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A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle: Revelations of Indigenous Wisdom

A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle: Revelations of Indigenous Wisdom by David Young, Robert Rogers, and Russell Willier. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2015. Paperback, 223 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58394-903-0. $24.95.

This book describes Russell Willier’s journey to regain the traditional healing knowledge of his Cree elders and to claim his rightful place as a contemporary Cree medicine man. Willier’s herbal compendium most commonly uses 28 plants and, to a lesser degree, 33 others. Included are the Cree name, English common name, and scientific name for each plant. Most importantly, whether Willier uses the plant alone or as part of a combination remedy also is included.

Co-author David Young, an anthropologist, and Willier first met in 1984 on a project that documented traditional tanning methods. Willier and Young developed a friendship based on a deep respect for each other and, the next year, began a collaboration to document Willier’s Cree healing practices.

As a young boy, Willier collected plants on the Sucker Creek Reserve in northern Alberta, Canada, for older women to clean and for medicine men to use in their healing practices. Medicinal plant collection taught Willier that the species of plants he needed to harvest grew in specific habitats. To help readers gather the correct plants, Willier’s medicine bundle information includes color photographs of the plants, the habitats where they grow, and maps of the collection locations.

Collecting diverse plant species from various locations over many years, Willier observed how overharvesting and the destruction of native habitats resulted in the loss of local healing plants. Willier’s deep conservation ethic is based on this very real loss and the higher spiritual practice of acknowledging plants as having a living spirit that must be honored. To supplement the knowledge of the plants used personally by Willier, each botanical is identified and further discussed by a third author, Robert Rogers, a clinical herbalist and widely published expert in the medicinal uses of plants.

As a young adult, Willier first resisted his calling to be a medicine man, but later began to study the medicine bundle he received from his great-grandfather, Moostoos, a well-known Cree medicine man. Willier consulted Cree elders to learn the identity and uses of the herbs in this bundle and explore those used by other healers.

Willier was always concerned with verifying that the treatments used were effective. If a patient had been treated by Cree healers, Willier would assess the patient’s need to be further treated by a physician and/or pharmaceuticals. If the patient did later seek Western medicine, Willier would continue his search for a more effective medicine bundle. In his own healing work, Willier collaborated with Young and other researchers to evaluate Cree healing practices that were used to treat several patients with psoriasis. The book includes before-and-after treatment photographs showing dramatic healing of skin lesions using Willier’s Cree practices.

Willier’s healing protocols include counseling, performing traditional ceremonies, such as purification by the use of a sweat lodge, and the use of herbs, animal parts, and minerals from his materia medica. Conditions treated include purely physical ones, such as wounds, plus mental conditions, and those from the spirit world that could include the removal of a curse placed on a person.

Willier’s stated primary purpose in writing this book is to preserve the traditional Cree healing knowledge that could easily be lost. The composition and use of medicine bundles and healing protocols is known by only a few elderly Cree medicine men. Some Cree tribal leaders believe the traditional healing knowledge should only be passed on to other Cree to be successful. This protection of sacred knowledge for exclusive use by the tribe may prevent it from being misused or exploited, but risks its loss by limiting those who can be taught. Willier has found Cree youth are not interested in becoming medicine men (the book does not mention whether women can attain this title), and this  increases the likelihood that the knowledge will be lost. Because of the tribe’s opposition to revealing what is considered sacred knowledge, Willier has chosen to discuss the specific uses of only some plants and, for others, to simply disclose that the plant is used in a combination, with no information on the specific illness or use of the bundle.

This is the story of one man’s modern journey to be a traditional First Nations medicine man and to preserve that knowledge for future generations. What should be open knowledge and what is considered sacred, and therefore cannot be freely shared, is a core debate that emerges from the book.

—Edward M. Croom, Jr., PhD
Croomia Botanical Scientific and Regulatory Consulting
Oxford, Mississippi