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My Life as a Cree Healer

This article is excerpted from A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle: Revelations of Indigenous Wisdom, by David Young, Robert Rogers, and Russell Willier, recently released by North Atlantic Books.


I had to learn from the older people, plus when I was a little boy, I was the one to dig different herbs for the old ladies. They would show me which herbs they wanted. They would offer some tobacco, watch, and pray, while I collected the herbs. I would bring all the herbs to the old ladies who were sitting there cleaning them. They didn’t go from one herb to the next, kneeling down; they were just sitting there. It was the same with my mom, my aunties, and some other old ladies who were the medicine men’s wives. After a few years, I started to understand which herbs they wanted without them telling me, and which areas the herbs were in. That’s one of the reasons I want to have photographs of the areas where herbs are found in this book, because you can just about rake the whole of Alberta before you find the herb you are looking for unless you know the kind of area it is in. People figure it’s just in the bush. It’s not just in the bush. On the trip we just finished, we had to go 1,000 kilometers to see the majority of the plants that I use. Even so, we had to know exactly where to look. All the books that I’ve seen have the same problem: they have a beautiful picture of the plant and they write down where you find it. But once you’re out in the bush, it doesn’t look the same as what you’ve been reading.

My medicine bundle came from my great-grandfather, Moostoos, a famous medicine man who signed Treaty 8 for our area. The bundle was given to my father and passed on to me when I was about nineteen or twenty years old. At first I didn’t want to use it, as I didn’t want to be a medicine man. As the years went by, when I was around thirty, different medicine men knew they were going to die. Also some of the old ladies I had helped said they might not make it through this winter. So they started looking around; they couldn’t pass their knowledge on to their grandchildren or their children because they were on drugs or drunk. They couldn’t give it to them even if they wanted to. So they decided they had better give it to me. When one person would tell me how to use a certain herb or combination, I then had to ask, “How do I know if it’s any good? I don’t want to doctor somebody and use this combination and find out it doesn’t do any good.” So what the medicine people told me was: “Come and watch us doctoring and then if you want to use the combination, go check on the individual six weeks to three months later. They will tell you how they’re doing.” When I did that, one of the patients I visited might say, “Oh, I ended up with a doctor.” Right away I would cross that combination off, since it didn’t help that individual. You wouldn’t believe how many combinations there are across Canada. You have to select the best ones, the ones that will work right away. I went and watched people get doctored; then six weeks later I was at their door. I told them I was checking up on them because the old man, my teacher, couldn’t come. If they said, “I got all better. My legs don’t hurt anymore and my back is good,” I knew I could use that combination on someone with a similar problem. Then you get into the spiritual world. A lot of times the spirits tell you to use a particular combination. You don’t select it; you are told what to use. You don’t question it. But if the combination is passed on from a human, you really have to check. Don’t trust any individual. Check it out for yourself.

When I first opened the medicine bundle, I didn’t know what the herbs tied together in little bundles were used for, so I had to go to different medicine people to see if they knew how to use the combinations in the medicine bundle. Some combinations were wrapped in individual pieces of rawhide. The original medicine bundle was moose skin. I don’t have it anymore. My house burned down, so I lost everything, but I already knew the combinations by then. What we’re trying to do here with this book is to pass the same combinations on with pictures. They didn’t have that.

I doctored lots in the 1980s and ’90s. If you’re a medicine person, you can’t keep a regular nine to five job. If you want to be a medicine person, you have to take small contracts from three days to a week and not much more—working on a fence or trap line. You get a few dollars. You need this money because when you doctor, you can’t ask for money. It’s up to the individual. I went quite a few times to Valleyview or Edmonton. I do get the tobacco, but beyond that I often don’t get enough to buy gas there and back. A lot of people don’t have any consideration.

People should go out and do the 1,000 kilometers picking herbs. It would teach them to respect how much work it is to collect the plants you need.

