Skip to main content

Cultural interventions to treat addictions in Indigenous populations: findings from a scoping study



Cultural interventions offer the hope and promise of healing from addictions for Indigenous people.a However, there are few published studies specifically examining the type and impact of these interventions. Positioned within the Honouring Our Strengths: Culture as Intervention project, a scoping study was conducted to describe what is known about the characteristics of culture-based programs and to examine the outcomes collected and effects of these interventions on wellness.


This review followed established methods for scoping studies, including a final stage of consultation with stakeholders. The data search and extraction were also guided by the “PICO” (Patient/population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome) method, for which we defined each element, but did not require direct comparisons between treatment and control groups. Twelve databases from the scientific literature and 13 databases from the grey literature were searched up to October 26, 2012.


The search strategy yielded 4,518 articles. Nineteen studies were included from the United States (58%) and Canada (42%), that involved residential programs (58%), and all (100%) integrated Western and culture-based treatment services. Seventeen types of cultural interventions were found, with sweat lodge ceremonies the most commonly (68%) enacted. Study samples ranged from 11 to 2,685 clients. Just over half of studies involved quasi-experimental designs (53%). Most articles (90%) measured physical wellness, with fewer (37%) examining spiritual health. Results show benefits in all areas of wellness, particularly by reducing or eliminating substance use problems in 74% of studies.


Evidence from this scoping study suggests that the culture-based interventions used in addictions treatment for Indigenous people are beneficial to help improve client functioning in all areas of wellness. There is a need for well-designed studies to address the question of best relational or contextual fit of cultural practices given a particular place, time, and population group. Addiction researchers and treatment providers are encouraged to work together to make further inroads into expanding the study of culture-based interventions from multiple perspectives and locations.


The hope and promise of healing from addictions for Indigenous people are rooted in cultural interventions. From sweat lodges [1, 2] to traditional teachings [3, 4], these regionally diverse interventions are commonly located within the context of Indigenous treatment programs and integrated into existing treatment practices [5]. They are led by individuals who are sanctioned and recognized by traditional teachers, community members, and spiritual beings to facilitate cultural activities [6, 7]. For example, in Canada, the 56 National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs and nine Youth Solvent Addiction Program treatment centres emphasize that Indigenous traditional culture is vital for client healing and wellness [8]. Both programs run under the auspices of First Nations communities and support a network of residential treatment and community prevention programs informed by Indigenous spirituality and origin stories.

Cultural interventions address wellness in a holistic sense, in contrast to Western biomedical approaches that focus on the absence of disease and imply mind-body separation in treating illness such as addictions [9, 10]. Key to understanding the benefit of culturally-focused treatment is recognizing the meaning of Indigenous wellness, which is understood as one of a harmonious relationship within the whole person, including mind, body, emotion, and spirit [1113]. Wellbeing and health emerge from a holistic worldview that emphasizes balance among one’s tradition, culture, language, and community. Szlemko et al. [10] support this notion and suggest that for treatment to be effective it is important to consider the whole person rather than only their physical or mental health.

There are few published studies (i.e., meta-analyses, literature summaries, scoping, or systematic reviews) specifically examining the type and impact of cultural interventions to treat addictions in Indigenous populations, especially with relevance to First Nations of Canada. Many reviews have focused on health education or prevention of substance use problems in Native Americans [1417]. Some have examined the treatment literature, but have focused on broad populations, such as racial and ethnic minorities [18] or young people [19]. Conversely, others have narrowed their search to specific populations of interest such as Native Hawaiians [20], Hispanic adolescents [21], African Americans [22], or Australian Aboriginals [2326]. A few reviews have focused on interventions to treat Indigenous people, but these cited interventions are not holistically or culturally-based [27, 28]. One literature review considered evidence-based practice in Native American mental health service delivery, but deliberately excluded treatments that targeted substance use [29].

Four relevant literature reviews offer some insight into cultural interventions used, outcomes measured and/or the quality of the research. An early study by Brady [30] involved a review of “comparative material” from the United States, Canada, and Australia on cultural treatments for alcohol addictions in Indigenous people. She found that studies were plagued with poor methodology and lacked clarity about what was actually involved in treatment. Abbott [31] reviewed 10 studies on traditional and Western healing practices for alcohol treatment in Indigenous populations in the United States between 1962-1996. These studies described prevalence data, and the healing practices and Western treatment interventions being implemented, yet the reviewers noted a lack of randomized control outcome studies. Another seven studies from 1970-1989, focused largely on measuring reduction in alcohol consumption, with a notable absence of measuring spiritual and mental functioning. Dell et al. [9] conducted a systematic review of articles published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry from February 1998 to June 2008, augmented with a review of Canadian and international literatures on treatment and healing of Aboriginal people for mental health and substance use-related issues. In the 12 selected articles, the authors found a significant gap in understanding and practice between Western psychiatric and Aboriginal culture-based treatment in three areas: connection with self, community, and political context. Finally, Greenfield and Venner [32] conducted a systematic review of the literature from 1965-2011 on substance use disorder treatments for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs). Results from twenty-four studies indicated that earlier ones (1968-1997) lacked cultural interventions and took the form of AI/AN counselors and language interpreters. Clinical ratings of improvement were made by treatment staff or community members. Traditional healing approaches were more prevalent in later studies (2000-2011), which also employed formal assessment measures. This shift was viewed as bringing treatment outcomes closer to the AI/ANs’ worldviews.

