By Aaron Stuckel
Margaret Keewatin wasn’t always a believer in Cree culture. As the daughter of a residential school survivor, she was forced to attend a Catholic church for most of her childhood. But when she got married at the age of 21, she quit going. The freedom was satisfying at first. But soon enough, Keewatin felt she was missing something in her life.
This led her to discover the ceremonies of her ancestors. After the first sweat ceremony decades ago, Keewatin and her husband talked about their experience as they drove home. They both agreed: they’d found what they were missing.
“I’d been looking for something all my life, and I’d found it in the sweat,” she said. “I felt comfortable. It felt like I came home.”
Fast-forward to today, and Keewatin has fully embraced Aboriginal culture. As an Elder at the All Nations Healing Hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle, Keewatin is responsible for the cultural side of the healing process for patients who come in with a variety of problems. She deals with grieving families, drug addicts and alcoholics, and residential school survivors, among others.
Keewatin represents a different approach to health care that aims to cure a longstanding issue when dealing with First Nations patients. In a 2010 research study conducted by Holly Graham and Lynette Stamler at the University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal perceptions of health care in the province were investigated. They found “there were perceived differences in the treatment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in the health care system.” In fact, in the conclusion of their research, Graham and Stamler proclaimed that, “racism may well be seen as an appropriate addition to the determinants of health.”
While these perceptions may or may not be true, Dr. James Irvine, a medical health officer for three different health regions in Saskatchewan’s north, said that cultural differences between health providers and patients can cause problems.
“There’s sometimes a challenge between health workers providing good health messages and interpretations without having a cultural and language difference,” he said. “Just going from medical terminology to plain English is sometimes a challenge. That’s just accentuated when English is your second, third, or fourth language.”
The fact that First Nations governments own the ANHH helps to break down the mistrust between Aboriginal people and their health care provider. The hospital’s cultural program also helps by making Elders available to perform ceremonies and offer traditional medicines.
“A lot of people come to our ceremonies and are addicted to pills or alcohol,” said Keewatin. “So these ones get doctored, and we give them medicine to drink and that helps them to quit.”
These sacred medicines are stored in a small room at the back of the hospital. On a tour of the room, Keewatin points to different boxes of dried plants that deeply contrast the pills and needles of most conventional medicines.
“We call this rat root,” she said, pointing to a box full of dried brown twigs also known as sweet flag or calamus root.
Keewatin said she chews rat root when she has a sore throat, and the bitter taste “burns” all the germs.
There are other medicines in the room as well. Sneezing root, which is ground up into a powder and inhaled through the nose, causes a sneezing fit that is supposed to clean out the body. Horsemint, a weed that grows about knee-high and sprouts a single purple flower, is used to treat many digestive disorders and bladder infections. Sage and tobacco took up a large portion of the room, as they are both used in traditional ceremonies like the smudge. Keewatin said many grieving families request smudge ceremonies to help them cope with loss
“It helps them because, when you lose a loved one, it hits you hard,” she said. “If you smudge, that kind of eases the feelings a bit and it’s not so hard on you.”
Keewatin said that she has traditional medicines that help with many modern ailments including heart conditions, Lupus, AIDS, and even cancer. But most of the medicine is given on request only (to avoid malpractice), and must be traded for, never sold.
“It was given to us by the Creator,” said Keewatin. “If we sell it we’re abusing it.”
But for Keewatin, her job as an Elder in the community is also about restoring a culture that was nearly lost thanks to generations of First Nations people growing up in residential schools. She claims to be one of the few people in the Fort Qu’Appelle area who can still speak Cree, an important skill in ceremonies like the Shaking Tent where ancestors are contacted to ask for guidance. She takes carloads of people to the mountains in Alberta every summer to teach them how to cultivate medicines, and always encourages young people to attend ceremonies.
“When we go to a sweat, we take our kids because we need them to learn about our culture; where do they come from, why do we have the sweat, and how did it start,” she said. “As First Nations, we have to believe in something.”