Indigenous Peoples' Medicine in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Indigenous Peoples' Medicine in Canada

Since time immemorial Indigenous peoples in Canada have been using plants and other natural materials as medicine. Plant medicines are used more frequently than those derived from animals. In all, Indigenous peoples have identified over 400 different species of plants (as well as lichens, fungi and algae) with medicinal applications. Medicine traditions — the plants used, the ailments treated, protocols for harvesting and application, and modes of preparation — are similar for Indigenous peoples across the country. In many Indigenous communities, there are recognized specialists trained in traditional medicine, and their practice often reflects spiritual aspects of healing as well as physical outcomes. In many cases, the therapeutic properties of Indigenous medicines are attributable to particular compounds and their effects on the body, but in other instances, their application is little understood by western medical practitioners. Within Indigenous communities, specific methods of harvesting and preparation of medicines are considered intellectual property of particular individuals or families.

Content Disclaimer: The information provided here is not intended as medical advice. The use of any medicines should be done in consultation with a trained physician or healthcare provider. As well, The Canadian Encyclopedia recognizes and respects that the rights to specific medicinal teachings are community-held and does not claim ownership over the below knowledge.

History of Indigenous Medicine

The use of medicinal plants has been a part of people’s healing traditions worldwide, probably from humans’ earliest beginnings. Among Indigenous peoples in Canada, the origin of some medicinal applications is chronicled in stories, such as in the Siksika (Blackfoot) narrative of how a woman named Last Calf, who had tuberculosis, gave food to a beaver, who in turn gifted her with a vision of a cure for her ailment. She was told to boil the pitch of the lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in water and drink the infusion, while singing a special song. After following these instructions, Last Calf was cured.

When Europeans and other newcomers arrived in Canada, they quickly learned about and adopted many of the plant medicines used by Indigenous peoples. One famous example is how French explorer Jacques Cartier and his crew, suffering from scurvy when they were overwintering at Stadacona (now Quebec City) in 1536, were saved by local Haudenosaunee. The Haudenosaunee brought them a coniferous tree (which Cartier named “tree of life”) and told them how to prepare it as a medicine. In turn, Indigenous peoples in Canada learned to use medicines from Europe and other parts of the world, such as the latex of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) to remove warts, or the fragrant pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) to make a medicinal tea.

New diseases were also introduced by the Europeans. Smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, and some venereal diseases were not originally known or widespread in Canada, but soon after European contact, spread in epidemic proportions among the Indigenous populations. Existing medicines were applied to treat these new ailments, and in some cases new medicines were developed. For example, sweetflag (Acorus americanus), already an important medicinal plant of the boreal forest region and eastern Canada, was used to treat smallpox. Barestem lomatium (Lomatium nudicaule), called q’əxmín in a number of West Coast languages, was used to treat tuberculosis, and came to be known as “Indian consumption plant.” Diabetes has become prevalent among Indigenous populations, and traditional medicines, such as the inner bark of devil’s-club (Oplopanax horridus, a shrub in the ginseng family, Araliaceae), have been adapted to treat this new disease.

How Are Indigenous Medicines Used?

For Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere in the world the line between food and medicine is blurred. There is a notable overlap between plant species that are edible and those with recognized medicinal qualities.

All different parts of plants — roots and underground parts, bark, leaves, buds, flowers, fruits, and sap or pitch — have had recognized medicinal uses, and there are many different modes of preparing and applying them. Medicinal plants contain a range of diverse organic compounds, including alkaloids, glycosides, tannins, flavonoids, resins and volatile, or essential oils. The quantities of these compounds vary with the lifecycle stage, plant part, location, and genetic makeup of the plant, as well as what the weather was like recently and which plants are growing nearby. The specific compounds may interact in different ways to produce therapeutic effects.

Medicinal plants are treated with great reverence and respect, in acknowledgement of their gifts and service to people. Healers carefully prepare themselves for their work, and follow strict cultural protocols relating to harvesting, preparing and administering their medicines. Although some types of healing require particular spiritual preparation, traditionally healers and shamans in Canada have not relied on mind-altering plants or mushrooms to the same extent as in parts of central and South America. Healers do undergo particular purification rituals to give them special energy that often involve fasting and taking certain preparations of plants as emetics or purgatives said to give them the powers required to do their work. There is often no strict division between physical and spiritual aspects of healing.

