Gathering Mi’kmaq Medicine

Mom became ill after my baby brother Joe was born. I was young then, but later Granny told me, my sister Loretta, and Joe the story.

The midwife had arthritic hands which she rubbed with wintergreen to help ease the pain. We don’t know what happened, whether your Mom developed the infection from the wintergreen or something else. But she became very sick.

There wasn’t a doctor in our isolated community so we had to depend on the parish priest who was a medic in the army. He arranged for a helicopter to fly her to Gander Hospital; your father went too and stayed in a boarding house.

The doctors couldn’t treat your mother. She was left alone in a private room to die. She spent months unconscious and when she finally opened her eyes, she said, “I’m thirsty.”

Many more months followed and your mother finally became well enough to come home. It was a rough time with you three children and nursing your mother back to health, but we did it. Your great grandmother knew the medicines from Mother Nature and that’s what cured her.

*

I have my own memories of that time—and of the years that followed. When Mom and Dad returned from Gander, Dad went to work in the logging camps but Mom still couldn’t walk or dress and feed herself. Granny took care of us all. She fed us and loved us and many nights I cried myself to sleep on her shoulder as she rocked in the birch chair. Squeak, squeak went the rockers. I missed my mother’s loving care, but Granny sang songs and hummed while I snuggled in her arms and played with her curly hair. I felt safe and secure there.

Over the following years, Granny taught me the skills of life. I remember wiggling my fingers through the flour as we made bread. I washed clothes in an old galvanized tub with a scrub board that made my knuckles bleed. She taught me how to knit socks one stitch at a time, how to fish, and how to snare rabbits and clean them.

Most of all, Granny taught me the traditions of Medicine Gathering. When I was eleven, she said, “You are old enough to learn about the medicines. Next year you will be twelve, a time when a girl can become a woman, and you will need to know these medicines.” She braided my long blonde hair and continued, “My mother, your great grandmother, was a medicine woman. She used the medicines to cure people. Tomorrow, I will take you to the woods so you can learn.”

tba by Heidi Jirotka

In Between by Heidi Jirotka

The next morning, we left home early. The woods were cool and the sun peeked through the trees. The birds talked and sang as we entered the path that led to the medicine plants.

“There’s a black cherry tree,” Granny said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

Granny looked at the branches. “It has black, rough fungus growing on its trunk,” she said and ran her hand down the side of the tree. “We can remove the inner bark, steep it, and drink the liquid to cure a cough.”

She placed the bark in a leather bag and tied it in a knot. Then she opened her leather medicine bag that she kept around her neck. With her long fingers she removed pieces of tobacco and held them in her left hand, close to her heart. She looked to the sky and down to the ground. She asked the Creator and Mother Earth to keep the medicines strong. She offered the tobacco to the tree in thanksgiving for its medicine.

Through out that day and the many that followed, Granny taught me to find Manitou Berries under the yellow-brown moss and how those berries thinned Grandfather’s blood after his heart attack. She showed me the Golden Thread roots used for Dad’s stomach ulcers. Together, we found turpentine concealed in tree trunks and Granny reminded me how the sticky liquid mended Uncle Larry’s foot after he cut it with his axe.

When we stopped for a lunch of moose meat sandwiches and bottles of water, I would sit on tree stumps beside streams and listen to the birds and animals. Then I’d walk along again holding Granny’s hand. As we chatted about plants and trees, I could hear the pride in her voice. She loved showing me her mother’s traditional medicine.

“Did you notice the spruce trees near the brook?” she asked one day. “The needles are full of vitamin C and this beige gum will cure sickness and help keep you healthy. We will gather some for the winter months.”

“Can I chew some now?” I asked.

Granny cut the gum away with her knife and gave me a piece. “Just keep chewing it until it gets hard.”

“It’s sticking to my teeth!”

Granny laughed. “Just keep chewing, it will come away from your teeth.”

When it was time to return home, we would walk the same path. As the mosquitoes swarmed and bit us, Granny would bend down and pull a sweet fern from the ground. She’d rub the fern over her arms and legs: “The mosquitoes and flies don’t like it,” she said. At the end of a day, Granny would have filled five bags with plant medicine but the drying and steeping would have to wait for another day.

*

My mother recovered from her strange illness, and five years after Joe was born, she gave birth to my sister Betty. Dad passed away two years ago but Mom lives a good, healthy life. She is now eighty-five, walks a kilometer a day, and lives in her own home. Granny always said, “It was Mother Nature’s medicine and the remedies from your great grandmother that gave your Mom back her health and quality of life.”

I finally graduated from Granny’s teachings and become her helper as she treated the people of our community. Many years later, and many thanks to Granny, I chose a career in nursing. I now practice and share the medicines and cures taught to me by my grandmother.

Ellen Hunt

About Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt writes: I am a Mi'kmaq First Nation from the Qalipu Band in NL. We lived the Mi'kmaq way of life in St. Joseph's Cove, a community of 34 families. We hunted, fished, gathered Mother Nature's medicine, shared, and helped one another. I attended Holy Cross High School and graduated grade 11. I then worked at Harbour Breton Cottage Hospital as an aide. I trained as an Nursing Assistant at Central Newfoundland Hospital in Grand Falls, NL, and graduated in 1973. I moved to Riverport, NS, in 1977 with my husband, Winston, and our daughter, Melvena, who was 19 months. In 1978, we had our son Mark. We now have three grandchildren, Ethan, Aidan, and AJ. I started writing for the Mi'kmaq Maliseet News about 16 years ago and also wrote news reports for different organizations in the local Progress Enterprises and Bulletin. I belong to the Gallow's Hill Writers of Lunenburg and write stories of my culture and traditions. I am writing a short story book on Mi'kmaq culture and living in Newfoundland during my childhood. I volunteer in the community, teach our Mi'kmaq culture, drum and sing Mi'kmaq songs with the Heartbeat Drummers, do ceremonies, and help out whenever I can with various organizations both Native and non-Native. I am the Co-Founder of the Mi'kmaq French Descendents Reunion Festival and Co-founder of Terre-Neuve Newfoundlanders and Friends Association, which sponsors The Newfie Days Festival, now in its 18th year in Lunenburg, NS. I am a member with Native Council Nova Scotia Zone 5. If you want to learn about your Mi'kmaq culture and traditions or your geneology, I am willing to share what I know through workshops.

About Heidi Jirotka

Heidi Jirotka is a natural light photographer with over 20 years experience. Although her initial focus was on newborn and child photography, her portfolio is now diverse. Heidi lives in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, with her husband and their two children. You can find her work online at heidijirotka.ca.

One thought on “Gathering Mi’kmaq Medicine

  1. Avatarsunny McMillan Kuskin

    Ellen is like a sister to me. Through her story, I know even more about her. She is “the best”, and I am glad you recognize that.I miss my many friends in N.S.so much.

    Reply

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