Healthy harvest

Natural medicines scatter Manitoba’s plains, forests and rivers — if a person knows where to look


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Few activities bring Chickadee Richard the gratitude and comfort of gathering medicines on her family’s traditional harvesting grounds.

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Few activities bring Chickadee Richard the gratitude and comfort of gathering medicines on her family’s traditional harvesting grounds.

The Anishinabe grandmother is a matriarch in her home community of Sandy Bay First Nation. It was there her grandfather taught Richard to gather medicine. Now 60 years old, she has carried that knowledge since she was a child.

“It’s a beautiful feeling to be out there on the land, knowing those medicines are still around,” she said. “We speak to them just like we speak to (people). (Plants) have a spirit, and to us, we know that’s a relationship we’ve had since time immemorial.”

Chickadee Richard holds a bouquet of cedar, one of the medicines she gathers and uses. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Natural medicines scatter Manitoba’s plains, forests and rivers, sometimes in great abundance. If a person knows where to look, they can treat all manners of illnesses, from cancer to skin conditions. Some, like sage, cedar and tobacco, have long been used in ceremonies. These medicines reach deep into the body, cleansing the mind and soul, Richard said.

The oral history of where these medicines grow and what ailments they treat often remains in families for generations. Grandparents pass it to their children, who become parents themselves and continue the cycle. With this knowledge, roots, bark, leaves and flowers transform into salves, teas and treatments, Richard said.

“It’s like a doctor. A doctor knows how to prescribe certain medicines. Well, we know how to prescribe certain plants,” Richard said. “(We) still have the knowledge, and it’s inherited. Not something we just give out of a book,” she said, adding that understanding how these medicines work comes with a responsibility to harvest and honour them properly.

Each gathering expedition begins with prayers and a tobacco offering. As Richard collects, the land speaks to her, telling her which plants are ready for harvest and how much she can take.

Gathering is seasonal, with certain plants more or less abundant depending on the time of year. If Richard comes across plants that are too young or sparse, she moves on from the area, sometimes not returning for up to four years. The absence gives the medicine time to rejuvenate until it is ready to provide once more, she said.

“Everything is sacred and equal… I know that medicines are giving up their life to give me life, and that’s pretty powerful,” Richard said. “Some people don’t realize some of the traditional teachings around what to do… I don’t want to put the blame on them, it’s just the fact that there’s not enough teachers.”

Richard is careful not to discourage others from venturing out in search of medicine — connecting with the land is one of the sacred tenets of Indigenous cultures, she said. But she does encourage people to seek guidance so they can harvest responsibly.

“My hope is that the young people will go to the grandmothers and grandfathers and learn the protocols of medicines and picking. And what’s in them to help whatever ails them,” she said.

The knowledge is out there for those who seek it, said Jeannie White Bird.

White Bird is an Ojibwa from Rolling River First Nation. Now living in Selkirk, she is an active member of the city’s Indigenous community and teaches children about traditional ceremonies and medicine harvesting.

Over the last half-decade, she has seen a resurgence of Indigenous people interested in learning the practices of their forebearers.

Chickadee Richard holds a bouquet of cedar, one of the medicines she gathers and uses. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Reach out to people. Take those chances. Go beyond your comfort zone to ask those questions,” she said. “Just be willing to learn.”

She suggests harvesting with other people in pairs or small groups because it is a safer way to explore, and the companionship presents opportunities to share knowledge.

Depending on what a person is looking to harvest, they may not have to go far. Sage and sweetgrass can grow in ditches and near treelines. Municipalities often trim these areas anyways, so they are at low risk of being overharvested, she added.

Finally, White Bird offered a word of caution against picking medicines too closely to farmland that is sprayed with pesticides and fertilizer, warning it may be unsafe to burn or ingest it.

Harvesting plants, berries, nuts and mushrooms is generally permitted in provincial parks. Indigenous peoples engaged in hunting, fishing or trapping for food, gathering wild medicines, or practising ceremonies do not require a park vehicle permit.

“Anyone picking wild edibles or traditional medicines in parks is encouraged to harvest sustainably. Only select a few products from a variety of areas, rather than harvesting an entire area clean, to ensure plants can continue to reproduce in future seasons,” Manitoba Parks wrote in an email statement.


Updated on Monday, July 18, 2022 5:20 AM CDT: Fixes cutline

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