Common Medicinal Plants in Canada

The following table provides examples of some well-known medicinal plants, widely used by Indigenous peoples in Canada, and listed in alphabetical order of their scientific names.


Applications and Notes

Abies species (true firs family)

Contains a range of aromatic compounds, resins, tannins and volatile oils. Liquid pitch from bark blisters, bark needles and cones are used; pitch and needles used as poultice for sores, wounds, bruises, cuts, sprains, burns, bites, and infections; pitch and tea of bark or branches used to treat sore throat, coughs, colds, tuberculosis, digestive tract ailments, and as tonic and purgative; pitch also used in eye medicine, hair tonic, and deodorant; incense from boughs used to treat headaches, lung problems, and for spiritual protection.

Species used include amabilis fir (A. amabilis), balsam fir (A. balsamea) grand fir (A. grandis), subalpine fir (A. lasiocarpa); used across Canada by virtually every Indigenous group where any of these species occur.

Achillea millefolium (yarrow)

Contains aromatic compounds including menthol and thujone; leaves, roots and flowers all used; leaves chewed for colds and coughs; leaves or roots used as a poultice for sores, cuts (said to stop bleeding), abscesses, burns, boils, skin rashes, and broken bones; also for bronchitis and coughs; leaves or whole plants soaked in water to make a shampoo; tea of the leaves drunk as a blood purifier, for diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting, nausea, colds, coughs, sore throat, headache, toothache, fever, convulsions, and rheumatism; used as diuretic and for liver troubles; plants used in childbirth, lactation and for gynaecological problems; also for insect bites and as a smudge or solution, for repelling insects and as a scent and air freshener.

One of the most widely used medicinal plants in the world; used by virtually all Indigenous peoples across Canada.

Acorus americanus (American sweetflag)

(photo by Jack Greenlee, US Forest Service/Wikimedia CC)

Plants contain a complex mix of aromatic and other compounds; used in traditional medicine by both First Nations and early settlers; thick root systems (rhizomes) are the main medicinal part; used as a panacea and to treat a broad spectrum of ailments: upset stomach, sore throat, colds and coughs, respiratory and lung ailments like pneumonia, toothache, earache, heart disease, headache, cramps, sore chest, cholera, and smallpox. It was also taken by women after childbirth. Today, powwow singers nibble on the rhizomes to enhance their voices.

An important medicine for Cree, Mi'kmaq, Algonquin and Haudenosaunee among other Indigenous peoples; it was widely traded and transplanted along trade and settlement routes across Canada.

Alnus species (alders)

The bark of alders is the main medicinal component; infusion or decoction of the bark of various species (e.g. A. incana, A. rubra) used as an emetic, laxative and diuretic, and for toothache, internal bleeding, haemorrhaging lungs, cramps, coughs, and tuberculosis; also used as a wash or salve for skin ailments, mouth sores and infections.

Alder species were used as medicines by Indigenous peoples across Canada, wherever alders are found; researchers have found strong antibiotic properties in alder bark extracts, effective against a range of bacterial pathogens.

Artemisia species (Sagebrush, wormwood, sagewort)

Wormwood (Artemisia campestris)
(photo by Jacob W. Frank, courtesy Canyon Country Discovery Center/Flickr CC)

These aromatic shrubs or herbaceous perennials are widely used, as infusions or inhalants, to treat colds, coughs, and respiratory ailments. They are also prepared as washes or poultices for wounds, skin irritations and infections, blisters, sprains, sores and swellings, or as a bathing solution for rheumatism, arthritis and muscular aches and pains. Several species are also burned on ceremonial occasions as protective smudges or incenses. Some of the key species used include field wormwood (A. campestris), “caribou leaves” (A. tilesii), northern wormwood (A. frigida), wild tarragon (A. dracunculus), white sagebrush (A. ludoviciana), and big sagebrush (A. tridentata).

There are over 20 species of Artemisia native to different regions of Canada, and many of them are used medicinally. They contain a range of aromatic compounds that give them their distinctive fragrance; some are considered too strong to be taken internally.