Although these studies appear relevant to understanding the literature about Indigenous cultural interventions, none explained how information from studies was extracted. There were no details on the screening method or whether multiple reviewers were used to enhance validity of the inclusion or extraction process. Neither Brady [30] nor Abbott [31] listed their inclusion or exclusion criteria so it is unclear exactly which criteria were used to select their studies. While both Dell et al. [9], and Greenfield and Venner [32] listed these criteria, neither focused exclusively on studies with cultural interventions. Neither Brady [30] nor Dell et al. [9] provided a table or summary of the literature reviewed, but rather weaved the information purposefully into narrative discussions to support their ideas. For example, Dell et al. [9] blended literature findings with case study stories to compare and contrast Western and Aboriginal treatment approaches. Finally, Greenfield and Venner [32] focused on historical trends, and while they considered the types of outcomes collected, they did not analyze whether these outcomes focused on different aspects of wellness.

In this article, we report on a scoping study of the literature that explores the use of cultural interventions to treat addictions in Indigenous populations. The purpose of this review is to systematically describe what is known about the characteristics of cultural programs and interventions and to examine the outcomes collected and effects of cultural interventions on wellness. Importantly, the method used for this scoping study draws on evidence described in peer-reviewed and grey literatures. The authors understand that Indigenous epistemologies and other forms of evidence offer additional, and equally important ways of understanding interventions. Our approach is grounded in the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing (Etuaptmurnk), whereby Indigenous and Western knowledges are valued and utilized to generate, understand, and find solutions [33]. Furthermore, the scoping study is positioned within the Honouring Our Strengths: Culture as Intervention project that builds on our core community-based research team’s history of collectively led projects and aims to create a valid and reliable, culturally-competent instrument to measure the effectiveness of First Nations cultures as an intervention in alcohol and other drug treatments [34].


This review followed the design of Arksey and O’Malley [35], enhanced by Levac et al. [36] and involved six stages: Stage 1: Identifying the research question, Stage 2: Identifying relevant studies, Stage 3: Selecting studies, Stage 4: Charting the data, Stage 5: Collating, summarizing and reporting results, and Stage 6: Consulting with stakeholders. The data search and extraction were guided by the “PICO” (Patient/population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome) method [37], but we did not require direct comparisons between treatment and control groups. The population included Indigenous people in treatment for problematic substance use or addictions. Cultural interventions were Indigenous spiritual and healing practices or traditions introduced into residential or outpatient treatment centres to help achieve wellness following problematic substance use or addiction. Outcomes included four dimensions of wellness: 1) Spiritual, 2) Physical- Behavioral, 3) Mind- Mental, and 4) Heart- Social and Emotional. Dimensions and their definitions were originally built on the foundational work of two papers [38, 39], and later solidified during the project by Elder Jim Dumont after conversations with Treatment Centres. Complete definitions can be found on the Honouring Our Strengths: Culture as Intervention website [34].

A librarian scientist helped to develop the PICO criteria. She ran and cross-validated the search strategy with a second librarian. Up to October 26, 2012, 12 databases indexing the scientific literature were searched. These included EBM Reviews (including The Cochrane Library), Global health library, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, Bibliography of Native North Americans, CIHAHL, Social Work Abstracts, Women’s Studies International, Anthropology Plus and Anthropological Literature, Anthropological Index, and CAB direct. Each database was searched using its earliest indexing date. Mesh Headings and free text terms applicable to the PICO criteria were applied separately, or in combinations using the Boolean operators “AND” and “OR”. Under “Population” there were 34 “Heritage or Culture” terms and 24 “Dependence” terms. There were 27 terms under “Interventions” and nine under “Outcome”. Another 13 databases were searched from the grey literature. We supplemented this search with articles identified by or through the research team, relevant websites, hand searching relevant journals, and reference lists of included studies. No restrictions were placed on language. Studies were screened by nine reviewers. An extraction form was developed and pilot-tested to collect detailed information about the background, measurement, and results of each study. Information was then entered into Word and Excel files, integrated, and summarized in display and written format.



The search strategy yielded 4,518 articles of which 19 studies, involving 5,949 treatment clients, were included in the final review. Fourteen of these were from the scientific literature and five were from the grey literature (see Figure 1). Most often studies were excluded because they were descriptive, anecdotal, or preliminary; did not report or collect outcomes; and/or did not report or include cultural interventions. Decisions about article inclusion or exclusion were resolved through consensus between pairs of reviewers or between an arbiter and a reviewer.

Figure 1
figure 1

Yield from literature search up to October 26, 2012.

Characteristics of programs and interventions

Table 1 describes each study by location, type and length of program, and interventions provided.

Table 1 Characteristics of scoping study scientific and grey literature: program descriptions


All of the 19 studies were from the United States (58%) and Canada (42%). Most studies (79%) were localized within a community or communities of one state or province, particularly California or Ontario. In some cases, clients were referred from outside the community. For example, clients at the Friendship House Association of American Indians in San Francisco were referred by Indian health programs in six other states [45]. Another program located in the Pacific Northwest, drew young clients from eight states across the Western region of the US [41, 42]. There were two national level studies. Dell and Hopkins [43] studied treatment practices and outcome data from nine Youth Solvent Addiction Program sites across Canada. Similarly, Kunic [56] evaluated the effects of a national program entitled the Aboriginal Offender Substance Abuse Program sponsored by Correctional Services Canada. Two treatment facilities served as sites for multiple studies included in this review, one located in the Pacific Northwest [41, 42] and the other based in San Francisco [45, 5053].

