"It Looks at All of You" -- Elders' Understanding and Utilization of Traditional Medicines in a Canadian First Nation Community
First Nation (Native Indian) people in Canada have higher incidences of every major disease than do the Canadian population, as well as higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancy. Calls for a new approach to health service delivery for aboriginal people emphasize the importance of community based treatment and the incorporation of traditional medicines and healing approaches. However, there has been little empirical research on how widespread traditional health knowledge and practices are after decades of suppression and neglect. Neither is there much empirical information regarding the relation of traditional approaches to 'western' mainstream practices. This paper presents findings from in-depth interviews with 52 Elders (over age 55) in the Tseshaht First Nation of British Columbia. The study was carried out with the permission and cooperation of the Tseshaht Band Council. Our data show that, despite being located near the medical facilities of a nearby city, support for and utilization of traditional medicines by Elders in the community remain widespread. Traditional medicines are generally not regarded by Elders as medications, but as means to link the individual holistically with the spirit and with nature. They are said to work because they engage the individual through faith in their capacity to cure holistically. Respondents reported little opposition from bio-medically trained medical practitioners, but suggested that traditional secrecy about such medicines hamper any efforts to link them directly with outside medical practices. Given the advantages of having aboriginal people involved in their own health care, coupled with the secrecy required by traditional practices, we recommend the parallel development of native healing programs integrated with mainstream medical treatment strategies as an appropriate approach to the health problems of Canada's First Nation communities.
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