Unsettled minds: reframing health and wellbeing in contemporary indigenous literatures
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date22/03/2023
This thesis explores representations of health and wellbeing in Indigenous literature published between 1990 and 2019. With an awareness of how discourses of “healing” have been instrumentalised by settler colonial institutions in the twenty-first century, my work foregrounds the complexity, multiplicity, and agency with which states of health are depicted. Bringing the critical medical humanities and Indigenous studies into closer relation, I ask what can be gained by the analysis of Indigenous narratives of health within local cultural contexts and, consequently, what paradigms might be included within the critical medical humanities. I advance a trans-Indigenous methodology of “reframing”: reading Indigenous texts through culturally specific medical frameworks to combine current theoretical positions within Indigenous health policy and Indigenous literary criticism. Using holistic models of health – the Medicine Wheel, Te Whare Tapa Whā, and the Social and Emotional Wellbeing Framework – which incorporate relationships with Indigenous lands, communities, spiritualities, and languages, is crucial when understanding how Indigenous writers represent wellbeing. Considering texts through these frameworks reveals how they combine literary aesthetics with the cultural specificities of various Indigenous peoples, and how they are contextualised within larger structures of settler colonial histories and neoliberal health systems. This thesis analyses novels by seven Indigenous writers from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Chapter 1 introduces the three models of health with corresponding readings of novels by Thomas King, Witi Ihimaera, and Tara June Winch. Chapter 2 addresses the intergenerational aspects of Indigenous wellbeing through Indian residential school and Stolen Generations narratives by Robert Arthur Alexie and Alexis Wright, contextualised by the politicisation of “healing” in reconciliation discourse. Chapter 3 considers how the critical medical humanities might mitigate further pathologisation, drawing lessons from the literary revisions of the windigo figure by Louise Erdrich and Alan Duff’s depictions of whakamā. Chapter 4 analyses Indigenous speculative fiction, by Erdrich and Wright, that reimagines current health policies. Prompted by these literary “health futures”, I propose areas that would benefit from further collaboration between the critical medical humanities and Indigenous studies: biocolonialism, reproductive health, and environmental (or non-human) health. I conclude with accompanying reflections on the significance of completing this research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, this thesis contributes to the “critical turn” of the medical humanities – its recognition of the situatedness of medical culture, its fundamental critique of cultural pathologisation, and its navigation of cross-cultural scholarship – by presenting the possibilities and challenges that arise when engaging with Indigenous literary representations of health.