Approaching a Healer

The proper way to approach me and other Cree healers is to present me with a square meter of cotton cloth: white, yellow, red, blue, or green (see the Medicine Wheel diagram on the following page), a pouch of unflavored pipe tobacco, and a gift. The individual making the request decides which color of cloth to present. I then compare the color of the cloth presented with the color of the individual’s aura, as different colors are associated with different diseases and illnesses. After receiving a request for help, I have four choices: if I have treated this particular problem successfully before, I may give a positive response without delay; if I have never treated the problem, I may tell the individual that I will need several days to meditate and pray—asking the spirits whether I should take on this case; I may refer the patient to another healer known for treating this particular problem; or I may tell the person to see a medical doctor without delay, as in the case of a severe infection. If I choose to meditate and pray, I do so in the bush; if I am instructed by the spirits to treat the patient, I seek a vision in which one of the Grandfather spirits appears to me to provide me with instructions concerning which plants (and possibly animal parts or minerals) to use, where to find them if I do not already know, and how to combine the ingredients.

The cloth and tobacco presented to me are used when treating patients individually or in ceremonies such as the sweat lodge or sun dance ceremony. Tobacco is offered when the first plant of a specific species is collected for medicine, when the first rock is taken for the sweat lodge ceremony, or when willow boughs are cut for constructing a sweat lodge. Tobacco is also sprinkled around a sweat lodge to provide protection from evil spirits. Tobacco is used in numerous other ways.

My Cosmology

My beliefs about the world are shown in the following Medicine Wheel diagram, in which a number of different variables are systematically related. For example, the direction East is associated with the Sun, the Eagle spirit, Autumn, and the color yellow. The circumference of the circle represents the Sweetgrass Trail, around which the individual travels as he seeks to pass through life successfully and eventually return to the Great Spirit, the source of all life. This diagram does not attempt to be all-inclusive, rather, it provides examples of the kinds of factors and forces that play a role in how the world is ordered. The complex nature of their relationships must be understood by anyone, such as a healer, who seeks to tap in to the wisdom and power of the Cosmos.

The primary role of a healer is to help people who approach him in the correct way, asking for healing and guidance from the Great Spirit. Since the Great Spirit is too holy to be approached directly, the healer must work with Spirit Helpers, the Grandfathers. The Grandfathers carry requests from the healer to the Great Spirit and return to the healer with information and spiritual power. The healer then channels this assistance to those who have requested it. In other words, the healer is an intermediary between ordinary humans and Spirit Helpers, who, in turn, are intermediaries between the healer and the Great Spirit.

There are various kinds of Spirit Helpers: elemental spirits representing the primordial forces of Nature such as the Sun, Wind, and Thunder; animal spirits such as Eagle, Bear, and Mouse; and plant spirits such as “Bear Root” (Aralia nudicaulis,  Wild Sarsaparilla) and “Frog Pants” (Sarracenia purpurea,  Pitcher Plant). Even objects such as rocks, which most non-Native people consider “inanimate,” can be Spirit Helpers. In fact, rocks are some of the most important Grandfather spirits, as they have been here from the beginning of the world and will be here long after people, trees, and plants are gone. The Grandfathers also include the spirits of those individuals who have gone before. Each species of animal, plant, fish, and insect has its own Grandfather spirit, of which all members of that species are living expressions.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that everything that works for the good in the world is duplicated by an equivalent set of spirits that work for the bad. Thus, for example, the good North Wind (a subcategory of Wind, shown in the above cosmology diagram) is countered by a bad North Wind. The only exception to this dualistic worldview is the Great Spirit, which does not have an evil counterpart such as the Devil. In the long run, the Great Spirit will ensure that good wins out over evil; this prevents my belief system from being truly dualistic. In the meantime, however, the battle between good and evil is a real one that impinges in many important ways upon the health of individuals and upon the role of healers. It influences health in that sometimes the physical, spiritual, or emotional problems experienced by individuals are due to curses sent their way by evil healers who are working for the “bad side.” Bad healers often respond to requests by individuals who have a grudge against others, in return for substantial sums of money. An important task of a good healer is to diagnose which problems are caused by curses as opposed to problems due to natural causes. When a curse is diagnosed as being the source of the problem, the healer can take ceremonial steps to stop or deflect the curse, sometimes sending it back from where it came. Engaging in this kind of spiritual warfare involves considerable risk for a healer, who may himself become the object of a curse.

