The Cree Healer Series, Part 5
Categories: Guest Post Indigenous Cultures & Anthropology
Guest Post by David Young, Robert Rogers, and Russell Willier
Last time, the authors of A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle discussed the categorization of plants, both scientifically and in keeping with Cree orthography. Here, they talk about another big challenge in writing their book: revealing enough information about Russell’s medicine bundle to be effective while still protecting his traditional knowledge.
You can read the previous posts here:
Finding a Difficult Balance
The challenge of revealing enough information about the medicinal uses of each plant to be helpful while protecting traditional medicinal formulae from drug companies takes us back to one of the main issues of contention when Cry of the Eagle: Encounters with a Cree Healer was published in 1989. A major concern was that information about Native plant use would be co-opted by pharmaceutical companies who might employ this knowledge for profit by creating drugs that wouldn’t be used in their proper ritual context. Furthermore, such profits would have very little chance of getting to or helping the Native communities to which the traditional knowledge belongs.
To understand this issue more fully, it’s important to distinguish between folk knowledge of the general uses of a particular plant and the highly specific knowledge possessed by an experienced healer. For example, in collecting bark from a tree for medicinal purposes, it’s important that it be taken from a certain side of the tree; differences in sunlight and rain affect the properties of the bark, and the age of the tree, the depth at which the bark is taken, and the season must all be taken into consideration. Furthermore, most medicinal recipes used by healers involve the combination of several different herbs, following strict procedures. Russell’s combination for psoriasis treatment, discussed in Part One of this series, contained 13 different ingredients prepared in highly specific ways. In brief, there’s a vast difference between folk knowledge (which is useful in its own right) and the professional knowledge possessed by traditional healers.
In our book, Russell shares information that’s generally known about herbs at the folk level, but he often indicates that these same herbs are also used in combinations for other purposes. Information about these combinations is not provided. For example, Russell uses yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to treat stings, insect bites, and open sores. These uses are general knowledge. At the professional level, Russell uses this plant in combination with other roots for heart problems and chest pains. This approach provides useful information without giving away the actual formula for preparing a heart medication.
It’s a legitimate question to ask how such information, since it’s fairly general, will be able to help preserve specific medicinal knowledge for future generations of healers. It’s Russell’s belief that healers concerned about passing on their professional medicinal knowledge should use the book for training apprentices. For example, the healer could tell an apprentice that for a specific kind of heart problem, the plants on pages 55, 58, 62, and 64 (not an actual formula) should be combined in specific ways. The photographs and information provided on those pages would help apprentices find, identify, and collect the plants needed for a particular combination. More detailed information about the combination itself would be provided by the healer.
In brief, the book can be used in two basic ways: to provide general information on the usefulness of specific plants, and to serve as a type of textbook for training apprentices. It should be noted that, in A Cree Healer and his Medicine Bundle, Robert has supplanted folk information with information on how the plant is used by other Cree healers, in other Native traditions, and in modern clinical herbalism.
ABOUT DAVID YOUNG
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.
ABOUT ROBERT ROGERS
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.
Tags: Herbalism David Earl Young Robert Dale Rogers Russell Willer
ABOUT RUSSELL WILLIER
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.