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Preservation of Traditional Medicines

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Preservation of Traditional Medicines The people of Canada have been fortunate to be able to experience a somewhat free health care system, yet there are still many problems to be addressed with this system. For example, one issue would be to understand why Indigenous people and communities have limited access to health care. This is true especially in the northern and more isolated communities. However the people of these communities have survived through thousands of years with the use of natural, traditional medicines grown on the land. The knowledge of traditional medicines shared by elders and Indigenous people of Canada has been overlooked by the health care system, Canadian government and the general population of Canada. This is the direct result of exploitation of the land that produces these traditional medicines leading to the loss of healing plants, and knowledge and culture for Indigenous peoples of Canada. It is important to protect and preserve the Canadian landscape so medicine plants can thrive, the Indigenous cultures and knowledge can live on and communities can continue to be independent without relying on a health care system that may already be failing them. Much of history that is taught in the Ontario education system starts at the dawn of colonialism and is then seen through the eyes of the colonizer. However, to understand such traditional medicines and the power that the land holds, one must go back to the beginning of creation. There are many different creation stories of various Indigenous peoples and tribes in Canada and around the world, but they all share common similarities. In the Haudenosaunee creation story, Mother Earth came to be when a woman fell out of the Sky World and the animals below saved her and created land for her. A short while later that woman’s daughter gave birth to twin sons. The sons were always competing with each other, even in the womb. When one was born naturally, the other was born unnaturally, breaking out of his mother’s side and killing her. The Sky Woman placed plants, from the Sky World, on her daughter’s grave and soon thereafter, crops such as corn, beans and squash, grew out of her head. From her heart grew sacred tobacco and at her feet grew berry plants such as strawberries (Haudenosaunne Task Force, 2011; 3-4). After the Sky Woman had passed, the two grandsons fought over her body and eventually tore it apart accidentally throwing her head into the sky, and there her head remained shining down as Grandmother Moon. Each of the twins had the power to create earthly creatures and landscapes. With every creation that the one brother would make, the other would make one that would affect his brother’s. Eventually one brother made human beings telling them “you will be called Onkwehonwe (original being). You will call me Sonkwaiatison (The Creator)” (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, 2011; 4). What seems to be special about this creation story is the fact that, plants and food grew out of the daughter’s body. It is almost like saying that the land was created for the human race, but it also comes from inside us. The healing of the medicine plants come from inside us, and we shape what our land is like today. It is the upholding of this Indigenous knowledge and belief that gives the human race such a strong connection to the environment. Sadly, this knowledge and connection to the land has deteriorated throughout history, specifically when colonization hit most of these Indigenous groups.
When colonialism occurred amongst Indigenous people of Canada, it had a significantly negative affect on the people and their health. With the first settlers and the ships that sailed them over, came diseases and epidemics such as smallpox, measles, influenza, dysentery, diphtheria, typhus, yellow fever, and much more (Obomsawin, 2007; 12). The Indigenous people had never come in contact with such illnesses and their immune systems were not strong enough to ward off these infectious diseases. Even traditional medicines failed to destroy these illnesses mainly due to the fact that the healers and medicine people had no knowledge or previous experience with such diseases and they did not know what plants to use to heal themselves. This resulted in the deaths of a significant number of Indigenous people in many different parts of Canada (Obomsawin, 2007; 12). It is quite a contrast today, where many traditional healers treat almost any kind of illness. Indigenous knowledge has had the opportunity to expand becoming somewhat integrated into Western science with many traditional healers researching and acquiring knowledge on a vast amount of illnesses that are now being treated by medicine plants from the land. Although Western science and Indigenous knowledge still clash with one another, there is room to incorporate the two ways of thinking where a vast amount of knowledge of medical situations in a Western mindset can be combined with a natural remedy. There are many different types of plants that are used for traditional medicine. It is not always easy obtaining them. Only a trained eye knows when to pick them and traditionally, only certain people may collect the medicine plants. Some refer to these people as a medicine man or woman, or a healer, but regardless of their title, it was their responsibility to seek out the medicinal plants and maintain the well-being of the tribe. The healers may or may not acquire some sort of pay through an