It was noon, a cloudy day at the beginning of November at Black Creek Pioneer Village, a place that seems frozen in the times of 1860 and that highlights an invaluable cultural heritage in Toronto. It is a village that seeks to rebuild Toronto’s history through collective memory and the importance of community, to reflect on the present, and to build a sustainable future. So, nature, community, and Indigenous wisdom play a fundamental role in this Village.
Passing the Fire House and in front of the Ceremonial Wiigiwaam is the Halfway House, which is recognized for carrying out different workshops around cultural and environmental heritage. In the first room on the right was Tanya Gluvakov, an Indigenous woman whose family is from the Six Nations reserve in Oshweken and part of the Wolf clan. She, with a big smile always on her face, welcomed the community arriving at her workshop about “how to make your own medicinal salve with cedar”.
In 2016, Canada fully adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to Nancy Turner (2020), Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect, and develop their traditional plant medicines. So, today, it is common to see more ancestral practices and knowledge shared with non-indigenous people around the city, and this has also been taken in a more open and accepted way.
There were children, grandparents, and young people in the room; all very interested in learning what Tanya had to say. She started talking about how reweaving human beings’ relationship with the land, and hence, how native plants may contribute to rebuilding stronger communities and greater well-being in society. She talked about her life and how it started. «I’ve always dealt with anxiety and depression, so during the pandemic, I started to connect more with nature, and I realized how these plants and everything are still so beautiful. There’s still so much to be grateful for. So, I just went back to those tools, and I started to research more. It was a lifesaver for me and my family,» she said. Later, a lady who was with her family asked: Did you have any teaching about ancestral medicine when you were a child? Tanya answered her: My grandmother, Betty, took care of me for most of the time, but to be honest with you, she was not very into plant medicine because a lot of the knowledge was lost. They were too busy trying to survive and trying to take care of their children and deal with their traumas and things. But I always remember being at my grandma’s house and she smudged. So, I began to research more about my roots, our identity as an Indigenous People… My grandmother was always my inspiration. I would say that I feel like I’m healing her and like the generations that came before me that didn’t get the chance, but I also feel like I’m healing those that come after us because if I don’t do it, nobody in my family would have.» There was a small silence, and then, Tanya offered cedar tea to everyone.
While people were drinking, she began explaining the sacred medicine of cedar. “Cedar tea is one of the very first medicines that was shared with the settlers because when they came over, they had scurvy, and the cedar is rich in vitamin C. So, it helped with that disease, and also, that was the first act of reciprocity and welcoming to move forward as a nation together,” she said. Later, she passed by each table, showed some cedar branches, and made everyone smell and touch them. She explained that cedar is also a good grief medicine and protects mentally and spiritually. Using it as a salve, it protects the skin, and using it as a bath, it cleanses the body. Everyone listened attentively to her and was entertained by the branches and the aroma.
Indigenous communities have used the native plants of their territory for millennia to take care of their soul, mind, and body. According to Nancy Turner (2019), an ethnobotanist and Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, “medicinal plants contain diverse organic compounds, including alkaloids, glycosides, tannins, flavonoids, resins, and volatile, or essential oils, which may interact in different ways to produce therapeutic effects.”
Tanya explained that to make the cedar healing salve, the first step is to have the herbal-infused oil ready, which takes around three to four weeks—the reason why she brought it. Then, when the beeswax is melted, pour the herb-infused oils. After, stir with the spatula until the oils are melted. It is then strained and allowed to cool to room temperature. So, in groups, the people began to do each step. The atmosphere was exciting; everyone helped each other, laughed, and shared. The children were happily decorating their salve with cedar seeds and leaves on the top of each mold.
After a while, while everyone was finishing, Tanya told them how being able to teach and learn about medicine and offer this to the community had been the most important for her. She said: «We cannot move forward as humanity if we are not interconnected. Community is the biggest medicine and healer. We’re all connected, and The Seven Grandfather Teachings talks about how our decisions greatly affect the seven generations that come after us and the ones before us. So, we need to walk in a good way and teach people good medicine.»
Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with the land is related to the concept of Mother, belonging, and where their principles and values laws come from. That connectivity is seen in the coexisting relationship between plants and human beings, where reciprocity, respect, and spirituality play a fundamental role. Therefore, this relationship is sacred and profound when the medicine is planted, harvested, and used. Tammy Hutcheson, a spiritual Knowledge Keeper at YWCA Toronto, pointed out that Indigenous People are one with the land and “each plant has a spirit and you connect with it. You have to tell it your intentions and the reasons why you need the medicine, and then, you wait for its permission.” So, each plant has a purpose for existing, and those teachings have been passed down from generation to generation.
The workshop ended around 3:00 pm, and some people stood up and thanked Tanya very much for those learning, healing, and sharing spaces. Other people stayed to talk more with Tanya. Later, her family arrived: four children and her husband, all very helpful. They began to pick up everything. At the end of the workshop, the Black Creek Pioneer Village event coordinator arrived and talked to Tanya. They had a good time discussing the need to do more community workshops on alternative medicine and ancestral wisdom. Tanya said that the Village is an appropriate place to begin to tell the story in another way, as not only what comes from the West is the only truth and reality, but people must start to recognize the roots of this Turtle Island territory and begin to dialogue with the earth differently. “Plants and the community have a lot to teach us.” She concluded.
Turner, N. (2020). Plants, People, and Places: The Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Canada and Beyond. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Ottawa, Ontario. Retrieved from https://canadacommons-ca.libaccess.senecacollege.ca/artifacts/1876960/plants-people-and-places/2626345/
Turner, N. (2019). Indigenous Peoples’ Medicine in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/native-medicines