Insight award: James Waldram

James Waldram

Insight award:

James Waldram

Department of Archaeology and Anthropology

University of Saskatchewan


James Waldram is an internationally renowned medical anthropologist whose scholarly work is seen as the gold standard of knowledge about Indigenous/First Nations health and healing. In fact, he is regarded as a pioneer in Aboriginal research in Canada.

His insight into the efficacy of traditional healing methods and the complex physiological, spiritual, cultural and historical factors that influence health and wellness among Aboriginal Peoples has informed Indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians alike.

Waldram’s research reaches beyond Canada’s borders. His work aims to help re-stabilize Indigenous societies around the world after centuries of what he sees as damaging, colonialist government policies affecting the health of their communities.

He seeks to provide insight into the lived experiences of those involved in contemporary forms of healing. Much of his work has been in collaboration with Indigenous peoples across Canada and in Central America—in clinics, prisons, hospitals and Indigenous communities.

As a testament to the esteem in which he is held by Indigenous peoples around the world, Waldram was invited to lead a research team by a group of traditional healers among the Maya of Belize. One result of his extensive work with Maya healers is his recent film: Healthy People, Beautiful Life: Maya Healers of Belize. It was produced under the direction of the Maya Healers’ Association of Belize, distributed widely in that country and posted on Vimeo to ensure broader access. It documents Q’eqchi’ medical knowledge and practice as it exists today, and identifies the challenges the Q’eqchi’ face in their efforts to maintain their healing and cultural traditions.

Waldram is a professor of anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan. He is the author of 14 books and 19 book chapters on Aboriginal health and healing, several of which are used in universities across North America and Australia, and more than 40 journal articles. He has also mentored many graduate students in this field of study, and has received numerous honours, including a fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship.

SSHRC’s Insight Award recognizes outstanding achievement by an individual or team whose project has made a significant contribution to knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world.

How would you describe the main focus of your work?

I am interested in understanding the therapeutic process—especially the notions of “healing” and “well-being”—in a cultural context. This includes a focus on Indigenous knowledge systems as they relate to healing, systems that continue to thrive throughout the world and offer much value to their own people, and to others willing to listen in a respectful manner. It has always been the goal of my work that those with whom I partner, or who otherwise participate in research, should also benefit from it.

Your research shows that traditional Indigenous healing practices are the best for Indigenous communities around the world. Are there any features that you think non-Indigenous communities would do well to adopt?

My research shows that traditional Indigenous healing knowledge and associated therapeutic practices remain valuable in addressing contemporary issues of health and well-being. By approaching the therapeutic process through the lens of culture, my research also reminds non-indigenous people that all therapeutic encounters are cultural events.

What research accomplishments are you most proud of to date?

I am most proud of my program of collaborative research with Q’eqchi’ Maya healers in southern Belize, a relationship spanning more than a decade and across three successive SSHRC grants. We meet several times each year to plan new phases of the research, to discuss outputs from prior work and to continue contributing to a massive dataset on traditional healing knowledge that we’ve accumulated… I seek to honour the directive of the healers with whom I work to tell the world about the valuable work that they do.

What do you most want Canadians to understand about your work?

I want Canadians to appreciate the richness and value of contemporary Indigenous knowledge. I want them to see how research funded though SSHRC and undertaken in collaboration with Indigenous peoples provides a tremendous opportunity for both Indigenous peoples and others to more fully appreciate this aspect of human intellectual achievement. I also want Canadians to know that anthropological research provides detailed, timely and extraordinarily valuable knowledge about the common issues now facing humanity.