Decolonizing our Medicines

By Cathy Walker 

illustration by Karlene Harvey

When we talk about the effects of colonization, we only refer to how it affected a continent of people, but we should also understand the correlation of how it shaped and affected the land, the water, the animals, and all that inhabits the Earth. How migration changed, how scarce food became, or how diet changed. Not only for the two-legged already here, but how it also affected the winged ones, the four-legged, the crawlers, swimmers, the medicine plants, and the one-legged. Not only through an increase in population, but also by the medicine’s that were brought over when they came from far away lands.

I imagine before the ships came, seeds were spread through birds of prey that ate small rodents and en route to the nest, pollen or seeds fell from their wriggling bodies. Our stories talk about small rodents going through bear stool and taking seeds and spreading them wherever they went. Animals were more important for cross-pollinating, seed spreading and releasing of spores than people simply because they were larger in numbers and lived amongst the plants. Animals were more important for cross-pollinating, seed spreading, and spore release than people were due to population rates. Watching animals was how many of the Nations became knowledgeable of the medicines. For Anishnawbe people, the bear clan people were responsible for patrolling the lands around their communities to make sure they were secure. Since they were on the outside of the village, more in the bush, they were closer to the animals and so they would watch what the animals ate, what plants they stayed away from, what plants they went to when they were sick and what plants made them purge to feel better. This information is what they would use to heal their people and this is why they became the healers of the clan system. 

When the newcomers touched this strange land from their ships, they carried more than the clothes on their backs. A lot of food was carried on those big ships, many probably went to seed by the time they arrived and were dumped in a compost heap on undisturbed ground. On their trousers and shoes, they unknowingly carried little seedpods or individual seeds that stowed away in an attempt to run from the motherland. Everywhere people walked, their plants followed them like dutiful pets always wanting to be close to their humans. Maybe they were a little bit afraid at first and stayed close to those they came with, but became more brazen as settlers moved about, their medicines were never far behind. 

I like to imagine the moment an animal came into contact with one of these newcomers, what it’s reaction would have been. Did it sniff it suspiciously, or did it run away in fear knowing this was a symbol of uncertain things to come. What did the hunters, trappers, or medicine people think when they saw these new wildflowers coming? Did they see them before they saw the pale faces, did the women warn children not to touch them knowing that on some level they were dangerous? And how long did it take before they became part of our medicine bundles and started taking over all of our gardens. How many medicines dropped off from our teachings once newcomers began to take over. How many medicines and their uses did we lose once western herbs became the focal point over Indigenous based medicines. 

The colonization process has affected us on so many levels including our landscapes. Travel changed from foot and horse and small pathways of trampled grasses to dirt roads and then by gravel roads. Soon they found ways to grind the gravel and poured our grandfathers into long winding roads that went with the hills and valleys. Eventually, they saw our large grandfathers were in the way and found ways to blow apart mountains and hills so that the roads went straight through. Seedlings would never feel the warmth of the sun and now lay in dormancy. Seeds that were once spread by foot and horse, were now spread by the winds created by cars and trains and everywhere humans went. Their medicines would be sure to follow them. But not only could these men devour mountains, but they could also control waterways and some communities that were barely touched by newcomers within the last 80 years, now had villages divided up by rerouted waters and dams. Entire ecosystems were demolished and animals had to migrate to other areas in an effort to survive. Everywhere the newcomers went, meant devastation to the land, and slowly over time, those new plant medicines started taking over and started dominating over the territories. As our nations battled the newcomers, our medicines also battled, laying claim to their own territories and over the centuries slowly lost. Large parcels of land taken up by wild ginseng, blue and black cohosh, wild indigo, and northern sweet coltsfoot are now growing in smaller numbers, slowly being suffocated by the root systems and overcrowding of non Indigenous invaders that have taken over fields, farms, forests. Many are impossible to find. Yellow pond lily and Arrowhead lily are both in smaller numbers as a result of other invasive lilies, in fact, in Ontario, there are over 400 invasive species all competing with each other claiming this new land and every decade that list grows longer. 

