What Western Medicine Can Learn From Traditional Aboriginal Healing

Traditional Aboriginal Healing - Vancouver Island BC
Mural in Chermainus, Vancouver Island, BC

For me there is no denying, there is something so very enchanting about traditional Aboriginal healing. Maybe it’s the images of peyote and smoke ceremonies. Or maybe it’s the idea of the mysterious medicine man, with his limitless knowledge in healing herbs and plants. Or maybe its just knowing that our First People had an effective world of medicine before colonisation – medicine that came from this land and was specific for the people that inhabited it. Aboriginal healing extends far beyond herbal teas and smudging. At its roots it is the belief and the practice in a holistic approach to health- in treating the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual facets of health as one.

What Are Traditional Aboriginal Healing Therapies

Traditional Aboriginal Healing is extremely diverse, and can vary greatly from tribe to tribe and from healer to healer. Here are some examples of specific skills used by traditional healers to correct imbalances;

  • Divination or prediction to foretell or forecast events or situations, e.g., a seer can foretell the future. This may include dreaming of events to come,
  • Natural elements such as water, fire, smoke, stones, or crystals may be used as a projective field to help see the reason and/or course of an imbalance,
  • Prayer,
  • Chanting,
  • Use of music, singing, drums, rattles,
  • Smudging with medicinal plants such as sage cedar, sweet grass,
  • Laying on of hands,
  • Talking, counseling,
  • Medicinal plants or botanical medicines, that are made into teas, salves, ointments, purgatives and other substances,
  • Ceremony,
  • Sweat Lodge,
  • Shake tent,
  • Yuwipi,
  • Dance,
  • Dreaming,
  • Use of tobacco, either as an offering, or smoked,
  • Storytelling,
  • Star gazing, crystal gazing, and hand-tremblers,
  • Storytelling to entertain, and also to illuminate the path to health and wellness, especially in relationships and communities.

The majority of the examples above are specific to appointed Aboriginal healers and are not therapies that are easily accessible to the wider public. One important element of traditional Aboriginal healing that can be adapted and utilised by all is the emphasis on the connection between a human being and the planet itself. “View the earth as a source of life rather than a resource”. In this famous statement by Arvol Looking Horse he illustrates that in traditional Aboriginal healing, the earth’s health is seen to be very much connected to human health.

What Western Medicine Can Learn From Traditional Aboriginal Healing
Aboriginal Totem Pole, Newcastle Island, BC

Combining Western Medicine and Traditional Aboriginal Healing

The advances of Western Medicine really are something spectacular. Those born with type I diabetes prior to 1922 would not have survived due to lack of insulin. We now have effective vaccinations that have almost entirely eliminated crippling and deadly diseases such as smallpox, polio and measles. Even with these advances, it is not hard to see that something is lacking in our approach to health care. Too often we are treating the symptoms and not the underlying disease. We treat headaches with meds instead of addressing the deeper issue, whether psychological, nutritional or emotional. We take further medication for gastrointestinal upset, instead of identifying that life’s stressors could be the cause and instead focusing on them. We treat diabetics with medications rather than addressing diet, exercise and the emotional component first.

By recognising that the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the human being are all interrelated and a weakness in any of these areas causes a person to become unbalanced, our treatments could be much more effective. Simple ways to integrate Aboriginal healing techniques into our current medicine model include offering teaching on appropriate diet and nutrition in the treatment of diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or depression. Better access to health care providers who have time to listen, because very little insight into a condition can be gained in a 10 minute consultation. Other ways could be integrating talk therapy or meditation into treatments, or just acknowledging that being with someone who helps you feel at peace is healing in itself.

What Western Medicine Can Learn From Traditional Aboriginal Healing
Metlakatla BC – Home of Tsimshian Nation

Incorporating Aboriginal Healing Into Your Life

Our personal approach to health care is culturally-anchored. Culture determines how we view our illness and thus also our choice of healing treatments. Whether it be Western bio-medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayruvedic medicine from India, or the various traditions of Aboriginal healing – our choice in treatment stems from our own culture and upbringing.

Even if we are set firm in Western medicine, affirming the value in treating the body, mind and spirit as one is one aspect of traditional Aboriginal healing that we could all greatly benefit from. If you want to take it one step further, what can you do? Meditate, be in nature, nurture your body with good food, build a community around yourself, surround yourself with people that positively feed your mind. Most importantly, regard Mother Nature. She nourishes us with food and clean water, and in return all she asks for is respect.


Journal Article: Traditional indigenous healing: Part I by Roxanne Struthers,
Journal Article: Being healed by an indigenous traditional healer. Part II by Roxanne Struthers,
Paper: Traditional indigenous approaches to healing and the modern welfare of traditional knowledge, spirituality and lands by Julian Robbins.

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