By Georgina Alford
Anthropologists, who study humans across time and space, have long documented the use of plants in medicinal and healing practices around the world. Traditionally, teachings about such medicines have been passed down through folklore. Amongst Indigenous peoples in Canada, one such example is the story of a woman called Last Calf, who was sick with tuberculosis. After giving food to a beaver, the animal thanked her for her kindness by showing Last Calf how to cure her illness. The beaver told the woman to drink boiled lodgepole pine (pinus contorta) whilst singing a special song. Following the beaver’s instructions, Last Calf was cured. Such storytelling is central to the sharing and transfer of knowledge over time.
Interestingly, for Indigenous peoples, the line between food and medicine is often blurred. Many edible plant species are also often thought to have multiple healing and health benefits. Understanding the Indigenous word view – which integrates mental, social, spiritual, physical and ecological domains – helps to understand the Indigenous approach to health and well being. Healers treat medicinal plants (actually all plants) with great respect and take time to carefully harvest, prepare and administer their medicines. Often healers, regarded as highly knowledgeable and inspired individuals, undergo purification rituals that help give them special energy which in turn, makes their work more effective.
A comprehensive study of medicinal knowledge of Indigenous peoples of the Canadian boreal forest, conducted in 2012, found that a total of 546 medicinal plants are still used by Indigenous peoples. Herbs and shrubs are the primary sources of medicinal plants and they were used to treat 28 diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disorders to musculoskeletal disorders. However, the report signaled that several critical issues regarding the legal, ethical and cultural aspects of conservation need to be addressed. While traditional ways of transferring knowledge are at risk of being lost, increasingly, plants used by Indigenous peoples are being incorporated into biomedicine. For example, cascara bark from British Columbia has been harvested commercially for the pharmaceutical industry to use as a medical laxative.
Find out more:
Obomsawin, R., 2007. Traditional Medicine For Canada’s First Peoples.
Turner, N., 2019. Indigenous Peoples' Medicine in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Uprety, Y., Asselin, H., Dhakal, A. and Julien, N., 2012. Traditional use of medicinal plants in the boreal forest of Canada: review and perspectives. Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine, 8(1), pp. 1-14.