Asarum species (wild ginger)

Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum)
(photo courtesy Pictoscribe/Flickr CC)

Wild ginger leaves and especially the root systems (rhizomes) are strongly aromatic. The plants are used externally, as bathing solutions and poultices for headaches and body pains, cramps, infections and boils, and for spiritual protection. They are also used as infusions taken internally for convulsions, headaches, fevers, measles, colds, and coughs, and as a general tonic and blood purifier.

There are two species of wild ginger native to Canada: A. caudatum in the west, and A. canadense in the east. Both are similar and used in similar ways by Indigenous peoples within their range. They contain essential oils (including asarone) that give the plants their spicy flavour and fragrance and are said to have antibacterial properties.

Cornus sericea (red-osier dogwood, or “red willow”)

Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
(photo by Matt Lavin/Flickr CC)

This shrub, especially its inner bark in the form of a poultice or infusion, is used to treat a range of afflictions from wounds, sores, cuts and infections, to toothache, liver troubles, colds, coughs, tuberculosis and chest congestion, as well as paralysis. It is said to stop bleeding and alleviate pain. An infusion of the inner bark is used by some as an eyewash for sore eyes. It is also drunk by athletes and those in training as an emetic and strengthener.

Red-osier dogwood is used medicinally by Indigenous peoples across Canada, with many anecdotal accounts of efficacy.

Heracleum maximum (cow-parsnip)

Cow-Parsnip (Heracleum maximum)
(photo by Andrey Zharkikh/Flickr CC)

The young shoots of cow-parsnip are edible when peeled, and were an important springtime edible green. The plant was used as a medicine by many Indigenous groups across Canada. The fleshy roots are macerated and used as a poultice or in the form of a steambath for many ailments, including: boils and swellings, bruises, toothache, lung or hip pains, warts, rheumatism and headaches.

Heracleum species contain furanocoumarins, compounds that are phototoxic, causing blistering and irritation of the skin in the presence of ultraviolet light (e.g. sunlight). They should be used only with great care and expertise.

Juniperus species (junipers)

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

(photo by Nikita Tiunov/Flickr CC)

Junipers are widely known as sources of flavouring and incense in many parts of the world. The round, berry-like seed cones are particularly potent, but the boughs with or without these cones are strongly aromatic due to resins and volatile oils. (Note: the essential oils of junipers can be toxic and possibly carcinogenic.) Infusions or decoctions of juniper are taken to treat coughs, lung disease, tuberculosis, stomach pains, indigestion, vomiting and kidney troubles among other ailments. Juniper is also used as a bathing solution, inhalant or in sweatbathing to alleviate arthritic and rheumatic pains, chest pains, headaches, wounds, sprains and as a shampoo. Juniper is also burned as an incense for ceremonial protection, and is used as a cleansing wash to protect against illness or any evil influences.

There are five species of juniper native to Canada: two (J. communis, J. horizontalis) are shrubs with a wide range, including in the boreal forest, and three (J. maritima on the west coast, J. scopulorum in the western interior and J. virginiana, in southeastern Canada) are small trees. Junipers are sometimes also called redcedar, not to be confused with trees of the genus Thuja.

Mentha arvensis (field mint)

Field Mint (Mentha arvensis)
(photo by Andrey Zharkikh/Flickr CC)

The minty smell of this and other mint species is due to menthol and other volatile oils. Many Indigenous peoples turn this plant into a beverage, but also drink it as a medicinal tea to treat colds, coughs, chest pains, stomach pains and heart ailments. It is also believed to help prevent illness, such as flu.

This mint is circumpolar in distribution and can be found in marshes and other wet places across Canada.

Oplopanax horridus (devil’s-club)

Devil's-Club (Oplopanax horridus)
(photo by Murray Foubister/Flickr CC)

For many Indigenous peoples of Western Canada, this is one of the most important medicines, although it is very prickly and difficult to harvest. It is a panacea and general tonic, and used to treat many diverse ailments. Traditionally used in solution to treat rheumatism, arthritis, ulcers, stomach and digestive tract ailments, colds, coughs, influenza, bronchitis and tuberculosis, it is also applied externally as a poultice or wash for boils, wounds, broken bones, burns, and infections. It has been used in recent times to treat diabetes and cancer. Devil’s-club is also recognized as a strongly spiritual plant and is used to bring luck and protection against any negative influences.

In some places devil’s-club has become quite rare and there are concerns around its commercialization. The green inner bark of the stems and roots is the most common part used.

Picea species (spruces)

Spruces are used medicinally by virtually all Indigenous peoples in Canada. The aromatic pitch and gum are particularly well known as medicinal salves, applied externally as a poultice for cuts, wounds, and infections, as well as for sore throats, heart trouble, rheumatism, back ache, and stomach troubles. Spruce gum is chewed as a laxative and taken by women as a postpartum medicine. Spruce gum and spruce bark are also used to treat colds, coughs, influenza and as a general tonic. The inner bark, as well as being edible, has been taken as a laxative. A medicinal tea can be made from the green needled twigs, and people sometimes chew on the very young buds and shoots, which are a good source of vitamin C. Spruce boughs are also used for ritual protection and purification. Sometimes people maintain “pitch trees” over generations.

There are five species of spruce native to Canada: P. glauca (white spruce) and P. mariana (black spruce) grow across Canada in the boreal forest; P. rubens (red spruce) grows in eastern Canada and P. sitchensis (Sitka spruce) and P. engelmannii (Engelmann spruce) in western Canada. These species sometimes hybridize.

Populus balsamifera; (cottonwood or balsam poplar)

The fragrant, resinous buds are used widely to make healing salves, applied to open sores, wounds and infections. An infusion of the buds is drunk for coughs, sore throats, and tuberculosis. The roots, bark and leaves are also used medicinally. For example, the Nuxalk of BC use the leafy branches in a sweatbath to treat body and lung pains, and the Algonquin make a healing salve from the roots as well as the buds.

The inner bark of cottonwoods has been used as a food by some Indigenous peoples. Cottonwood, like willows, contains the analgesic salicin.

Prunus species (cherries)

Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana)
(photo by Ryan Hodnett/Flickr CC)

Cherry bark, leaves, unripe fruits and pits contain cyanide-producing glycosides, and can be harmful if taken in excess. Nevertheless, cherry bark, as an infusion, is well known to Canada’s Indigenous peoples as a remedy for coughs, bronchitis, and colds, and has also been used to treat heart trouble, blood poisoning, infections, tuberculosis and smallpox. It is also used as a general tonic.

There are several species of cherry native to Canada, the most common being choke cherry (P. virginiana) and pin cherry (P. pensylvanica); both are used medicinally.

Veratrum viride (false hellebore)

False Hellebore (Veratrum viride)
(photo by Kerry Wixted/Flickr CC)

This plant contains a range of toxic alkaloids that can affect the nervous and circulatory systems and should never be used except under advice from a qualified healthcare specialist. It is well known to Indigenous peoples of western Canada. The root is the main part used, generally applied as an external poultice for arthritis and rheumatism, sprains, fractures, phlebitis and bruises. It is also administered, with great care and in small amounts, as a medicine for headaches, indigestion, and chronic cough, and as a laxative and emetic. It is said to have strong spiritual protective powers and is used in purification rituals, as a smudge or incense.

This plant was once used as a pharmaceutical to treat high blood pressure, but was replaced by drugs with more predictable and consistent physiological effects.

Commercial Uses of Indigenous Medicines

Of the approximately 400 species of medicinal plants, lichens, fungi and algae documented as used by Indigenous peoples in Canada, few have been exhaustively analysed chemically or tested in clinical trials. However, a number of the plants used medicinally by Indigenous peoples in Canada have been adopted more widely and incorporated into western medicine. In the past century, for example, cascara bark (Rhamnus purshiana) from British Columbia was harvested commercially for the pharmaceutical industry for use as a laxative medicine. Other plants like kinnikinnick, or uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), goldthread (Coptis trifolia), echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) and witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) have also harvested commercially, and, more recently, with the discovery of the anticancer drug Taxol in the bark of Pacific yew ( Taxus brevifolia), yew bark was heavily exploited, leading to a decline in the populations of this slow-growing and relatively uncommon tree of western Canada. Another valued medicinal plant, roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), of northern Canada has been recently highlighted as an “adaptogen,” a medicine to help the body resist stress and increase energy, endurance and strength. Plants growing under particular environmental conditions, such as mineral rich soils, are also being highlighted for their healing qualities. In fact, many herbal medicines are being “rediscovered” for their healing and health-maintaining properties, and research on their phytochemical properties, efficacy and applications is ongoing.

Further Reading

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