Type and length of treatment programs

For the most part, studies involved residential programs (58%) of varying lengths. For example, one of the shortest residential programs was described by Boyd-Ball [42] as a 7 week treatment for young, tribally enrolled substance users, involving cultural interventions and family management. In contrast, Dell and Hopkins [43] studied a 4-6 month residential program for young solvent users that combined culture-based interventions with Western-based, positive psychology programming. Other programs were community-based (21%), prison-based (11%), or offered at minimum a combination of residential and outpatient services (11%). Most focused on addiction treatment (63%), three concentrated on treatment for alcohol, and three for solvent use. Another study by D’Silva et al. [47] focused exclusively on tobacco cessation.

Interventions provided

All studies (100%) involved integrative treatment programs, meaning that the site(s) offered the client and possibly his/her family, Western-based assessment, education, counseling, treatment, and/or aftercare services alongside cultural and traditional services. For example, Boyd-Ball [41] studied the Shadow Project, an 8 week residential program in which the treatment as usual (TAU) offered Western services such as group therapy and life-skills counselling. TAU was supplemented by traditional cultural interventions, such as sweat lodge ceremonies and access to spiritual Elders. The alternate intervention included TAU plus family-enhanced involvement. More recently, Nebelkopf and Wright [51] and Wright et al. [53] applied a Holistic System of Care for Native Americans in an urban setting. This was a community-focused intervention involving Western and culturally-based prevention, treatment and recovery programs.

Seventeen different Indigenous cultural interventions were reported in the literature (see Figure 2). The number of cultural interventions ranged from 1-13 per study, with a mean of six interventions. There were eight studies with 1-5 cultural interventions; nine with 6-10; and two with 11-13. Most studies (68%) included sweat lodge ceremonies, as highlighted in Gossage et al. [46]. Also commonly reported were ceremonial practices (63%), such as sage, cedar, or sweet grass smudges [40, 52]; social cultural activities (58%), as emphasized in Naquin et al.’s therapeutic community that treats clients as family [49]; and/or traditional teachings (53%), such as classes in the “Red Road” [45]. Dancing was the least common main intervention reported in only one study, although it was sometimes incorporated within other interventions such as sweat lodge ceremonies.

Figure 2
figure 2

Number and type of cultural interventions reported in the literature.

Study samples, designs and methods

Table 2 summarizes the samples, designs, and methods of the studies included.

Table 2 Study samples, designs, and methods


Samples ranged from 11 to 2,685 clients who participated in a culture-based treatment program for problematic substance use. Most studies included both male and female participants. Two studies involved solely male clients attending a prison-based intervention program [46, 56] and one included solely female clients of Native American Health Centres [52]. Another three focused on adult clients: Two involved youth and one evaluated students. In studies that reported the average age of clients, the mean age range was from 14 to 36 years old.


Many research designs were utilized; none were true experimental designs. Just over half (53%) of studies involved quasi-experimental designs. Commonly within these designs researchers collected data from clients before treatment or at baseline and then reassessed at multiple points during or after treatment. For example, Gossage et al. [46] collected time-series survey data from 190 males enrolled in a jail-based alcohol treatment program at pretest; multiple times after sweat lodge experiences; and 3 and 9 months after release. Two other quasi-experimental studies involved a non-equivalent control group design, comparing the effectiveness of cultural and Western interventions. To illustrate, Lowe et al.’s [48] two condition design compared survey scores in years two and three from 87 students of the “Be a Winner/Drug Resistance Education” and 92 students in the traditional Cherokee Talking Circle group. Pre-experimental designs were employed by roughly a third (32%) of studies. These designs commonly assessed one group before and evaluated the same group 3, 6, or 12 months after treatment. For example, Saylors [52] used this design to survey changes in 742 females engaged in residential treatment at baseline and at 12 month follow-up. Finally, three studies (16%) used qualitative designs employing ethnographic, phenomenological, or grounded theory approaches.


A total of 16 studies used surveys; nine of these studies (56%) developed in-house surveys and seven studies (44%) incorporated a total of 14 standardized instruments to measure mostly self-reported physical and/or emotional aspects of wellness (see Table 3). Only Boyd-Ball et al. [42] reported reliability scores using test-retest scores. There were six standardized surveys identified to measure alcohol or drug use: 1) Behavioral and Symptom Identification Scale-32 (Basis-32) [55], 2) Global Assessment of Individual Needs—Quick (GAIN-Q) [48], 3) The Government Performance Results Act (GPRA) Tool [51, 53], 4) Form 90-DI: A Structured Assessment Interview for Drinking and Related Behaviors [42], 5) Alcohol Dependence Scale (ADS) [56], and 6) Drug Abuse Screening Test (DAST) [56]. The American Indian Cultural Involvement Index [42] and the Cherokee Self-Reliance Questionnaire [48] were the only instruments that were oriented to Indigenous culture.

Table 3 List and type of standardized surveys

Wellness outcomes collected and main results

Table 4 summarizes the outcomes collected and main results from the studies identified in the scoping study.

