Quite a bit of the paper consists of synopses of conference presentations that appear to have been grounded more in medical humanities than in social science. (By way of example: "[The presenter] stated that 'it is time to step further into understanding all of life, including people, rocks, songs, dances, dreams, and medicines.' She closed by advising that an understanding of Aboriginal languages and its [sic] symbols will contribute to personal balance, harmony, and sustenance.").
There is, however, an interesting argument to be distilled from the somewhat flowery presentation. And it goes something like this: As Westerners, we have notions of medicine and public health that don't translate well into indigenous cultures. Native Americans categorize these concerns differently than we do. For instance, their conception of "health" may be spread across other cultural categories like wellbeing, happiness, community involvement, spiritual fulfillment and the like. As such, attempts to bring a Western public health agenda to bear on indigenous cultures are, at best, looking to put a square peg in a round hole and likely to meet with rejection. At worst they may be perceived as racist and imperialist efforts to impose Western culture on non-Western peoples. Cultural literacy, say the authors, should be defined in the indigenous culture's terms. Public health workers should attempt to discern what it means to be a successful member of the indigenous culture—what social categories a citizen of that culture should be proficient in—and tailor their messages to help indigenous people meet their own goals, which will more than likely include some concept of health and wellbeing. This respects the native culture's right to self-determination, which the authors consider to be a basic liberty, and a prerequisite for the perpetuation of a functioning community.
The authors close the paper by pointing out that, due to the relatively disjointed nature of the literature and related professional experiences concerning aboriginal health, there were few successful programs or "best practices" to point to in the field. They end with a case study of their own public health work, in which they briefly examine the cultural literacies of the Dene people of Saskatchewan.
Here are some of the more enlightening passages from the text:
The speakers presented a compelling rationale for Indigenously determined, culture-based approaches to Aboriginal literacy and health. The two most commonly recurring reasons were the unique and culturally determined ways in which Aboriginal peoples and their languages conceptualize learning, education and health; and the recognition that self-determination of language and learning are human rights. Exactly what a culture-based approach to Aboriginal literacy looks like is less clear. Instead, it becomes obvious that a culture-based approach could very well be likened to a fingerprint, specific and relevant to the individual community or program that provides the literacy service or approach to learning.
Culture-based literacy for indigenous peoples appears to be about self-determination through programs designed to cultivate elements described by the presenters, such as: self-development; understanding and applying information; healing from colonization; critical thinking; fluency in Indigenous languages and cultures; and physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. While much excellent work is being done, its scope and nature is not exactly clear, nor is the extent to which such work is connected to the aspirations of Aboriginal communities, rather than driven by mainstream policy agendas.