The Concept of Health in Ojibwe Culture

The Ojibwe concept of health is based on an understanding of the interrelatedness of all things, especially the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness of an individual or community. The historical Ojibwe had a great knowledge of preventative health and herbal cures through generations of observation of the natural world and passing down of traditional knowledge. Their idea of health also operates on the idea that there is very little separation between in-the-flesh practicalities and the spiritual world. The spirit must be cared for to keep the mind and body healthy, and the body must be kept healthy to maintain the mind and spirit. According to Ojibwe oral tradition, Waynabozho, a culture hero known as a teacher and uncle who was part human, part spirit, endowed the Ojibwe with the knowledge of healing.

The practice of giving children Ojibwe names also plays into traditional ideas about health, as it is believed that naming a child after a healthy elder will help ensure the health of the child. If the child becomes ill, he or she may be named again for extra protection, and may even receive a third name is the sickness reoccurs.

The Ojibwe separate curing into two distinct categories; if an illness seems to have a natural explanation, natural methods are used in the curative process, such as herbs and preventative measures. If the illness is thought to have spiritual causes, though, they will approach a medicine person or “bone doctor” for doctoring. If it is determined that an illness has a variety of causes, a medicine person will perform a ceremony such as “tipi shaking.” During this ceremony, the medicine person entreats the spirits for aid in a diagnosis inside wigwam, with the ailing person laying outside on a mat. Once the wigwam starts swaying or shaking, observers know the spirits have arrived. Several people may approach the wigwam for spiritual assistance, not just for curing, but to ask for guidance or ask permission of the spirits.

Ojibwe medicinal lore was often attained by watching the Elder Brothers, or other animals, and seeing what plants or other substances they would approach for their own ailments (a method also practiced by the Yi of China). In Ojibwe Waasa Inaabidaa, Thomas Peacock recounts a story about a frog who dove into a tangle of poison ivy to escape a hunting snake. When it was safe, the frog immediately rubbed against a plant known as “jewel weed” to wash away the itching chemicals of the poison ivy.

Herbs and traditional remedies of the Ojibwe include decoctions, poultices, and powders, and a seasonal knowledge of when plants must be harvested to achieve their desired affect or potency. Some examples cited by Peacock include a decoction of strawberry roots for skin eruptions, sturgeon potatoes for heart problems, boneset flowers picked before the frost for fever, swamp tea for colds, chewed squirrel tail poultice for clotting blood, the root of Jack-in-the-pulpit for eye afflictions, and goldenrod is used as a near panacea.

Preventative measures of Ojibwe medicine include frequent bathing for hygiene, which Peacock contrasts with the prevalent European idea of colonial times that bathing encouraged disease, and traditionally, the consumption of foods high in fiber and low in fat, as well as a lifestyle that necessitated hard work, providing exercise. Some of foods high in fiber that the Ojibwe ate were pumpkin and squash, corn, acorns, and many variety of berries, while foods low in fat included many fish and the meat from wild fowl, moose, deer, rabbit, and wild rice. Turtle eggs were a prized food, possibly because along with otters, turtles are sacred medicinal animals to the Ojibwe. This is because a turtle is believed to act as a medium between the spirit world and medicine people, acting as messenger and interpreter.

Because the Ojibwe, like other indigenous North Americans, went through a period of severe cultural oppression at the hands of the formal education system and the federal government, Peacock says that much healing lore has been forgotten since there was a resulting gap in passing down the traditional knowledge. He says that the Ojibwe are rediscovering “the good path,” though, and supplementing the contemporary healthcare services available to them. He also emphasizes humor as an emotional counter against sorrows.

Since reservation programs are often severely underfunded, reliable Western healthcare is not always available despite the high standard of health care possible in the United States. Many Ojibwe communities, however, now have ambulatory clinics, and others, like Red Lake, have new hospitals. There are even specialized urban clinics for Ojibwe who do not live in or near a reservation. Some clinics will also help arrange a visit with a traditional medicine person, if a person wants, but more often the people keep each other informed when itinerant medicine men, sometimes from Canada, will come to which communities.

There are many contemporary afflictions facing Ojibwe people as well as numerous other American Indians. Diabetes and obesity resulting from unhealthy food and depression are increasingly becoming problems, as well as alcoholism, chemical abuse, and on the emotional-spiritual side, cultural and personal grief that has not healed. Peacock eloquently calls this the “cumulative effect of being American Indian in a non-Indian world,” and cites many different forms of racism, and internalized oppression. Another aspect of this is unresolved anger because of crimes against the Ojibwe, which become internalized, creating “suboppressors” that turn against their own people. Combined with these factors, poverty, alcoholism, substance abuse, and unhealthy lifestyles lead to many early preventable deaths from violent crime and suicide. Peacock writes hopefully, though, about contemporary recovery and support programs that help people find their way away from such destructive behaviors.

The Ojibwe are still in the process of recovering as a people from the colonization of their land by Euro-Americans, and in the process they are recovering their traditional medicine. Not only is this helping them lead healthier lives, but it another element of their culture that can be passed down to future generations.

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