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Indigenous Knowledge and Medicine

North American Indigenous pedagogy acknowledges diverse ways of knowing and respects the pluralism of knowledge. Like many traditional cultures, there seem to be an acceptance of highly sensitivity as a natural trait that some people simply possess. Their understanding of health is quite different from modern traditional western medicine. Health varies depending on the geographic and cultural diversity within a specific indigenous community as a result there is no uniform health approach.  But, some commonality seems to exist between different aboriginal cultures as to what constitutes health.

For many, ancestral knowledge is recognized as essential to preserve and inculcate to the younger generations. Elders are the knowledge keepers who pass on traditional teachings in many Aboriginal groups or communities. Their teachings or experience may include knowledge about traditional medicines, spiritual knowledge from dreams, visions, myths and legends that can help people with their health issues or other problems, cultural or traditional skills. Aboriginal culture implies a respect between different age groups: “Traditionally, there has been a unique mutual respect between elders and youth in Aboriginal communities.  Youth value the wisdom and teachings of their elders, while elders value the power that youth have to carry on traditional practices and become the leaders of tomorrow.  Youth look to elders for guidance and elders empower youth with the knowledge and skills they need to “walk in a good way.” (Emilea Karhioo, ANFCA, 2009)”[i].

According to The Government of Alberta, many Aboriginal persons believe that well-being is made up of mental, physical, spiritual and emotional elements. Aboriginal health tends to gravitate towards a more holistic approach to medical treatment that offers a balanced and interconnected worldview. It involves the use of traditional healing practices that are based on beliefs related to the Medicine Wheel:

In the Medicine Wheel, balance between all four spheres of the wheel is needed for health: mental (mind), physical (body), emotional (heart) and spiritual (spirit). People are always in a state of change, so the Medicine Wheel also shows motion and the need to continually focus on the process of balance. Healing from illness, trauma and grief involves re-establishing a balance among the four spheres of the Medicine Wheel (Anishnawbe Health Clinic, 2006).

Many Aboriginal people learn through the Medicine Wheel that balance is needed within an individual, between other living things and Mother Earth (National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2005). Many would say that embracing these beliefs can help to create healthy Aboriginal communities.”[ii]

In these cultures, nature is the connection to “spirit”. According to the Metis Exchange Portal:

Ancestral knowledge is an integral part of traditional environmental knowledge as an influence on subsequent generations in understanding and interacting with the natural world. [iii]

Indigenous traditional medicine is inherently tied to land and expressed through language and culture and continues to abide by an animist understanding of the world. As the aboriginal health framework elaborated by Battiste and Henderson states:

“Indigenous peoples regard all products of the human mind and heart as interrelated within Indigenous knowledge. They assert that all knowledge flows from the same source: the relationships between global flux that needs to be renewed, the people’s kinship with the spirit world. Since the ultimate source of knowledge is the changing ecosystem itself, art and science of a specific people manifest these relationships and can be considered as manifestations of people’s knowledge as a whole” (Battiste and Henderson, 2000: 43)[iv].

Traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous people differs in many important aspects from our western perspectives. It is highly localized, decentralized and sensory based. It focuses on the web of relationships between the ever changing “flux” and humans, animals, plants, natural forces, spirits, and land forms in particular locality, as opposed to the discovery of universal laws (Battiste and Henderson, 2000: 44). Indigenous knowledge has become a form of “ethnoscience”, an indigenous epistemology tied to the land, the spiritual laws that govern that land, and how co-existence between animal, plant and human life interrelate to a collective balance (Cajete, 1994).

The flux mentioned here echoes what Deleuze and Guattari discussed. While not all aboriginal cultures are nomadic, they position the “spatial embodied knowledge” we examined in chapter 2 as central to life and being. Interestingly, this inclusion of spatial embodied knowledge as “law” is not unique to North American Indigenous cultures; it can also be found in the East where the senses, space and energy are imbedded into a definition of health. Subject of my next post.

Previous: In Search of a Sensory Health Model, Next: Eastern Medicine: An Embodied Animist Model of Health

Work Cited:

[i] Healthy Alberta (2014). “UNDERSTANDING HEALTH AND WELLNESS FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF ABORIGINAL PEOPLES IN CANADA”. http://www.healthyalberta.com/699.htm

[ii] Healthy Alberta (2014). “UNDERSTANDING HEALTH AND WELLNESS FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF ABORIGINAL PEOPLES IN CANADA”. http://www.healthyalberta.com/699.htm

[iii] http://metisportals.ca/environment/?page_id=57

[iv] Battiste, M., & Henderson, J. (. (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage. Saskatoon: Purich Publishing Ltd.




  1. Pingback: Eastern Medicine: An Embodied Animist Model of Health | The Highly Sensitive Family - December 19, 2014

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