The Healing

Quebec Cree revive traditional medicine to cure a modern disease
If you turn away from the ancient beauty of Mistissini’s forested lakeside, it looks for all the world like a suburb, with wide streets and rows of identical houses. It’s a town built for driving, although it stretches only a couple of kilometres end to end and you rarely need to get anywhere quickly. Even on a bright summer afternoon, the place has a suburban hush; except for the odd street hockey game, the kids are all inside playing video games. The busiest spot in town is Adels restaurant, which serves up burgers and poutine. It seems the largest of Quebec’s James Bay Cree communities has adopted many characteristics of southern culture, and not all are welcome.

“We had no diabetes before, because the people were very active and very slim,” elder Minnie Awashish explains through an interpreter. After a controversial 1975 settlement with Hydro Quebec, the Cree redeveloped Mistissini and stopped relying on the bush for their livelihood. She gestures to her generously round body: “That’s why you see us like this.” Awashish herself is among the 20 percent of Cree adults living with type 2 diabetes, which can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart disease — even death. She’s also a traditional Cree healer. She learned to prepare and administer medicinal plant and animal extracts from her father, who learned from his parents, but those skills had fallen out of favour — until recently. Today the Cree, as well as some interested neighbours to the south, think traditional medicine may be the key to treating this modern affliction.

Search for the cureWestern medicine misses the trees for the forestIllustration by Jeff KulakJeff KulakThe Huron cure for scurvy was nothing short of a miracle for Jacques Cartier and his men during the frigid winter of 1535: “If all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier had tried with all the medicine in Alexandria,” he wrote in his journal, “they could not have done as much in one year as this tree did in eight days.” Cartier praised God for the remedy, neglecting to thank his native hosts for his crew’s salvation. He also neglected to translate anneda, the Iroquoian word for the curative evergreen, possibly cedar, in his notes — an oversight that would cost many mariners their teeth, if not their lives. It took A Treatise of the Scurvy (1753), by Scottish surgeon James Lind, for a cure to be recognized in Western medicine. — Jonathan Simpson
Just before the turn of the millennium, when it became clear that clinical medicine wasn’t curbing diabetes (dosing regimens don’t necessarily mesh with the Cree rhythm of life), community leaders began looking for ways to integrate indigenous healing. The initiative soon captured the attention of Université de Montréal pharmacologist Pierre Haddad, and in 2003 healers in four Cree communities, including Mistissini, agreed to collaborate with him and a team of other researchers to investigate traditional medicines’ effectiveness. Armed with a list of symptoms, the healers identified plants that might combat them, with seventeen making the short list for further study. Guided by the healers, the researchers then collected the plants and, in university labs, characterized the chemical makeup of various extracts and assessed treatment outcomes, first in cell cultures and then with mice. Their findings, now appearing in prestigious journals such as Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, show some of the remedies to be as beneficial as prescription drugs typically used to manage diabetes.

The work constitutes an unparalleled validation of traditional medicine, but freely sharing this information has its risks, as the history of aboriginal exploitation demonstrates. “First Nations people have to take a leading role in making sure we protect our own rights,” says Kathleen Wootton, deputy chief of Mistissini from 2002 to 2010. Concerned about potential abuse, she enlisted lawyer Elisabeth Patterson to draft a research agreement. “People talk a lot about traditional knowledge protection, but it is rarely translated into legal terms,” says Patterson, who has worked for various Montreal firms specializing in aboriginal issues. “There were really no precedents.” So, building on guidelines from the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and with the scientists’ support, she and Wootton set one, with the Cree and the university researchers to share in new discoveries arising from the collaboration. “It’s essentially half and half,” Patterson says of the agreement, signed in October 2009. “But if there is a disagreement over what to do with any new knowledge — say, using it to develop drugs — the Cree get to make the call.” They also hold a veto on information to be released, so all documents produced by the researchers are translated into Cree and read to the elders, to receive their nod of approval before going to publication. The contract is considered a model for defining future collaborations between First Nations and university researchers.

