Indigenous groups turn to Chinese medicine

Claire Gao in her clinic at Helping Spirit Lodge. | Photo by Yusheng Cai

In Olivia Jim’s deep memories, there’s a garden where her grandmother grew plants.

My late grandma used to make her own medicines out of the dandelions in the backyard garden,” says Jim. “She had her own medicines, made her own tea.”

As a member of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations, Jim grew up outside of Smithers, B.C., but she fled the community with her mother after a history of domestic violence and settled in Vancouver. In the city, Jim struggled to reconnect with the natural medicine of her childhood. One day, she went to see a Chinese doctor to treat her migraine.

“She reminded me of my grandma’s garden,” says Jim.

Now, as executive director at Helping Spirit Lodge Society, an organization that supports women dealing with domestic violence, Jim brings in traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to treat other Indigenous women. Jim is part of a growing group of Indigenous Canadians choosing Chinese medicine as a substitute for indigenous remedies.

“We use devil’s club, dandelions – everything that is naturally outside,” says Jim. “I’m not quite sure if I can say it’s different [from traditional Chinese medicine].”

No access to indigenous medicine

Being away from her land for years, Jim feels the connection is cut between Indigenous people and their medicine. Among many First Nations people who use the lodge, it’s become a common feeling. Cree woman Anne Savard says she can remember very little of the traditional medicines of her childhood.

“The only thing I remember is what we called rat root. We used to chew on it if we were getting a cold or sore throat. That’s the only sort of Indian medicine that I’ve experienced,” she says.

Savard, who used to be dubious about traditional Chinese medicine, is now using Chinese herbal therapy after she got worried about how many prescription drugs she was taking. Another patient who comes to the lodge, Lillian Antelope, also worries about the loss of knowledge.

“We get our knowledge in person on the territory. When we leave the territory, we know nothing about indigenous medicine. So here’s the thing, we don’t have a systematic practice as traditional Chinese medicine does,” says Antelope.

Common thread of nature

Anne Savard at Claire Gao’s clinic. | Photo by Yusheng Cai

People from both groups – Indigenous and Chinese – say they see similarities with the other.

“We are closely related in culture. That’s why Indigenous people embrace our medicine,” says Claire Gao, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine who goes to the Helping Spirit lodge once a week to provide free treatment.

With chronic back pain, Lillian Antelope comes to Gao every week for series of oral and topical herbal treatments. For Antelope, the treatment brings her back to the days when her mother would soothe her flus and colds with herbs.

“She mixed mustard plaster and put it on my chest. The pain would go away,” Antelope says. “Miss Claire uses herbs too. My back has been getting better now.”

But the similarities between the two medicines do not end with herbal treatments. Both medicines use sweat lodges to cleanse one’s body and treat illnesses, according to Jim.

“We believe sweating can get rid of flus and colds too,” says Gao, referring to the important role that saunas play in traditional Chinese medicine.

Hope for further co-operation

One of the challenges for Indigenous communities in Canada trying to hang onto traditional medicine is that they are losing the territory they once had where herbs grew. Chinese medicine, in contrast, has a stable source of herbs.

Traditional Chinese practitioners in Vancouver source raw herbs from mainland China or concentrated solution from Taiwan, according to Gao. Due to its popularity, many farmers choose to cultivate traditional Chinese medicinal plants.

“Urbanization isn’t really a challenge for traditional Chinese medicine, as medical plants are preserved well as a system,” Gao says.

After years working to promote health care in Indigenous communities, Jim says she will continue to integrate traditional Chinese medicine into her work. Meanwhile, she looks for knowledge keepers in her community who can document indigenous medicine.

“They knew their medicine, they knew their wits and everything,” she says. “I wish somebody could document it and put it on a piece of paper.”