Table 4 Wellness outcomes and main results

Outcomes collected

Outcomes were collected on four main themes: Spiritual, Mental, Emotional, and Physical wellness with many positive results found in all areas. All but two articles (90%) focused on measuring physical wellness, which included five major subthemes ranging from improvement in physical health to sobriety or abstinence from alcohol, drug, or inhalant use. Emotional health was frequently collected in 74% of studies. It had nine subthemes ranging from self-esteem to non-violence or non-aggressive behaviour. Mental wellness was measured by just over half (53%) of the studies and was captured through knowledge, skills, and awareness; school achievement; and learning about Aboriginal spiritual healing. Fewer studies (37%) measured spiritual health, as identified via spiritual health practices, awareness and values; feeling connected/belonging; and traditional values practiced. Several studies (42%) focused on measuring dyad combinations of outcomes, particularly emotional and physical wellness. Just over one quarter (26%) of studies collected outcomes under all four themes.

Main results

Results provide evidence about the benefits of Indigenous cultural interventions to help improve client functioning in all areas of wellness, particularly in association with reducing or eliminating substance use problems as found in almost three quarters (74%) of studies. It is important to note, however, that only two studies based on non-equivalent control groups, directly compared and contrasted the effects of Indigenous and Western components within the same study. Lowe et al. [48] found that a Native American adolescent culturally-based intervention was significantly more effective at reducing substance use and related problems than a non-cultural-based intervention. The largest significant differences between the groups for all four major scales of the Global Assessment of Individual Needs instrument occurred at the 3 month post-intervention follow-up. In contrast, Boyd-Ball [41] found no differences between treatment as usual (which in this setting also incorporated cultural activities), and family-enhanced intervention groups, both of which had 80-100% abstinence rates over 12 months. Mixed results were identified for self-reported quality of life, which Nebelkopf and Penagos [50] suggested are specific to the population that included HIV/AIDS clients. McConnery and Dumont [57] saw no clear increase over time in all aspects of clients’ wellness; however, there were meaningful changes in emotional and physical health.


This study set out to identify and describe what is known about the types of cultural interventions used with Indigenous populations to treat addictions, along with intended outcomes and effects on wellness in this context. We examined academic literature, but suggest that not all of the relevant evidence may be found through such sources, as much of the knowledge about culture is still held in Indigenous “worldviews, languages and rituals” [59]. All studies identified were from North America, and involved community-based, residential substance use treatment programs of varying lengths. They commonly integrated Indigenous and Western modalities of healing. A wide variety of cultural interventions were identified and, on average, at least half a dozen of these were offered at any given site. There was no pattern to the mixing or blending of cultural interventions or between cultural and Western interventions, suggesting that these were intentionally site specific. The rich diversity of the intervention components makes it difficult to compare the benefits of different modalities, especially across programs and settings.

Moreover, the complex and holistic approaches often used in cultural interventions complicates efforts to isolate and study specific components [51]. For example, the Aboriginal Offender Substance Abuse Program [56] incorporated a holistic model, which blends traditional healing with contemporary practices in addictions treatment. There are four modules in the intervention spanning 65 sessions within the program. The modules are based on the four directions that are fundamental to life and are embedded within Medicine Wheel teachings and Creation Stories. Using a traditional holistic healing approach implies an interconnectedness of the physical, spiritual, mental and emotional aspects of individual wellbeing. The mutuality of these relationships means that they are inseparable from one’s sense of personal/social responsibility and identity that exists within a collective society. Consequently, the holistic interventions and approaches to healing cannot be isolated into individual units of study and are best symbolized by a series of relationships depicted by concentric circles emanating from the self and encompassing the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental aspects of wellbeing within the four directions.

In addition, given the lack of implementation analyses in these studies, it is difficult to ascertain if positive or negative outcomes from a program are attributable to the intervention, or if these are reflective of issues with implementation. For example, organizational and infrastructure challenges, as well as issues with promotion or recruitment, may all impact intervention outcomes. Furthermore, in almost all integrative programs, client participation in designated cultural activities (especially traditional ceremonies) was voluntary; thus, in the absence of careful reporting, there is no way to ascertain the degree of client involvement in these optional activities or to estimate their impact on treatment outcomes.

Given the diversity of Indigenous people (there are over 630 First Nation governments or bands in Canada alone) and the manner in which cultural interventions are intimately tied to the Indigenous groups who developed and practice them, comparability and generalization across programs and settings remains an issue. One possible resolution to this challenge is to compare cultural interventions not so much on their distinctive forms (e.g., sweat lodge vs. shaking tent) but rather on their common functions (e.g., accessing traditional spirituality, enhancing cultural identity), with integration of these components into addictions treatment framed as events within complex dynamic systems [60]. Further conceptual work along these lines may overcome the problems of comparability and generalization in this domain. Beyond this issue, there were no controlled trials, and such methods may be incongruent with cultural values. Few studies included qualitative methodologies that might enhance understanding of outcomes, although this in part might be related to the inclusion criteria priorizing measured outcomes for treatment interventions. While, there was great variability in sample size, ranging from 11 to 2,685 participants, the majority of studies included under 100 participants. It is of note that studies with low N s might be useful as they are tailored to a very specific people at a very specific time and place.

The majority of studies conducted followed up shortly after treatment ended (post-treatment, or 3 months following treatment). It is possible that longer follow-up periods were not feasible given the dynamic nature of community priorities, high turnover in the treatment field, and movement of individual members (including intervention participants) to and from the community. Exceptions to this were studies that included a one year [42, 52] or three year [51] follow-up period. It should be noted that these were residential treatment programs that had included a longer follow-up component as part of program delivery and study design. Further research is required to determine if outcomes observed in those studies with short term follow-up were sustained, and how best to maintain positive effects.

Ironically, despite the holistic and balanced nature of wellness to Indigenous people, few studies collected a holistic set of wellness outcomes. While most studies evaluated physical outcomes, such as sobriety, few studies explored spiritual outcomes such as feeling connected or having a sense of belonging. Only two studies included this as an outcome, both measuring comfort among participants in engaging in spiritual practice [57, 58]. This is likely related to challenges in defining and measuring spiritual wellness. A systematic review by Monod et al. [61] described the different constructs and aims of 35 instruments used to assess spirituality in health care research. It highlighted diversity of spirituality constructs used in instrument development resulting in heterogeneity of measures. The authors noted the limited availability of instruments especially designed to measure current spiritual state and the paucity of data on the psychometric properties of most of these instruments. Only three instruments were found to have at least 50% of items that focus on patients’ current spiritual state and concluded that of these, the FACIT-Sp [62] and The Spirituality Index of Wellbeing [63] are regarded as the best ones to measure current spiritual state. The results also showed the lack of instruments to measure spiritual distress [6163]. Clearly, more studies are required that explore meanings of spiritual wellness and that develop and test tools to capture changes in this dimension of health.

Finally, an analysis of how gender and culture interact to affect outcomes was not often addressed. While several studies did report outcomes for females and males separately [41, 42, 47, 50, 53, 57, 58], only three studies explored how gender influenced the outcomes of a particular cultural intervention. The study by Dell and colleagues [44] analyzed youths’ responses based on whether these were common to both females and males or gender-specific. Lowe and colleagues [48] discussed gender differences found in the data and the potential implications of this for substance use treatment programs. Finally, Naquin et al. [49] critiqued the lack of focus within the project on gender-specific characteristics and the implications for treatment. More studies are required that make the intersection of gender and culture and their influence on substance use and treatment outcomes explicit in the intervention design and analysis.

In summary, we found an array of Indigenous cultural interventions integrated within substance addiction treatment programs or as standalone interventions. These interventions addressed wellness in one or more of the four dimensions of wellbeing: Spirit, Physical- Behavioral, Mind- Mental, and Heart- Social and Emotional [34, 38, 39]. The measurement of outcomes of these interventions varied widely, yet these diverse approaches to measurement and the recognition of their cultural contexts together with other forms of evidence will serve to inform the work of the Honouring Our Strengths: Culture as Intervention project [34]. That project has the explicit aim to develop culturally-based instruments to meaningfully measure wellness arising from participation in cultural interventions offered in the context of addictions treatment for Indigenous people.

Future directions

This scoping study has identified a corpus of research on the assessment of outcomes associated with traditional cultural interventions in the context of addiction treatment for Indigenous people. Given the common assertion in many Indigenous communities that “our culture is our treatment” [64, 65], it is indeed promising that evaluation of this claim has commenced. It is important to recognize, however, that additional research is required to inform the postulated causal relationships between local cultural (or culturally-modified) interventions and treatment outcomes. In this respect, we offer five recommendations for future inquiry in this field.

First, given that most of the identified studies involve integrative treatment approaches, future investigators could more clearly describe the Indigenous cultural components of the programs under study, including details surrounding whether, how, and how often treatment clients participated in these throughout the study. Second, given that most of the identified studies used a wide range of outcome measures, future investigators could adopt measures representing three broad classes of outcome indicators, including standard assessments of substance use over time, surveys of Indigenous community-designated indicators of wellness or recovery, and qualitative perspectives on outcomes through the lens of the diverse people involved in treatment. Third, it will be important in future studies to more adequately describe and analyze how gender, age and other social determinants of health affect wellness outcomes.

Fourth, given that many of the identified studies did not involve a comparison group, future investigators, working in partnership with Indigenous communities, could ensure that outcomes are assessed under controlled conditions to ensure more robust evidence of treatment efficacy. Since most interventions of this nature are introduced at a community rather than at an individual level, additive, lagged time, or other non-randomized designs are most appealing. For example, a stepped wedge design may be considered in which all communities receive the intervention, but are randomized to receive them early or later. Finally, given that most of the identified studies involve a range of Indigenous cultural practices, future investigators could develop a taxonomy of such practices based on function rather than form to assist both with interpretation of findings from and adaptation of practices to diverse Indigenous communities (see Hawe et al. [60] for this type of recasting of the concept of intervention fidelity).


Culturally-based substance treatment efforts for Indigenous people are diverse, drawing on a variety of Indigenous practices and traditions that circulated between and among distinctive Indigenous communities before the arrival of European settlers. These have been adopted and adapted by modern Indigenous communities for contemporary use alongside Western approaches and are purposively designed to be place-, person-, and time-specific to maximize their potential effectiveness. The evidence identified in this scoping study suggests that culturally-based interventions may be effective at improving functioning in all areas of wellness for Indigenous people in treatment for substance use problems and addictions.

On a practical level, the findings from this study may be useful to all treatment centres serving Indigenous people. Case managers and clinicians are encouraged to advocate for access to culture-based approaches in their work with Indigenous clients, should those clients desire such offerings. Working with management, organizational, and provincial decision-makers to support pathways for service delivery that includes access to culture-based services is essential in meeting the needs of Indigenous clients. This can be facilitated through careful collaboration with practitioners of culture-based approaches, and through partnership with Indigenous communities. Additionally, measuring outcomes must carefully consider appropriate cultural and contextual aspects of wellness and include key outcomes identified as important to Indigenous clients and communities seeking services.

The findings from this review are being used to inform a national study on the implementation and measurement of cultural interventions that support wellness in treatment centres serving Indigenous people in Canada. There is a need to develop valid and reliable culturally-based instruments or methods to meaningfully measure Indigenous wellness. Addiction researchers, treatment providers, and cultural knowledge holders are encouraged to work together to make further inroads into expanding the study of culturally-based interventions from multiple perspectives and locations, including sex/gender-based analysis. Finally, the authors found that the use of a Two-Eyed Seeing approach [33] which honors the strengths of both Indigenous and Western knowledges was useful for understanding and seeing the potential of the often integrated approaches used by treatment centres, and for co-learning by the research team.


aIn Canada, Indigenous aligns with the cultural names of First Nations, for example, Anishinabe or Haudenosaunee. Both mean people of the earth with meaning based in Creation stories that connect First Nations people to land, language, and nationhood. The United Nations [66] defines “Indigenous” as people who:

  • Self-identify as Indigenous and are recognized and accepted by their community as a member

  • Form non-dominant groups of society

  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive people and communities

  • Demonstrate:

    • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies

    • Strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources

    • Distinct social, economic or political systems

    • Distinct languages, cultures and beliefs.


  1. Schiff JW, Moore K: The impact of the sweat lodge ceremony on dimensions of well-being. Am Indian Alsk Native Ment Health Res. 2006, 13: 48-69.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Schiff JW, Pelech W: The sweat lodge ceremony for spiritual healing. J Relig Spiritual Soc Work Soc Thought. 2007, 26: 71-93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. McCabe G: Mind, body, emotions and spirit: reaching to the ancestors for healing. Couns Psychol Q. 2008, 21: 143-152.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Stone RAT, Whitbeck LB, Chen X, Johnson K, Olson DM: Traditional practices, traditional spirituality, and alcohol cessation among American Indians. J Stud Alcohol. 2006, 67: 236-244.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. French LA: Alcohol and other drug addictions among Native Americans. Alcohol Treat Q. 2004, 22: 81-91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Moore D, Coyhis D: The multicultural Wellbriety peer recovery support program: two decades of community-based recovery. Alcohol Treat Q. 2010, 28: 273-292.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Walls ML, Johnson KD, Whitbeck LB, Hoyt DR: Mental health and substance abuse services preferences among American Indian people of the northern Midwest. Community Ment Health J. 2006, 42: 521-535.

    Article  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP)/National Youth Solvent Abuse Program (NYSAP) Treatment Centre Directory.,

  9. Dell CA, Seguin M, Hopkins C, Tempier R, Mehl-Madrona L, Dell D, Duncan R, Mosier K: From benzos to berries: treatment offered at an Aboriginal youth solvent abuse treatment centre relays the importance of culture. Can J Psychiatry. 2011, 56: 75-83.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Szlemko WJ, Wood JW, Thurman PJ: Native Americans and alcohol: past, present, and future. J Gen Psychol. 2006, 133: 435-451.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Hill DM: Traditional Medicine in Contemporary Contexts: Protecting and Respecting Indigenous Knowledge and Medicine. 2003, Ottawa: National Aboriginal Health Organization

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hill DM: Traditional medicine and restoration of wellness strategies. J Aboriginal Health. 2009, 5: 26-42.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Stewart S: Indigenous helping and healing in counselor training. Centre Native Pol Res Mon. 2007, 2: 53-65.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Hawkins EH, Cummins LH, Marlatt GA: Preventing substance abuse in American Indian and Alaska Native youth: promising strategies for healthier communities. Psychol Bull. 2004, 130: 304-323.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Foxcroft D, Ireland D, Lowe G, Breen R: Primary prevention of alcohol misuse in young people. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002, 3: CD003024-

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Carson KV, Brinn MP, Labiszewski NA, Peters M, Chang AB, Veale A, Esterman AJ, Smith BJ: Interventions for tobacco use prevention in Indigenous youth. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012, 8: CD009325-

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Ringwalt C, Bliss K: The cultural tailoring of a substance use prevention curriculum for American Indian youth. J Drug Educ. 2006, 36: 159-177.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Beach MC, Gary TL, Price EG, Robinson K, Gozu A, Palacio A, Smarth C, Jenckes M, Feuerstein C, Bass EB, Powe NR, Cooper LA: Improving health care quality for racial/ethnic minorities: a systematic review of the best evidence regarding provider and organization interventions. BMC Public Health. 2006, 6: 104-114.

    Article  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. Gates S, McCambridge J, Smith LA, Foxcroft D: Interventions for prevention of drug use by young people delivered in non-school settings. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006, 1: CD005030-

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Edwards C, Giroux D, Okamoto SK: A review of the literature on Native Hawaiian youth and drug use: implications for research and practice. J Ethn Subst Abuse. 2010, 9: 153-172.

    Article  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Szapocznik J, Lopez B, Prado G, Schwartz SJ, Pantin H: Outpatient drug abuse treatment for Hispanic adolescents. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2006, 84 (Suppl 1): S54-S63.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. Webb MS: Treating tobacco dependence among African Americans: a meta-analytic review. Health Psychol. 2008, 27 (Suppl 3): S271-S282.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. MacLean SJ, d'Abbs PH: Petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities: a review of interventions. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2002, 21: 65-72.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Ivers RG: A review of tobacco interventions for Indigenous Australians. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2003, 27: 294-299.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. Taylor K, Thompson S, Davis R: Delivering culturally appropriate residential rehabilitation for urban Indigenous Australians: a review of the challenges and opportunities. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2010, 34 (Suppl 1): S36-S40.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Clifford A, Pulver LJ, Richmond R, Shakeshaft A, Ivers R: Smoking, nutrition, alcohol and physical activity interventions targeting Indigenous Australians: rigorous evaluations and new directions needed. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2011, 35: 38-46.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Bryant J, Bonevski B, Paul C, McElduff P, Attia J: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effectiveness of behavioural smoking cessation interventions in selected disadvantaged groups. Addiction. 2011, 106: 1568-1585.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Lu L, Liu Y, Zhu W, Shi J, Liu Y, Ling W, Kosten TR: Traditional medicine in the treatment of drug addiction. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2009, 35: 1-11.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. Gone JP, Alcántara C: Identifying effective mental health interventions for American Indians and Alaska Natives: a review of the literature. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 2007, 13: 356-363.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. Brady M: Culture in treatment, culture as treatment. A critical appraisal of developments in addictions programs for Indigenous North Americans and Australians. Soc Sci Med. 1995, 41: 1487-1498.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Abbott PJ: Traditional and western healing practices for alcoholism in American Indians and Alaska Natives. Subst Use Misuse. 1998, 33: 2605-2646.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. Greenfield BL, Venner KL: Review of substance use disorder treatment research in Indian country: future directions to strive toward health equity. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2012, 38: 483-492.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  33. Iwama M, Marshall M, Marshall A, Bartlett C: Two-eyed seeing and the language of healing in community-based research. Can J Native Educ. 2009, 32: 3-23.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Dell CA: Honouring Our Strengths: Culture as Intervention in Addictions Treatment.,

  35. Arksey H, O'Malley L: Scoping studies: towards a methodological framework. Int J Soc Res Meth. 2005, 8: 19-32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Levac D, Colquhoun H, O’Brien KK: Scoping studies: advancing the methodology. Implement Sci. 2010, 5: 59-67.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Cooke A, Smith D, Booth A: Beyond PICO: the SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qual Health Res. 2012, 22: 1435-1443.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. Hopkins C, Dumont J: Cultural healing practice within National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program/Youth Solvent Addiction Program services. 2010, Canada: National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program

    Google Scholar 

  39. Hopkins C, Dumont J, Deleary M, Virgil T: Phase I: Culture as Intervention Research. 2012, Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan

    Google Scholar 

  40. Anderson EN: A healing place: ethnographic notes on a treatment center. Alcohol Treat Q. 1992, 9: 1-21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Boyd-Ball AJ: A culturally responsive, family-enhanced intervention model. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2003, 27: 1356-1360.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  42. Boyd-Ball AJ, Dishion TJ, Myers MW, Light J: Predicting American Indian adolescent substance use trajectories following inpatient treatment. J Ethn Subst Abuse. 2011, 10: 181-201.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  43. Dell D, Hopkins C: Residential volatile substance misuse treatment for Indigenous youth in Canada. Subst Use Misuse. 2011, 46: 107-113.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  44. Dell CA, Chalmers D, Bresette N, Swain S, Rankin D, Hopkins C: A healing space: the experiences of first nations and Inuit youth with equine-assisted learning (EAL). Child Youth Care Forum. 2011, 40: 319-336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Edwards Y: Cultural connection and transformation: substance abuse treatment at Friendship House. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2003, 35: 53-58.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  46. Gossage JP, Barton L, Foster L, Etsitty L, LoneTree C, Leonard C, May PA: Sweat lodge ceremonies for jail-based treatment. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2003, 35: 33-42.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. D’Silva J, Schillo BA, Sandman NR, Leonard TL, Boyle RG: Evaluation of a tailored approach for tobacco dependence treatment for American Indians. Am J Health Promot. 2011, 25 (Suppl5): S66-S69.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. Lowe J, Liang H, Riggs C, Henson J: Community partnership to affect substance abuse among Native American adolescents. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2012, 38: 450-455.

    Article  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Naquin V, Trojan J, O’Neil G, Manson SM: The Therapeutic Village of Care: an Alaskan Native alcohol treatment model. Ther Communities. 2006, 27: 107-123.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Nebelkopf E, Penagos M: Holistic Native Network: integrated HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and mental health services for Native Americans in San Francisco. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2005, 37: 257-264.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  51. Nebelkopf E, Wright S: Holistic system of care: a ten-year perspective. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2011, 43: 302-308.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. Saylors K: The women's circle comes full circle. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2003, 35: 59-62.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  53. Wright S, Nebelkopf E, King J, Maas M, Patel C, Samuel S: Holistic system of care: evidence of effectiveness. Subst Use Misuse. 2011, 46: 1420-1430.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  54. Bressette N: NNDAP and YSAP Impact Study Pilot Project. 2010, Nimkee NupiGawagan: Healing Centre Inc

    Google Scholar 

  55. D’Hondt J: Aboriginal community engagement at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: Developing partnerships in a residential substance abuse treatment cycle. Toronto, Ontario: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

  56. Kunic D, Varis DD: The Aboriginal Offender Substance Abuse Program (AOSAP): Examining the Effects of Successful Completion on Post-release Outcomes. 2009, Ottawa: Correctional Service of Canada

    Google Scholar 

  57. McConnery J, Dumont P: Report on Impact Study Pilot Project. 2010, Maniwaki, Quebec: Wanaki Center

    Google Scholar 

  58. Tsow Tun Le Lum Society: NNADAP and YSAP Impact Study Pilot Projection.

  59. Henderson JY: First Nations legal inheritances in Canada: the Mikmaq model. Man LJ. 1995, 23: 1-31.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Hawe P, Shiell A, Riley T: Theorising interventions as events in systems. Am J Community Psychol. 2009, 43: 267-276.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  61. Monod S, Brennan M, Rochat E, Martin E, Rochat S, Büla CJ: Instruments measuring spirituality in clinical research: a systematic review. J Gen Intern Med. 2011, 26: 1345-1357.

    Article  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. Brady MJ, Peterman AH, Fitchett G, Mo M, Cella D: A case for including spirituality in quality of life measurement in oncology. Psychooncology. 1999, 8: 417-428.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  63. Daaleman TP, Frey BB, Wallace D, Studenski SA: The spirituality index of well-being: development and testing of a new measure. J Fam Pract. 2002, 51: 952-959.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  64. Gone JP: Redressing first nations historical trauma: theorizing mechanisms for Indigenous culture as mental health treatment. Transcult Psychiatr. 2013, 50: 683-706.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Gone JP, Calf Looking PE: American Indian culture as substance abuse treatment: pursuing evidence for a local intervention. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2011, 43: 291-296.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  66. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.,

Download references


This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [funding reference number AHI – 120535]. Our work was inspired by the devotion of Elder Jim Dumont and our Treatment Centre project partners to walk with First Nations’ people on the path to wellness guided by cultural interventions. We gratefully acknowledge the work of Jessie McGowan, PhD, our expert librarian, with whom we collaborated on the development of the search strategy and identification of relevant articles and reports for the review. We most appreciatively thank Mike Martin, Randy Duncan, Barbara Fornssler, Roisin Unsworth and Natalie Hemsing for their assistance in screening and/or extracting articles and reports.

Members of the Honouring Our Strengths: Indigenous Culture as Intervention Research Team include: Nominated Principal Investigator: Colleen Dell (University of Saskatchewan); Co-PI: Peter Menzies (Independent. Formerly; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Carol Hopkins (National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation), Jennifer Robinson (Assembly of First Nations. Former designate; Jonathan Thompson); Co-Applicants: Sharon Acoose (First Nations University of Canada), Peter Butt (University of Saskatchewan), Elder Jim Dumont (Nimkee NupiGawagan Healing Centre), Marwa Farag (University of Saskatchewan), Joseph P. Gone (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor), Christopher Mushquash (Lakehead University), Rod McCormick (Thompson Rivers University. Formerly; University of British Columbia), David Mykota (University of Saskatchewan), Nancy Poole (BC Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health), Bev Shea (University of Ottawa), Virgil Tobias (Nimkee NupiGawagan Healing Centre); Knowledge Users: Kasi McMicking (Health Canada), Mike Martin (National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation), Mary Deleary (Independent. Formerly; Nimkee NupiGawagan Healing Centre), Brian Rush (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Renee Linklater (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Sarah Steves (Health Canada. Former designate; Darcy Stoneadge); Collaborators (Treatment Centres): Willie Alphonse (Nengayni Wellness Centre), Ed Azure (Nelson House Medicine Lodge), Christina Brazzoni (Carrier Sekani Family Services), Virgil Tobias (Nimkee NupiGawagan Healing Centre. Former Designate; Mary Deleary), Patrick Dumont (Wanaki Centre), Cindy Ginnish (Rising Sun), Hilary Harper (Ekweskeet Healing Lodge. Acting Director; Yvonne Howse), Yvonne Rigsby-Jones (Tsow-Tun Le Lum), Ernest Sauve (White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre), Zelda Quewezance (Saulteaux Healing and Wellness Centre), Iris Allen (Charles J. Andrew Youth Treatment Centre), Rolanda Manitowabi (Ngwaagan Gamig Recovery Centre Inc./Rainbow Lodge); Collaborators (Leadership): Chief Austin Bear (National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation), Debra Dell (Youth Solvent Addiction Committee), Val Desjarlais (National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation. Former Designate; Janice Nicotine), Rob Eves (Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Former Designate; Rita Notarandrea), Elder Campbell Papequash (Saskatchewan Team for Research and Evaluation of Addictions Treatment and Mental Health Services Advisor); Contractors (methodology): Elder Jim Dumont (Nimkee NupiGawagan Healing Centre), Randy Duncan (University of Saskatchewan), Carina Fiedeldey-Van Dijk (ePsy Consultancy), Laura Hall (University of Saskatchewan); Margo Rowan (University of Saskatchewan); Management: Barbara Fornssler (University of Saskatchewan. Former designate; Michelle Kushniruk).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Colleen Dell.

Additional information

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

BS helped design the study, participated in screening articles and helped to critically assess the paper. CD and CH conceived of the Honouring Our Strengths: Culture as Intervention project, participated in screening articles, and helped to critically review the paper. LH, CM, DM, JPG helped to screen articles, draft the manuscript and to revise the paper. MF participated in screening articles and organizing the references. MR helped design the study; acquired, organized and screened the articles; integrated the findings into tables and figures; led the writing of the manuscript and its revisions. NP conceived of the scoping study, participated in screening articles, helped draft the manuscript and to revise the paper. All authors are provided final approval of the version to be published.

Authors’ original submitted files for images

Below are the links to the authors’ original submitted files for images.

Authors’ original file for figure 1

Authors’ original file for figure 2

Rights and permissions

Open Access  This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made.

The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

To view a copy of this licence, visit

The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rowan, M., Poole, N., Shea, B. et al. Cultural interventions to treat addictions in Indigenous populations: findings from a scoping study. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 9, 34 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: