When reconciliation goes through science

For generations, Canada’s First Nations have learned to use the plants around them to fight disease and heal wounds. But part of this knowledge was lost with the arrival of the Europeans.

Today, the elders are dedicated to transmitting this knowledge to the younger ones. Due to colonization, our people have become very skeptical because our way of life has been very demonized.says Florence Allen, an elder from the Peter Ballantyne Cree First Nation near Prince Albert.

But since I come from a line of healers [medicine people], was still practiced on the reservation where I lived. And when we left the reservation, we still had our medicine with us. If we hurt ourselves in the woods or were stung by a bee, we would take a leaf from a tree, chew it, put it on the stinger, and the swelling would go away.

Elder Florence Allen being interviewed.

Florence Allen is on the Canadian First Nations University Council of Elders.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michel Riverin

Teaching indigenous knowledge at the university

For a long time, modern medicine paid little attention to traditional indigenous medicine. However, this is changing, thanks in part to the Canadian First Nations University in Saskatchewan. This institution, whose main building is in Regina, also has campuses in Saskatoon and Prince Albert. This one-of-a-kind university incorporates traditional indigenous knowledge into all of its programs, from the sciences to the arts.

The main building of the First Nations University in Regina, Saskatchewan.

The Canadian First Nations University in Regina has been in existence for more than 45 years.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michel Riverin

This was what prompted Juleah Duesing-Bird, a young woman of Aboriginal descent, to enroll in the science program at this university. My great-grandparents went through residential schools and that caused the displacement in my family. So my mushum [grand-père], who should have received all these cultural teachings, did not receive them. So I did not grow up with these teachings.she says.

You don’t normally see an institution like this that sees indigenous knowledge as part of Western science. »

a quote from Juleah Duesing-Bird, science student at the First Nations University of Canada
Juleah Duesing-Bird wearing a lab coat and protective goggles in a laboratory

Juleah Duesing-Bird studies science at the First Nations University of Canada.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michel Riverin

To pass on this knowledge, a council of elders, including Margaret Reynolds and Florence Allen, help develop the content of the programs. I wanted to help where I can, share what I knowsays Archie Weenie, another member of the Sweetgrass First Nation Council of Elders. So maybe it will help us heal, and those who go to college can use that knowledge wisely.

Archie Weenie sitting inside the University.

Archie Weenie is also a member of the Canadian First Nations University Council of Elders.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michel Riverin

The chemistry of medicinal plants.

The University’s teaching staff also includes non-Aboriginal professors, such as the chemist Vincent Ziffle. What attracted me to the Canadian First Nations University was the community, the seniors, the students, as well as the opportunity to work in a unique university system.he explains.

The chemistry professor dedicates his university research to the medicinal properties of native plants. I have the opportunity to reflect on how certain molecules help plants defend themselves and why medicinal plants, valued by indigenous peoples for millennia, are still very relevant today.

Vincent Ziffle in a lab coat in his lab.

Chemist Vincent Ziffle studies the properties of indigenous medicinal plants.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michel Riverin

The scientist is particularly interested in a category of molecules known as alkaloids. These molecules may be bitter alkaloids that make the plants less palatable to predators. And it turns out that these alkaloids also have medicinal properties.he says.

All of our projects begin with consultation with the elderly we work with. We ask for their perspective, and sometimes they share information we didn’t expect. »

a quote from Vincent Ziffle, Chemist, Canadian First Nations University

The knowledge of Aboriginal elders is invaluable to Vincent Ziffle. The elders teach him not only where to find these plants and what season to pick them, but also how to prepare them to optimize their medicinal effect.

For example, in some cases, the leaves of the plants are infused to make herbal teas, while in others, they are used as an ointment to treat skin problems. The plants my grandmother used were mainly Labrador tea, peppermint, red dogwood, and blueberries, says Margaret Reynolds. She used them to make poultices, teas, for various health problems. Sometimes they were inhaled or smoked.

Properties proven by science

Certain properties of plants traditionally used by First Nations have long been known in medicine. For example, red osier dogwood contains a molecule, salicin, from which aspirin, the active ingredient in aspirin, was developed. When my grandmother used it [le cornouiller stolonifère] with other herbs, it was for headaches, stomachaches, all the problems like thatMargaret Reynolds remembers.

Red wicker dogwood branches

Red osier dogwood, a traditional medicinal plant, contains a molecule from which aspirin was synthesized.

Photo: Pond5 / Andrei Bryzgalov

Another plant, sweet flag, has proven effective against certain bacteria, such as ME. coli. Lsweet flag is our essential remedysays Florence Allen. It is an antibiotic. If someone is sick, this is the first thing we bring to them. But it doesn’t taste good. and my poor children [rire], that’s what I brought you! And I added a little honey and lemon juice.

The work of Vincent Ziffle and his colleagues has led to the determination that three indigenous medicinal plants, the bare-stemmed macaw, the wild raspberry and the prairie rose, are very rich in polyphenols. These molecules have antioxidant properties that delay cell degradation and therefore help prevent certain diseases.

Vincent Ziffle and Juleah Duesing-Bird in lab coats in a laboratory

Chemist Vincent Ziffle, accompanied by his student Juleah Duesing-Bird, analyzes the composition of medicinal plants in the laboratory.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michel Riverin

reconciliation through science

Beyond the scientific knowledge that emerges from the collaboration between chemist Vincent Ziffle and indigenous elders, this project contributes in its own way to reconciliation between First Nations and Canada.

Vincent Ziffle is in turn responsible for sharing the results of his research with older people. Previously, there wasn’t really a return of knowledge to communities in a way that would have allowed them to thrive.he explains. It is important to share what you learn. Our ultimate goal is to be able to give back to the community.

As a non-native who practices science, I am very aware of the difficulties caused by the colonizers, by the scientists who extracted the resources in a harmful way. When I work with these communities, with the elderly, I know that they are aware of this. This sometimes leads to difficult but really important conversations. »

a quote from Vincent Ziffle, Chemist, Canadian First Nations University

Elder Margaret Reynolds emphasizes that it is time for indigenous knowledge to be recognized at its true value. For so many years, our indigenous peoples were relegated to the background. But today we are talking. We say to people: look at us, we are here, we have always been here.

The report by Bouchra Ouatik and Jean-François Michaud is broadcast on the program Discovery Sundays at 6:30 p.m. on ICI Radio-Canada Télé.

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