Manitoulin Island man brings herbal medicine to Guelph


Joe Pitawanakwat teaches people about the healing properties of plants as an alternative to Western medicine

The power of plant medicine gives pharmaceutical drugs a run for their money.

Joe Pitawanakwat, who is Anishinaabe from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Ontario, discovered plant medicine through his grandmother who had no access to doctors growing up, so she found her own way through plants .

There are more than 230 species of plants used in medicine.

“I would run into obstacles like a doctor, they are not taught herbal medicine, only western medicine. So if someone wants to use the traditional [plant] medicine, the doctor has to say no or discontinue the treatment,” Pitawanakwat said.

He used tamarack bark to make a tea, a large amount of tea where 70 people soak their feet. It helps people with diabetic neuropathy, where they no longer have any sensation in their feet. After the soaking, a prick test, they have sensation in their feet again, Pitawanakwat said.

“It’s those experiences that really give doctors the opportunity to care.

Mshhiigobag, also known as Labrador tea, is used to treat diabetes by increasing insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle tissue so that sugar can be burned.

“Arthritis is the number one disease affecting First Nations people through landslides,” Pitawanakwat said, and the use of herbal medicines can help treat it.

“These factories are not tied to commercial bias like pharmaceutical drugs are.”

Pitawanakwat will lead a plant medicine walk in Guelph through the Guelph Outdoor School in May. He said building relationships is important because the only way to learn about plant medicine and the only place it exists is through Indigenous knowledge.

“It ends up serving as a sort of positional piece. This is where you try to live and you try to live here without the knowledge of the people who live here.

He thinks the popularity of learning plant medicine is due to people getting sick and not getting better in some cases. People desperately need cures.

When he teaches high school students about plant medicine, he asks them what the aging process looks like. He prefaces this by describing a story where his great, great, great-great-aunt who is 90 years old, arrived in her van and pulled a moose into it all by herself.

“Aging is really just a number and a few wrinkles,” he said. “Now it’s a success when you can still go to the bathroom on your own at 70.”

“Part of the protocol for harvesting all of our different drugs is your responsibility to give something back,” he said, plant species protection is part of that.

There is an ecological paradigm: “We are not in the forest. We leave him alone. We try to preserve it by not stepping on it, but that requires human intervention. He needs those relationships to thrive,” Pitawanakwat said.

He welcomes skeptics because he says he can show people that most drugs are derived from plants. He said he was first skeptical when his grandmother taught him about plant medicine, and now he knows how plants can help with healing.


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