Whatever else may come of these scientific and legal breakthroughs, however, the goal has always been to improve the lot of the Cree communities involved. To that end, the Cree Health Board recently began a two-year study to establish how traditional and European approaches might best work together. “Originally, we wanted to have both types of medicine available at the clinic, so patients could choose between them, and if problems arose in treatment then the doctors and healers could help each other out,” says Paul Linton, the CHB director responsible for coordinating the study. “But the elders thought that might not be a good idea, because of the smell that results from making some remedies. They also felt they should be prepared in the traditional way.” Now, although study participants have their blood sugar and blood pressure monitored by clinical staff, they visit healers at remote camps to learn how to make their own medications.

And they are doing so in increasing numbers, heading off the suburban roads and into the bush to gather the plants that will help them forge a healthier future. “We want to be there for our community,” Awashish says, on behalf of those whose skills were all but lost to modernity. Thanks in part to their allies in labs and clinics, there is once again a role for traditional healers.

7 comment(s)

AnonymousDecember 14, 2010 08:33 EST

Hats off to Mistissini for piloting this!

randall paquinJanuary 03, 2011 11:56 EST

Feel good after reading the article but where's the meat (turkey) ? Try again with facts.

Brian LynchehaunJanuary 03, 2011 12:42 EST

"(dosing regimens don’t necessarily mesh with the Cree rhythm of life)"

You mean to say that the Cree were not following the medical instructions. No wonder it had no luck.

This kind of vapid presentation of nonsense is a primary reason I have no interest in subscribing to this magazine. (hint: a medical methodology that manages to pick out plants with medicinal properties by luck does not constitute a 'knowledge system')

dikodJanuary 22, 2011 10:43 EST hope is that your comment is simply a joke. Unfortunately I suspect it isn't. Most available medical knowledge was aquired by "luck" and how many drugs started their lives as proposed remedies for something only to find that they work even better for patients suffering from something else? What has modern medical science ever done for us? (I detect a Monty Python moment). Seriously though, it isn't sensible at all to belittle or reduce the importance of traditional knowledge. We have much to learn from the old ways, hopefully before ever more of it is lost.

StacyJanuary 30, 2011 17:43 EST

First off, hats off to the Cree - finding natural and traditional ways to treat diseases is definitely an overlooked method in the pharmaceutical monolith that is Canadian health care.

But - "European approaches"? That completely belittles the Canadian contribution to diabetes management. The Canadians Banting and Best discovered insulin in the early 20th century, and the University of Alberta was one of the leading research centres for pancreas transplants for diabetics. Also, "dosing regimes" aren't meant to curb incidents of diabetes, they're meant to control it once you have it. But, I suppose, neither of those facts get the journalistic point across. It's a little frustrating that an article that has such a good message - alternative, natural ways to improve your health - requires sensationalist tactics to grab attention.

Gasper JackFebruary 21, 2011 16:46 EST

I find it a good thing for the tradionalist healers and the university pharmacy peoples trying to start a collaberation and documentation of tradiional cures, I imagine the scientific deciphering of the herbs healing qualities and actually registering them and identifying them scientifically will be a big boom for the tradionalists.
On a different vein, the pharmaceutical companies trying to outlaw or crimanalize tradional or herbalist out of healing sick peoples in Canada and the U.S.A. Heres hoping for a concerted effort on both parties to solve some of these deadly diseases, we`re here to do our best always.

Rachelle April 22, 2012 18:34 EST

However, all in all, there is no safe, secure way to work in collaboration, because in the end its about these multinational Governments who pursue on Indigenous peoples way of life and turn it around into pills for pharmaceutical processes and distribution. Its about the money and not to benefit the Indigenous people. Truth!

Add a comment

I agree to’s comments policy.

Canada & its place in the world. Published by
the non-profit charitable Walrus Foundation
The Walrus SoapBox
The Walrus Laughs
Walrus TV