Further north, in zones below 3, invasives still pose a problem, but it is not as dire. Still, you will see mullein and clovers in fields and roadsides, and closer to areas with larger populations. There are forests that still have large populations of Indigenous medicines if you know where to look, but even if they aren’t vying for land by invasive species, they are still at risk of being over-harvested. Ghostpipe, Ladies slipper, Calamus, golden thread, are all important traditional medicines and are all at risk to the point where people now say, they too are in hiding and only come out to those they know will honour them. And even our own people do much to dishonour them because we no longer know the spirit of the plants. We also see them as a viable resource, or as a nuisance and have been removed from our ways of giving thanks. Of laying down gifts, of spending time with them. We don’t even know their names anymore and those of us who study are taught their names in Latin instead of in our own tongue, what our grandmothers would have told us long ago. 

Our own people are so far removed that we even fight over which medicine is the best, which sage, which tobacco, which willow, when in fact a lot of our recipes were based on geographical availability. We talk about the four sacred medicines, but some of our communities didn’t have access to tobacco, we used other plants instead of in our pipe medicines. We didn’t have access to sage, and so we had other plants that were used in place of sage, same with sweetgrass, or cedar. A lot of those plants were traded and held in high regard for their healing abilities and for their power, but we didn’t have access to them all the time. This is why our recipes for things like kinikinic and minigan are as diverse as the communities themselves. But we all battle with each other, which one has the real recipe… Or the BEST one. It also shows the effects of pan-Indianism, that we all were the same and used the same medicines when we didn’t. I think of these medicines as the gifts that come from the four directions, but individually we had access to many amazing medicines that grew all around us. 

But the one way that colonization has truly taken over in the plant world is through patriarchy within our men. At one point, the children learned of the medicines because they stayed with the women. Every woman had some knowledge of how to use plants to heal her family, but the real medicine lineages came from the midwives and the healing societies, but somehow over the years, the boys outnumbered the girls that were taught. Or the only way women could learn the medicines was to learn by men, who in turn advanced on them with ulterior motives. What resulted were medicine men that were unhealthy or became community rockstars with egos to match. Even today, much emphasis is spent on supporting the men to learn, while women often have to fend for themselves or turn to “western” herbal schools and pay to get their teachings back. Factor in mixed marriages, residential schools, and foster care, and these women are even further removed from their families and removed from their ability to learn. This is not to say that men don’t have issues getting medicine teachings as well, but by far there is more emphasis on teaching the men over women, especially those going back on the red road. Overall there are more resources for men to have access to healers, sweat lodges, ceremonies, and if you have children, your ability to learn becomes even more of an obstacle, because our priority within the community is to look after our children, and there are no resources made to help build that community for respite so that we can learn. Therefore, men are an easier option. We won’t even get into the dynamics of men that have left women to raise their kids alone, who get these opportunities, but I digress… 

This article was not intended to seem bitter, or morose, but merely to speak the truth on how colonization has affected not just the medicines, but how we are around the medicines and in the end, this will affect our medicine. I think back to a time when we didn’t have that colonized mind, how if someone was in a bad way, there wasn’t a four-day protocol, people would just take that person and bring them into a lodge. They would administer medicines without prejudice. If the person was from overseas and they were sick, they would share the medicines as well. They would do whatever they could to save them and in turn teach them how to live on this land. True, they repaid us by killing us off, rounding us up on small parcels of land we call POW camps, and they took our land and resources by force, they overharvested, and purged, and took in defiance, leaving us little. So yes! We have every right to protect what we know, protect our ceremonies and our medicines and locations of where they grow. But, at the same time I have to remember, I do not own anything, let alone any plant that I use. I am not the healer, the medicines are the ones that do all the work. I just assist them… That’s all I do. That’s all any of us do.  We cannot assist the medicines if the land and water have been destroyed or contaminated and we cannot safely harvest our traditional medicines if they have been over-harvested by people who have replaced sacredness with dollar signs. We can’t assist those medicines if invasive species keep taking over, and if we keep disregarding the needs of our most sacred medicine plants, they will go to sleep and that includes those of us who walked this land since time immemorial. We have forgotten that before treaties were made between nations, we made individual treaties with our original mother to protect her. We made treaties with the plant medicines and left offerings to those that protect them. But have we honoured those treaties? Maybe their disappearance is also a reminder that they choose when to do their work, and who to do their work with, either way, we have all been affected by colonization and one way to remove that way of thinking, is to honour them as the spirits they are and to acknowledge their healing comes from selflessness and kindness and we must return to them in the same way.