The Canadian Cancer Society is currently experiencing technical issues on our phone lines. If you are unable to reach us through our phone lines, please connect through ‘Live Chat’, and an agent will be more than happy to assist you.
Aboriginal traditional healing
Aboriginal traditional healing is a broad term that describes the many different healing traditions within the different belief systems in Canada’s Aboriginal cultures. Aboriginal traditional healing has been used by Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years.
Elders hold a special place in Aboriginal cultures. Many traditional healers are elders. They know the traditions and values of their particular group and serve as guides and teachers. Healing is seen as a journey, and there is as much focus on spiritual and emotional healing as there is on the physical parts of healing. Health is seen as a balance and harmony within your mind, body and spirit, along with your community and environment. Illness or disease is caused by ignoring sacred, natural laws.
The medicine wheel and sacred herbs
The medicine wheel is an important part of Aboriginal healing. It’s a powerful symbol that represents the interweaving of life, health and the values of a person and their community. Different Aboriginal peoples have their own beliefs and teachings about the medicine wheel.
The number 4 is considered sacred by Aboriginal peoples, and there are 4 parts to the medicine wheel. The parts of the medicine wheel represent the 4 directions, the 4 seasons and the 4 aspects of health (spiritual, mental, physical and emotional). It also represents 4 sacred herbs or medicines that are important to Aboriginal cultures and traditional healing practices.
Tobacco is an important plant in Aboriginal cultures. Wild tobacco, which is picked and sundried, is used as an offering in Aboriginal ceremony or to give thanks after a successful hunt. In traditional Aboriginal cultures, tobacco is not usually smoked, except in pipe ceremonies. It is important to note that wild tobacco is very different from commercial tobacco. Many Aboriginal healers believe that the recreational use of commercial tobacco is unhealthy, harmful and disrespectful of the traditional use of wild tobacco. Find out more about commercial tobacco as a risk factor for cancer.
Sweetgrass is used for its cleansing, sweet smoke. It should not be eaten because it is poisonous.
Cedar is used in ceremonies. Both red and white cedars are used in Aboriginal traditional medicines.
Sage is used as a traditional herbal medicine. It is also made into smudge sticks to be used in ceremonies.
Methods used by traditional Aboriginal healers
Sweats are a cleansing and healing ritual. It is most often done in a sweat lodge, which is run by a person trained to conduct the sacred ceremony. Sacred herbs may be added to the smoke and steam during the ceremony.
Smudging involves burning sacred herbs in a bowl. A person puts their hands into the sacred smoke and carries it to their body, especially to areas that need healing. A smudge wand may also be used to direct the smoke around a person or around a space.
Healing circles are groups of people who gather together in the shape of a circle with the clear purpose of healing.
Ceremonies may include dancing, drumming and singing. They are used to encourage values such as respect, courage, strength, humility and trust. Restoring and maintaining these values is an important part of Aboriginal traditional healing.
Traditional diets may be recommended by Aboriginal healers. Many believe that typical Western diets are unhealthy because they are high in sugar, fat and white flour. In traditional diets, there is more emphasis on the foods that Aboriginal people ate before Europeans arrived in North America, such as game, fish and wild nuts and berries. Many elders believe that a return to traditional diets will help restore harmony and balance.
Herbal medicines are widely used by traditional healers to treat physical conditions. Herbal medicines may be from a particular area and are rooted in local knowledge. Herbal medicines may be used in various forms such as teas, powders or ointment.
Aboriginal traditional healing as a complementary therapy
There is no evidence at this time that Aboriginal traditional healing can treat cancer itself. Some research suggests that Aboriginal traditional healing gives strong psychological, emotional and spiritual support to people living with cancer. People who are part of traditional healing rituals and ceremonies may feel a powerful connection with their community and the earth. Stress, anxiety and depression can be eased with the feelings of support and acceptance.
There is very little research on the effectiveness of Aboriginal traditional healing methods.
Side effects and risks of Aboriginal traditional healing
Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about using Aboriginal traditional healing. Let your Aboriginal healer know about your cancer diagnosis and any conventional cancer treatments you are having.
Many Aboriginal traditional healing methods that involve ceremony, such as smudging and healing circles, are safe to use as complementary therapies. But if you’re dehydrated from side effects of cancer treatment, such as vomiting or diarrhea, going to a sweat ceremony may be risky.
We need more research to find out if it is safe to use herbal medicines along with conventional cancer treatments. Herbal medicines may affect how well conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy work. Some herbal medicines may also interact with other herbs or with over-the-counter drugs, which could be dangerous to your health.
Finding a traditional healer
Many Aboriginal health centres work closely with respected elders and traditional healers. There are also some hospitals that have programs for aboriginal patients and their families. These programs can help you contact an elder or healer.