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Residential schools and the loss of aboriginal healing knowledge

July 6, 2013

The Residential Schools Commission recently visited Iqaluit and according to CBC North, provincial and territorial education ministers have resolved to include the history of residential schools in the curriculum.

When I hear about residential schools, I think about an abuse of trust, children and parents being torn apart, and those children subjected to strict rule and, in many cases, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. I think about them being forced to receive Caucasian names even different last names than their siblings. I think about them being forced to believe in one God and to follow European religious doctrine. They were made to live in unfamiliar situations with harsh discipline and limited links to their home community and supports.

What I find interesting is that the problem for some aboriginals is that it is not necessarily that horrible things happened to them while in school, but that they were deprived of the experiences they would otherwise have had. During those formative years, they were unable to witness and learn about their own culture. The negative legacy – language not spoken, traditional spirituality not practiced, and survival on the land too challenging – is pervasive.

I had a patient recently who wanted to seek some alternative remedies for an ailment. He told me about an old friend who mentioned that a concoction using various tundra plants could be applied to relieve pain. My patient lamented that he lacked the knowledge to make the poultice himself because when he was a child and would have learned to do this, he was instead attending a residential school.

I am not a naturopath but admit some fascination with the possibility that not all medicines need come from a lab. I wonder what evidence and knowledge we might have today if some of those young residential school kids had not been traumatized by the events surrounding their education and had instead been given a path to mix their traditional culture with a fascination in western science?


Close up of a Tamarack (Larch) tree from my wanderings in Inuvik. This is one of many useful plants found in the NWT.

The tender spring shoots are nutritious, and can be eaten when they are boiled. The inner bark (cambium layer) of the tamarack tree can also be scraped, dried and ground into a meal to be mixed with other flours which some references indicate is an acquired taste (Peterson 1977), while other references imply the gummy sap that seeps from the tree has a very good flavor when chewed (Hutchens 1973), as sweet as maple sugar.
A tea made from tamarack bark is used as a laxative, tonic, a diuretic for jaundice, rheumatism, and skin ailments. It is gargled for sore throats. Poultices from the inner bark are used on sores, swellings and burns, as well as for headaches. For headaches, Ojibwe crush the leaves and bark and either applied as a poultice, or placed on hot stones and the fumes inhaled (Erichsen-Brown 1979).
The Chippewa (or Ojibway/Ojibwe) word for tamarack is muckigwatigí meaning swamp tree. The bark of the tree is used for burns. For burns, the inner bark of tamarack is finely chopped and applied to the burn in the morning and partially washed off at night, then reapplied the next morning. The medical constituents of tamarack are a volatile oil which contains pinene, larixine, and the ester bornylacetate (Densmore 1974).
The Potawatomi and Menomini make a heat-generating poultice from fresh inner tamarack bark for inflamation and wounds, or steeped for a medicinal tea. They also use it as a medicine for their horses, either as a tea to help Menomini horses with distemper, or shreaded inner bark mixed with oats to keep the hides of the Potawatomi horses loose (Erichsen-Brown 1979).
The Cree have made traditional use of the tamarack, called wachinakiní or wageenakiní, for millenia.” – Native Plants

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 11, 2013 10:28 pm

    fascinating commentary. i had some exposure to this sort of aboriginal history while in Darwin, Australia… interesting to think of similar disrespect in this part of the world. good to keep an open mind regarding traditional medicines, but to also keep a natural skepticism that seeks truth

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