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Aboriginal Medicine

Four Canadian plants with the power to heal


Aboriginal Medicine

The ancient medicine wheel model of Aboriginal healing is still relevant today. It's connected to the four sacred plants: tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, and cedar.

Although many people are constantly searching to find the newest, most exotic “miracle cures” around the globe, several medicinal plants come from Canada, where they have been used to heal by Aboriginal people for centuries. Aboriginal medicine incorporates the healing power of the medicine wheel.

Aboriginal healing

This sacred healing knowledge has been obtained through thousands of years of trial and error being passed down through generations, and its effectiveness is demonstrated today by the fact that many modern pharmacological formulas using plants can be connected to their original application by Aboriginal healers.

A key difference between Western healing methods and Aboriginal healing methods is the balance of practical and spiritual healing used in the latter. Generally, Western healing practices focus solely on the physical, whereas traditional Aboriginal healing practices explore the spiritual along with the physical, using ritual and ceremony to heal a person’s entire being.

With Aboriginal methods, healing is seen as more than just a quick fix; it is a journey and a process that is just as spiritually based as it is physically based.

The Medicine Wheel

One of the most well-known and sacred Canadian Aboriginal healing models is a simple circle divided into four sections called the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel dates back to stone circles found in North America from prehistoric times, and its concept and teachings continue to be relevant today. It is a powerful symbol that accounts for and acknowledges every aspect of existence in its four quadrants.

Each of the four sections has its own significance, which ties into the circle as a whole; there are four directions (north, south, east, and west), four seasons, and four culturally significant animals. There are also four plants with great healing power represented in the Wheel—sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco. These are called the four sacred plants, and they have been used throughout history to heal inside and out.

Here, we take a look at the traditional uses of these four sacred plants and the healing power they have to offer.

A quick caution

Caution and advisement from a registered herbalist or naturopath should be used when using any of these plants medicinally, as they are very powerful and potentially dangerous in large amounts, may interact with certain medications, and should not be used by those with certain health conditions.


Well known for its spiritually cleansing smoke, sage (Artemisia ludoviciana, also called prairie sage or white sage; not to be confused with Salvia officinalis) has been used as a physically cleansing plant.

When used externally, sage oil has many antimicrobial properties. It has traditionally been used to treat various skin conditions and sore throats; in salves to help various sores; and to fight various respiratory and stomach ailments, as well as infections such as cold and flu. Sage has also been used traditionally in Aboriginal medicine when combined with steam vapour and inhaled to treat respiratory conditions.

Smudge sticks made from sage are available at select retailers across Canada.


Sometimes called the “sacred hair of Mother Earth,” sweetgrass is often dried and braided, then burned so that its sweet smoke can be used in ceremony.

This sacred hair has been used to heal dry, chapped skin, eye irritations, coughs, and sore throats. Traditionally, it has also been used to stop bleeding after childbirth and to treat venereal infections; however, sweetgrass is toxic and should not be consumed.

Some Aboriginal tribes such as the Blackfoot used sweetgrass as a hair rinse to make hair healthy and shiny, and it has also been used as a calming body wash. Some groups even used it as perfume.

Sweetgrass is not commonly sold, as it is seen as disrespectful by many Aboriginal communities to obtain it this way; however, it grows commonly in the prairies and is also easy to grow at home.


Cedar is often called the “tree of life”—and for good reason. When diluted and applied topically, eastern red cedar is thought to be soothing to aches and pains resulting from conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism and was a traditional remedy to help control bleeding. Some tribes also made cedar berry tea as a remedy for asthma. Cedar has also been used as a natural antibiotic to treat various infections and cleanse the body. Hot cedar baths are used for treating dry skin.

Because of white cedar’s high vitamin C content, it has been used as a traditional remedy for colds. Explorer Jacques Cartier’s crew was said to be cured of scurvy in the 1500s by the Iroquoian tribe of eastern Canada, who likely gave the men white cedar tea.

Cedar essential oil is available in most health food stores, but keep in mind that essential oils are for external use only.


Since commercially available tobacco has many negative associations, such as disease and addiction, it may be surprising that wild tobacco is considered a sacred healing plant that is commonly used in Aboriginal ceremony as an offering. While the commercially made tobacco that we associate with smoking is cured using various methods and mixed with chemicals, ceremonial or sacred tobacco is usually sun-dried and free of additives.

Although the tobacco plant is native to South America, it now grows in various parts of North America and actually has many functional healing purposes. Wild tobacco leaves are thought to contain antispasmodic, narcotic, and sedative properties.

Traditionally, sun-dried tobacco has been made into a powder and used on wounds to promote healing and lessen pain, or smoked in a limited fashion during ceremonies. It is said to be a connection to the plant spirits, so it is often left as an offering and an expression of gratitude whenever medicinal plants are taken from the earth. It is also commonly given to elders and medicine people when asking questions as a sign of respect.

It’s important to note that the recreational use of tobacco is clearly harmful and addictive. Such use is discouraged and is considered disrespectful by Aboriginal elders.

Ceremonial tobacco is available at certain outlets in Canada, such as Mother Earth Tobacco in Winnipeg.

Finding an Aboriginal healer


The American Cancer Society notes that scientific research has not provided evidence that Aboriginal medicine can cure disease; however, the Cancer Society believes that Aboriginal medicine may provide a patient with beneficial communal support that can effect a positive outcome on disease.

If you’re interested in speaking with an Aboriginal healer, keep in mind that finding a healer often depends on word of mouth. You can ask for recommendations from your current health care practitioner, and you may also call a nearby band office or Aboriginal health administration office. It is considered a sign of respect to offer a healer ceremonial tobacco.



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