offering of goods or money in exchange or in gratitude (Brady, 2001; 17). “People who work with the medicines teach us to walk gently on the earth, and to take only what we need. Learning the right ways of gathering and caring for medicine plants is a lesson in an entire way of living” (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, 2011; 77). Tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar are all very sacred and important medicine plants for the people of North America (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, 2011; 77). Yet, there are still many different types of plants and herbs used for every different kind of illness. Listening to Edna Manitowabi talk, an elder and former teacher at Trent University, I learned that for many different people and many different illnesses there is a plant or herb that can help destroy the illness. She spoke of meeting a traditional medicine man and learning from him that before you pick any of the plants, you must talk to the plant, to find out if it is the right time to use it or not. Some people may have to wait years before they pick and use certain plants. Today, she has used what she has learned from the many different people that she has met and the plants she has come across to bring back her mother’s heartbeat and share her traditional ways with others (Manitowabi, Edna. 2011. Traditional Teachings). Talking to Mark Phillips in the tipi at Trent Universities’ Elders Conference, I learned that when collecting traditional medicines from the land, time is of the essence. For each traditional plant there is only a certain time of year where one can pick the plant out of the land. The one collecting the medicine plant has to have a great deal of patience because it could take days of waiting before that plant blossoms and as soon as it does then it needs to be picked right away or else the medicine inside the plant will not work properly (Philips, Mark, 2012. Elders Conference). Collecting medicine plants can be a very tedious and long process, but the end result of the healing from these plants is what has kept Indigenous tribes and people going for so many years.
The knowledge that Indigenous people and communities hold of traditional medicine plants is quite vast and is embedded within the culture and society of different Indigenous groups. However, this knowledge is being exploited for profit by many multilateral pharmaceutical companies. Many pharmaceutical companies go into different Indigenous territories where they discuss the different medicine plants with the local people and then patent these plants and degrade the land for their own benefits. This is taking place all over the globe, with many different Indigenous groups and tribes suffering as a consequence of this degradation (Oguamanam, 2008; 491). It is especially dominant in Latin America with the Amazonian tribes, as the Amazon is rich in diverse vegetation. These corporate pharmaceutical companies are creating “intellectual property rights” on such medicine plants. Intellectual property rights are supposed to help protect investments for research and development and stimulate innovation by providing incentives to invent, progress, and develop (Shah, 2002). This gives Indigenous healers of today, who are trying to make a living from their healing services no chance to compete. If the medicine plant is patented then many legal issues would arise when it comes to selling the plants independently. The most important issue here though, is that these traditional medicines just lose their value overall as sacred healers to the earth. When one capitalizes on another’s public knowledge and transforms it into a commodity, it loses its significance and sacredness in a culture. Younger generations are losing traditional knowledge of their culture because elders and older generations are not using as many traditional plants and therefore are not teaching the younger folk how to use these plants. This is all a direct result of the patent of the multilateral pharmaceutical companies and the environmental degradation inflicted on the land.
The environmental degradation that is happening on the land can also be blamed on the general industry that is extracting resources for their own profit. As many can see the impact that these industries have caused on the landscape is quite evident. With toxins in the land rising it is hard for certain Indigenous communities to rely on the safety of using traditional medicine plants. Such industries as mining, deforestation, and tar sands create major greenhouse gas affects that result in a rapid climate change leading to an even longer lasting effect on the environment. This impact is more prevalent in northern communities. “Changing temperature and precipitation regimes will increase the probability and severity of extreme events including heatwaves, storms, floods, drought, and wildfire with implications for asthma, chronic respiratory disease, water quality, cardiovascular disease, and the health effects of dislocation and displacement” (Ford, Berrang-Ford, King, Furgal, 2010; 670). If the landscape is depleted so to the medicine plants. With these already negative impacts on the landscape causing illness in the people of the northern communities, it is just a losing battle. When people who have been dependent on the land all their lives are now suddenly faced with limited resources, it becomes a serious issue. Many of these northern communities are isolated, with the only access in and out of the communities being by plane. When resources are depleted they become reliant on very expensive