The Cree Healer Series, Part 4

Posted by – August 25, 2015
Categories: Guest Post Indigenous Cultures & Anthropology

Guest Post by David Young, Robert Rogers, and Russell Willier


Cree Healer

Last week, David, Robert, and Russell tackled the logistical challenges they faced when researching and compiling A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle. Today, they discuss the process of identifying and naming plants Russell uses in his practice.

You can read the previous posts here:

Part One | Part Two | Part Three


The Cree Healer Series, Part 4: Correctly Identifying Each Plant in Terms of Its Scientific Name and Correct Cree Orthography

Part of the research conducted in preparation for the book, A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle, involved correctly identifying the plants in Russell’s medicine bundle. This was not a simple process, especially since several of the plants have changed their binomial classification in recent history. First, there are a number of closely related species whose appearances are very similar. The photographs taken on the field trip had to be sufficiently detailed that Robert Rogers, an ethnobotanist with extensive knowledge of plants in Alberta, could distinguish which species was actually being used by Russell. Visual information, including photographs of the plants in both summer and fall, was supplemented with knowledge of the habitat in which each plant was found. Fortunately, Robert was familiar with all of the plants as he lived in the area for a number of years.

Russell could not be of much help because he does not use the scientific names. Instead, he uses a Cree name for each plant, as well as what he believes to be an appropriate English common name. For example, the scientific name for Red Osier Dogwood is Cornus stolonifera. The Cree name is Mikwapimakwa, and the English common name assigned to this plant by Russell is Red Willow. Russell uses several different species of what he calls “willow”, such as Hill Willow, Peanut Willow, Silver Willow, Summer Willow, Diamond Willow, and Snake Willow. Since some of these plants have similar looking foliage, they had to be distinguished on the basis of close-up photographs of the bark.



To further complicate the issue, there is a good deal of variation in the Cree names for plants used by healers, even though they may live very close together. In other words, there is no official Cree orthography. The authors considered using Russell’s version of the Cree names involved, but Russell himself admitted that he might have learned the name incorrectly or was not pronouncing it properly. To solve this problem, we contacted Clifford Cardinal (referred to in Part One of this blog series), a noted Cree healer and academic at the University of Alberta. Clifford supplied us with proper Cree orthography for what he considers to be the terms most widely used by Cree healers. The information was provided to Russell, who agreed in all cases, that despite some differences, he was happy with the orthography provided by Clifford Cardinal.




David Earl Young spent much of his childhood in Sierra Leone, West Africa. After returning to the U.S., he graduated with a BA in sociology and philosophy from the University of Indianapolis, followed by a BD in religion and anthropology from Yale University, an MA in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii, and a PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. Dr. Young taught anthropology for many years at the University of Alberta in Canada before retiring to take a teaching position at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. He has conducted fieldwork in Mexico, Japan, China, and northern Canada. Dr. Young and his wife are retired and living on the island of Gabriola, off the west coast of Canada.



Robert Dale Rogers, BSc, RH/AHG, FICN, has been a student of native plants and fungi from the Canadian prairies for more than forty years. He is a retired clinical herbalist, amateur mycologist, and professional member of the American Herbalist Guild. Rogers is an assistant clinical professor in family medicine at the University of Alberta. His over 20 books and ebooks may be found here. They involve the traditional use of plants and fungi of the boreal forest with special attention to application by aboriginal healers. Rogers teaches plant medicine at Grant MacEwan University and the Northern Star College of Mystical Studies in Edmonton. He is a consultant to the herbal, mycological, and nutraceutical industries, is currently chair of the medicinal mushroom committee of the North American Mycological Association, and is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. Rogers lives in Edmonton, Canada with his wife, Laurie. You can visit their website here.



Russell Willier was born on the Sucker Creek Reserve in northern Alberta. He grew up in a large family of twelve brothers and sisters. His father was a skilled hunter and trapper who passed his knowledge about the traditional Woods Cree way of life on to his son. Willier attended Catholic mission school but quit in order to help his parents on the family farm. Even at an early age, Russell showed signs of having been selected by the Spirit World to be a healer, but he resisted for many years. Eventually, he accepted this responsibility and received the medicine bundle of his great grandfather, Moostoos, a well-known healer in the area and signer of Treaty 8. By the time Willier received his medicine bundle, the knowledge of how to use the little plant packets inside it had been lost, so Russell showed them to elders and asked if they knew how these “combinations” were used. Gradually, over many years, Russell pieced together the information he needed to begin practice as a Medicine Man. Willier, who still lives on the Sucker Creek Reserve, travels extensively to treat those who call upon him for help.

Tags: Herbalism David Earl Young Robert Dale Rogers Russell Willer

About the Author

Bevin is the publicity and marketing manager at North Atlantic Books.