Science likes to think that it’s discovering a whole lot of novel new compounds when they’ve been here for thousands of years, and they’ve been used by indigenous people for millennia (Jazmin Romaniuk M.Sc., Phytochemist, Ethnobotanist, Traditional Healer)
Walking into Blue Sky Community Healing Centre in Thunder Bay, Ontario was an experience that stimulated my mind, while in silence strengthened my body and understanding of life. Having grown up surrounded by the boreal forest and First Nations cultural ceremonies and art of Thunder Bay, I was curious to see how plants native to this area were used traditionally by First Nations groups. It was through this curiosity that I approached Jazmin Romaniuk a traditional healer …Very quickly into our conversation it became evident that the story that needed to be told was not so much about plants, but about wisdom. Emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical well-being are the four aspects by which many First Nations groups in Ontario live. Emotion, as the movement of life, is what ethnobotanist Jazmin Romaniuk cultivates in her day to day work as a traditional healer, employing medicinal plants offered by the land to do so.
In our modern world, so easily is spirituality lost, emotion denied, and mental and physical discomfort prescribed without consideration of one another. Indigenous knowledge in Ontario incorporates a holistic and collective orientation towards life. Humans are not separate from the environment, but are rather one part of the whole. From this perspective the land has powers, and “when the environment is sick, we are sick” (Jazmin Romaniuk). All of these relations compose the Medicine Wheel; a visual symbol of a circle divided into four quadrants. Each section of the circle can be associated with plants, animals, seasons, states of being, to name a few, depending on the First Nation community. The holistic vantage is the shared outlook, and is indispensable to the benefits these communities are able to offer in conjunction with medicinal plants.
The land itself has powers to heal. The land itself, you interacting with the land, because you’re not separate from your environment. If you’re separate from your environment then you’re separating your parts and you’re missing everything else. So if you just go out into the land and you ask, it’ll happen (Jazmin Romaniuk)
The theme incorporating this continuity and interconnectedness epitomizes the role of plants in our lives. If we visualize a medicine wheel composed of emotion, spiritual, physical and mental elements, and recognize the endless nature of their connectivity, then we can acknowledge that effectively healing emotion will lead to the amelioration of the remaining aspects of the circle. There are four plants sacred to First Nation cultures: tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana), and the eastern white cedar tree (Thuja occidentalis). Science separates these plants into their active metabolites to unearth the compounds responsible for their health benefits. However, indigenous knowledge accredits a plant’s value to its synergistic effects; this is the life that makes a plant sacred.
Tobacco plants are respected as a gift from Creator, the smoke symbolizing the pathway to the spirit world, carrying thoughts, feelings and prayers. As a member of the Solanaceae family, tobacco plant leaves contain nicotine – a powerful alkaline, volatile oil, and stimulant. Blood rich in nicotine stimulates the release of chemical messengers in the brain; dopamine, among others, instills calmness, focus, and enhanced pleasure. Substance abuse associated with nicotine in modern day health fields undermines some of the plant’s potential for positive impacts on human health, and highlights opportunities in using biosynthetic information to reduce tobacco’s harmful effects.
In traditional uses by First Nations people, tobacco is generally not smoked except during certain ceremonial occasions. Cultivated tobacco plants are cut and placed on sticks to dry out in the field. As likely the earliest form of agriculture in North America, it has been employed for thousands of years in sweat lodges as medicine for deep cleansing ceremonies. The chemical constituents present in leaves are only one part of tobacco’s holistic contributions to life, a theme common to sweetgrass, white sage, and cedar as well; the medicine lies not in the plant’s use, but in the manner in which it is used.
For some reason people can’t hear themselves, they can’t hear the trends of their healing or of their sickness, or whatever is helping them or hindering them (Jazmin Romaniuk)
Purification and protection are the spiritual offerings of the sweetgrass plant. As the “hair of mother earth”, the grass is braided to unite body, mind and spirit. Coumarin represents about 25% of the essential oil in this plant, and possesses anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antiallergenic, and antioxidant properties, among others. For thousands of years prior, the benefits of sweetgrass were just as well recognized and used after childbirth to stop vaginal bleeding. Another plant tasked in slowing bleeding is sage, the next of the four sacred medicinal plants of First Nations groups.
Often used in smudging, white sage is said to remove negative energy and evil spirits. Woman’s sage is white sage cultivated once it’s gone to seed, and is smudged during a woman’s moon time, or menstrual cycle. Camphor is a plant chemical used to defend plants from predators, and is responsible for sage’s uses in diminishing menstrual cramps, mouth inflammation, respiratory ailments, and memory loss. Thujone is another chemical component of sage used more recently to treat diabetes and cancer. Both camphor and thujone are synthesized by plants in response to biotic and abiotic stresses and belong to a large group of plant derived chemicals called secondary plant metabolites. Over the years, secondary metabolites produced by plants have contributed towards the therapeutic efficacy of medicinal plants and preparations including Vicks VapoRub which is mainly composed of camphor (camphor is responsible for the thermosensation offered by this product to treat common colds,aches or pains).
While white sage is used to dispel unwanted energies, the eastern white cedar tree is used to attract positive feelings and emotions. High quantities of vitamin C is used to ward off pathogens and bacterial attacks in the tree, and can be used for our own benefit as well. First Nations groups throughout Ontario used the leaves to prevent scurvy; depleted supplies of the antioxidant in the human body are common in the winter months, and cedar provided the means for replenishment.
Traditional medicinal plants are becoming more popular, and more accessible in pharmacies. Foraging guides produced by Ontario Nature, and First Nations Health Programs arising in local health centres support this trend. The importance of belief and traditional ideology associated with medicinal plants, however, is more often lost.
How can you say that the effect of this plant is due to this one compound when there are these synergistic effects of all of this medicine inside that plant (Jazmin Romaniuk)
The way I’ve been taught throughout my life follows a consistent pattern of separating the parts. Breaking down a problem to determine the solution; dividing a word to arrive at its meaning. For comprehension, the benefits to this approach are present, but life is large and its parts are small. It doesn’t make sense to break down life into its small components when it’s so great as an incorporation of all it represents. Human health, at the core of life, is not solely comprised of physical considerations; the Medicine Wheel acknowledges this reality and incorporates medicine through the tools Earth provides. Medicinal plants are respected as life, and thanked for their offerings: there’s always an exchange, and life’s paths are always revolving, as should science.
Without consideration of past experiments in scientific communities, hypotheses would be repeated and advancement slowed. With all the knowledge indigenous cultures have to offer, I think it’s important as scientists that we listen. As I finish up my undergraduate degree in plant science, this research has been an important reminder; the goal of science should not necessarily be to better secondary metabolite production for human benefit, or to manipulate genes for giant tomato production. The emphasis of science should lie in understanding the intricate inner workings of all that surrounds us. The emphasis of science should lead to mimicry of systems, rather than dependence on one small component of the holistic picture. Through my own research endeavours I hope to be able to withhold these truths, and share their inspirational nature; life medicine is of greatest importance, and while it can be fed with plants, it stems from emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical continuity.