Native Medicine

There are many things that I would like to talk to you about to give you a general insight into traditional Native medicine. First, there are a few misunderstandings I would like to clarify. There is really only one God though he has different names such as the Great Spirit, Allah, Buddha, and the Creator. The Creator has many kinds of helpers, such as natural elements (fire, water, thunder, wind), animals, fish, plants, birds, and our loved ones who have passed on before us. We call these helpers Grandmothers and Grandfathers. We believe that God sent these grandparents to help us. We ask them to talk to God for us, because nobody can talk directly to God. We are worth no more than a blade of grass; we are no higher than anything that God has made. Therefore, we humans need someone to take our messages to God for us.

Native people use smudging as a way to purify ourselves in mind, body, and spirit. Materials used for smudging include Sweet Grass, Sage, Cedar, and the Diamond Willow Fungus. When we burn these, the smoke carries our prayers up to the Creator. God gave us plants to use. We use plant combinations that have been around for centuries. In the last century, we have been using Western medicine because the government banned Native medicine. There were times when medicine people had to go underground and hide while they helped people. Many traditional medicines got lost when our children were sent to the residential schools. Other things were lost as well, such as language and family relationships.

Traditionally, Native people were taught that God was a loving and caring entity while the church told them that God was someone to be feared. There was no hell in Native culture, but there was in Western culture. We were told that God could read our thoughts and that Native religion was evil. We were told that we must not ask the spirits for help. Native culture is passed down orally. With the breakdown of family relationships and having to hide our spirituality, many traditions were lost. Medicine people were no longer held in such high regard; they were made out to be the black sheep of society. They could no longer pass their beliefs down to their children and grandchildren. Today, very few people still believe in Native spirituality.

Now you are probably thinking, OK, but that’s the past; how does this relate to today’s issues? Unfortunately, a lot of the problems from the past are still plaguing people today. Native people need to have their basic needs met: adequate housing, nutritional food, health care, and clean drinking water. Our elders are being ignored. There are still many of them who do not speak English and need interpreters. Elders are this generation’s key to our own traditions, but they cannot be heard. There are so many illnesses that are affecting Native people, diabetes and cancer being the major ones. Preventive measures for diabetes need to be taught and enforced in Native communities. Western medicine has become a necessity for surviving. We must find ways to work together to make Canada a healthier place. Things have improved in the last decade or so.

But keep in mind that most of the elders are dead. They went through hell with Western culture and medicine. The new generations don’t speak their language or practice their culture. The younger people have to be treated with Western medicine. There are still a few families who doctor others and practice their spirituality, but people who practice traditional culture are considered the black sheep of the community and are picked on by different religions, especially born-again Christians. The culture itself will eventually die off if things don’t turn around soon for Native people.

The Grandfathers and Grandmothers are always there. It doesn’t matter what nationality, when you’re going to die, your parents are going to be over there whether you believe it or not. Even if you are a nonbeliever, whoever loved you will be there to guide you to the next world. You’re not going alone. If that were planted in everybody’s head it might help a lot, because those are the same ones we pray to for help. The grandparents are kindhearted. They try to do their best. Recently the elders came to my place and said, “We should have a special ceremony to offer food to those who have died.” “Yeah, we will,” I said. “No problem.” They said that they would get some heart, moose nose, and tongue. I asked, “What do the young people, age thirty and under, like?” They thought about it and said, “Pizza, I guess.” I said, “That’s what we will put on the fire. We have to go with the world. We shouldn’t be stuck in time. If it’s a young person who loved pizza, then we feed him pizza.”

Collecting Plants

I collect most of my plants in the fall. In late July you can still get some flowering plants, though some of them have already seeded. We take the late-flowering plants because if we collect them in May and June, they don’t have a chance to seed and they will get wiped out [when the plants have flowers it makes them easier to identify, even if one is mainly after the roots]. If we’re after the roots, we take them in the fall. Including young trees, bark, etc., I mainly use about twenty-eight plants. Some of the plants are hard to get. Plus I use another thirty-three plants on a more occasional basis. Sometimes I have to go a long ways to find my plants. Sometimes they will put a pipeline right through the herbs that you use. They figure the same plants are everywhere. They don’t care. Recently I was given permission to pick herbs in the Alberta provincial parks. We had a big meeting. The parks department wanted bigger parks in Alberta. I said we have no problem with that, but we can’t pick herbs in the parks. We can get charged if we pick in the parks.

