Plant, animal and mineral resources

“The forest is not only our home—it’s also our pharmacy, pantry, church, and school.”
Jean-Marc Niquay, Atikamek Nehirowisiw

“I was healed too. I spent a summer at Pointe Bleue. I had a kidney stone. They were ready to operate on me in the hospital, but I went to see someone who gave me some plants, and I passed the stone.”
John Mowatt, Anishinabe (Algonquin)

“It wasn’t just plants that were used, but animals too—like the beaver, specifically the gland that produces castoreum. My father cut himself with a hatchet and that’s what he used to heal himself, in a poultice. Parts of the moose were used to make medicine too, like the liver.”
Participatory inventory, Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok

“When the supply boat used to arrive people would get sick, and I was one of them. Our parents used to have us drink the liquid from the stomach of a caribou—qisaruaq (the animal’s first stomach).”
Lizzie Irniq and Alasie Koneak, Inuit

Before modern medicine and commercial drugs, aboriginal people survived by relying on the healing substances they found in their environment. Whether for prevention or treatment, the medicine they practiced was based on in-depth knowledge of available resources.

Certain plants, animal parts, and minerals—like clay—have medicinal qualities. Knowledge of these qualities developed over thousands of years, as people experimented to determine which resources to use and how they interacted. They also learned how to prepare recipes to retain the active ingredients, and the best ways to preserve them. Specialists in each community were the keepers of this knowledge.


1. Beaver kidney
“You put it on stubborn wounds. It also helps when you have an ingrown toenail.”

Marie-Luce Crépeau-Fontaine
Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community inventory
La Boîte Rouge vif archives and the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community, 2006

2. Savoyane (goldthread) root
“This is good for sore throat, reddened eyes (irritated by the wind), eye infections, sores inside the mouth.”

Marie-Luce Crépeau-Fontaine
Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community inventory
La Boîte Rouge vif archives and the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community, 2006

3. Aspen bark
“This is used to treat liver problems.”

Marie-Luce Crépeau-Fontaine
Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community inventory
La Boîte Rouge vif archives and the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community, 2006

4. Clay
Photograph: Olivier Bergeron-Martel

Knowing when to gather materials

“Goldthread or savoyane is good for ailments affecting the mouth, especially sores and abscesses. But it has to be harvested at a specific time—in fall, when the moon is full.”
Jean-Paul O’Bomsawin-Lamirande, Waban-Aki (Abénaquis)

All plants have medicinal potential. But various factors must be considered in order to get the most out of their medicinal properties. First, a plant is more potent if it’s harvested when the moon is full. Its medicinal powers are even greater if it is picked when the sun is high in the sky, around two or three o’clock in the afternoon. At this point, to protect itself the plant produces large quantities of essential oils with the most curative properties.

Finally, to maximize the benefits, you need to accept the plant and be accepted by it—you need to praise it and take good care of it. Never harvest an entire plant. Always leave some of it to reproduce.

Michel Durand-Nolett (Waban-Aki (Abenaki)),
Louis-Albert Dionne and Daniel Brière (Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet)).
Images : Carl Morasse

Knowing what the body needs

“You have to follow the dosage—these are medications just like anything in a modern drugstore. You can’t overdo it just because it’s natural.”
Michel Durand-Nolett, Waban-Aki (Abenaki)

Knowing how much medicine to take is very important. As a rule of thumb, the proper dose fits in the hollow of a person’s hand. One person can’t determine the dosage for another.

Michel Durand-Nolett (Waban-Aki (Abenaki)) and Daniel Brière (Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet))
Images : Carl Morasse

Application methods

Primary treatment methods:
Infusions, decoctions and poultices

Only an expert practitioner can determine the best way to prepare a treatment.

To make an infusion or tisane, plants are placed in boiling water and left to steep for a prescribed amount of time. The liquid must be strained before drinking.

Unlike infusions, decoctions are made by boiling fresh plants for a recommended time. The liquid is then strained and drunk.

To prepare a poultice, plants are crushed or ground into a paste that is applied directly on the skin or spread between two sheets of cotton and held in place using a bandage.

Other approaches
Fresh plants can be eaten or chewed. Plant parts or whole leaves can also be applied directly to the skin. Some preparations must be dried first, then ground into powder that can be used to make preparations for poultices or tisanes.


1-2. Labrador tea
Photographs: Olivier Bergeron-Martel

3. Innu pine-sap ointment
“Used to treat eczema, acne, insect bites, constipation, and hemorrhoids.”
Marie-Luce Crépeau-Fontaine
Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community inventory
La Boîte Rouge vif archives and Uashat mak Mani-Utenam community, 2006

4-5. Katìa Benite, (Guarani (Brazil))
Photographs: Mendy Bossum-Launière
La Boîte Rouge vif archives, 2012

The philosophy behind the treatments

Traditional aboriginal medicine doesn’t just focus on healing injuries or physical ailments; instead, it embodies a holistic approach, a philosophy of life.

“The aboriginal approach is characterized by the interdependency of all elements. No one element is isolated on its own, everything is inter-related.”
Hélène Boivin, Ilnu

This philosophy is often expressed through the “medicine wheel,” a circle divided into four quadrants by vertical and horizontal lines. The intersection of the lines in the wheel’s center represents perfect health, absolute equilibrium. To be healthy, every individual must strive to attain this balance. Each quadrant in the wheel represents a different aspect of personal health—our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual sides—which influence one another. Recognizing an imbalance in one quadrant signifies that there is an imbalance in one or all of the others. The healing process must therefore address all of these aspects.

Source: Bergeron-Martel, Olivier. (2011). ‘’La transmission et la pratique de la médecine traditionnelle ilnue au sein du Parc Sacré Kanatukuliuetsh Uapikun de Mashteuiatsh : une recherche collaborative valorisant l’initiative culturelle communautaire’’. Master’s thesis, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.