The term 'medicine', as it applies to Native American traditions, tends to sound a bit misleading. Its origin is actually a corruption of the word 'Midewiwin' (mih-day-i-win), the name for the Grand Medicine Society of the Anishinabe. From this corruption, we derive the word 'medicine', which refers to traditional healing herbs and to many aspects of spiritual practices. We also get the term 'Medicine Man', which in popular use has become a catch-all term for someone who is knowledgeable about traditional herbal remedies, or who carries out certain spiritual ceremonies.


There are a number of sacred medicines that are used commonly for ceremonial purposes by Native American peoples, including the Mi'kmaq. In general, these are used for purification prior to participating in a ceremony, or for daily spiritual cleansing. This process is referred to as 'smudging', and simply involves burning the medicine to produce smoke, and using the smoke to cleanse. According to teachings, the smoke attaches itself to negativity within us, and carries it away; when the smoke vanishes, so does the negativity. In addition, these medicines can be used as offerings when desired.


Sweetgrass (hierochloe odorata, or vanilla grass) is often used for smudging. Sweetgrass grows wild all across North America, and is one of the most commonly-used medicines among the First Nations. When it is burned, it produces a sweet-scented smoke similar to some incenses.  This scent is attractive to spirits of all types. Sweetgrass is most often available in braids, as shown, and is thought of as the hair of Mother Earth. Mi'kmaq tradition names sweetgrass as the sacred medicine of the East direction.


Sage is another very common smudging herb. While any sage will do the job, white sage (salvia apiana) is generally preferred. This sage is known by a number of different names regionally. Its thick leaves and tendency to smolder well and produce a very pungent smoke are what make it perfect for smudging. Sage smoke is attractive to spirits of good intent, but is repellent to spirits that intend harm. For this reason, sage is particularly useful for smudging and purifying people, objects, areas or structures. Placing crumbled sage leaves with an object is considered to be protective as well. For the Mi'kmaq, sage is the sacred medicine of the South direction


Cedar is the sacred medicine of the West direction, and is used for cleansing and energizing. We frequently use cedar to line the floor of our sweat lodge, and have prepared a number of combinations of different cedars for smudging. Cedar smoke has a fresh, invigorating scent. Since cedar is not common throughout the Maritimes area of Canada, the Mi'kmaq frequently used juniper, a close relative, for the same purposes.


Fungus is the traditional Mi'kmaw medicine of the North direction, but it has been largely ignored today and replaced by tobacco. Fungus can be used by women to protect men from the draining effects of moon-time. A particular favourite is locally called deer-foot fungus, and is a subspecies of hoof fungus (polyporus fomes fomentarius) that grows on birch trees.


Tobacco is very commonly used for offerings by most First Nations, and is often an ingredient used in smoking preparations for the sacred pipe. The familiar tobacco plant did not grow in the Maritimes area; instead, the Mi'kmaq used a plant called "Indian tobacco" (lobelia inflata.) This was frequently used in a smoking mixture called 'kinnikinnik' which also usually included alder and red willow bark and bear berry leaves, among other herbs.


Many plants were used in traditional healing. In some cases, the plants were well-known folk remedies, such as willow bark, which contains salicylic acid and was self-prescribed as required as a pain reliever. However, in more serious illnesses a spiritual element is required in addition to the botanical element, and the combination of medicines for one person may not be the same as for another person with the same condition. A true Healer or Medicine Person will receive guidance from the spirits regarding what combination will work in a particular case. For this reason, it is generally ineffective (and possibly dangerous!) to try to use Native American healing preparations that have not been given specifically to you for your condition.

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Updated: 26 Mar 2016 Print Page