We should be allowed to take herbs there. So they agreed that we could take the herbs in any park in Alberta. They said if you go to a park, tell the ranger that you will be taking herbs. They can’t stop you. Tell them what plants you will be taking. See, there’s a lot of Rat Root and Bear Root in Alert Bay.

It is important to know how plants look in the summer and in the fall when the part above ground is dead. The roots though are still alive, so I usually just take the roots in the fall. But you don’t want to take too many. If you see the Morning Flower or Gum Flower here and there, keep driving and look for where they are really thick; then you can take the flowers but leave the roots. I hope everybody does the same. There’s not too many flowers that we use, but those are two of them. If I pick plants in the summer, I wait for them to deflower so the seeds get spread, unless I need the flower itself.

When we photographed the plants, I gave you an English name such as Big Arrow. In most books you won’t find the name Big Arrow. That is a translation of the Cree word. You have to do this since the Cree language is being lost and the young people won’t be able to understand Cree. They will need an English translation. Down the road, there will be lots who will use the book.

Common Problems Treated

A lot of the problems I treat have to do with pills. They’re burning your stomach out with pills: antibiotics, Tylenol, sugar diabetes pills; after a while the stomach wants to block up and they’re uncomfortable and they end up in the hospital with a sky-high temperature and puffed-up bellies. I think the doctors are pumping them out. It’s a new thing but we’ve been doctoring it for the last ten years or so. To treat that, I boil herbs and make them drink it. After they’re cleaned out, if there’s any ulcers, they heal. After they heal, many people go back to taking pills again.

I also treat diabetes, heart problems, ear problems, high blood pressure, cuts, toothaches, diarrhea. Also people hear noises, someone talking in their ears—quite a bit of that lately. Another one we do lots is marriage consulting, young people, old people who are ready to break up. We talk to them, pray over them so their marriage will get better. I talk to parents about showing love to their teenagers so there’ll be less suicide from the young people. In the case of cancer, I give them medicine if they come out of the hospital and progress is slow. Then they may pop out of it in a hurry. Or if one side doesn’t work, I give them herbs to get the other side working again.

You have to realize that nowadays we have a different generation. My generation, sixty to seventy, there are not that many alive, one here and there, so anybody under forty years old is hardly ever introduced to Indian medicine because there are not that many elders to teach them. I treat people mostly between forty and seventy. But they usually don’t bring their children because the kids don’t know what’s going on. They don’t even trust traditional things; you can tell by the eyes; you can tell by the body. If an older person brings a daughter and she gets better, she will soon forget all about it. The ones who are teaching culture, they might stay in campsites, but they don’t know anything about herbs. They might recognize Rat Root if you show them a plant, but they can’t take the kids into the swamp to find Rat Root. Why should they be teaching? They should have an elder who knows something. I also treat curses. There’s a lot of that, especially to the east in Saskatchewan. People run to Saskatchewan to get bad medicine to use against people here. It’s been going on for the last decade.

Survival of Native Medicine

I am often asked about the relationship between using herbs, psychological counseling, ceremonies, and praying. They are all equally important. You’re communicating with the same spirits; they’re still God’s helpers. The spirits that are running the sun dance in other places, such as the North Wind, South Wind, or Thunder Spirit, they are the same ones we call upon here. So when you go over there to have a dance with them, most of the sun dances are for sick people. Maybe somebody has real bad cancer. Maybe somebody was hurt in a vehicle accident. Others will go because their son doesn’t want to stop drinking. So the older ones are up there dancing. But we’re slowly losing all those elders. I also hope to pass on how to do ceremonies and counseling to my kids and other young people.

Native medicine will survive but it will have to creep through the cracks. You also must remember that there are some religions that are completely against it, those that started five decades or so ago. And the animals are slowly disappearing, as are the plants and birds. It will be tough. Even if World War III started, how are the people going to survive? They might think they’ll be OK, that they’ll just live off the plants and animals. They don’t realize what will happen.

Hopefully, there will be a revival of Indian medicine in the future. There will be nothing else to use when the bad times come. Doctors have been here in Alberta only a little over a hundred years. The oldest building in Canada is how old? Probably less than five hundred years. That oldest building is not the hospital either. The Indians were doctoring the white people who showed up the first few years. Maybe we will have to go back a step to a time when people were using herbs and trees. People are having a lot of sickness because of the chemicals. If you go into the hospital, you may come out with a different sickness.

