BY AMIE LESYK
Winnipeg Health Region
Published Thursday October 6, 2011
Hot afternoon sun shines down on volunteers crouched among tall grasses in a quiet prairie meadow. The greenery camouflages them, with only the occasional head popping up from the brush.
This handful of Winnipeg Health Region volunteers is helping harvest sweetgrass, a plant considered to have both healing and spiritual qualities in traditional Aboriginal cultures.
Often seen in a braided and dried form, the work that goes into collecting sweetgrass and creating a braid is substantial. Once sweetgrass grounds are discovered, volunteers work among scratchy thorns and dry brush to seek out the long green blades. Twenty-one blades are needed for every braid and the grass must be hand-braided before it begins to dry and break.
The sweetgrass picked and braided during this outing will be used all year in the Winnipeg Health Region. The braids, along with other traditional medicine plants picked by volunteers, is used for traditional ceremonies when requested by patients to help them on their healing journey.
"It's really important for the emotional and spiritual wellness of the people," says volunteer Sylvia Boudreau, who is an Aboriginal advisor/liaison at Women's Hospital. Boudreau says the medicine picking experience is also personally meaningful. "It's an education for me as I'm in the stages of learning more about my culture."
The volunteer group, comprised mostly of Aboriginal staff and summer students from health-care facilities and programs, has journeyed to Peguis First Nation, a community located approximately 145 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Traditional healers Carl and Cathy Bird live in the area and are sharing a spot where sweetgrass grows. Both have education and backgrounds in nursing and a strong connection with Aboriginal Health Programs in the Winnipeg Health Region. Cathy is part of the Traditional Wellness Clinic at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, which runs two days each month. Patients, staff and members of the community can make appointments at the clinic to receive and talk about traditional healing and medicines.
Before volunteers head to the meadow, the importance of the day and the medicines is discussed. Sweetgrass is considered a sacred medicine that should be handled and treated with respect. Care and attention is required to leave behind the plant's roots, so it can continue to grow year after year. Prayers and a tobacco offering to the Creator are done to give thanks for the sweetgrass and other sacred plant medicines, and to ask for a positive day for the volunteers helping with this harvest.
There is much significance behind sweetgrass and the other sacred medicines Aboriginal peoples have used for generations. But that information is only shared in special circumstances. Most often an Elder will pass on teachings through oral story telling. This is how the importance and full meaning of traditional medicines and ceremonies are conveyed from one generation to the next.
"Sweetgrass is one of the four sacred medicines and can be used in all our ceremonies," says Stan Kipling, spiritual/cultural care provider with the Region's Aboriginal Health Programs. "It's very comforting."
The traditional medicines have the physical qualities provided by the plant, but also a spiritual or symbolic aspect associated with them. Sweetgrass is fragrant when dried and burned. It is often used as a form of purification of objects, people or places and can be used on its own or with other medicines. All elements of a sweetgrass braid are symbolic and have significance. The braid is said to be the hair of Mother Earth and the three sections of the braid represent mind, body and spirit. The sweetgrass, once braided, is stronger than any one strand on its own, which symbolizes community and unity.
"Some of the patients and their family members will request it for their home," says Kipling, who will give clients a sweetgrass braid in that case. "It can also be used as a gift to give someone to help if they are struggling with different issues."
Sage and cedar are two other sacred medicines picked by volunteers in the summer months and used all year for ceremonies and healing. The fourth sacred medicine is tobacco.
"Access to sacred medicines is one way the Winnipeg Health Region is working to ensure patients can have holistic care," says Cindy Hart, Program Director of Aboriginal Health Programs. "Some individuals and families require traditional healing and traditional ceremonies in conjunction with their prescribed medical path to help them on their healing journey and it's important we can provide that." Boudreau agrees, noting that traditional care can be as important as medical treatment for some patients. "It brings that overall wellness into the picture for them."
Boudreau also sees medicine picking as a way for her to help patients outside of her social work role. "I fully recognize the cultural significance of the sweetgrass and being able to pick the medicines. I'm honoured to be a part of bringing that into the hospital."
Video: Sacred medicines in the Winnipeg Health Region
Every year Winnipeg Health Region volunteers harvest sweetgrass, sage and cedar - sacred medicines used by some Aboriginal cultures - to be used throughout the region in traditional healing and ceremonies. In this exclusive video, Betty Ross, Spiritual/Cultural Care Provider for the region's Aboriginal Health Programs, talks about the significance of picking and using sweetgrass, one of the four sacred medicines.
People who want to learn more about sacred medicines can speak to Elders through local Aboriginal organizations, or can make appointments with the HSC Traditional Wellness Clinic or Aboriginal Health Programs - Health Services by calling 1-877-940-8880.