pbk 328 pp
North Atlantic Books 2015
Reviewed by Richard Adams
Russell Wilier is a North American healer. He was born in northern Alberta into the largest group of first Nations people in Canada – the Cree. Brought up as a trapper, he inherited a medicine bundle from his great-grandfather. By this time the knowledge of how to use the bundles of medicinal herbs was already lost. He spent many years asking tribal elders how the herbal combinations were used. In time he was able to practise as a medicine man. Working alongside anthropologist David Young and botanist Robert Rogers he offers a personal account of his practice of a vanishing traditional medicine.
The book is organised into three parts. In the first he speaks about his native beliefs and role as a medicine man. The second contains an alphabetical presentation of monographs of herbs used in his medicine bundle with accompanying colour photographs. The third depicts a series of case studies of non native people from inner city Edmonton, suffering from the skin condition psoriasis that supports the efficacy of native medicine. The appendices cover maps of where herbs can be collected and also an English / Cree index of herb names. It has the merit of originality but part of this may really be because it is three books in one; in addition, much of the information on the identification and use of the medicinal plants for example can be found elsewhere. But the story, of what the Cree used for their medicine and how they used it, is novel and of this I would liked to have had more.
The American first Nations have suffered grievously from the domination of Europeans. Willier refers to: new generations who don’t speak their language or practice their culture They are being lost completely to the Western way of thinking. He cites this as one of the reasons for agreeing to Western medicine style measuring of the efficacy of his treatments so as to encourage young natives to have faith in their own cultural traditions. The conventional medical community holds that native medicine is unscientific and based on superstition so we often see traditional practices taken out of their holistic therapeutic context and exploited purely for the botanical material being used. The Cree author recognises that so much has been stolen already that they were against sharing their herbal knowledge. Now the consensus is that it must be preserved for the benefit of all not least their own future generations. This is Willier’s mission.
Willier describes his life as a healer with reverence and good humour like the story of a sweat lodge: …it was hot! Really hot….. I prayed for a while but then I couldn’t pray it was just too hot! …. Now I knew why nobody wanted to go to that sweat lodge. I liked his anecdotes about dreaming and praying: some contained fine examples of reflective practice using deep inner resources to achieve an individualised assessment and treatment plan.
In the appendices there are reproductions of maps. Because of the threat to the habitat of various medicinal plants in his bundle he believes that the most important thing to save traditional Cree medicine is to try and make the oil companies aware of where the plants are so they can go around it. He hopes people using the maps and identifying the plants in their habitat will ‘teach them respect’ and encourage them to bring the presence of these medicinal herbs to the attention of pipe line layers and the like. The ecological issues he raises are written in a conversational style. His is a personal account not a critical argument. Points made can conflict like aiming to influence oil companies’ pipeline policies but conceding that the intentional mismanagement of the natural environment can’t be stopped because ‘big money is at stake’. What is plain is his ardour for people to rediscover and utilise traditional skills and knowledge otherwise in the future if everything breaks down people won’t be in the Bush. They will all be in one corner of the recreation centre starving because that’s all they know how to do.
In the hand this has the feel of a well illustrated quality paperback. It is a good read but I have my doubts about its use as a reference book – the herbal monographs are patchy. I hope it reaches the Cree young so that they may discover the healing value of their own medicine and offer a live practice of medicine to the world. For others with a general interest in indigenous cultures and traditional herbal medicine this book is worth an airing.