We don’t know the side effects. The old people don’t trust them. The younger people don’t think until they land in the hospital or jail. The young people don’t think ahead. It’s scary.

Since the plants are disappearing due to logging and farming, and there are not too many young people interested in learning, and the elders are dying, the most important things that need to be done right away to save traditional medicine are to try to make the oil companies aware of where the plants are, but I’m not there all the time. That’s why we need the books bad. We could tell the oil companies that when they see a particular kind of area, such as shown in the book, they should go around it. The oil companies are pretty cooperative. Mind you, we haven’t given them very much static because there are so many clearcuts that almost everything is already gone. If it isn’t gone, it will be sprayed anyway, five years down the road. But we will tell them that if there’s a natural salt lick to go around, or point out certain herbs that they should avoid. Right now we’re going along with them; we’re not saying too much. The pipelines are already made. There’s no use trying to stop them. What we would like to try to do, if we can find someone to finance it, is to try to transplant plants from a right-of-way to see if they would grow. If someone could move them over to another area that’s in the same climate zone, the flowers could grow and the seeds could start flying.

Working with Non-Native Doctors

Native doctors should be trying to work with non-Native doctors, but there are a lot of doctors who don’t want anything to do with Native doctors. Do you remember those doctors who volunteered to work with us in the ’80s? I think a lot of them have backed away. But they do have interpreters, those who speak Cree, in the hospitals, in various places. They tell the doctors what the patients want.

When people come in with curses, the doctors can’t do too much. They have to send the patients back home. This is where the doctors and the traditional Native healers should work together. They should be able to call the healer and take care of it right there. But they’re not doing that yet. Once we open that door, it can pop up anywhere.

The Future

Some of the predictions the Natives made in the 1800s have come true. Look at the white buffalo. They had said it would show up in the future. I have a picture right here from when they brought the white buffalo from North Dakota to Calgary. You should have seen the Natives go marching in from all over Canada. We took some of his hair from the fence. That’s amazing since they predicted that long ago. There are a lot of predictions that people laugh at, such as that a time will come when money is no good or that trees will be very important. People laugh, thinking it is Indian thought. But I think we’re slowly going into it. Not in our time, thank God, but in our children’s time. There will be horrible weather because of lack of trees. Heat will hit hard if there’s no trees. Millions or billions of trees are being cut every year around the globe. You can’t keep that up.

People will try to survive. But they will need a different kind of building that can withstand the winds. They will know, I guess, what to do. As far as the plants are concerned, one of the reasons there is a lot of rain is that Nature is trying to clean the land. I have a letter here concerning where they are going to spray around three hundred acres on my trap line alone. What can you do? All you can do is watch. When we look at our children and grandchildren, they don’t know anything about how to survive. If you take them out in the bush and tell them they have to use moss for toilet paper, they scream at the top of their lungs. They want hot water. The ones who run camps for young people set camp where there’s electricity, gas, and water. They don’t want to have a hard time carrying water or looking for wood. They want portable toilets, the whole bit. If something goes wrong, those kinds of things won’t be there. So the survival camps are no good. I know how to survive. I fell in the river in the winter right up to my belly. By the time I got the skidoo out of the river, I was soaked from head to toe. I took off everything since it was soaked, including my lighter. I had about fifteen miles to get to my truck. The spark plugs on the skidoo are on top. When I got it running, I drove a little ways to a Spruce bluff. I put branches together and I used the spark plug from the skidoo to start the fire. I had to rinse my clothes, get as much water out as I could, and try to dry them by the fire. I couldn’t dry them but I got them nice and warm and put them back on. Then I took off and made it to the truck. But if I hadn’t made it to the truck, I was going to do the same thing again. That’s survival. But if that happens to any of these kids, they will be found dead, frozen, even if they get out of the water.

In the future if everything breaks down, we won’t have that skidoo either. People won’t be in the bush. They will all be in one corner of the recreation center starving, because that’s all they know how to do. They can’t go in the bush to find food because they would get lost and never come out. There are very few people who know north from south when they are in the bush. It’s not in their blood anymore.



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