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  • Writer's pictureShannon Waters

Visioning Beyond our Life Expectancy as Indigenous Peoples

Three moments in my life made me suddenly aware of my thoughts on the length of a lifetime. The first of these moments was in the weeks following my mother’s death at the young age of 52. I was shocked to the core by her sudden and unexpected death, attributed on autopsy to her heart. During my intense grief, I was completing my residency training in Public Health and Preventive Medicine and was learning about measures of health status such as infant mortality and life expectancy. One afternoon, I was reading about the lower life expectancy of Indigenous women in Canada compared to non-Indigenous women when I had a thought that brought me tears: “there goes my mom contributing to our lower life expectancy”. Hours later, I was struck by the absurdity of such a thought. My grief had woven itself into my learning and I was scared and angry, as I felt my mother had fulfilled a prediction.


The second moment came a number of years later when I was in a large room with First Nations chiefs from all over British Columbia for a discussion on health. A chief of Secwepemc ancestry, a Kukpi7, was speaking, and he declared strongly that he was “going to live to be 100 years old”. He stated he was “going to be there for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren as a family member, mentor and elder”. I was walking through the room and stopped in my tracks. I marveled at the daring of such a statement. This bold declaration stood in defiance of my life experience and what academia and the media tell us about our expected lifetimes as Indigenous peoples. Then I felt tears. I was grateful to this Kukpi7, for his presence, his words, and his teachings. Here was a different path to walk when reflecting on my mother’s early passing and the statistics of our collective shortened lives as Indigenous peoples. This was in alignment with elders’ teachings around “speak of the life you want to live”. I can proclaim that I will live a healthy and long life.


My teachings are that when spirit declares my “work is done” I will leave this world. This was hard to accept with the early passing of both my parents, but knowing this helped me “let them go”. At times I felt I would have achieved a feat if my life spanned beyond 52 years. However, my children would only be 12 and 18 years if I were to leave this world at that age. My daughters have helped me to look beyond my mother’s timeline, to challenge the statistics I work with, and to boldly walk in the steps of a Kukpi7 who visions a different way. Envisioning a path of longevity causes me to reflect on my daily choices and how they affect me physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Many factors influence the length of a lifetime, but respecting and caring for my being plays a role.


Every day of my life is a gift that can bring beauty, joy, challenges, or hardship. Wisdom and resilience are generated by the gifts of each day over a lifetime. The cumulative experience of a long life makes elders a treasured resource for their communities. Living a long life is not easy, but one comes to know that challenges and hardships will pass when life is viewed on a different temporal scale, amidst the web of the ancestors and the future generations.


All generations face difficult times. One challenge our generation faces is the uncertainty of what climate change will bring to our environment. Drought is one change already happening in my home territory. Learning and sharing our experiences around the world is a privilege and asset we have while facing these challenges. My third moment came while listening to an Australian researcher speak of the effects of the “millennium drought” on mental health. The negative effects on mental health from the drought were measurable, but one group had a lower risk of suicide, and that was older women. The researcher mentioned one theory about this observation: older women could see beyond the over 10 year drought and had purpose in their HOPE. These words made my heart thump and brought tears to my eyes. I saw part of my purpose in living a long life. I was going to be part of these statistics, this story, as an older woman who generated HOPE in coming times of drought in my home territory.


I do not determine the length of my lifetime, but I now strongly hold a vision and purpose for a healthy and long life. My life’s work includes bringing context and HOPE in the uncertain times ahead. I will live according to this vision, in the face of what is reported by academia and the media. I do this with the support of my ancestors and for the benefit of the future generations. I cherish each day that spirit grants me in this purpose.


Originally published December 15, 2019 on LinkedIn

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