Long before the Europeans colonized North America, aboriginal peoples had a body of medical knowledge that included practices for maintaining health, remedies for illness, and tools for treatment. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, colonists in the New World were greatly aided by the medical practices of aboriginal peoples.

Long before the Europeans colonized North America, aboriginal peoples had a body of medical knowledge that included practices for maintaining health, remedies for illness, and tools for treatment. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, colonists in the New World were greatly aided by the medical practices of aboriginal peoples.

© CHIN 2001

For the aboriginal peoples of this period, health and medicine were part of a holistic belief system that went far beyond simple physical cause and effect. Their treatments addressed both the physical cause of disease and broader spiritual and social aspects of disease. Of particular significance was their knowledge of herbal remedies and the ability of particular plants to relieve pain, improve circulation, and produce laxative effects. They also understood the medicinal properties of plants useful in maintaining bodily health. A well-known example exists in Jacques Cartier’s Brief Recit (1545), which describes his voyage to Stadacona (Québec City) between the years 1535-36. Having fallen ill to a "baneful disease" (scurvy) that claimed numerous lives, his crew was eventually cured by drinking a tea made from either spruce or white cedar tree buds provided by Domagaya, son of the Iroquois chief.

For the aboriginal peoples of this period, health and medicine were part of a holistic belief system that went far beyond simple physical cause and effect. Their treatments addressed both the physical cause of disease and broader spiritual and social aspects of disease. Of particular significance was their knowledge of herbal remedies and the ability of particular plants to relieve pain, improve circulation, and produce laxative effects. They also understood the medicinal properties of plants useful in maintaining bodily health. A well-known example exists in Jacques Cartier’s Brief Recit (1545), which describes his voyage to Stadacona (Québec City) between the years 1535-36. Having fallen ill to a "baneful disease" (scurvy) that claimed numerous lives, his crew was eventually cured by drinking a tea made from either spruce or white cedar tree buds provided by Domagaya, son of the Iroquois chief.

© CHIN 2001

Other common procedures included effective methods for containing bleeding and treating asphyxia; for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (known as "putting the spirit back"); and in rare cases, for performing Caesarian sections. According to one scholar, the clearest evidence of Native American influence on Western medicine is demonstrated by the fact that more than 500 drugs derived from indigenous plants have been officially incorporated into The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America since 1820, and in the National Formulary since it began in 1888.

Other common procedures included effective methods for containing bleeding and treating asphyxia; for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (known as "putting the spirit back"); and in rare cases, for performing Caesarian sections. According to one scholar, the clearest evidence of Native American influence on Western medicine is demonstrated by the fact that more than 500 drugs derived from indigenous plants have been officially incorporated into The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America since 1820, and in the National Formulary since it began in 1888.

© CHIN 2001

Although objects used in aboriginal healing practices are seldom defined as "medical instruments" according to the Western medical model, the heritage of aboriginal healing practices is represented in a variety of artifacts. Objects such as drums, rattles, medicine bundles, scarification instruments, and mortars and pestles for mixing medicines were often used by medicine men in their healing practices. Several American tribes, including the Houmas and Cochimis of California in the early to late 18th century, were known for their use of hollow bones for sucking out or removing disease. Bulbed syringes made of animal bladder and bone were also used during this period for medicating wounds or for administering enemas. Pierre Charlevoix, for instance, observed the use of syringes in Canada in 1721, noting that the northern tribes treated "bloody flux" by means of a liquid gained from the boiled tips of cedar branches applied with "glisters" (enemas) made from a bladder. This device is thought to have been an independent invention of aboriginal peoples, used prior to colonial contact.

Although objects used in aboriginal healing practices are seldom defined as "medical instruments" according to the Western medical model, the heritage of aboriginal healing practices is represented in a variety of artifacts. Objects such as drums, rattles, medicine bundles, scarification instruments, and mortars and pestles for mixing medicines were often used by medicine men in their healing practices. Several American tribes, including the Houmas and Cochimis of California in the early to late 18th century, were known for their use of hollow bones for sucking out or removing disease. Bulbed syringes made of animal bladder and bone were also used during this period for medicating wounds or for administering enemas. Pierre Charlevoix, for instance, observed the use of syringes in Canada in 1721, noting that the northern tribes treated "bloody flux" by means of a liquid gained from the boiled tips of cedar branches applied with "glisters" (enemas) made from a bladder. This device is thought to have been an independent invention of aboriginal peoples, used prior to colonial contact.

© CHIN 2001

Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Appreciate the contributions of traditional knowledge to modern medical practices in Canada
  • Consider the nature of the interaction between European and First Nations peoples


Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans