What does it mean to heal? Common definitions refer to healing as restoring one’s health and making them well again. But how? How does one go about the process of healing? Western medicine focuses on a biomedical approach, which generally looks for one treatment that is beneficial for the largest number of individuals with a particular disease. I lived the first twenty years of my life with this Western worldview, seeing, believing, and personally experiencing this approach to healing. As a young child, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which meant many trips to the doctor’s office, many tests, and trying many treatments, all of which had been unsuccessful.
I had no reasons to question the suitability of treatments and consider alternative approaches to healing. However, it was during my third year of university that two things happened: I began volunteering with a physician at my local hospital in Thunder Bay, and I began learning from an Indigenous healer from my community to honor my Metis-Ojibwe heritage. Learning more about my culture taught me new ways to perceive healing traditions throughout the world, which were relevant not only to other humans, but also to myself. And through volunteering at the hospital, along with my personal experience with the Canadian healthcare system, I felt that there was a huge disconnect between the biomedical model of healing used in the Western medicine and the traditional healing used in my culture.
Unlike the Western biomedical approach to healing, which focuses on evidence-based treatments (e.g., medication, surgery, infusions, and other types of therapies), traditional practices focus on a holistic approach to healing. One of my first lessons with the Indigenous healer focused on this aspect. She had told me that Indigenous teachings are about a way of life and that healing and teaching are parallel streams. Specifically, Indigenous healing is rooted in understanding the interconnectedness of all Creation and respects “Shkaakaamikwe” or Mother Earth as the first teacher. In all of Creation, there are four parts to everything natural. Consider trees, for example. They consist of roots, branches, trunk, and leaves. While each of these parts has different functions, they are all connected and require balance to remain whole and healthy. Like Creation, there are also four parts of who we are as humans: our mind, body, spirit, and emotion. These parts are also interconnected, despite also having different roles. When one of these parts is imbalanced, the others are affected as well, and because of the disruption of balance, we become sick. Traditional healing focuses on restoring balance to the community within our mind (our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of ourselves). It also extends to finding balance and harmony among the many relationships in Creation, such as with other people, plants and animals. Healers focus on the entire person and how to restore balance and harmony rather than just treating the disease as is done in Western medicine.
This past summer, my Teacher and Healer explained that Ojibwe culture has great respect for plants. She explained that each plant has its’ own spirit, and Healers are taught by their Elders how to listen to the plant’s spirit, as each spirit will guide the Healer on how to use the plant to heal each person. One day we went harvesting for one of the four sacred medicinal plants, cedar. We drove around Thunder Bay to a place called Centennial Park, where hundreds of cedar trees grow. The Healer had given me some tobacco, explaining that tobacco is offered when harvesting for plants to acknowledge the spirit of the plant. I offered tobacco at the base of the cedar tree, with my left hand as that hand is closest to the heart, and said a prayer, thanking Creation and Mother Earth for providing me with this medicine. Cedar can be harvested all year round, and to harvest cedar, a small piece is cut off from a branch. We brought this piece back home and spread out the cedar to dry. Cedar, along with many native plants to Northwestern Ontario, has many uses. It can be boiled in water as a tea to treat chest congestion, colds, and fevers. It can also be boiled in bath water for relaxation and to treat shingles. Or, cedar oil can be extracted from the wood, branches, and seedlings to be used as a moisturizer or to purify the air. Cedar is also used for smudging and in ceremonies to promote honesty and serve as a form of protection. For this ceremony, cedar branches are placed on the floor of a sweat lodge during ceremonies for protection. When placed in a fire with tobacco, the cedar crackles. This sound is said to call the attention of spirits when an offering is being made.
Image: Cedars in Centennial Park
It is not just cedar that has medicinal and spiritual properties, hundreds of native plants found throughout Canada possess such attributes. For example, Tamarack extract in boiled water can be used as a blood detoxifier and to increase blood circulation. Or the branches can be harvested to use as a red dye. Another example is the small yellow flower, buttercup. It can be harvested to treat arthritis and rheumatism. Even lily pads have medicinal properties. I learned they have been used in the past to treat various cancers and liver problems.
The use of medicinal plants in healing is therefore a time-honored cultural practice of Indigenous people observed in ceremonies, prayer, and medicine. Their use in ceremonies and prayers enacts the power of the spiritual realm that elicits the Creator’s intervention in healing. While Western medicine has greatly improved the physical health of people, it focuses solely on the physical illness and often excludes the spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects of ourselves. Because of this, I feel Traditional medicine has much to offer our modern healthcare system. It teaches us that there is more to human health than just the physical realm. It teaches us that Mother Earth, our first teacher, has provided us with the tools necessary to administer holistic, patient-centered healthcare: to heal physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
About the Author
Catriona Downie received her undergraduate degree in Psychology: Brain and Cognition at the University of Guelph. She has always been passionate about helping those in her community and advocating for environmental sustainability. She is currently working as an environmental student up north in Red Lake and is also taking part in a research project with a pediatrician at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. She is hoping to one day become a doctor and live on a farm with many animals and plants.