In Olivia Jim’s deep memory, there’s a garden where her grandmother grew plants.
“My late grandma used to make her own medicines out of the dandelions out of the backyard garden,” said Jim. “She had her own medicines, made her own tea.”
As a member of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Jim grew up outside of Smithers, B.C. But she left the community with her mother as a child and the two settled in Vancouver.
In the city, Jim struggled to reconnect with the medicines of her childhood. One day, she went to see a Chinese doctor to treat her migraine.
“She reminded me of my grandma’s garden,” said Jim.
Now, as executive director at Helping Spirit Lodge Society, an organization that supports women dealing with domestic violence, Jim brings in traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to treat other indigenous women.
The mission of the society is to end the cycle of violence in indigenous communities using a holistic approach to healing with “culturally relevant” practises. Traditional medicines are part of the practice and Jim is part of a growing group of indigenous people including traditional Chinese medicine as well.
“We use devil’s club, dandelions – everything that is naturally outside,” said Jim. “I’m not quite sure if I can say it’s different [from traditional Chinese medicine].”
The connections between traditional medicines are present across the country. In the Fraser Valley, Seabird Island and Sumas First Nations have invited traditional Chinese medicine practitioners into their communities. And in northern Quebec, one practitioner spent a year visiting the Cree of the Waskaganish working to reduce community members’ blood pressure, improve their diet and strengthen their digestive systems.
Traditional Chinese medicine, which involves acupuncture, herbal medicine and massage, treats illnesses ranging from flus and colds to more severe diseases like cancer. It has grown into a global industry worth well over $100 billion.
No access to indigenous medicine
Last Friday, Jim picked up the phone. It was her mother and she wanted to go back home to the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
“She wants to go back home and pick up some devil’s club. We’ll find out where we can get it. We can’t just get it in the city here,” said Jim, pointing to the busy streets outside.
Being away from their land for years, Jim and her mom feel the connection is cut between indigenous people and their medicine.
That’s a common feeling among many First Nations people.
Anne Savard, who is Cree from norther Quebec, said she can remember very little of the traditional medicines of her childhood.
“The only thing I remember is what we called rat root. We used to chew on it if we were getting a cold or sore throat. That’s the only sort of Indian medicine that I’ve experienced,” she said.
Savard, who used to be dubious about traditional Chinese medicine, is now using a Chinese herbal therapy after she got worried about how many prescription drugs she was taking.
Another patient who comes to the lodge, Lillian Antelope, also worries about the losing traditional knowledge.
“We get our knowledge in person on the territory. When we leave the territory, we know nothing about indigenous medicine. So here’s the thing, we don’t have a systematic practice as traditional Chinese medicine does.”
Common thread of nature
People from both groups — indigenous and Chinese — say they see similarities.
“We are closely related in culture. That’s why indigenous people embrace our medicine,” said Claire Gao, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, who goes to the Helping Spirit lodge once a week to provide free treatment.
With chronic back pain, Lillian Antelope comes to Gao every week for series of oral and topical herbal treatments.
For Antelope, the treatment reminds reminds her of the days when her mother would sooth her flus and colds with herbs.
“She mixed mustard plaster and put it on my chest. The pain would go away,” Antelope said. “Miss Claire uses herbs too. My back has been getting better now.”
But the similarities between the two medicines do not end with herbal treatments. Both indigenous medicines use sweat to cleanse one’s body and treat illnesses, according to Jim.
“We believe sweating can get rid of flus and colds too,” said Gao, referring to the important role that saunas play in traditional Chinese medicine.
Hope for further co-operation
One of the challenges for indigenous communities in Canada in hanging on to traditional medicine practices like herb gathering when traditional territories are being developed.
Chinese medicine, in contrast, have a stable source of herbs.
Traditional Chinese practitioners in Vancouver source raw herbs from mainland China or concentrated solution from Taiwan, according to Gao. Due to its popularity, many farmers choose to cultivate traditional Chinese medicinal plants.
“Urbanization isn’t really a challenge for traditional Chinese medicine, as medical plants are preserved well as a system,” Gao said.
After years working to promote health care in indigenous communities, Jim says she will continue to integrate traditional Chinese medicine into her work. Meanwhile, she looks for knowledge keepers in her community who can document indigenous medicine.
“They knew their medicine, they knew their wits and everything,” she says. “I wish somebody could document it and put it in a piece of paper.”