What we can western medicine learn from traditional Indigenous healing, and how can we move forward to better all of our health.
Content Last Updated July 2014
Canadian Indigenous people had an effective world of medicine before colonization – medicine that came from this land and was specific for the people that inhabited it. Indigenous healing extends far beyond herbal teas and smudging. At its roots, it is the belief and the practice in a holistic approach to health, in treating the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual facets of health as one.
Why We Should Know About Traditional Indigenous Healing
What Is The Definition of Traditional Indigenous Healing?
There is no specific definition of traditional Indigenous healing as practices vary between nations, communities, and through time. However, traditional Indigenous medicine is often much more holistic in its approach to health and wellness than western medicine and emphasizes the balance and inter-dependency between the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of wellbeing.
Colonizations Effect On Indigenous Healing Practices
Colonization has a long history of marginalizing Indigenous knowledge in favour of settler perspectives and this holds true in the context of healing and medicine. Most healthcare institutions outside of reservations exclusively practice western medicine, and those who advocate for the inclusion of traditional healing are often relegated as second-tier medical practitioners (1).
Who Are The Experts On Traditional Indigenous Healing?
Our elders hold the knowledge, and if we ask they may share. We need to be mindful and considerate that knowledge is something that is gifted, and some may say that you need to earn it.
What Are Traditional Indigenous Healing Therapies
Is There One Type Of Indigenous Healing?
Traditional Indigenous healing is extremely diverse and can vary greatly from nation to nation and from healer to healer.
What Are Some Examples of Indigenous Healing?
The majority of the examples below are specific to appointed Indigenous healers and are not therapies that are easily accessible to the wider public. Here are some examples of specific skills used by traditional healers that have been used to correct imbalances;
- Divination or prediction to foretell or forecast events or situations, e.g., a seer can foretell the future. This may include dreaming of events to come,
- Natural elements such as water, fire, smoke, stones, or crystals may be used as a projective field to help see the reason and/or course of an imbalance,
- Use of music, singing, drums, rattles,
- Smudging with medicinal plants such as sage cedar, sweetgrass,
- Laying on of hands,
- Talking, counselling,
- Medicinal plants or botanical medicines, that are made into teas, salves, ointments, purgatives and other substances,
- Sweat Lodge,
- Shake tent,
- Use of tobacco, either as an offering, or smoked,
- Stargazing, crystal gazing, and hand-tremblers,
- Storytelling to entertain, and also to illuminate the path to health and wellness, especially in relationships and communities.
Connecting The Land To Human Health
One important element of traditional Indigenous healing that can be adapted and utilized by all is the emphasis on the connection between a human being and the planet itself. “View the earth as a source of life rather than a resource”. In this famous statement by Arvol Looking Horse he illustrates that in traditional Indigenous healing, the earth’s health is seen to be very much connected to human health.
Combining Western Medicine and Traditional Indigenous Healing
Advances of Western Medicine
The advances of Western Medicine really are something spectacular. Those born with type I diabetes prior to 1922 would not have survived due to a lack of insulin. We now have effective vaccinations that have almost entirely eliminated crippling and deadly diseases such as smallpox, polio and measles.
What Is Missing From Current Day Western Medicine?
Even with the advances in Western medicine, it is not hard to see that something is lacking in our approach to health care. Too often we are treating the symptoms and not the underlying disease and focusing only on the physical aspects of health.
Where Western Medicine Fails
We treat headaches with meds instead of addressing the deeper issue, whether psychological, nutritional or emotional. We take further medication for gastrointestinal upset, instead of identifying that life’s stressors could be the cause and instead focusing on them. We treat diabetics with medications rather than addressing diet, exercise and the emotional component first.
How Traditional Indigenous Healing Can Improve Conventional Medicine
By recognizing that the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the human being are all interrelated and a weakness in any of these areas causes a person to become unbalanced, our treatments could be much more effective.
How Can We Integrate Indigenous Healing Techniques
Simple ways to integrate Indigenous healing techniques into our current medicine model include:
- Offering teaching on appropriate diet and nutrition in the treatment of diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or depression.
- Better access to health care providers who have time to listen, because very little insight into a condition can be gained in a 10-minute consultation.
- Integrating talk therapy or meditation into treatments.
- Acknowledging that being with someone who helps you feel at peace is healing in itself.
Incorporating Indigenous Healing Into Your Life
Culture Is A Determining Factor In Health Care
Our personal approach to health care is culturally-anchored. Culture determines how we view our illness and thus also our choice of healing treatments. Whether it be Western biomedicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine from India, or the various traditions of Aboriginal healing – our choice in treatment stems from our own culture and upbringing.
Treating The Body Mind and Spirit as One
Even if we are set firm in Western medicine, affirming the value in treating the body, mind and spirit as one is one aspect of traditional Indigenous healing that we could all greatly benefit from. If you want to take it one step further, what can you do? Meditate, be in nature, nurture your body with good food, build a community around yourself, surround yourself with people that positively feed your mind. Most importantly, regard Mother Nature. She nourishes us with food and clean water, and in return all she asks for is respect.
Celebrate Indigenous Foods
For me, food is healing. I love the meditative process of cooking and eating with company. Traditional Indigenous foods are those that were used by Indigenous people before colonization. Here are some of my Indigenous inspired recipes:
- Cornmeal Patties with Wild Rice
- Two Ingredient Corn Patties
- Dandelion Root Latte with Turmeric and Ginger
References for Traditional Indigenous Healing
Journal Article: Traditional indigenous healing: Part I by Roxanne Struthers,
Journal Article: Being healed by an indigenous traditional healer. Part II by Roxanne Struthers,
Paper: Traditional indigenous approaches to healing and the modern welfare of traditional knowledge, spirituality and lands by Julian Robbins.
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.