supplies that need to be shipped in to the communities. Many of these communities live in poverty where the people cannot afford such supplies. “The sensitivity of Aboriginal Canadians will result in health impacts of climate change occurring faster, sooner, and of a greater magnitude than for non-Aboriginal people. This will challenge the ability of health systems to adequately invest time and resources in prevention, preparedness, and response” (Ford, et al., 2010; 673). The health of Indigenous people is an important issue in Canadian society today. The health of the land and the people are connected, both affecting each other. When a society of people who have lived healthy from the land for thousands of years now face serious health risks because of the degradation of the land, then it is clear that a serious problem is occurring. “With half our population living in the cities, it is becoming harder for them to stay connected with the natural environment. The result of this is pollution and lack of respect. It is easy to harm or destroy something you cannot see, and have no feelings for or connection to. We must find ways to reconnect people and the natural world” (Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, 2011; 81). To many foreigners the Canadian health care system seems like one of the best health care plans in the world. When compared to the health care of other countries then Canada is highly developed. What many non-Canadians do not realize is health care in Canada still excludes many Canadians, mainly Indigenous people and communities. Due to the immense isolation that many northern Indigenous communities live in, it is very hard to access health care services in any way. The northern Indigenous communities are desperate for health care workers, however there is little interest in working in such isolated communities. As mentioned before, most of these communities are unable to provide an attractive income as an incentive for any kind of health care worker. The government provides minimal funding and aid for communities to build any kind of effective health care infrastructure. A perfect example of this would be the crisis at Attawapiskat. What started as a housing crisis spread to a high-risk for the health and well-being of the people. With the lack of concern from the government, it has been an ongoing struggle for the residents of Attawapiskat to build an adequate community for healthy living. It is evident that the well-being of Indigenous people in northern communities cannot rely on anything but the environment. It is important to keep the land healthy and strong so vegetation and ecology can thrive and traditional medicines can continue to prosper and keep the health of the people alive. For thousands of years Indigenous people of Canada and all over the world have survived all elements and have kept their bodies in a healthy state. This is in part due to the knowledge that traditional Indigenous healers hold. However, because there has been so much environmental degradation to the land, the health and well-beings of the people of Indigenous communities and the plants themselves have been affected. The only time anyone shows any concern for this issue is when a profit is being sought as demonstrated by the pharmaceutical companies that place patents on Indigenous knowledge. All of this has not just affected Indigenous people physically, but culturally and spiritually as well. There has been a loss in value and sacredness in medicinal plants. As Canadian citizens it is essential to show respect and reciprocity to the natural world. “Humans no longer communicate with plants. Plants are affected by negative thought, and if they receive negative energy all the time they will shut down. It is at this time that they will leave the earth and return to the Sky World. This is why it is so important to continue to offer thanks to the medicines” (Haudensaunee Environmental Task Force, 2011; 81). The knowledge of traditional medicines shared by elders and Indigenous people of Canada has been overlooked by the health care system, the Canadian government and the general population of Canada. It is important to protect and preserve the Canadian landscape so medicine plants can thrive, the Indigenous cultures and knowledge can live on and communities can continue to be independent without relying on a health care system that may already be failing them.

Brady, E. (2001). Healing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief Systems. Logan, Utah:
Utah State University Press.

Ford, J., Berrang-Ford, L., King M., & Furgal, C. (2010). Vulnerability of Aboriginal Health Systems in
Canada to Climate Change. Global Environmental Change. 20, 668-680.

Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force (2011). Words That Come Before All Else. Native North American Travelling College.
Manitowabi, E. (September 28, 2011). Traditional Teachings. Gathering Space, Trent University:
Peterborough, Ont., Canada.

Obamsawin, R. (2007). Historical and Scientific Perspectives on the Health of Canada’s First Peoples. Soil and Health. Mosman, Australia: Soil and Health Library.

Oguamanam, C. (2008). Patents and Traditional Medicine: Digital Capture, Creative Legal Interventions, and the Dialectics of Knowledge Transformation. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies. 15(2), 489-528.

Phillips, M. (February 11, 2012). Elders Conference. Tipi, Trent University: Peterborough, Ont., Canada.

Shah, A. (2002). Food Patents-Stealing Indigenous Knowledge? Global Issues.
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