony and give informed consent.
Above the clipboard is a butterfly. This is a symbol of vitality. An Elder told me that butterflies were created to teach children to laugh and play. When the first children arrived on earth, they were cared for so lovingly that they didn’t learn how to walk. So a handful of stones were thrown in the air and they turned into butterflies. All of the children laughed and jumped up to chase after them. In contrast, chemotherapy ravages vitality. Mobility is greatly decreased, and the capacity for joy is hindered; the ability to laugh and play like a child is gone.
The butterfly also symbolizes transformation. In illness, there is the transformation from healthy to unhealthy and eventually from life to death. I painted the butterfly next to the clipboard because when an individual consents to the withdrawal of care, she knows what she is consenting to. She knows what transformation will take place.
Looking to nature, I come to the conclusion that the preservation of life at all cost is not an absolute good. There are no plants receiving chemotherapy. The syringes and medications in this painting are an eyesore. They are an intrusion into the placidity of nature. Prolonged suffering is unnatural. In this interpretation, nature is giving us an answer.
This painting is called Sharing Bioethics. It will be part of The Body Electric Exhibit at the International Conference on Residency Education hosted by The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. It is an honour to be part of such a prestigious institution. I am most happy that I am doing it in a traditional format rather than a colonial format. I am contributing to the academic discipline of medicine with a painting and not a paper. I am neither an academic nor a physician I am a Dene woman challenging the clinical/colonial gaze of the Indigenous patient with art.
The story of this painting
Sharing Bioethics came about when my Mother asked me, “Lisa what do you do? How do I explain it?” My Mother knows what bioethics is and she understands elements of my Dene culture. She is not sure how I marry the two academically. I told her I would paint her a painting so she could understand.
We all hold circles of medicine. I overlap an academic circle of medicine and a circle of Dene medicine. I am holding hands with a clinician and we sharing our circles of medicine with each other and with all who are listening. We are sharing bioethics.
On the top of the Dene circle there is a drum. I believe the drum holds all of The Dene. I feel deeply connected to my ancestors when I hear Dene drumming. The animals in this painting carry sacred teachings. There are many stories about Raven, Squirrel and Caribou. Raven, master of the sky and squirrel master of the ground. The Caribou antler represents the transfer of knowledge between generations. Each year the caribou trails deviate slightly. The old ones lead the young ones. Deviating the trails so that they will survive. Similarly we develop knowledge and navigate different trails so that we will survive. Dene law, tradition and medicine are carried in story, song and art. If you are interested in Dene stories Yamoria the Lawmaker: Stories of the Dene by Dene Elder George Blondin is a good place to start. There is a tobacco tie next to my hand. Tobacco ties have many purposes. In this painting it is an offering of thanks.
The flowers represent individual teachings that I have received in my lifetime. Each flower is unique and connected by vine, sun, strawberry, animal or medicine. Most importantly each flower is connected to the earth.
The strawberries in this painting represent my daughter Jordan. Strawberries are a woman’s medicine and the first medicine to come in the summer. Strawberry is the first word I learned in my language, the translation is little heart. Jordan is my first connection to my Dene culture, to our medicine. She is the first and most powerful medicine in my life. Jordan is my heart.
I painted a flaw into the Hawk feather that I am holding in my circle of medicine. I am very attached to that feather. It comes with me whenever I speak publicly. When I was first asked to lecture at the Faculty of Nursing a respected community member gave me this Hawk feather. She handed it to me as she said goodbye at a subway station. Such a small and powerful ceremony. Her words were short and meaningful.
This feather is to help you speak to the nurses.
It’s beautifully broken. Just like us.
These words are with me at all times, when I am teaching, when I self-doubt, when I encounter racism and most importantly when I am following my Original Instructions.
The butterflies are my best friend Sheri. Butterflies are a metaphor for transformation. Sheri was the beginning of my transformation long before I knew I was transforming. She placed me in a slow developing cocoon, finally I am emerging as a Dene woman. Butterflies also teach children to be children, to walk and laugh. Sheri was my butterfly when she taught me how to breathe through laughter. I don’t think I took a full breath until I met Sheri. She maintains my breath when we laugh. Deep belly laughing teaches us to breath.
The Sun serves as my Father Durk, slightly removed yet still connected to the vines of the flowers. My father worked very hard to provide for us sometimes it would seem like he was disconnected. He was always there providing warmth and hospitality for his family.
The most profound property of this painting belongs to what cannot be seen. There is no visible evidence of my Mother, Moira. Similarly in day-to-day life there is no visible evidence of her in me as we are not genetically connected. People do not see her in me but she is there. Mother is the beginning of all of us. The foundation that grows everything. In this painting the flowers are rooted in her soil, she is connected to the all the teachings in my life, to the animals, to my father, my daughter and to all of the medicine. As all of us would be nothing without Mother Earth I would be nothing without my Mother.
And now I am back to the beginning of the story of Sharing Bioethics. I painted this piece for my Mother. I am Sharing Bioethics with my Mother. I am singing an honour song for my Mother.
Residential School Series is tells the story of my family’s historical trauma and my path to healing through cultural reclamation. This series of digital paintings began as an essay I could not complete. When it became impossible to speak or write about the legacy of Indian Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop Creator taught me to paint. Painting is the way I honour this story. When write about this IRS history I trap grandmother when I paint she remains free.
We Come With the Medicine
In this painting we see my great-grandmother, extending her arms to take in the sacred teachings of the ancestors. She is pregnant with my grandmother and the medicine is present in her womb. Flowers, butterflies and strawberries represent the medicine in all of the paintings. Strawberries are a woman’s medicine, butterflies teach children to laugh and play and flowers remind us of the beauty and resilience in life.
Cutting Away Culture
This painting shows my grandmother in residential school. A haircut was the first step of a continual cultural separation. Cutting away hair is cutting away culture. Hair is culturally, ceremonially and medicinally relevant to many Indigenous people. In the left corner the nun is clutching a lock of hair and she holds the scissors next to her small body. The medicine is leaving grandmother’s body through her spine as she cowers in her bed. The butterflies leave because she will no longer be capable of being a child in residential school. The strawberries and flowers follow. My grandmother will forget the sacred teachings and her original instructions will be unrealized.
The Medicine Returns
The medicine returns while grandmother is crying. It hovers around her as it waits to return. The butterflies are facing her, the flowers and strawberries gently encase her. Her scars run deep and now her children have been taken to residential school. When one is continually told that her culture is inferior it is likely that she will abandon it. The medicine waits but she is unable to receive it.
Reclamation of Culture
Grandmother returns to the spirit world and reclaims her culture. Her hair has grown back. The flowers, strawberries and butterflies have returned. Grandmother’s body is robust with the medicine. She is complete and floating in a circle. This is grandmother’s reconciliation with the loss she suffered in her human life. This is how I visualize her when I pray.