Traditional healing

A look at traditional medicine – past and present

Last weekend my girlfriend and I went to see the MUN Botanical Gardens here in St. John’s, located at the top of Mount Scio Road. I was there a couple years ago but never knew they had a healing plants section in the gardens. I was very excited to explore the area because plants have played a very important role in aboriginal culture, from use in ceremonies to their healing nature. I have always taken an interest in medicinal plants and forms of healing in our people’s history, so I thought I’d take this column to talk to you all about all things healing in our culture.

There were and are many aspects of healing in our culture: there are spiritual locations around my community where healing takes place, spiritual people (puoin) who were responsible for healing those in the community, and the medicine itself, which is completely derived from plants found on this land. The information in this column derives from stories I’ve been told and things I’ve read over the years. The effectiveness and safety of what I write about cannot be confirmed and everything included in this column should be for information purposes only!

Places of healing

If you were to ask someone from my community about spiritual sides of healing, some would respond with reference to the church, due to us being Catholic. But you would also hear about Bay du Nord or Mount Sylvester. Not much is known about the spiritualism that exists behind Mount Sylvester, which was named by William Cormack in 1822 after his guide, Sylvester Joe. Some say there is a cave up there that sick people would go to and pray until they were better. However, I don’t know much about that location. Bay du Nord, on the other hand, has a very extensive history amongst the Mi’kmaq people of not only Miawpukek, but across most of the island. Bay du Nord is located about 30 kilometers west of my community, away from any civilization. In Bay du Nord there is a formation of rocks that make out a large cross, nearly 50 x 13 feet in size. The rocks that make up the formation are fairly heavy, some near twenty pounds, and are the only ones of their kind in the area. If you look around there are no other rocks around, so they must have once been carried there a long time ago from another location. How did they get there? Well, we believe Saqewe’ji’jk (remember that term? It’s the ancestors of the Mi’kmaq here) created it as a place of healing. Near the cross is a brook: many thought the water held healing capabilities and it was revered as a form of holy water. People who visited the area would always take some of that brook water back home with them.

…many thought the water held healing capabilities and it was revered as a form of holy water.

The Mi’kmaq have always thought of this cross as a very spiritual area that was able to cure many ailments. I was told that if you were to go up the trail to the cross, you’d see all these sticks laid up on the landing at the top. The sticks were actually canes and makeshift crutches that were supposedly left by all those who went up with disabilities and left cured. Like in many First Nations cultures, you would make an offering at the cross in order to be healed, which is why you would find coins and other things under the rocks when visiting. Unfortunately, over the years people began to take these items from the cross, however many still feel strongly about the healing powers of that area to this day.

Healing plants

Along with spiritual locations designated for healing, the Mi’kmaq, along with all aboriginal peoples, had specific plants used for healing purposes. After living on this land for hundreds of years, our people were able to designate certain plants to aid in the treatment of ailments. There were medicines for everything from a simple headache to kidney issues and even baldness! I remember when I was younger and I went to visit one of my closest friends at the time, a member of the community would almost always get me to bring him cherry tree bark. Back then I thought he used to call it “wijokjimu’si” but now when I try to find the word, I only see “maskwe’smanaqsi”. If anyone knows what the former actually means, I’d love to know! Cherry bark is very useful for a number of things, but most importantly it’s mainly used to soothe a sore throat. It’s steeped in a tonic, the bark is then removed and the liquid is ingested. The taste is a little different, but it works wonders!

Another good medicine is wisawtaqji’jkl, or yellow root. It has multiple uses, including combating mouth sores, ulcers and even diabetes! It can be chewed for mouth sores or steeped in a tonic for ulcers. In our culture, every plant had a purpose.

Some believed that to collect medicine…could be seen as welcoming the sickness…

Among the medicinal plants used by our people, one of the most commonly known is Seven Sorts. This concoction of plants has been used by our people for hundreds of years, and they have attested to its power to this day. The plants involved sometimes change, but I will write on the seven I was taught growing up. Something to note first, is that many of our people never collected medicine until they became sick. Some believed that to collect medicine was to anticipate sickness, which could be seen as welcoming the sickness, in a way. But in the case of the Seven Sorts, you could only collect the plants at a certain time of year – the beginning of autumn – or they would not work. These are the plants you collect along with the portion used: ground hemlock (root), red spruce (root), wild blackberry (bark) alum (bark), willow (bark), hornbeam (bark) and beeches (bark). Different people say there are different steps involved in its collection, but I couldn’t possibly write all the ones I’ve heard about! You take all these plants and steep them in water to treat internal infections, or boil them for a long time – until you get a viscous black solution – and apply it externally to treat broken bones. Historically, the medicine had no limits and could cure nearly any ailment faced by our people. It was only used for serious problems, usually due to the work that went into its collection.

Not just part of our past

Many people believe we have lost this way of life, but the fact is many of us still practice traditional medicine gathering and using. The person I spoke about earlier with the Cherry Bark still boils it up when his wife or mother in law gets a sore throat. I still use some traditional medicines to help when I get headaches or a sore throat, and there are many elders in the community that still know the medicinal use of all the plants around my reserve. Although we are moving forward with the rest of the world, we remain true to the ways of our ancestors and respect their memory by practicing these things as often as we can. This is why I feel it is so important to teach our children all the aspects of our culture, so there is no void in their journey through life. I wish I could write about all the medicines we used, but I just don’t have enough room!

If anyone wants to know more about our medicines, don’t hesitate to get in contact with me – I’d be more than happy to talk about it!

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